This article is part of the Lily Lines newsletter. You can sign up here to get it delivered twice a week to your inbox.
Since August, more than 680,000 Rohingya have fled Burma’s Rakhine state. To escape persecution, they crossed the border into Bangladesh, where they now occupy about 24 refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar.
For years, the Rohingya, an ethnically distinct Muslim minority, have clashed with the majority Buddhist population in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The Burmese government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as Burmese citizens and has subjected them to decades of violent repression. Last year’s crackdown, which began Aug. 25, was the most brutal yet. Villages were burned to the ground as the Burmese army allegedly kidnapped, tortured, raped and slaughtered thousands of Rohingya. Those who survived remain physically and emotionally scarred as they try to carry on with their lives in crowded camps that, despite humanitarian aid, lack adequate resources.
But, when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges – food is scarce, and an impending monsoon season threatens to destroy their homes – a group of 400 Rohingya women remain focused on one thing: justice.
They call themselves the Shanti Mohila, which means “peace women” in Rohingya. Brought together by their trauma, the women began meeting in the Kutupalong-Balukhali settlements, a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Sometimes, up to 40 women would squeeze into a single shelter to talk about their experiences. When a Bangladeshi nonprofit opened a center for women to make and mend clothes in the camp, the Shanti Mohila moved their meetings to a larger space.
For International Women’s Day on March 8, they organized a rally for Rohingya women to protest the treatment of their people. Armed with banners and chants, more than 250 women marched through the camp calling for peace and justice. Together, the Shanti Mohila came up with a list of 15 demands: They want their land in Burma returned, for the Rohingya identity to be recognized, religious freedom and access to education.
The Shanti Mohila want their story to be heard around the world: The Burmese army destroyed their homes, killed their friends and family, and brutally raped them.
The Burmese government denies that these atrocities occurred, despite overwhelming evidence. Doctors Without Borders estimates that 6,700 Rohingya were killed during attacks in Rakhine state, and some 16,000 Rohingya women suffered gender-based violence, according to UNFPA.
On Wednesday, the Shanti Mohila submitted a formal request to the International Criminal Court for an investigation into genocide and persecution. As part of the request to the ICC, the Shanti Mohila have submitted individual testimonies and gathered some 400 signatures from Rohingya women. Their declaration states:
The Shanti Mohila and their lawyer, Wayne Jordash QC, claim that the alleged crimes committed in Burma did not end when the Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh, an argument shared by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
Thousands of Rohingya women lost their husbands to violence in Burma, and thousands more were subjected to sexual violence. Now, in Bangladesh, many of these rape survivors find themselves pregnant. With few options, some unsafely abort or abandon their babies once they’re born. Those who keep their children often face a damning social stigma.
“The impact of so many abductions, murders and rapes did not stop at the border,” Jordash says, “and nor did the violence or the perpetrators’ intent.”
The Shanti Mohila’s request to the ICC also includes gender-based violence as a key component of genocide, something that hasn’t been addressed much in human rights law, Jordash says.
The ICC may very well reject the Shanti Mohila’s request and refuse to investigate the case. But the Shanti Mohila’s efforts will still dramatically shake up the discussion around genocide and crimes against humanity, putting women at the center.
“It feels good to be a leader in this,” says Janatara, one of the Shanti Mohila’s members. “I am proud to be one of the women taking action to get justice for my people. Justice takes a long time. I know that. But one day, we will get it. We will get it for our children.”
In a highly patriarchal society, few Rohingya women are openly involved in politics. But the Shanti Mohila have found their voice, and they want to be heard. Here are the stories of five women who are speaking up as part of the Shanti Mohila:
“There were no opportunities in [Burma] for [Rohingya] women to be leaders in our community,” says 60-year-old Khalunisa, a Shanti Mohila leader whose testimony is included in the ICC request. “Here, it is different.”
Now, Khalunisa says, women refugees have opportunity and courage.
In Burma, Khalunisa says, she tried to stand up to the army “when they kidnapped our girls or beat our men.” Several times, Khalunisa says, she tried to bribe the military to get the women and men kidnapped or imprisoned back.
“Often it was only their bodies that returned, though,” she says. In one instance, during an attack on their village, she and other women went out to protest. In response, a military man hit her hard across the face, causing her to faint and fall to the ground. “I was not scared, though,” she says, “because we were dying anyway, there was nothing more to be lost.” Nearly all the men in her village were taken that day, including Khalunisa’s nephew, Ayatollah: “We never even saw his body.”
“Right now, even I cannot tell you how it feels to have family killed,” Khalunisa, who also lost her husband, says. “We’ve cried so much that we [cannot] cry [anymore]; our eyes are dry.”
The military used to dump the bodies of other men into a nearby field and cover them with mud, according to Khalunisa. “But then,” she says, “there were too many to cover – they just lay out in the sun.”
While the men in Khalunisa’s village were taken, the women were raped. “The military would round up people,” she describes. In the evening, when the soldiers were drunk or high, they would take women off to rape them. “I saw them gang rape young girls with my own eyes.”
Now, in Bangladesh, Khalunisa lives in a shelter with two of her three sons. She worries about what will happen to them: “I want them to be properly educated, to have jobs and to travel the world,” she says, “but I don’t know if that’s possible for us.”
Despite her concerns, Shanti Mohila has given her hope: “If other women in other corners of the world can fight for their causes, why can’t we do it too?” Smiling wryly behind her fan, she adds: “Sometimes women can be stronger than men.”
“By ourselves, we have a lot of pain in our hearts,” says 35-year-old Aijum, “but when we are together, we feel happy. We find our strength.”
