In traditional Rohingya Muslim society, rape brings shame to households.
WARNING: Distressing details.
In the refugee camp, Noor never got enough to eat so she mistook the fluttering feeling in her abdomen for hunger. But when it became the more insistent push of a foetus, the teenager could not ignore the sensation any longer.
Myanmar soldiers, in their telltale green uniforms, had raped Noor for days last year — first in her village home, then in the forest, she said. She then fled along with some 700,000 other Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh, where she now lives in the world’s largest refugee settlement.
She carried with her a growing reminder of the Myanmar military’s brutal campaign to obliterate an unwanted minority through massacre, rape and mass burnings of villages. The baby — conceived during an explosion of violence against the Rohingya that UN officials have said may amount to genocide — makes it impossible to forget.
Everyone in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh knows of the rapes and how the Myanmar military has, for decades, used sexual violence as a weapon of war, particularly against ethnic groups that are not from the nation’s Buddhist majority.
They know it is not the fault of the Rohingya women and girls, who were often gang-raped at gunpoint, their mothers, sisters or daughters sobbing and screaming nearby.
Nevertheless, in traditional Rohingya Muslim society, rape brings shame to households. Any resulting pregnancies are viewed as heaping even more disgrace on families, according to counsellors working in the refugee camps.
As a result, many survivors are made to suffer twice — first from the trauma of sexual violence and again from the ostracism of a conservative society that abandons them when they most need support.
It is impossible to know how many babies conceived by rape in Myanmar are being delivered in the camps. Most Rohingya choose to deliver their babies in their shelters rather than in medical clinics, so there is no comprehensive record of births.
Nevertheless, health workers operating in the camps speak anecdotally of a spike in deliveries that would coincide with rapes from late August through September last year, the most intense period of violence against the Rohingya.
“We’ve seen a lot more births in May and June than other months,” said Hamida Yasmin, a Bangladeshi midwife working in the camps. “Everyone is asking if this is because of rape? We can’t think of another explanation.”
In a society that normally embraces children — to have six, seven or eight is common among Rohingya families — the babies who are now being delivered tend to be treated differently.
Traffickers have moved in, spreading the word they can relieve women of unwanted newborns. If an unusually pale child is born, the mother must endure whispers that the complexion is the result of a father from Myanmar’s Bamar ethnic majority.
“Everyone admits it’s happening, but no one wants to admit it has happened to their families,” said Mohammad Ali, a Bangladeshi who is employed to monitor the inner workings of the Rohingya camps.
On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, where he met mothers of babies born of rape.
“I’ve just heard unimaginable accounts of killing and rape from Rohingya refugees who recently fled Myanmar,” Guterres said in a Twitter post.
“Nothing could’ve prepared me for the scale of crisis and extent of suffering I saw,” he added in another tweet.
Guterres described Rohingya Muslims as “one of the most discriminated against and vulnerable communities on earth.”
From the moment her belly began to swell, Noor, who like others in this story is being identified only by her first name for her protection, stayed huddled in her tarpaulin shelter, hiding from the judgement of others.
She is unmarried and unsure of how old she is, although her grandparents estimate she is between 16 and 18.
“Only my parents know how old I am,” Noor said. “But they are dead.”
Her father was killed last year as they tried to escape the soldiers who rampaged through their village in Buthidaung Township in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. His name is on a casualty list compiled by human rights groups. Her mother is missing and presumed dead.
Noor’s 10-year-old brother is alive. But her surviving adult relatives have decided the young boy cannot be associated with his sister’s shame, so he lives with an aunt in a different refugee camp.
“I don’t want him to get in trouble because of me,” Noor said.
The last time she saw her brother was a couple months ago, just as her belly was growing too large to camouflage. He brought her a gift: a packet of biscuits that she nibbled in the sweltering dark of her shelter.
“He knows I like snacks, so he brought them,” Noor said. “I think he still loves me even though he is ashamed of me.”
While many survivors of rape terminated their pregnancies after arriving in Bangladesh, half the Rohingya treated for rape in the refugee camp clinics run by Doctors Without Borders, the medical aid group, were 18 or younger. Several had not reached 10 years old. Like Noor, some girls did not understand what rape could do to their bodies.
In other cases, because malnutrition and trauma can cause menstruation to cease, women did not realise they were expecting until it was too late. Even for those who realised they were pregnant, a chronic lack of medical care back in their native Rakhine — part of the apartheid system inflicted by authorities in Myanmar — made women leery of visiting camp clinics where they could discuss their choices.
Instead, some women in the camps have relied on mystery potions or backroom abortions that can result in septic shock.
“Women who are desperate will do anything,” said Dildar Begum, a Rohingya midwife who said she knows of at least two women who died because of botched abortions.
Once neighbours suspect the provenance of a baby, the humiliation can be stifling.
At the Kutupalong refugee camp, two women were sequestered in the back of a shelter. Outside, amid the mud and sewage, men tugged at a manually powered Ferris wheel, a brief moment of delight for an uprooted community. Children shrieked in glee.
Inside the shelter’s gloom, the women — one on the verge of giving birth and the other her mother-in-law — twisted their hands and stared into space.
The soldiers had come to their village, Jesmin, the pregnant woman, said, just as they did across the Rohingya-dominated townships of northern Rakhine state: burning homes, firing indiscriminately, herding the women into groups. Thirteen people were killed in their hamlet, according to human rights monitors.
Jesmin’s mother-in-law, Rahima, was cordoned with her, at gunpoint. Those who resisted rape, Rahima said, were slammed on the head with rifle butts and were violated anyway.
By the time the two women escaped and reunited weeks later with Jesmin’s husband in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, the excommunication had begun.
Jesmin’s daughter, only 25 days old when the soldiers attacked, was taken from her and placed with a relative.
“I miss her,” she said. She had no other words.
Of the impending birth, the women talked little. It is not clear who the father is.
“We don’t have a name for it because we do not know if it will live or die,” Rahima said.
She spoke quietly, to keep her son, Jesmin’s husband, from hearing. “He will beat Jesmin if we talk too much,” Rahima whispered. “I don’t want to make him upset.”
Aid groups have reported a rise in serious domestic violence in the camps, where the sustained uncertainty of refugee life heightens household stress. In this traumatised society, spousal abuse seems ingrained.
“Rohingya told me they believed that if you beat your wife, that part of her body goes to heaven first,” said Shariful Islam, the mental health supervisor for a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in the Kutupalong camp.
Days before her delivery, Noor continued to hide in the back of her shelter, making do with the barest of refugee rations. She had decided the baby would be handed to a human trafficker when it is born. Hopefully, she said, the delivery would be swift so any evidence could be swept away within hours.
“I want to get married,” Noor said. “I can’t do that if I have a baby.”
With each day, the baby kicked Noor more insistently. Her nightmares still brought the men in green with their rifles and shoving hands.
No medical staff had ever monitored her pregnancy. But she had heard that in the camps in Bangladesh there were doctors with magical cures. Noor was intrigued.
“Do you think they have a pill for sadness?” she asked, her hands cradling her abdomen. “I would like to have that pill after the baby is born.”