Only a river stood between certain death and the promise of safety.
Over the course of a month, a half million men, women and children crossed the Naf River from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
They are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority from in the Rakhine state in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country in southeast Asia. On Aug. 25, a contingent of Rohingya militants attacked several police stations, prompting a military crackdown in the form of a “clearance operation,” sparking the massive exodus by land and water.
More than 8,000 miles away right here in Riverdale, Mehnaz Afridi was moved to action. A professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, Afridi has studied genocide and ethnic cleansing extensively. And for her, what was happening to the Rohingya half a world away was no different.
“They’re escaping literally rape and killing and murder of kids,” Afridi said.
Firsthand accounts from newly arrived refugees in Bangladesh tell harrowing stories of women and children raped, men murdered, and villages burned. Satellite images collected by Human Rights Watch after Aug. 25 show widespread destruction in the Rakhine state.
In September, Afridi held a rally at The Monument on West 239th Street. Turnout was low, but it was the seed of a months-long effort by the professor to make this crisis real for people in the northwest Bronx.
“I see the symptomatic denial, and also the burning of the evidence of bodies,” Afridi said. “And that’s when I wanted to have a rally locally.”
The ongoing tragedy half a world away catalyzed a groundswell response from human rights groups, volunteers and journalists.
On a sweltering summer afternoon on the Bangladesh side of its border with Myanmar, a man stood on a road clutching a small wrapped bundle to his chest. A woman joined him, crying as he held the bundle tightly.
“It was a baby 10 days old,” said Ismail Ferdous, a Bangladeshi photojournalist who was in a car nearby. “He just died.”
The man and the woman were Rohingya, and the baby had been born premature during their escape from Myanmar to Bangladesh. They were in search of a hospital when their child died.
Ferdous has worked extensively on the crisis since 2012, but what he witnessed in August was unlike anything he’s witnessed before.
“I have never seen that much refugees coming into my country,” Ferdous said. “I was feeling really proud that my government opened the door, whatever the complexity, whatever the security threat.”
Yet, Bangladesh is in a precarious spot. It is one of the world’s most congested countries with more than 160 million people living in an area roughly the size of Iowa. While the door has been open, it has been difficult to accommodate that influx.
“I saw thousands of people lining the narrow main road begging for food, clothing and money,” said Nicole Tung, a photojournalist who has covered conflict for six years around the world. “I saw people arriving in fishing boats with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and often with very young children or the elderly, unable to walk.”
Part of what further complicates the situation in Bangladesh is that refugees have settled in an area that has no infrastructure.
“When it rains, it floods everywhere,” said Matt Kertman, a spokesperson for BRAC USA, the North American affiliate of the Bangladesh-based nongovernmental organization spearheading relief efforts on the ground. “When it’s hot, it’s crazy hot in the camps.”
Organizations like BRAC have rushed to meet the needs of more than 500,000 refugees living in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, everything from latrines and medicine to food and clean water to make life there slightly more bearable for a stateless people.
Afridi knew that a small rally at The Monument would not be the beginning and the end of her campaign. The next step was to bring students into the mix through a town hall at Manhattan College.
On Oct. 17, Afridi invited Adem Carroll from Burma Task Force, a Rohingya activist organization, to speak. Over the course of an hour, Carroll spoke at length about the history of the crisis and its current conditions, and showed devastating images of the conditions refugees find themselves in in makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
“We don’t know what someone will do with it,” said Carroll of the talk afterward, “planting a seed somewhere you don’t know which will grow into an activist."
The fight for awareness is a long and difficult road, especially when a crisis upends people’s perceptions of the groups involved. The Rohingya crisis presents an inversion of commonly held ideas — In this case, Buddhists are the aggressors and Muslims are the victims.
“Every religion is capable of violence,” Afridi said. “Every religious group has been a victim at some point.”
The town hall proved to be effective with passionate discussion ensuing afterward. Yet, the fight wasn’t over. Afridi set her sights on elected officials — both local and federal — and signed onto a letter Human Rights Watch sent to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, urging the federal government to take action to help end the crisis.
At the center of this catastrophe is Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who led the fight for Myanmar’s independence from British rule after World War II. He was assassinated six months shy of independence in 1947.
Suu Kyi found herself living a life abroad from an early age, eventually settling in Oxford, England to raise her family.
In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar to care for her mother. At the time, Myanmar was shaken by nationwide protests calling for democracy. With revolutionary blood running in her veins, Suu Kyi organized rallies, quickly becoming the leader of the resistance against the country’s then leader, Gen. Ne Win.
The military’s inevitable crackdown led to Suu Kyi being placed under house arrest — first for five years from 1990 to 1995, and then from 2000 to 2015. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent efforts to bring about positive change. An outspoken advocate for human rights, Suu Kyi inspired hope in the Rohingya community.
“We sacrificed so much for her,” said Zaw Win Maung, a Rohingya activist living in New York City, who asked to go by an alias out of fear for his safety. “We thought she would be the leader who would respect human rights and dignity for minorities.”
Suu Kyi has been mostly silent on the crisis facing the Rohingya population. Calls for her to intervene in the military’s crackdown throughout the Rakhine state have led nowhere.
“How can you be a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and then your own people are being burned alive,” said Yassine Taoufik, an imam in Kingsbridge who spoke at length about the crisis during one of his Friday services.
Fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu have joined the chorus of international voices imploring her to do something.
“We also would like to know why so many people fled to Bangladesh,” said Hau Do Suan, the Burmese ambassador to the United Nations, echoing a speech Suu Kyi gave in Myanmar in September.
The view espoused by Suu Kyi and her government is that they don’t necessarily know why so many Rohingya have fled the Rakhine state. They posit the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army might be behind the exodus by attacking and killing their own people. ARSA is the group that attacked several police outposts on Aug. 25.
“How far do we need to go down into the rabbit hole of absurdity to come up with a cover story for this,” said Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, which has urged the United Nations to take meaningful action against Myanmar.
Human Rights Watch alleges that Burmese security forces have committed crimes against humanity as they have in previous flashpoints in this crisis in 2012 and 2016.
“If they want to build peace, it’s not difficult. It’s simple,” Maung said. “Bring two communities to the table to talk.”
Yet, when the government refuses to acknowledge a group’s existence, the road to a sustainable solution is long.
“We are losing our faith,” Maung said.
Given the dire circumstances Rohingya refugees find themselves in, there is a huge demand for life’s essentials: food, medicine, water and clothes.
Here are some organizations you can donate to:
This Bangladesh-based nongovernmental organization is spearheading relief efforts on the ground with more than 700 workers in the field. They’ve built thousands of latrines, distributed hundreds of thousands of items and treated patients.
This United Nations division is working toward improving the lives of Rohingya children in Bangladesh through providing medicine, emergency services and food.
CLARIFICATION: BRAC USA is the North American affiliate of BRAC, a Bangladesh-based nongovernmental organization. A story in the Nov. 9 edition did not make that clear.