Warning: The following article contains content that may be disturbing for some readers.
By Dr. Shujaat Wasty
What do I say to someone who was tortured and raped repeatedly, by numerous armed men, a handful of minutes after witnessing her husband and young children have their throats mercilessly slit, their bodies lit ablaze?
The thought raced in my mind, on repeat, as I sat there trying to grasp the overwhelming magnitude of what Khatoon* recounted, and yet failing to reconcile it with my faculties of comprehension. And the eyes, the window to one’s soul; I was unable to meet hers with my own. Over the years I have seen many refugees or displaced persons masking unbearable pain and sadness, but at that moment, sitting face-to-face, her gaze pierced mine with their hollowness and burned a hole in my very being.
And yet, she is just one of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya women, men, and children, each with their own individual stories of unfathomable cruelty. Many aid workers working with Rohingya refugees, regardless of their years of experience, have admitted to being left shaken by what they have heard and seen. It is a tsunami of misery.
To say that the Rohingya are a persecuted people is a gross understatement. Yet for decades, even without access to basic rights and opportunities, they were able to make a humble living in their villages in Myanmar. Despite facing poverty and oppression, they found love and comfort in the company of their families and a sense of belonging within their community. However, for most now, even that has been stolen – in the most brutal of ways. Countless women have been senselessly widowed, and innumerable children left forcibly orphaned and yearning for their parents’ love, their innocence abducted by horrendous circumstances.
In the Rohingya refugee camps, it is not uncommon to ask children about their parents and for them to pass their finger across their throat, almost casually communicating the horrors they have witnessed. Indeed, there is an eerie attitude of ‘collective numbness’ when it comes to death in the camps; even mourning has become a luxury that not all are afforded.
Yet even in the bleakest of situations brought upon by the lowest of human depravity, the resilience of the Rohingya people is awe-inspiring. The courage of the women is unparalleled. Having faced the worst of the worst, and now enduring the misery of their new reality, they are speaking out about their horrifying experiences; they are dealing with their trauma and hunger; and they are trying to survive against the most difficult of odds. There is an undercurrent of spiritual strength that surpasses one’s thoughts.
As is our tradition, many Canadians have heeded the cries of the victims and have selflessly stepped out of their comfort zones, intent on making a difference, giving generously and volunteering with organizations active on the ground or through advocacy efforts, including prominent voices such as Lloyd Axworthy, Allan Rock, and Romeo Dallaire. Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, who shared his thoughts firsthand at OBAT Canada’s event in Montreal last year, issued a report with its telling title Tell Them We’re Human, a solid contribution to what Canada and the world can do about this crisis. And our government’s recognition of the Rohingya genocide and the condemnation of those complicit in the crimes has shown to the world that Canada is unequivocal in standing against hate, bigotry and violence.
For its part, OBAT has been on the frontlines from when the recent surge of refugees started arriving two years ago. Our team worked all around the clock – and continues to do so – to build and repair shelters, distribute food and other basic items, establish and operate our health initiatives as well as safe learning spaces for children.
These are important contributions – and even more that still needs to be done. It’s now been two years, yet the refugee camps in Bangladesh remain overcrowded, the terrain is precarious, there are serious hygiene risks, and being conscious of the unforgiving climate in the area, particularly the monsoon rains as well as that region’s susceptibility to cyclones and floods, there are legitimate concerns about the risks to the well-being of the refugees. Other concerns pertain to health- including mental health, provision of food, clean water, shelter, education, and security; women and children are especially vulnerable to several dangers in the camps, such as trafficking. There are questions around sustainable repatriation and rehabilitation that need to be resolved.
The number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – the total estimate being close to a million – is difficult to fathom. But that gargantuan, seemingly insurmountable sea of a number is made up of individuals, of beings. Each of them has a soul, has thoughts and senses, deserves food, clean water, safety, peace, to love and be loved, to laugh and live with dignity, and the right to a better future.
As I sat there listening to Khatoon, I was at a loss at what to say. Instead, a river of tears met her words and expressed in a more raw, heartfelt way that which my tongue was unable to. Eventually, as she got up to leave, I mustered out a question to the translator asking what could be done to help her. Khatoon paused before responding. It was not a request for material aid, or to punish the perpetrators of the violence, and neither to migrate to Canada; but her wish was to somehow return home, in the company of her late family, together in the simplicity that was their life, their everything.
Such a simple wish, and yet so impossible.
* = name has been changed to protect her privacy.