Young Rohingya mothers flee persecution

Young Rohingya mothers flee persecution

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Scared, hungry and beaten badly, Rohingya women fleeing an army crackdown in Myanmar recount harrowing tales of destruction and death: a father burned alive, an uncle slaughtered with a machete, a brother arrested and not heard from again.

But huddled in makeshift refugee camps, dependent on food rations and the mercy of fellow refugees, they also carry something else: hope inspired by their newborn children, for whom Bangladesh is now home.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Sanwara Begum, 20, holds her 25-day-old daughter Aasma. She fled to Bangladesh from Khyeri Prang village in Myanmar, with her husband around two and a half months ago. "No one wants to leave their own home. We have come to Bangladesh only to save our lives. Myanmar is our home, we will move to Myanmar immediately if the situation becomes stable," Sanwara Begum said.

The babies' delicate features present a sharp contrast with the squalid conditions of the makeshift refugee camp, where a skipped meal or food poisoning can mean the difference between survival or death.

The Myanmar army launched its "clearance operation" after Rohingya insurgents attacked border guard posts in northwestern Rakhine state in October.

The United Nations said it had committed mass killings and gang rapes and burned villages in a campaign that may amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

"One-and-a-half months ago the military came to our village and kept firing their guns," said Amina, one of the refugees, as she cradled her 16-day-old daughter, Sumaiya.

"You see us alive only because god was so kind," added Amina, 30. "They caught my uncle and my younger brother and we don't know whether they are dead or alive."

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rajuma Begum, 28, holds her one-month-old son Raihan. “I fled to Bangladesh because of fear, because I needed to save my children. I was pregnant and suffering from fever while crossing the border. I also have an 11-month-old boy, so it was very difficult to reach the border from our village Wabek in Myanmar. I had to rest frequently. After six hours of horrible walking finally we reached the border at 2am and crossed the border after paying the broker,” Rajuma Begum said.

The military calls its crackdown on the Muslim minority a lawful counterinsurgency operation to defend the country and has denied the allegations. Myanmar launched several investigations into the alleged abuse, but human rights monitors say they lack credibility and independence.

Amina is one of about 75,000 refugees to have successfully made an often perilous crossing through the fields, eventually fording a river boundary to reach Bangladesh.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Marijaan, 20, holds her 25-day-old daughter Noor Habi as her son stands behind her. “I reached the border at night and crossed by the boat. I paid the boatman to cross the Naf River,” she said.

Some starved for weeks, while others gave everything they had to pay off people smugglers. Many never made it, drowning or getting shot by Myanmar security forces on the journey.

Survivors, who rely on shelters of bamboo sticks and black plastic sheets for protection from a scorching sun, face a major challenge in keeping their newborns alive.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Aarafa Begum, 20, tends to her two-month-old daughter Noor Kayes. “My daughter is suffering from fever since last night but I don’t know where the clinic is," she said.

The camps often lack medical facilities and running water, leading aid agency workers to worry about an outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Jamalida, 30, holds her two-month-old daughter Shahida. She came to Bangladesh with her husband from Nasha Phuru village in Myanmar.

"People are living in tough circumstances. Most don’t have access to regular medical services and are not getting enough food," said Azmat Ulla, an official of the International Federation of Red Cross in Bangladesh, launching an emergency appeal for help on Monday.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Noor Kayes, 18, holds her 26-day-old unnamed daughter. Noor Kayes fled to Bangladesh with her parents from Poachong village in Myanmar two months ago after her husband was killed by the military.

Many women struggle for funds, having lost male relations, the sole breadwinners in most families. They rely on handouts from the World Food Program and other agencies.

Clinics run by non-government bodies and the U.N. are overrun, scrambling to treat thousands of patients each month.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Minara Begum, 22, calms her crying one-month-old son, Ayub, as she tells of fleeing from her village of Nasha Phuru with her husband and mother-in-law.

"My child doesn't get enough breast milk as I don't eat enough nutritious food," she said. "I have to buy milk powder, though it's not very good for my son."

Many women said they survived or witnessed acts of gang rape by soldiers.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Ramida Begum, 35, holds her 10-day-old unnamed daughter. “The military caught my husband and burnt our house down a week before I left Myanmar. Since then I don’t know whether my husband is dead or alive,” she said.

An official of a large Western aid agency told Reuters it had distributed more than 660 "dignity kits" for assault victims, besides counselling nearly 200 women who suffered trauma after the killing of a family member, usually male.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said the worker, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Fatema, 25, sits beside her one-day-old daughter Aasma. Fatema fled to Bangladesh from Jambuinna village in Myanmar two months ago after her house was burnt down by the military. She crossed Naf River by boat during the night. “Our situation is better than many other refugees here as my husband Mohammad Alom works here as a day labourer. Many of the new refugees have no work here, so they have to rely on relief,” Fatema said.

The quiet of Cox's Bazar, a beachside resort town, makes for a jarring contrast with the temporary camps amid rice paddies and salt flats just an hour's drive away.

Large groups of desperate women line the roads, begging for money from passing cars, often well after sunset.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

A red blanket spread on the earthen floor of her shelter, Rehana Begum, 25, cares for her one-day-old daughter.

"We were in our home and suddenly the military came to our village and started shooting," said Rehana Begum, who fled her village of Jambuinna in Myanmar three months ago.

"When we heard the sound of gun shots we immediately went to our relatives. We walked for four hours without any food and water to reach the border at 1 a.m. We paid $18 to a broker to cross."

The figure is equivalent to 25,000 Myanmar kyat.

Intercepted by Bangladesh border guards, Rehana Begum's family narrowly escaped being sent home.

"They wanted to send us back, but then we heard gunshots from the Myanmar side and the guards released us, saying, 'Stay in Bangladesh and save your lives'," she said.

. Cox's Bazar, BANGLADESH. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Noor Begum, 26, sits next to her one-day-old daughter Sumaiya. Noor Begum came to the camp one-and-a-half months ago from Nagpura village with her husband Jahangir Alom.