When a baby is a daily reminder of Rohingya horror

KUTUPALONG (Bangladesh) • 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 had raped Noor for days last year - first in her village home, then in the forest, she said. She later fled along with some 700,000 other Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh, where she now lives in the world's largest refugee camp.

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 United Nations 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 minority groups. They know it is not the fault of the women and girls, who were often gang-raped at gunpoint.

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.

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 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.

Traffickers have moved in, spreading the word they can relieve women of unwanted newborns.

While many rape survivors terminated their pregnancies after arriving in Bangladesh, half of those treated in the refugee camp clinics run by Doctors Without Borders, the medical aid group, were 18 or younger.

Noor is unmarried and unsure of how old she is, although her grandparents estimate she is between 16 and 18. She had decided the baby would be handed to a human trafficker when it is born. "I want to get married," Noor said. "I can't do that if I have a baby."

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."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2018, with the headline 'When a baby is a daily reminder of Rohingya horror'. Print Edition | Subscribe