I sit before the balding man in the tan uniform, in the garden circling his mansion, my pen poised. Rumor has it that this man—Commander in Chief of the Burmese Army and Social Welfare Minister of Myanmar—wears his uniform even at home. Rumors here seem to have some truth to them. I can see my distorted face—pasty, over-eager—reflected in the gold medals and stars hanging from colored ribbons on the Chief’s chest. The Chief watches me through narrowed eyes, his lips stretched in an unmoving half-smile and then, ever so slowly, curls two fingers into a beckoning motion without taking his eyes off of me. A maid in a spotless white apron comes running out of the house almost immediately to place a cigarette between the Chief’s still half-smiling lips. Once she lights the cigarette, the Chief dismisses her with a cursory nod.
“You wanna know about the Bengalis, eh?” The Chief’s voice is flat and raspy, like a silent threat.
“What Rohingyas? There’s no such thing. Only Bengalis. Fucking Bangladeshis. Squatting on this land like they own it.”
He coughs up a phlegm ball and spits it into the grass.
“Sir, there was a fire in a Rohingya village in the north of the Rakhine State last week,” I say, hiccupping over the word ‘Rohingya’—after all, I don’t want to rub him the wrong way. “Reports suggest that at least three hundred men, women and children were burned alive. Rumors say the Myanmar army was responsible for the arson?”
“My men?” the Chief barks, a staged incredulity underlining every syllable. “Those motherfuckers are very smart, let me tell you. They set fire to their own villages so that people like you, from all your human-rights countries, can come write articles on them and help them in finishing us off. It’s all a big plan. First, they have so many babies—more than dogs and cats even—so they can take Myanmar away from the Burmese citizens. Once each one has two hundred little rats swarming the village, they don’t mind losing fifty to such fires they set off to gain your sympathy.”
I scribble on my legal pad, sensing that the Chief has leaned forward ever so slightly to peer at the notes I am taking.
“But you would say that the Myanmar government is trying to get rid of the Rohingyas?”
“Of course! You tell me—your neighbor’s dirty and diseased son comes to your house, starts living there and slowly, slowly, tries to take it over. Wouldn’t you want to get rid of him? Kill him – no. But just remind him that your home’s not his home, and that he’s a guest that has overstayed his welcome. That’s all we’re trying to do, dear Mr. Journalist. Gently reminding them that this is the home of the Burmese, their home is over there in Bangladesh.”
The half-smile is back, more like a sneer this time with the lips pulled back to reveal tobacco-stained teeth.
“I guess I’ll have to talk in the language you understand, eh? These Bengalis? They’re Muslims. Islamic terrorists.”
The Chief holds up a palm and uses his other hand to mimic a plane crashing into it. “Ba-doom bum.” Then he looks up and raises his eyebrows. “Understand, Mr. Journalist?”
I am just opening my mouth to respond when a man in an olive Army uniform walks up to the Chief and salutes. The Chief nods and the soldier leans down to whisper in his ears.
“Just a hundred? No problem,” the Chief murmurs.
As the man turns to leave, the Chief says, “See, your Bengalis—just attacked a police station. We lost ten men. Died fighting, those brave souls.”
“What were the casualties on their side?”
“Hundred and counting. But of course, it’s not a crime when in self-defense, right?”
An hour later, I hoist my book-bag onto my shoulder and head out of the Chief’s compound, back to the Hilton the New York Times has booked me into, on the outskirts of the capital. The title for the article has already formed in my head—“An Unclear Narrative in a Messy, Silent War.”
* * *
I lean against the bamboo pole, arms crossed, watching the dust motes swirl in the fast-fading rays of the setting sun. Our supervisor from the Myanmar Red Cross Society phoned in yesterday to say that three trucks would be arriving this morning with medication, food and clothing supplies for the people. It is already dusk and all I can see is an empty road melting into the horizon.
A chorus of women’s voices dances out to me on the warm evening breeze from one of the tarpaulin and bamboo tents behind me. I can see them in my mind’s eye as clear as day—the Rohingya women sitting in a circle around a burned or stabbed or shot fellow-villager, holding hands and singing a song in their lilting dialect, every now and again raising their threadbare scarfs to their cheeks to wipe away a tear. I close my eyes. Their voices are thin, steadily increasing in pitch, stopping just short of a wail.
I walk back to the Red Cross aid workers’ tents. As I get closer to the tent spread, I can hear the sounds. Grunts, from the men who lie on the ground in a state between wakefulness and sleep, life and death, bloody bandages wrapped around their necks, waists and skulls, where knives sharpened by Burmese hands sliced into their flesh; shrieks from children being held down by a worker as another tries to peel the charred skin off their bodies; steady sobs from women who had been gagged and raped by soldier after soldier after soldier after soldier till they felt nothing and everything all at once; and loud glassy-eyed silences from those standing in the tent entrances, peeking out now and again from behind the tarpaulin at the grassy banks of the Naf, waiting for familiar silhouettes they know will never appear.
A child, no older than four and naked except for a soiled loincloth tied around his waist, steps before me just as I am about to enter the tent. He mumbles something, a plea shining in his teary eyes.
“Honey, do you need something?”
Moments like these make me wish that I spoke the language of the Rohingyas, rather than my American private school-taught English. The child stares at me. A tear rolls down his cheek as he points to his mouth. I squat on my haunches and open my mouth, hoping that the child will mimic me.
“Aaa,” I say, pointing to my own open mouth.
