YANGON – Rica, a 25-year-old Hindu woman from Kha Maung Seik village tract in northern Rakhine State, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that she had escaped abduction by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and recounted her experience from Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, where she has sought safety.
From Yangon, this reporter spoke to Rica on the phone in Bangladesh about her ordeal, which began on Aug. 25, but the details of which remain unable to be independently verified, because access for journalists to the region has been severely restricted. On that day, ARSA militants conducted coordinated attacks on 30 border police outposts, and, she claims, raided several Hindu villages. Armed with swords and guns, Rica estimates that they captured around 100 non-Muslims in Maungdaw Township’s Kha Maung Seik. The victims, bound and blindfolded, were marched to a forest near the village of Yebaw Kya, before being executed, she said.
“My husband knelt to the ground and a man chopped his neck with a machete right in front
of us,” she said. “Other women’s husbands were also executed in the same way and buried there.”
Before they killed the men, Rica said that the militants accused the Hindus of being “the same as” the Arakanese. She said that they brought up issues of citizenship, pointing out how the self-identifying Rohingya Muslims had been made stateless, but that Hindus and Buddhists were able to obtain identification documents.
Rica said she was among eight women who were spared, but whose ID cards were burned, and who were selected to convert to Islam, prepare for marriage, and travel to Bangladesh. As the mother of young children, she explained that she cooperated so as to protect them.
On the way, she said that she stayed in the forest with the militants, as well as in the abandoned village of Bawtala, and that she was forced to pray with them.
Rica said that when government troops were spotted, ARSA members torched their hideout and that she had witnessed them looting from the bodies of the deceased.
Once they crossed the border to Bangladesh on Aug. 28 or 29—she does not remember the exact day—Rica said that Bangladeshi authorities separated them from the men who had taken them. Soon after their arrival, other displaced Hindus noticed a bindi on her forehead and recognized her clothes, and managed to bring Rica and the other women to where they were staying.
There are some 400 Hindus sheltering across the border in Bangladesh. They join around 480,000 self-identifying Rohingya Muslims, who have fled clearance operations by the Myanmar Army which immediately followed the ARSA attacks.
In the days that followed, the eight women contacted their relatives by borrowing phones and told their stories. At that time, Maungdaw district administrative official U Ye Htut told this reporter—during a government-organized tour of the area—that he and other border police officers were not able to immediately verify any allegations of of mass killings, saying that searching for bodies in the Kha Maung Seik area was still unsafe.
But over the weekend, Hindu community leader U Ni Mal, assisted by other locals, unearthed some 45 bodies, which the government has claimed belong to some of the missing Hindu villagers.
On Tuesday, U Maung Ba, a teacher within the Hindu community who is in Kha Maung Seik village tract, told The Irrawaddy that they had not uncovered any new burial sites near Yebaw Kya village, and were still trying to contact the escaped Hindu women now in Bangladesh.
Rica said, “I can show them every single burial site there [in Kha Maung Seik] when I come back to my area.”
Meanwhile, Rica explained that she and the other women have been awaiting contact from the Myanmar government since arriving in Bangladesh. She said that as she was not educated, she was not familiar with what an embassy was or how to reach out to Myanmar’s embassy in Bangladesh.
“As far as I know, Myanmar government officials did not come to meet us here,” she said.
The Irrawaddy phoned the President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay on Monday, but he declined to comment and directed questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry’s permanent secretary U Kyaw Zeya said that he was trying to speak with Myanmar’s envoy to Bangladesh.
“At this time, it is too early to reveal our plan. We are aware of their safety concerns,” he said, referring to the women. “Understand the situation, please, as we are now talking about safety measures for them.”
Rica remains focused on returning home to Maungdaw, and said she is anxious for the day when she expects the Myanmar authorities will take her back to Rakhine State, and out of the camp.
“If possible, I want to go back home right now. Help us, please,” she said.