‘It would be good if I too died’: Rape as weapon of war against Rohingya

More than 615,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in recent months.

The slash marks on Rashida Begum’s neck have turned into dark, red scars.

She showed us the cuts as if to say: look, I tried to fight back, I tried within an inch of my life.

“We saw the military digging holes (for mass graves). We were five women with our babies,” Rashida said, almost in a whisper. “The grabbed us, dragged us into the house, and shut the door.”

The soldiers snatched Rashida’s baby son from her arms and killed him.

“I just screamed, I cried but they wouldn’t listen to us. They don’t even understand our language,” Rashida recalled.

The uniformed men showed her no mercy. They slit Rashida’s throat and tore off her clothes. She was brutalized and raped alongside the four other women. As Rashida lost consciousness, the men set the house alight and left them for dead.

“I thought I was already dead, but when my skin started to burn I woke up,” she said.

Naked and disoriented, she ran out of the flames and hid in a nearby field, but she wishes she had not survived.

“It would be good if I too died because if I died then I wouldn’t have to remember all these things. My parents were killed too, lots of people were killed,” Rashida said as tears streamed down her face.

The soft-spoken 25-year-old was too traumatized to speak further about the assault or the loss of her child, but answered quickly when asked if she wanted revenge.

“We will be pleased if the military who raped us and killed our parents, if they are hanged,” she said.

Then Rashida went quiet, her lips quivering, her hands shaking uncontrollably. In her eyes was a distant gaze that made her seem far away.

“I constantly think about what happened,” she said. “I can’t get it out of my mind.”

‘Untold numbers’ of women raped by soldiers

Rashida’s story is not an uncommon one in the sprawling camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. More than more than 615,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since late August, desperate to escape the violence in Rakhine State. Myanmar’s military has intensified what it calls “clearance operations” targeting “terrorists” in Rakhine State following a series of attacks on police posts by Rohingya militants that left 12 officers dead.

“One of the military’s most feared weapons is mass sexual violence, with untold numbers of women and girls brutally gang raped by government soldiers,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released Thursday, which documents the widespread rape of Rohingya women and girls at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces, often in uniform.

Myanmar’s military has has denied carrying out atrocities, and this week cleared itself of any wrong-doing in an internal report, saying it was responding to attacks by militants. The country also announced it was replacing the general in charge of Rakhine State.

The United Nations has described the situation in Myanmar as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and some observers have accused the army of overseeing genocide against the Rohingya.

Still wearing the skirts they were assaulted in

Aid workers say it’s difficult to estimate just how many women have been raped, but the incidents are so prevalent that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have developed a program to provide support for victims.

Aerlyn Pfeil, an MSF midwife, has taught a group of young female leaders a song to spread the word on the social services available in the refugee camps.

“Rape can happen to anyone. After being raped there is no peace in mind. This is not my fault being raped,” the song goes. “Within three days of rape you need medicine. After three days, you need to consult a doctor.”

Some Rohingya women still traumatized by their assaults have confided in Pfeil. The midwife appears frayed, worn down by one too many stories of horror.

“Several of the women I spoke to — I was the first person they shared their stories,” she said.

But for the victims, catharsis is rarely an option. They must focus on survival, feeding their children, eking out a living where dignity is hard to come by. None of the victims CNN spoke to had received medical attention.

“Sure, they are worried about pregnancy, yes they are concerned about STIs [sexually-transmitted infections], but mainly they are concerned that they are still wearing the same clothes and that they have no roof over their children’s heads and their shelter still hasn’t been built,” Pfeil said.

Dozens of women have received medical and psychological treatment for rape, and about half of them are girls under the age of 18, MSF reported earlier this month.

“The piece for me that is the most heartbreaking is that the women coming in are still wearing the same skirts. They are still wearing the same skirts that they were assaulted in,” Pfeil said.

“It’s just heartbreaking that three months later you are still putting on the same skirt that someone assaulted you in.”

Victims demand justice: ‘No one is helping us’

Several rape survivors now living in refugee camps on the border agreed to speak to CNN on camera, an act of fierce bravery given that victims are often socially ostracized.

When the military came to Aisha’s village, her husband, fearful of being killed, ran away, leaving her and her five children vulnerable.

“They had their eyes on me,” she said of her attackers. “Two of the soldiers were standing in front of my door. One came inside the house and pointed the gun at me.”

“They hit my children with the butt of the gun to get them out, and I don’t know where they went — my children ran away.”

The men then turned their attention to the 37-year-old, punching and beating her into submission.

“Two stood at the door, one tore my clothes off, and he raped me at gunpoint and the gun was pointed at my chest.”

The Rohingya’s native language is different to that of the Burmese — Myanmar’s dominant ethnic group — but Aisha understood clearly the soldier who had her pinned to the ground.

“He said, ‘I will kill you. If you move, if you scream I will kill you.’ And he covered my mouth with his hand,” she recalled. “I felt so bad. He was not my husband. He did it so roughly, he did it without mercy.”

“When I remember what happened, tears come to my eyes,” Aisha said as she started to cry. “Why did they do this to me? Why did they rape me?”

She began to answer her own question.

“They did this to so many other women in the village too. They used it as a weapon of war,” she said. “They did it because we wouldn’t leave our homes, and they think that if they do this, it forces us out.”

Aisha’s fear of her attackers has given way to hardened anger, not just at her perpetrators but at the world for failing to hold Myanmar’s military accountable.

“Since you are shown all over the whole world, maybe something will happen for us, maybe we will be left in peace.” she said. “I hope it will help to stop the violence. That’s why I am talking to you, to demand justice. No one is helping us.”