Dr. Fozia Alvi, a family physician from Canada, had never felt so helpless as she did in the Rohingya refugee camps.
Traveling to Bangladesh in October 2017 to provide help in what the UN has called the world’s “fastest growing” refugee crisis, she was faced with women and children deeply traumatized, girls as young as ten recovering from rape. As she tried to offer treatment, harrowing stories would come out during the examinations — a young boy, for example, who had been found by a neighbor in the forest clutching a plastic shopping bag filled with the clothes of his mother and sisters, who had been murdered days before.
“He was holding onto what was left of his family,” Alvi told a stunned audience at the 9th annual Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday. “It really shook me. I didn’t know how to walk away from this child.”
Alvi was joined onstage by Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’s Nightline, and Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times who has reported extensively on the abuses being perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar — or, as he recently described it, “a genocide in slow motion.”
“They’ve always been marginalized,” Kristof explained at Lincoln Center. “They speak a different dialect, they are an ethnic minority as well as a religious minority. In a sense they’ve been made scapegoats.” Myanmar’s government considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — “preposterous,” Kristof said, though the belief is widespread — and has stripped them of citizenship in an attempt to push them out.
Though this effort has been going on for years, it took a brutal turn last August after an armed rebellion against a police station, by some Rohingya who were being held in terrible conditions and deprived of their rights. The military responded with a “scorched earth counterinsurgency,” Kristof said. “They couldn’t find the rebels, who were poorly armed in any case. What they could find was Rohingya villagers. And I think they decided that the simplest solution was to completely remove the population and terrorize people until they fled across the border into Bangladesh.” This so-called “solution” worked to an alarming extent: More than 700,000 Rohingyas left the country in a matter of months, fearing for their lives.
This is the situation that Dr. Alvi learned about in Canada: massacres, exodus, and 90,000 pregnant women in camps like Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, attended to by only a handful of doctors. “As a physician, I thought that I must help,” she said. Visiting Bangladesh with ICNA Relief Canada, she found herself treating cases of severe malnutrition, tuberculosis — which she had never encountered before — and patients with wounds on their back “because they were shot.”
“This is not just some soldiers who got carried away here and there,” said Kristof. “This is a policy of rape. This is a policy of throwing babies in a bonfire, of killing children.” He collected accounts of the violence last year by entering Myanmar on a tourist visa and then covertly entering Rohingya villages to interview survivors.
Both Alvi and Kristof spoke about feeling frustrated and disillusioned, Alvi by the tepid response of the international community — “Yes, world leaders are paying attention to it, but nobody is taking actual practical steps to stop this genocide,” just as they once failed to stop to genocide in Rwanda — and Kristof by the controversial response of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who he once admired. “Ten years ago she would have been on this stage and we would all be applauding her,” he said, going on to describe her passivity as “heartbreaking.” But perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi was never the human rights advocate people once hoped for, he suggested. “She chose democratic success at the cost, I think, of her soul.”
Kristof was also critical of Facebook, which became popular in Myanmar when the regime finally permitted the internet a few years ago. Lacking proper oversight — Facebook was not monitoring the country particularly closely — Buddhist extremists began using the platform to disseminate virulent hate speech and fake images of Rohingyas slaughtering Buddhist people. “I’ve talked to even some Buddhists there who said that Facebook has fundamentally been a force for harm in Myanmar because it has encouraged, on both sides, this kind of extremism, this sense of dehumanization of the other,” Kristof said, pinning some of the blame on Facebook directly: “Facebook tolerated that.”
Still, in spite of all the challenges, Alvi affirmed that she is determined to push forward and make a difference. It is not sustainable to send colleagues on shift rotations to refugee camps, but she can offer “a longer term solution” by training local Bangladeshi doctors to provide medication. Like Kristof, using journalism to spread the word and pressure governments to enact sanctions, she also can push others to act by sharing what she’s seen firsthand.
“I can sit here all night and tell you these horrible stories that I witnessed,” she said, facing the audience in a direct appeal. “Those people have gone through hell, and they are living in literally garbage conditions. We have to stand up.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Anna Hall.