Two years after Myanmar began a violent campaign to expel its Muslim minority, one man’s story illuminates an unexpectedly long history of oppression.
Mawlawi Harun knows he will die here, in this 6-by-9-foot bamboo shelter with a tarpaulin roof. He will be buried in this foreign place, less than 50 miles from the village he called home for more than 90 years, from the land he cultivated since World War II, and from his ancestors’ graves.
Since September 2017, Harun has lived in the Jamtoli camp in southeastern Bangladesh, where more than 900,000 Rohingya women, men, and children are packed into a cluster of refugee settlements — a result of atrocities across the border in Myanmar that a UN investigation team has said amount to crimes against humanity and likely genocide.
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Rakhine State in western Myanmar. The northernmost part of Rakhine State and Bangladesh are separated in some areas by the Naf River and in others by hills and paddy fields.
Persecution in Myanmar has forced Harun to flee across those hills and paddy fields before. He knows, at his age, in his current health, he won’t return home this time, even if he still dreams of his village.
By the time I met Harun in February 2019, I’d interviewed more than 150 women and men in the refugee camps as part of an Amnesty International team investigating crimes committed by the Myanmar military during operations that began in August 2017. It was my third trip to Bangladesh since the crisis’s outbreak.
I sat on the floor with an interpreter and Harun, who rested his back against the bamboo-reed wall separating his shelter from his neighbor’s. Harun’s knees were out in front of him, his feet tucked behind. He wore a once-white skullcap tinted beige by the camp’s omnipresent dust; a blue-checked longyi, or sarong; and a dark gray cardigan — herringbone on the sleeves, gingham over the chest. A triangle of white hair tumbled off his chin, flaring out several inches below.
Harun said he was largely confined to the four walls of his shelter. Two mats covered the concrete floor. A thick red blanket was folded by the door. There was a blue bedpan in the corner, a few plastic cups and bowls scattered around, a wooden walking stick propped against a wall, and several plastic bags that hung from bamboo poles. These were all of Harun’s possessions. Everything but the walking stick and what was inside the bags — even the clothes he was wearing — were provided by aid organizations.
Back in his Myanmar village, known as Maung Gyi Taung, Harun had a two-story home, 80 cows, 250 chickens, 150 goats, five fish ponds, and several small boats he rented to transport people and goods through the region’s waterways. He used his land and money to build a mosque and a school.
“My house was surrounded by trees,” he recalled.
In the refugee camp, his shelter is instead surrounded by thousands of similar shelters; they are crammed into every nook of the low, rolling hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. There were once trees in this area of Bangladesh, but they are gone now. A forest was felled to make way for the 740,000 people purged from Myanmar over just a few months.
Before I met Harun, my work had led me to 12-year-old Fatima, whose parents and two siblings were gunned down from behind by soldiers as the family ran; several weeks later, after making it to Bangladesh, Fatima showed me a gunshot wound to her thigh, saying she survived because a neighbor carried her to a paddy field, where they hid.
I’d interviewed Mariam Khatun, who fled with her three children as soldiers entered her village; the youngest, a toddler, was swept away by the current as they tried to cross a river to safety. Her parents, who had severe physical disabilities, were left behind in their home as soldiers torched the village. Credible estimates put the number of Rohingya killed at around 10,000, with the deaths falling disproportionately among older people and others who couldn’t run as quickly.
Harun’s story is the one my mind returns to daily, several months later. His is a story not just of the Myanmar military’s atrocities in 2017, but of the decades-long path that led to them; a story of the pain that comes from remembering life before the country started down that path; a story of such oppression that it makes one of my basic interview questions feel unethical.
In the 1950s, before the oppression of the Rohingya began in earnest, Harun conducted business throughout Southeast Asia. It had been several years since Myanmar, then known as Burma, gained independence after about 100 years of British rule.
Myanmar’s history and current dynamics are complex, but three issues are key to understanding Harun’s life. The first is the dominance of the military, which ruled the country outright for 50 years and continues to exercise significant power with no oversight, now a half-decade into a transition to quasi-civilian government.
