BA GONE NAR, MYANMAR // Noor Jaan lifted her black veil and recalled the last time she saw her husband. He was among more than 600 Rohingya Muslim men thrown in jail in this remote corner of Myanmar during a ruthless security crackdown that followed sectarian violence, and among one in 10 who did not make it out alive.
Ms Jaan said that when she visited the jail, the cells were crammed with men, hands chained behind their backs, several stripped naked. Many showed signs of torture. Her husband, Mohammed Yasim, was doubled over, vomiting blood, his hip bone shattered.
“We were all crying so loudly the walls of the prison could have collapsed,” Ms Jaan, 40, said.
“They killed him soon after that.”
Her account was corroborated by her father, her 10-year-old son and a neighbour.
“Other prisoners told us soldiers took his corpse and threw it in the forest,” she said. “We didn’t even have a chance to see his body.”
The sectarian violence that has gripped this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million in the past 16 months has been most intense in the western state of Rakhine, where 200 people have been killed in rioting and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes. Three-quarters of the victims have been Muslims – most of them members of the minority Rohingya community – but it is they who have suffered most at the hands of security forces.
For every Buddhist arrested, jailed and convicted in connection with mob violence across Rakhine state, roughly four Rohingya went to prison.
Members of the ethnic minority often have been severely punished, even when there is little or no evidence of wrongdoing. For example, Amnesty International says Dr Tun Aung was summoned by authorities to try to help ease tensions but could not quiet the agitated crowd. He was arrested a week later, labelled an agitator and is serving nine years in prison.
Nowhere have Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world, been more zealously pursued than in northern Rakhine.
It’s home to 80 per cent of Myanmar’s one million Rohingya. Some descend from families that have been here for generations. Others arrived more recently from Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. For decades, they have been unable to travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors. They need special approval to marry and are the only people in the country barred from having more than two children.
A half-century of brutal military rule in Myanmar ended when President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. But in northern Rakhine, where security forces have been allowed to operate with impunity, many say life has only become worse for Rohingya.
“As far as I know, not a single member of the security forces has even been questioned,” said the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, calling on the state to investigate allegations of official brutality.
“This government needs to understand it has a responsibility toward its people, that there has to be some accountability.”
Northern Rakhine has been under a government crackdown since ethnic violence erupted there on June 8, 2012.
Thousands of knife and stick-wielding Rohingya rioted in the township of Maungdaw, killing 10 Buddhists, including a monk, and torching more than 460 Buddhist homes, according to state advocate general Hla Thein. The violence came in reaction to a Buddhist attack on Muslim pilgrims in southern Rakhine that was sparked by rumours of a gang rape by Muslim men.
Most of the anti-Buddhist bloodshed occurred in Ba Gone Nar, a village of 8,000 and home to Ms Jaan and dozens of others interviewed.
Made up of dark teak homes on stilts, Ba Gone Nar is divided by a web of dusty foot paths. Residents peered cautiously through the slats of tall bamboo fences, then eagerly beckoned the journalists through their gates. Some pulled out pictures of sons, brothers or fathers who have been jailed since their arrests in the weeks that followed the violence.
For months, residents said, soldiers, police and members of a feared border security unit known as Nasaka showed up at homes, arresting more than 150 men.
Those left behind have held on to whatever evidence they had, no matter how small. Men with tired, weathered faces dragged out plastic buckets filled with broken glasses, dishes, picture frames – belongings wrecked when security forces ransacked their houses.
Villagers said security forces beat them, looted gold and other valuables and raped women.
“As soon as they came inside, we couldn’t do anything,” said a 64-year-old woman who alleges she and her two daughters were raped by members of Nasaka.
“We were afraid. If they wanted to kill, they would,” she said, shrouding much of her face with a light blue headscarf so that she could speak on camera.
“They did whatever they wanted. Made us feel ... that we are nothing.”
Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, an independent humanitarian-based research group that has spent nearly a decade documenting abuses in the region, said 966 Rohingya from northern Rakhine were jailed after the riots: 611 in northern Rakhine jails, where 62 inmates died (all in Buthidaung), and another 287 at the jail in the state capital, Sittwe, where she tallied another six prisoner deaths.
The numbers were based on testimony from family members and released inmates. Ms Lewa said many inmates were denied lifesaving medical treatment for injuries sustained during arrest or from torture and beatings in jail – both by wardens and Buddhist Rakhine inmates.
The UN’s Mr Quintana said he has gathered statistics on prisoner deaths that are similar to Ms Lewa’s. He said jail conditions appeared to have improved by the time he last visited northern Rakhine in August, but said that there were credible reports that sick, elderly and underage inmates had been moved to other locations before his visit.
Northern Rakhine is the only place in Myanmar where Buddhists were the main targets of mob violence, and the only place in the country where most people are Muslim. Hla Thein said that across Rakhine state, at least 147 Muslims and 58 Buddhists were killed.
Rohingya make up not only the vast majority of victims, but the vast majority of suspects. Data collected from rights groups, courts, police and other officials indicate that at least 1,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims and 260 Buddhists were arrested following the statewide riots.
More than 900 trials have been held in northern Rakhine, all against Rohingya, Ms Lewa said. Three were sentenced to life in prison in August for the killing of the monk, and many others got up to 17 years behind bars. Those accused of lesser crimes such as arson got between three and 10 years.
Less than a dozen have been acquitted.
Many defendants were tried without defence lawyers. There were no translators or family members present. Some were tried collectively.
“These kinds of proceedings are not following any kind of process of law or judicial guarantees,” Mr Quintana said. “In many cases, it’s not clear what charges have been filed against each of these prisoners.”
With no ethnic violence in northern Rakhine for more than a year, some Rohingya say security forces are not as brutal as they once were.
But some, like Ms Jaan, whose husband was killed in jail, have lost hope that the persecution of their people will ever end.
“It’s better,” she said, “if Allah just takes our lives.”
* Associated Press