Updated at 5 p.m. ET on 2017-01-23
Rohingya boys and girls as young as 11 and 12 spoke of atrocities they had witnessed that forced them to flee Myanmar’s Rakhine state in recent weeks, with some telling BenarNews they saw Burmese security personnel burn their siblings alive.
A BenarNews correspondent interviewed at least 19 children during visits to refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh where some 65,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Rakhine state since early October, according to U.N. estimates.
“The military whisked away my brother and killed him, set fire to our house, and tortured the women,” said Tasmin Khatun, 11, using a term that refers to the rape of women.
“We hid in the nearby jungle. I still shudder in fear when I think about it. I cannot sleep at night,” the Rohingya girl told BenarNews at the Kutupalong camp for unregistered refugees in Ukhiya sub-district.
Myanmar security forces have been accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya population, such as targeted killings, rapes and the burning of homes, while mounting a crackdown after the killings of nine Burmese border guards by suspected militants in October.
Myanmar’s government has defended itself from widespread international criticism, denying that its forces committed such abuses against members of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
Last week, BenarNews reported that 17 of 54 Rohingya women interviewed at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar said members of the Myanmar security forces had raped them.
Thrown into flames
Rohingya youngster Abdul Malek, at the Leda refugee camp in Teknaf sub-district, said he witnessed Myanmar security personnel throw his brother into the family’s burning home.
“Military threw my twin into the fire. … They have been killing everybody by setting fires,” Abdul told BenarNews.
He and the rest of his family members were able to escape by jumping into a river as security forces shot at them, Abdul alleged.
Zohur Ali, 12, a refugee at the Kutupalong camp, recounted a similar incident, saying that security personnel snatched his two small siblings from his mother’s lap and threw them into the flames of their home that had been set alight.
Zohur’s mother Rahima Khatun, 35, told BenarNews: “Zohur cries even while sleeping. I do not know when he will recover from this.”
Nazim Uddin, 12, whose mother died during childbirth several months ago, said he saw his father beaten and arrested by Myanmar security personnel “some days ago,” before he, four siblings and an uncle fled across the border.
Two of his siblings, 2-year-old Md Yeasin and 4-year-old Umme Salma, whom he cradled, remain traumatized, Nazim told BenarNews.
Count under way
An official with the Dhaka office of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said it is working to verify the estimate that 65,000 Rohingya have arrived in southeastern Bangladesh since October.
This number does not include at least 300,000 Rohingya refugees who live in camps in Cox’s Bazar but who fled violence in Rakhine state years ago.
“To determine the number of the newly arrived Rohingya, we have been conducting a survey. So far, we have registered 12,000 new arrivals including 5,000 children,” the UNHCR official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
Ali Hossain, the deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar district, told BenarNews the government had yet to count the number of Rohingya “who entered Bangladesh afresh.” The government, however, has been immunizing children age 5 and younger at the camps and giving them doses of Vitamin A, he said.
Md Alam, a leader of Block B at the Leda camps, said officials were finding it difficult to feed all the children in the camp.
“Where is the time to look after the mental trouble?” he told BenarNews.
“These children are mentally devastated as they came across a horrible reality; counseling is a must for their mental recovery. But where is the opportunity? Many of them are not getting food for survival,” C.R. Abrar, an expert on refugee issues and professor at the University of Dhaka, told BenarNews.
A Rohingya baby is vaccinated at the Kutupalong camp, Jan. 18, 2017. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]
An earlier version incorrectly quoted Abdul Malek as saying that his twin brothers were thrown into a fire.