The second is the divide between the country’s central plains, largely inhabited by ethnic Burman, who comprise a majority of Myanmar’s population; and the surrounding mountainous borderlands, mostly inhabited by ethnic and religious minorities. The borderlands are home to some of the world’s longest-running civil wars, with a constellation of armed groups fighting for greater autonomy, the rights of marginalized minorities, and control over resources.
The third is the rising hostility toward Muslims in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country; in recent years, a Buddhist nationalist movement has arisen in Myanmar in tandem with ethnonationalist movements the world over, fueled in part by anti-Muslim hate speech on Facebook.
Harun’s business was telegraphic transfer. He had his family home in Maung Gyi Taung, in northern Rakhine State, as well as an office and house in Yangon, then the capital of Myanmar. “People imported goods to Yangon through my account,” he said, adding that people from Myanmar who were working abroad also sent money back to their families through him.
Work took Harun to Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and present-day Malaysia. Fluent in Burmese, Rohingya, Urdu, and Arabic, he was well suited for the job.
But in 1962, senior officers in the Myanmar military carried out a coup d’état. When Harun relates his story, what’s happened over the course of his life, he marks time and stages of persecution by rulers, not years. There is the period of Ne Win, the period of Saw Maung, the period of Than Shwe, and the period of Thein Sein.
There was a general curtailment of civil liberties in the first years of Ne Win (1962–1981), including the dissolution of Rohingya political organizations. Initially, Rakhine State and the Rohingya were not the military’s main focus; conflict raged in the country’s north and east, where the military fought armed groups in the borderlands and honed a ruthless counterinsurgency strategy that punished the wider population of ethnic minority civilians.
But as a sign of what was to come, Harun remembers the authorities at that time trying to confiscate his citizenship document. He was successful in hiding his; others were not so lucky. New state-issued identity documents no longer referred to people as “Rohingya.” They just said “Muslim.”
In 1977, Harun was living in his village in Rakhine State and farming his family’s land. He began hearing accounts that Myanmar soldiers were going house to house in other villages — checking people’s documents, checking to see on which arm they had a vaccination scar. (I heard this detail from several older Rohingya; soldiers apparently believed Bangladeshi doctors vaccinated the right arm and so created a scar there as “proof” a person wasn’t from Myanmar.)
If the soldiers decided on their own that a document wasn’t in order, that anything was out of place, people — often entire families — would be arrested, beaten, tortured, and, at times, killed. Never mind that many Rohingya were never given any citizenship documents in the first place.
The military government had launched Operation Nagamin, or “Dragon King.” The government was about to undertake a census, and the operation was a purported effort to identify and remove “foreigners” deemed to be in Myanmar “illegally.” The operation centered on Rakhine State and the Rohingya. The military leadership was pushing an ever-narrowing conception of identity and belonging and the Rohingya found themselves excluded, ethnically and religiously. As the military swept through villages and word of its brutality spread, some 200,000 Rohingya, including Harun, fled on foot or by boat to Bangladesh.
“I had my documents, but even when you did, they would find something wrong — this person is too old, this [paper] is not right,” he recalled. “We were so scared when they were checking other people that we fled, too. We didn’t wait for them to come to our village.”
He said that in 1978 the refugee settlement was a little closer to Cox’s Bazar, the main city in southeastern Bangladesh, than where we sat together in his shelter. After a few months, Bangladesh and Myanmar came to an agreement for the Rohingya to return. As a respected elder, Harun was among a group invited to meet with a senior Bangladeshi official.
“I asked him a question,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “I told him that sometimes the big people don’t understand the feelings of the little people.” Harun said he wanted to know what the situation would be like if the Rohingya refugees returned, what assurances there were. The official told him that Myanmar promised to ensure their safety and security, to protect their property rights, and to respect their freedom of religion.
Harun was dubious of the promises, but soon had little choice but to return: Bangladeshi authorities cut off food assistance to the refugee camps.
I wonder how long it will be before Harun once again faces pressure to return. Bangladesh has plans to move at least 100,000 refugees to a small, uninhabited silt island in the Bay of Bengal — an island that didn’t emerge from the ocean until several decades ago, and on which the Rohingya would have few, if any, livelihood options.
