Day 6

As Rohingya refugees refuse to go back to Myanmar, signs of their former lives there are disappearing

Plans to send Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar are on hold because officials said they couldn't find a single person willing to go back. Meanwhile, signs of the Rohingya's former lives are disappearing.

700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh last year after a campaign of violence was unleashed against them

A boy holds a placard that reads, 'We never return to Myanmar without our citizenship and our right,' as hundreds of Rohingya refugees protest against their repatriation at the Unchiprang camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on November 15, 2018. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

As buses stood by in Bangladesh this week to return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, no one volunteered to board them.

Officials in Bangladesh hoped to begin daily repatriation trips on Thursday, but those plans have since been scrapped.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar in the face of a sweeping military crackdown last year.

This week, approximately 1,000 Rohingyas demonstrated at a camp in Unchiprang, resisting deportation out of fear that they will remain in danger if they return to Myanmar — a concern that UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, understands.

There are people who say there was a genocide here, but those are people who either keep it to themselves or are willing to vocalize it, but only because that's become their job.- Jacob Goldberg, writer

Jacob Goldberg is a writer living in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, and he saw first-hand the villages in Rakhine state from which Rohingya migrants fled.

He described the scenes Day 6 host Brent Bambury. Here is part of their conversation:

When you were in Rakhine state, what did you see in terms of evidence that Rohingya people once lived there?

It's very difficult to find any physical visible evidence of what happened there in August 2017. Most of the evidence of conflict has been removed. The destroyed villages have been either overgrown or bulldozed to make way for newly built villages.

And areas where Rohingya used to live, they're either in places where Rakhines, or people of other ethnicities, live now. Or they've been swallowed by foliage.

But you did find signs that something traumatic had happened there. Can you describe that for us?

In a lot of villages that we knew to have been destroyed by the military, there were headless palm trees that were black from having been burned and all in clusters, and that was evidence that a village had been burned down.

In the village of Inn Din [in Rakhine state], which is one area where we know there was a massacre, half the village where the majority of the residents used to live — the majority was Rohingya — was completely overgrown. But through the brush you could see fishing nets, small objects and burned trees poking out of the bushes.

Rohingya refugee children are silhouetted as they play with jumping ropes at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 16, 2018. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

And you spoke to people that you met in these places. What did they say in Rakhine State about this idea of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya returning to this area?

Almost nobody we met there would present the story that way, or would accept that it happened that way. In the village of Inn Din, which is one of the villages that we visited, where it's been well-documented that there was a massacre, residents would only describe what happened as an attack by Muslims.

One woman we met said that the violence started when Muslims attacked their village and then they celebrated their attack at the top of their mosque. From what we know — from what the UN has documented — there was no attack by the Rohingya insurgent group in the village of Inn Din on August 25, the day violence is known to have broken out.

They're presenting a story that the government has been saying from the beginning: that the Rohingya attacked first, which necessitated the military response.

Is that also [what] people are saying outside of Rakhine? You live in Myanmar, what is the mood where you are? Do people accept the idea that there have been massacres? That a genocide might have taken place in their country?

I live in Yangon, the biggest city in the country, and there is a diversity of opinion here. I know a few people who accept that a genocide happened, who buy the international telling of the story of what happened last year, but I would say they're a minority.

Not too long ago there was a massive protest in downtown Yangon where thousands of people came out to support the military and to denounce the accusations that have been coming from the international community over what happened here.

There are people who say there was a genocide here, but those are people who either keep it to themselves or are willing to vocalize it, but only because that's become their job and they risk their reputation to do that.

Rohingya refugees walk along the road in the evening at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 16, 2018. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

What do you make of the fact that so many people in Rakhine are denying that something that they may have witnessed actually happened? What worries you most about what you heard and saw on your visit?

While I was there, my greatest worry was that the absence of physical evidence there might mean that securing some sort of accountability for the perpetrators of the genocide would be less likely.

Because one of the main things that the government says when they respond to an accusation is that, if you show us physical evidence then we'll respond to you, but without physical evidence what exactly do you expect us to respond to?

Once I was there not seeing physical evidence, I thought to myself, well maybe they'll get away with it. There's not really anything I can show them that that would elicit a different response from what they've been giving.

But as it turns out, the stage that we're at in securing accountability, where we would have to determine whether something happened has passed. It's well-established that a genocide happened there. It's well-established that orders came from the top. What legal experts are working on now is trying to find evidence that links specific events to specific individuals who may have perpetrated them or authorized them.

That's also difficult, but it doesn't require physical evidence from the ground.

Hundreds of Rohingya refugees shout slogans as they protest against their repatriation at the Unchiprang camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, November 15, 2018. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

You created evidence too, because you took photos in these areas that were once inhabited by the Rohingya, and those photos show heavy machinery and signs of work and earth being moved and new buildings being built. Can you tell us what that's all about?

In most of these areas where Rohingya used to live, a government agency that's chaired by the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, is removing the rubble and bulldozing the remains of these villages and building what they call model villages. But the idea is that they invite people from more populated parts of the country to live there in newly-built, slightly more modernized homes.

The UN's Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, says that if the Rohingya return they will face the same violence and persecution once again. You've been to Rakhine state, do you think she's right?

I think she's right because the first stop during my visit was to Sittwe, south of the area where the genocide was perpetrated last year. But it's a place where there has been violence before, most famously in 2012. And in the aftermath of that communal violence, thousands of Rohingya who lived in Sittwe and the surrounding area were confined to what they call IDP camps, which are basically — a lot of people call them concentration camps.

They're confined to these areas where they can't leave. They have very little access to health care and education and they've been in there for six years, always being promised by the Government that they'll return to the houses they used to live in. And I think that that seems to be a model for what Myanmar has in store for the people who return from Bangladesh.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Jacob Goldberg, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.