KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP: Mohib Bullah is not your typical human rights investigator. He chews betel and he lives in a rickety hut made of plastic and bamboo. Sometimes, he can be found standing in a line for rations at the Rohingya refugee camp where he lives in Bangladesh.
Yet Mohib Bullah is among a group of refugees who have achieved something that aid groups, foreign governments and journalists have not. They have painstakingly pieced together, name-by-name, the only record of Rohingya Muslims who were allegedly killed in a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military.
The bloody assault in the western state of Rakhine drove more than 700,000 of the minority Rohingya people across the border into Bangladesh, and left thousands of dead behind.
Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, working in Cox’s Bazar at the southern tip of Bangladesh, estimated in the first month of violence, beginning at the end of August 2017, that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed. But the survey, in what is now the largest refugee camp in the world, was limited to the one month and didn’t identify individuals.
The Rohingya list makers pressed on and their final tally put the number killed at more than 10,000. Their lists, which include the toll from a previous bout of violence in October 2016, catalog victims by name, age, father’s name, address in Myanmar, and how they were killed.
“When I became a refugee I felt I had to do something,” says Mohib Bullah, 43, who believes that the lists will be historical evidence of atrocities that could otherwise be forgotten.
Myanmar government officials did not answer phone calls seeking comment on the Rohingya lists. Late last year, Myanmar’s military said that 13 members of the security forces had been killed. It also said it recovered the bodies of 376 Rohingya militants between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5, which is the day the army says its offensive against the militants officially ended.
Rohingya regard themselves as native to Rakhine State. But a 1982 law restricts citizenship for the Rohingya and other minorities not considered members of one of Myanmar’s “national races”. Rohingya were excluded from Myanmar’s last nationwide census in 2014, and many have had their identity documents stripped from them or nullified, blocking them from voting in the landmark 2015 elections. The government refuses even to use the word “Rohingya,” instead calling them “Bengali” or “Muslim.”
Now in Bangladesh and able to organize without being closely monitored by Myanmar’s security forces, the Rohingya have armed themselves with lists of the dead and pictures and video of atrocities recorded on their mobile phones, in a struggle against attempts to erase their history in Myanmar.
The Rohingya accuse the Myanmar army of rapes and killings across northern Rakhine, where scores of villages were burnt to the ground and bulldozed after attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents. The United Nations has said Myanmar’s military may have committed genocide.
Myanmar says what it calls a “clearance operation” in the state was a legitimate response to terrorist attacks.