Aid workers have told me of closed-door meetings in which Bangladeshi officials talk about erecting fencing around the existing camps; already, the Rohingya aren’t allowed to move past a designated area, even to seek urgent medical care, without specific permission. Bangladesh has also refused to allow formal schools to be established in the camps or any recognized curriculum to be taught; Rohingya children caught trying to enroll in schools in nearby Bangladeshi villages are expelled.
A year or two after Harun returned home in 1979, Myanmar soldiers raided his village. They took him and other Rohingya men to a camp in the forest. “They accused us of taking up arms against the government,” he recalled. “They tortured us to get information.”
Harun became animated, and I didn’t need an interpreter to understand most of what he said. He held his hands together above his head, as if tied. He stretched his legs out wide. He made a jabbing motion, as if stabbing someone, and pulled up his shirt to reveal a 40-year-old scar. He mimed beating the air with something and then rubbed his arms, legs, chest, and head.
The translation included one detail I hadn’t gleaned. “They fixed some nails in the wood,” Harun said, “and when I said I didn’t know, they hit me with it.”
He remembered being held for 13 days. On the last day, he fell unconscious from the beatings. The soldiers apparently thought he was dead and dumped his body in the forest, as Harun had seen happen to others. He regained consciousness. How much later, he doesn’t know.
“Slowly, I crawled away,” he said, motioning his movement, his stomach hovering inches above the mat on his shelter floor. He eventually came here, to Bangladesh, for medical care.
Once healed, he returned home.
Each time he returned home, Harun found his life more confined. In 1982, the government passed a new citizenship law, identifying eight “national races.” The Rohingya are not among them.
Nor are they among the list of 135 recognized ethnic groups published later by the government. Myanmar government officials refuse to utter the word “Rohingya” and tend to blackball anyone — from UN officials to foreign dignitaries — who does. Myanmar says the Rohingya are a made-up ethnic group, that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
“Why do they always insist we are not Rohingya?” Harun asked me. “When I hear these words, it hurts.”
He reached behind his head and grabbed one of the plastic bags attached to the bamboo. He pulled out a crimson Union of Burma passport that belonged to his mother in the 1950s; she died before it expired, so he never returned it to the authorities, as he’d been required to do with his own. He pulled out a laminated three-panel identity document, known as the National Registration Card, issued under the 1948 Citizenship Law; it’s his document, his youthful face staring at me, above his thumbprint and citizenship number.
He grabbed another plastic bag. He showed me a Lady Liberty token, given to his grandfather by the Allies during World War II. He showed me a tattered document that begins “This deed” and references the transfer of land for a school; the document is in English and signed, Harun said, by a British colonial official.
He showed me a book of land tax receipts, dated from the second half of the 1940s, “J.C. Schmidt’s Estate” written across the top. He showed me a document in Burmese with what appear to be property boundaries drawn by hand; a stamp at the bottom reads “Burma Court Fee,” signed and dated October 1957.
Harun has long hidden these documents. If the Myanmar authorities had found them, they would have confiscated and destroyed them, as happened to other people I have interviewed. The documents counter the narrative of foreignness, of not belonging, that Myanmar works hard to propagate about the Rohingya.
I was awed by the determination and ingenuity required to preserve everything Harun spread before me. The awe must have been evident. Harun chuckled. His eyes lit up as he talked about outsmarting his oppressors. “These documents, I didn’t even take care of myself in this way,” he said. “I keep these papers like I am serving my soul.” Several are in pencil; the handwriting is a challenge, but I can otherwise read them as if they were written yesterday.
The records didn’t stop Myanmar from confiscating large parts of Harun’s land, and the land of other Rohingya, over the past quarter century. The military built bases across the region, conscripting Rohingya men, including Harun and his sons, to do the labor. Refusal was met with at best a hefty fine, and more often with torture or even death.
