In a compelling panel at the Women in the World Washington, D.C., Salon on Wednesday night, Dr. Fozia Alvi and journalist Tania Rashid recounted some of the harrowing scenes they have witnessed while working with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Since August, nearly 700,000 members of the Muslim minority group have fled over the border from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. “It is a systematic annihilation of the Rohingya people,” said Rashid, who is a correspondent for PBS’s Newshour.
In all her conflict reporting, she has never seen anything as horrific, she told mediator Margaret Brennan, of CBS’s Face the Nation. “Thousands of the refugees fleeing the Myanmar border into Bangladesh are children,” Rashid explained, visibly moved as she struggled to find the words. “They’re by themselves, witnessing their parents getting hacked to death in front of them.”
Many stories poured forth from Dr. Alvi, who fought back tears as she recounted the refugees’ experiences of desperate illness and unmitigated trauma. She described patients “like walking skeletons,” diseases she had only read about in text books, children separated from their slain family members, adults and babies brutally murdered, women raped and left for dead. Those stories can–and should–be heard in the video above.
One day, she stopped in the camp and heard from two women: how they were kept captive for 15 days, continuously raped for days by different people, how their babies were burned and husbands murdered. After some time, she noticed a small girl–about the same age as her own 12-year-old daughter, crying quietly at the back of the tent. “When I saw her face, her tears–she was listening how her baby brother was burned alive in the fire, how her dad was killed, how her mum was raped–my heart just sank. I felt paralyzed. I did not have any words for her.
“That girl’s tears and her face still haunts me, and I think I will never recover from it,” said Dr. Alvi, her voice shaking with emotion.
Dr. Alvi said was partly motivated to step away from her more comfortable job in Canada to join a mission to the refugee camps because of the many Syrian refugees she has encountered in her practice. “Those patients who were not harmed physically, I can still see the trauma in them,” she said. “That’s what conflict does, that’s what civil war does – scars them emotionally for the rest of their life”.
Rashid is already making her way back to the region, determined to cover the suffering of women and children, whose plight she feels is seriously underreported.
With monsoon season imminent, threatening at least a third of the camps, Dr. Alvi made a forceful plea for international agencies to do more than simply acknowledge an ethnic cleansing is occurring and to take immediate and decisive action. “We need to make a massive effort,” she said. “These people in Bangladesh are in danger now, and those people back in Rahkine state are starving now.”
“These people have suffered a lot in their lives,” Dr Alvi said. “They have gone through hell. They are counting on us.”