Aijum has also given her testimony to the ICC. She says that she was nervous of retribution at first, but then she had “to be brave.”
Before violence erupted in Burma, Aijum’s life was a happy one. Her family farmed and fished, and they earned enough money to be comfortable.
Then, during the military crackdown, they were prohibited from going outside of their house, “even to fish.” Whenever anyone was spotted outside, the military would take them and torture them, she says, “and the only way to get them back was to bribe them.”
Her daughter’s husband was one of those tortured. A few days after he disappeared, Aijum received a phone call from the chairman of her village saying she needed to come and collect his body from the military. When she arrived at the military camp where he had been held, she found that he was not dead – “but almost,” she says. Beaten with boots and guns, his body was covered in bruises. His face was almost unrecognizable.
The military demanded 120,000 Burmese Kyat – around $90, which is a large sum in Burma – in exchange for the return of her son-in-law. Aijum and her family went begging and took out loans to get him back. Today, he is alive but still in a lot of pain.
Aijum’s daughter also bears the scars from suffering in Burma. As she walked to her parents-in-laws’ house one day, the military suddenly attacked. Hit in the leg with shrapnel, she was lucky to receive medical treatment once they arrived in Bangladesh.
Pregnant and injured, though, the journey across the border was a difficult one for Aijum’s daughter. “We all had little children with us, which made it even harder,” Aijum says.
The family could not walk continuously. They had to stop and hide in the bushes or trees to avoid being caught by the military. The journey took 15 days, during which they had no drinkable water or food.
Now in the refugee camps, they face new problems. “We had houses in [Burma],” Aijum says. “Here we live in these small shelters made of plastic. The heat is unbearable.” Despite the potential dangers, Aijum and her family want to go back: “Yes we are afraid of what the military might do, but we have our homes there, our land. We have a right to return to it safely.”
Halima is not even sure she could find her home if she returned to Burma. “They razed everything to ground: our houses, our crops, our whole villages,” she says. “I don’t know if there would be anything left to go back to.”
Halima, 40, finds it difficult to talk about her experience in Burma. “I cannot express my feelings,” she says. “They are too much.” When she was fleeing, she saw people who had been shot lying on the ground, “screaming in pain. I saw them dying.” After that she struggled to eat or drink.
Halima narrowly avoided the same fate. During Halima’s escape from Burma, she was running from the military when she suddenly heard a loud noise and fell to the ground. A bullet had hit her chest. Looking down, she saw that her clothes were soaked in blood. “I thought I’d be dead like everyone else,” she says, unbuttoning her blouse to reveal a large, raised scar.
Somehow, she managed to patch the wound up until she got to Bangladesh, where she received treatment. Her father and brother, she later found out, had also been shot during their escape. Unlike her, they did not make it.
“I am lucky,” she says. “I got here and I have all my children.”
Nurjahan, 40, made it to Bangladesh, but her husband and son did not.
“I have lost everything,” she says, wiping her eyes. Her husband, who worked as a volunteer in their community, was on duty guarding the village one day when the military kidnapped him. Not long after, they came again and took her 18-year-old son. “I’ve never seen either of them since,” she says, “I didn’t even get to bury them.” The military then came for her daughter, Minara.
“They wanted to rape Minara,” Nurjahan says. “They came to get her, banging on the door and trying to break it down.” Nurjahan helped her daughter escape through a back window and sent her to hide in a nearby rice paddy field. She stayed there for five days, crouched down in the wet ground, with nothing to eat or drink. Eventually Minara got so desperate, she ate grass and other crops. When she returned home, she was covered in infected bites from insects that had swarmed around her.
Soon after that, the women fled to Bangladesh. The trauma still haunts them, though. “I’m not getting killed here,” Nurjahan says, “but I cannot feel happiness.”
The Shanti Mohila have given her some release from the pain. When she meets with them, they ask how she is feeling, physically and emotionally.
Life without any men in the household is also difficult. “Some tasks it is expected for a man to do,” Nurjahan says, “but I am managing on my own: I go to market, I go to the food distribution point, I fix our shelter when it breaks.”
Nonetheless, Nurjahan, who is deaf in one ear and cannot use her right arm after being beaten by the military in Burma, is worried about how she and her daughter will cope when the monsoon hits Bangladesh in the coming weeks. “We are not safe in this little shelter,” she says.
Nurjahan’s neighbor in the camp, Janatara, says she will help: “We are Shanti Mohila; we stick together.”
The 22-year-old mother of two and her family fled to Bangladesh nine months ago with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A few weeks before they left, the neighboring village had been set on fire. “All the villagers from there came to live with us,” she says. After that, they started to hear that their village would be set on fire, too. “But we didn’t want to trust rumors.”
One evening, Janatara and other villagers heard that at 2 a.m., the military would attack. They heard gunshots and bombs hours before the soldiers were supposed to arrive. When Janatara’s family came outside, they saw other houses in flames.
“That was the start of our journey to Bangladesh,” she says. “We just started running.”
The journey was arduous. Janatara had to care for her two small children and her disabled nephew, so they moved very slowly. At one point, she and her husband lost her nephew in the crowd. They searched for hours but couldn’t find him. They later learned that the military had caught him, beaten him and cut all his fingers off. Soldiers then dumped him in a canal. “We managed to get him out,” Janatara says, “but now he cannot walk or do anything much at all.”
Now in Bangladesh, Janatara and her family are not sure they want to go back to Burma. “Here, we can have a proper Muslim funeral. We prefer to die here than go back,” Janatara’s mother, Gulbahar, says.
“In Bangladesh, my children will be able to go to school,” Janatara says. “In Burma, if you study too long, they kill you.”