The authorities also built model villages for predominantly Buddhist ethnic groups — recognized “national races” — and incentivized relocation to Rohingya land by offering up that land, as well as a home and livestock, for free. In the irony of ironies, some Buddhists came from Bangladesh to accept Myanmar’s offer. It didn’t matter that they were actually foreigners. They were from the “right” ethnic group. Many eventually received Myanmar citizenship.
The stripping of Rohingya citizenship led to ever-more-severe restrictions on all aspects of life. Rohingya could no longer join the military, become civil servants, or travel freely throughout the state, let alone the rest of the country.
The restrictions reached their apogee after violence in Rakhine State in 2012 between Muslim and Buddhist communities, the latter supported by the security forces. A curfew was imposed, mosques were closed, and gatherings of more than a few people were forbidden. Higher education became off-limits.
After traveling across Southeast Asia in his youth, Harun suddenly had to seek permission from authorities to travel to a village half a mile away. He had to seek permission to fish in a river just outside his village’s boundaries, to collect firewood from an adjacent hill, or to go to a neighboring market. If he, or a pregnant woman about to give birth, needed urgent medical care, permission was required to travel to a hospital. Assuming permission came, which it didn’t always, at least not in time, treatment occurred in a segregated ward of the hospital.
It was at this point that I asked Harun the question I was trained to ask more than a decade prior, when starting my human rights career. I’ve asked a version of the question a thousand times. I once had to force myself to ask it, as it can sound absurd when documenting the types of atrocities my colleagues and I investigate. It helps get a sense of the person’s thoughts and feelings and opinions — essential to convey to readers and policymakers not just the rote facts of what happened, but what it means for people’s lives.
“When you look back on what you’ve lived through, from what it was like when you were younger to what’s happened now, what goes through your mind? What do you feel?”
My eyes moved from Harun to my notepad, as I readied to write down whatever answer the interpreter relayed. The moment the interpreter finished conveying my question, I heard a scream. I looked up. Harun was rocking back and forth. Tears poured down his face. Words spilled out in double time, then triple time; his pitch moved up an octave or two. His breathing became so labored that I worried it might stop.
The translated audio file would later tell me that Harun said, “My heart cries. I feel like screaming. This was the land of our forefathers. We cannot use the ponds they established, we cannot live in the houses they built. Now, we’ve come here; I am very lonely here. … If I have to recall all of these things, maybe I will have heart failure.
“I try not to remember all of these things,” he continued. “If I think of them, it’s intolerable. What was it like before and what is it like now? Where was I before and where am I now? I try to spend the whole day now playing with children. When I remember these very old stories, my heart is on fire. … Why is God extending my life?”
Partway through his answer, Harun grabbed an asthma inhaler. He took three deep pulls and set it back down. His breathing slowed slightly. He paused and spoke through the bamboo wall to his neighbor — his adult son — who brought water, filling one of the plastic cups scattered across the floor. Harun drank it in one gulp; his breathing slowed further.
I asked Harun if he wanted to stop, told him that was absolutely fine, that we could be finished entirely or continue another day, as we’d discussed at the outset.
He shook his head no. “I’m a very old person,” he said. “One day I might feel sick and be unable to talk like this again. … Today I feel strong. Sometimes even in a whole month, I don’t talk this much.” He knows the uniqueness of his perspective and his documentation. Earlier in the interview he told me he “was blessed to live a long life”; it was clear he felt compelled to speak for a generation of which he is one of a few remaining survivors.
I redirected to questions I hoped would cause less distress. I asked about the great-grandchildren he spent his days playing with. I asked him more about the documents spread across the floor, the ones he took such pride in having preserved. I asked what he wanted to see happen in the future.
I told him, truthfully, that in the course of my work I’d interviewed thousands of people in conflict areas and refugee camps across the world, but I’d never met anyone like him: someone with his memory of how oppression and violence built, step by step, for 80 years; someone who’d experienced so many traumatic incidents — far more than those detailed here — in addition to the daily discrimination and distress of being rejected, for decades, by his country; someone with his courage, wit, and defiance in the face of it all.