The child follows suit. I peer into his small mouth. There seem to be no injuries. Before, in my early days at the camp, I would have tried to coax the child into telling me where his parents were. But after having made that mistake with two young ones before, only to realize that the answers were ones that three and four-year olds should not have, I have stopped asking. The boy standing in front of me rubs his belly and points to his mouth again. The tears are sliding out faster. Food.
I lift his frail body into my arms and carry him into the tent. Hopefully we have some leftovers from the last time the supply trucks came to the camp a week ago. The food was supposed to last another week, but with two hundred more Rohingyas having arrived at the aid camp from a nearby burnt-down village, we are running low on almost every supply. I open carton after carton in the tent, but each one stares back at me with a gaping empty mouth. When my fingers brush up against the empty wrapper of a cereal bar and a loud crinkling fills the tent, the boy looks up at me expectantly and rubs his belly again.
I am just about to pull out a keychain from my bag for the boy to play with, when the phone rings. I lunge at the receiver. Please tell me the trucks are almost here, please.
“Ray, there’s an issue.” It’s the Red Cross Manager.
“Trucks were stalled near Minbya. They never made it further.”
“Wait. What? What happened?”
“The government. They stopped the trucks and confiscated all the supplies we were sending out to the camp. The officials are saying we’re providing weaponry to the Rohingya militants.”
“What? Why didn’t we just allow them to check the cargo?”
“They did. Some guy up in the government is saying that in times like these, even food and medication are as good as weaponry, and apparently the American pills and powders are not to be trusted.”
“Fuck. I’m sorry for cussing, but fuck.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Ray. Why don’t you fill out one of those Status Reports for me? I’ll forward it to the headquarters and see what we can do.”
I hang up. The boy is still waiting patiently, tears sliding down his cheeks to pause by his pursed lips. I beckon to him. When he walks over, almost hesitantly, I lift him up and sit him on my lap. Then I open up my laptop, pull up the blank form and begin to clack in the information asked of me.
Status Report: Two-Week Period
Displaced Arrivals: 487
Units of Food Needed: 700
Units of Morphine Needed: 800
My eyes search for a description box where I can write about the boy sitting in my lap with a small hand pressed to his stomach and about the screams that have now begun to emerge from the nearby tents as the team doctors perform amputations and peel away bandages from exposed blood-wet flesh. But I have filled all the available text-boxes on the document, so with a sigh that breathes out the last of my hope, I hit ‘send’.
* * *
She sits on the grassy hill, looking out at the Naf River, the waters flowing onward, onward. It must be comforting to have a destination, to have a home to flow toward, she thinks. Instinctively, she pulls at the pink skirt. She wants to destroy this piece of fabric—tease out each thread and throw it into the river till the cloth in her hands unravels into nothingness, set it on fire and watch the flames lick the fabric into black flakes, sink her fingers into the holes and pull, pull, pull until the entire Rakhine State is filled with echoes of that delicious ripping sound. After all, it was the skirt’s job to protect her dignity, and yet it had yielded to the olive uniform-clad men’s paws as they ripped it off her body and cast it into the bushes. The air had been cold on her naked legs and she had clawed at the ground to find leaves to drape over her pelvis but her fingernails had only scratched dry, caked mud.
She wanted to be like the other Rohingya women in the Red Cross camp, stunned into silence, a prayer for death frozen on their lips. But no, it was all too vivid for her. It played and replayed in her mind—two branches in the bush parting and her six year-old’s eyes appearing in the crack, watching the men plunge into her mother. And then her daughter’s screams, her wails, her frantic calls of “Mama! Mama!”. Her own screamed “Run” had only tickled the back of her throat when a gun shot had rung out through the night air and her daughter’s body had fallen out of the bushes with a thud. She remembered that after that thud, even the nightjar had stopped singing.
All this because the Myanmar government thought her people were Bangladeshi. But they didn’t even let them go to Bangladesh! People from her village that had tried to escape to the border in the middle of the night had returned saying that the government had planted bombs along the exit routes and that their fellow-travellers had exploded into tinier pieces than they could count, when they stepped on these ghost bombs. They told her stories about how the blood flowed in rivers along the escape routes and that stray fingers, ears, and heads with tongues lolling out of purple mouths bobbed on the red currents.
She noticed that the sun had begun to inch its way toward the horizon and the blood smeared across the sky was starting to fade to black. The lights in the Bangladeshi town across the Naf were coming to life, blinking in golden dots. She looked back at the aid camp behind her. A solitary lantern hung in the doorway of the workers’ tent, the flame burning lower and lower, more blue than orange now. The rest of the Rakhine was already dark, a ghost-land.
She turned back to gaze at the pinpoints of lights in the Bangladeshi town. What must they be doing? The people who belonged? Who had a right to have rights? Were the husbands sharing a last evening smoke after a day spent tilling soil in the fields? Were the wives baking dough on a coal stove, stopping only to mop sweat with the backs of their hands? Were the children chasing each other around the house, their gurgling laughter echoing off the walls? Whatever they were doing, they were definitely not sitting alone on cold hill slopes, arms circling their thin knees, every heartbeat sending a pang of fear, mixed with self-hatred for still experiencing fear, through their bodies.
As the last of the rays left the dusk sky, she stood up shakily. Starting back toward the aid camp, she turned to cast one last glance at the vista spread before her—the rippling Naf, patches of exposed brown soil, and trees with branches waving lightly in the breeze. It was up to them now—the soil that had thirstily soaked up their blood, the water that had swallowed up bodies discarded into its depths by the uniformed men, and the tree branches that had bowed ever so slightly toward the ground with the weight of the lynched men caught making plans to escape—to tell the story of the Rohingyas, because they, the Rohingya people, had bled out of words.