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On August 25, along a muddy road outside the Kutupalong refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh, hundreds of young Rohingya Muslim men and boys marched together through a light morning rain chanting: “We are Rohingya. We want our country.”
Most of the boys wore homemade red bandanas cut from old cloth, while two teenagers at the back of the procession held a sign saying “Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day.”
Noor Allah, 30, sat under an awning at a nearby teashop watching the young men march past. He could not join the protest because he still suffers pain in his left hip from a bullet wound he suffered when the Myanmar army stormed his village on the night of August 30, 2017.
“Thirty villagers were killed that night,” he said. “I lost two of my uncles.”
Noor says he survived by wiping his face with blood and pretending to be dead when the soldiers checked the bodies. Once they passed, he fled into the jungle with his brother, never looking back to see his home.
For ten days, he nursed his injury as he waded through the jungle without food or clean water, searching for the Bangladesh border. Like more than 700,000 other refugees who fled the violence beginning last August, he has come to accept his new life in the world’s largest refugee camp.
Noor pointed to the stream of men and boys marching up the muddy street.
“We heard that in Myanmar, they are celebrating the one year anniversary,” he said. “They are saying that Rohingya should not be allowed to return. But we are protesting here to tell them that we remember our homes.”
The morning march was part of a coordinated protest across the camps that saw tens of thousands of Rohingya join in the largest political demonstration since their mass exodus from Myanmar began one year ago.
“We demand justice,” shouted a fourteen year-old boy who was marching with his friends. Like many other protesters, he was wearing a red headband and had a red shirt with a handwritten message: “August 25, Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day.” “So we will walk to the border and tell Myanmar what we think. We will send a message to the world.”
The international community is starting to respond more forcefully to those dire calls.
A United Nations mandated fact-finding mission released a report on August 27 recommending that Myanmar’s military leaders, including the commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for their various actions in ethnic minority areas.
The report drew on over a year’s worth of interviews and research and calls into question the Myanmar government’s and military’s consistent denials security forces committed atrocities during their clampdown in Rakhine state.
The report found “patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses” that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” The report accused the military of “killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages.”
For many Rohingya refugees, the desire for justice has now eclipsed any hope to return home to Myanmar. Indeed, there is a growing acceptance among many refugees of their prolonged stay in Bangladesh and an acknowledgment that a safe return to their homes in Rakhine state might never be possible.
Emotions ran high in Kutupalong on the August 25 anniversary. Along most of the camp’s main roads, red flags were raised in honor of the Rohingya who had lost their lives in the Myanmar army’s coordinated “clearance operations” in the country’s northern Rakhine state.
Those brutal assaults were launched in response to lethal attacks on border guard outposts by the rebel Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA. The UN report said the Myanmar military’s tactics were “consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine State.”
The refugee-led protests were peaceful as they were also motivated as a remembrance of the dead. Handmade signs could be seen around the camp proclaiming, “August 25 – Remember Rohingya Genocide Day.”
The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments continue to hold bilateral talks about repatriating the refugees. Officials complain that the process is being held up by bureaucratic delays. But for most Rohingya, the process is beset by a much deeper problem.
“The Myanmar government is still calling us Bengali,” said Kobid, one of the camp’s many Mazhi, or local community leaders. “If they allow us to go as Rohingya, with full rights and citizenship, we will go. But otherwise we will refuse.”
Zayed Noor, a 28-year-old refugee, agreed. “Justice is more important to me than going home at this point,” he said. “There is no guarantee of a safe return, but we can demand justice.”
Like most people in the camps, Zayed has a bleak outlook on whether any type of return will be possible. He has lived in Bangladesh since 2012, having fled during a wave of communal violence against the Rohingya that year, and has watched as the situation has steadily deteriorated for his people.
“Survivors of the genocide have been living here for an entire year,” he said. “They can just shed their tears and remember their tragedy.”
He closely follows the official repatriation talks, and is quick to point out the contradictions in the Myanmar government’s position. “[State Counsellor] Aung San Suu Kyi was just in Singapore talking about Myanmar’s democratic challenge,” he said. “But she never once mentioned the refugees.”
For other refugees, memories of why they fled in the first place and deep-seated fears of the Myanmar military, fuel rumors about what might be waiting for them if they return.
“Why would we voluntarily go to those concentration camps?” said Hussein, a young shop owner in Kutupalong, referring to the new large-scale housing units being built in Rakhine state.
With most of the their homes burnt to the ground, and most of their land now controlled by private developers with connections to the Myanmar government, there will be a need for housing for anyone that does return, they say. The housing units are officially called “temporary transition camps,” and are supposed to hold up to 30,000 people.
One group of refugees who may not have any choice about where they can go are the 5,000 Rohingya stuck in a camp at the Tombru checkpoint, located on a strip of “no man’s land” between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The inhabitants were some of the first refugees to cross the border in the earliest days of last year’s violence, before Bangladesh had officially opened its borders to the refugees. “We weren’t trying to get to Bangladesh,” one resident said. “We just wanted a safe place.”
One year on, they can stare from their shelters towards two different homes denied to them: across a small canal lies Bangladesh, and in the other direction, they gaze at a newly-built border fence replete with a Myanmar military post that looks down upon them.
“Here at this camp we did not celebrate the August 25 anniversary,” said Dil Mohammad, the 51-year-old spokesperson for the no man’s land community. “We are so close to the border, we want to avoid any misunderstanding. We only celebrated in private at the mosque, where we remembered our martyrs.”
For Dil Mohammad, one of the most important things that the Rohingya can do as a community is to ensure that no one forgets the events of last August. “Never forget,” he said. “We need to observe this date annually. It needs to become a commemoration.”
“Of course, our goal is to go back home, but only if the Myanmar government gives us our rights, citizenship and freedom of movement. Without that, we cannot. So we need justice. The perpetrators must be sent to trial. If not, then the Myanmar government will do the same thing to us if we return.”
Dil Mohammad pointed up at the military buildings, easily visible at the top of the hill. A year ago, the land belonged to a Rohingya farmer, he said while pointing up the hill to the military’s new outpost across the border fence.
“You see those mango and coconut trees?” he asked. “Those used to be our trees. But no more.”