I didn’t tell him, as I didn’t yet know, that months later I would cry most times I read his interview transcript. Some of that may be from guilt, from feeling like I failed in my basic responsibility to do no harm; some of that is because, even as I’ve numbed to much of the worst that humans can do to one another, Harun’s experience still overwhelms me.
Offer to stop; redirect; empower — all are tips for interviewing people displaying signs of trauma. They’re good tips. But I’m not sure how effective they were in this instance. There is no handbook for interviewing someone who has seen his life, his identity, denied and erased.
That erasure has another chapter — the worst chapter. It’s the story of how Harun ended up in a Bangladesh refugee camp yet again.
On August 25, 2017, a Rohingya armed group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 30 police posts across northern Rakhine State. In response, the Myanmar military swept through Rohingya village after Rohingya village, shooting women, men, and children; raping women and girls; and burning homes, mosques, and shops.
Harun, at 90 years old, fled to the jungle with his children and grandchildren when they heard soldiers were nearby. From a hiding place, he watched as soldiers set fire to his village — to the home that had been his family’s property since before he was born.
“I saw [the burning] with my own eyes and I started toward Bangladesh,” he said. “There were dead bodies on the road, in the field. When the soldiers came in, the people ran, and they opened fire from behind.”
It took him two weeks to reach Bangladesh. He described a slow journey, hiding in the jungle until it was safe to cross the next paddy field, the next road, the next torched village. Sometimes his children carried him. Sometimes he used the walking stick I saw propped against his wall.
Of those who survived the military’s widespread assault, around 85 percent of the Rohingya living in northern Rakhine State fled to Bangladesh in the span of several months. Satellite imagery confirms several hundred Rohingya villages were burned. The Myanmar authorities have since bulldozed many of them, scraping away the charred remains along with the trees and shrubs that grew nearby. They’ve built new security force bases on top of some villages. On others, there is just dirt where people lived for hundreds of years.
Harun’s world has been compressed to his 6-by-9-foot shelter. Outside, there was a dirt path, roughly two feet wide. It was on a 30-degree incline, with no handrails. The refugee camp’s topography has been unforgiving for him and for many other older Rohingya I’ve interviewed. It becomes more unforgiving when the monsoon rains turn the dirt to mud.
He motioned to the blue bedpan in the corner. “I go to the latrine here, I eat and sleep here,” he said. “I have become like a cow or goat. What more can I say? Cows defecate and urinate in the same place where they eat. … Now I’m sleeping in a latrine.”
We talked more about the situation in the camp, about how aid organizations could better meet the needs of older people like him and others with limited mobility. But he quickly pivoted back to Myanmar. Somehow, after everything he’s lived through, Harun has maintained a belief in fairness. A hope for justice.
As he carefully put his documents back in their plastic bags, he said he was ready to show them to any judicial body. “Maybe if I show all this, they will be able to return my land to me,” he said. “I can show them my evidence, what belongs to me. I will claim [my rights] with the supporting documents. The Burmese who are there, can they show all of these documents? Can they show this [land title] from the British?”
He said he’d heard about the International Criminal Court and asked me why they hadn’t called him and others to present evidence of the military’s crimes. He said they should provide justice “like for the Serbian leader” Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Serbia, who was prosecuted by a different international tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, though he died in detention before the trial concluded.
I told Harun that international justice works slowly, far too slowly, but that there were investigations underway. (In early July, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor submitted a formal request to open an investigation into crimes committed against the Rohingya.)
Harun responded that many of his friends had died, that he was ready to speak to anyone who could help secure justice, that he had spoken with me so that I could relay his words to people with power around the world. For decades, those people — those countries — turned away as Myanmar ruthlessly escalated its oppression and purged a people from their homeland. Even now, two years after the atrocities, the world has responded with condemnation but scant action. Those determined to erase Harun remain in charge.
As we finished the interview and shook hands, I asked Harun, one last time, if he had anything to add.
“Our name is Rohingya,” he said. “This name belongs to us.”
Matthew Wells, a senior crisis adviser with the human rights organization Amnesty International, has investigated atrocities committed in armed conflicts and crises in eight countries. For more than two years, he has focused almost exclusively on the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.