My Tears Of Blood – Asma’s Story
I have been associated with Burma’s Rohingya minority since 2012, when the initial massacre by the country’s army sent refugees teeming into Bangladesh for succor. Then, CAI donors assisted with food and tents sent to the victims at the camps set up by UNHCR. I was also able to go to Burma proper then, but my movements were restricted by the army, not allowing me direct access to Rakhine State, where the Rohingya’s primarily live. I was tailed my entire stay and the authorities insisted that CAI divide the aid between the Rohingyas and the persecuting Buddhist, a demand that I naturally declined.
After the second atrocities in 2016, I was smuggled into Myanmar proper through Bangladesh. Here, I met fresh victims, who related persecution and torture so abhorrent, I can’t bring myself to type them without becoming an emotional wreck. Again, CAI donors were able to help with rice and lentil and some medication for about 5,000 victims.
And now, with over 700,000 refugees in the squalor camps in Cox’s Bazaar, after about 7,000 people murdered in a textbook ethnic cleansing modus-operandi by the Burmese army, CAI is honored to care for 190 orphans for their daily needs, including an attempt at education and the supply of potable water to over 19,000 hapless refugees, probably the most oppressed people on Allah’s earth.
I had the pleasure and heartache of meeting 27-year-old Asma Begum at her hovel in camp 4 recently. Since she has requested total anonymity, all description of this victim and her kin will be aliases in this Blog.
A pungent smoky odor fills the air above the camp as families begin breakfast and smoke from thousands of makeshift stoves foul the already polluted air. Mixed into this smell is the omnipresent stink of raw sewer, some of it laid bare by naked children who defecate openly along narrow alleyways. It is early morning, so the camp has an eerie quiet about it. Several men, not one female, scrap their teeth with charcoal using fingers and spit it out on the muddy lanes. They gawk at us suspiciously as we near Asma’s hovel.
Asma lives with her newborn baby and an ailing grandmother in an 8 x 10 hovel in the camp. Her wood, tin and tarpaulin-covered shed sit boxed between other shabby ones on top a winding hill that has me somewhat breathless as we near it. She is 27, but looks much older, to me; perhaps it’s the poor light? Her haggard looking paternal grandmother sits on the dirt floor, her eyes fixed at a spot in a room corner. She does not acknowledge or look at me and speaks not a word, except for a few painful coughs, in the entire 45 minutes I spend with Asma. A small bundle enclosed in a mosquito net sits at one raised corner. That’s Asma’s three-month newborn daughter Tamanna, fast asleep.
The hut has no running water, no electricity, no toilet; it smells of misery and hopelessness and I am instantly burdened with the weight of Asma’s sadness and despair. She is a gracious hostess, however, and shyly offers to make us tea; I immediately decline; she seems relieved. She sits cross-legged across from me on a tattered sisal rug, adjusts her dupatta around her bountiful hair and after a few pleasantries in her tongue, which sounds akin to Bengali, she relates, through my accompanying female interpreter, the following narrative:
I was married off into a middle-class family in the township of Rathiduang in Rakhine State when I was 23. My husband, who was 5 years older than I, owned a rice processing plant, so we were able to live and eat decently. Three years into my marriage and after a lot of doctors’ visits and prayers, I was able to conceive and had a baby boy.
Asma pauses here and I can sense her struggling with emotions. The interpreter makes cooing sounds and speaks words of kindness, encouragement.
Last year, we heard there was trouble in distant towns, about villages being burnt and people fleeing. But my husband assured me we were safe, that it had happened in the past as well, that we were far removed from the trouble; my worries eased and I relaxed. That very night, our village was surrounded by the army and we were given 30 minutes to come out of our homes. The men went out to talk to the army, but they were gunned down, all of them. I saw Haroon, my husband, fall. I yelled and wanted to go and help him but I was petrified that my son would be hurt, so I stayed put and continued yelling instead and cried tears of blood.
Asma dries her tears, gets up, walks over and nervously peers at the sleeping baby in the improvised cot, adjusts the mosquito net and returns. She sips water from a metal container, clears her throat and continues.
Then, a few soldiers entered my house…
I will stop and not detail the inhumane acts that Asma sobs she experienced at the hands of the mauling animals, they are too graphic for my fingers to tap, and overwhelmingly heartbreaking. Suffice to state she was repeatedly raped by 4 soldiers. While she was being assaulted, her bawling infant was silenced by a bayonet through his neck from an irate soldier.
Asma was eventually let go after the men tired of her and with other women, headed towards Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. Asma says she saw many corpses along the way, most shot or burned, all men. She also lost 3 village elders, the only survivor is a second tier grandmother, who is still in a state of shock from her ordeal. It took, she reckons, about 12 – 15 days to cross over into Bangladesh. It was not easy. Looters and Bangladeshi soldiers demanded money or sexual favors from them; Asma parted with a nose ring for some rice. She still has some jewelry left over from her marriage. She says instinct told her she’ll need them and hid them in her privy before leaving her house.
For my daughter, she says, looking towards the cot and smiling mirthlessly.
The safe arrival into Bangladesh was not the end of Asma’s misery; more heartbreak and anguish were in store. Two months into a miserable holding cell with other women, a nurse from a charitable NGO informed her she was pregnant. At first, she desired nothing but death. So, she ingested a homemade poison concoction used to kill rats but that just landed her in a Turkish run field hospital, in agony. Here, she found some solace and with counseling, a desire to live again. She was gifted this hovel by the same NGO because she was pregnant; her baby girl was born three months ago.
But Asma is shunned by the larger refugee community because the baby is a rape product. By unknown Buddhists. Many of her surviving female relatives don’t want to be seen with and spurn her. She gets marriage proposals, but all of them with the condition she comes alone, without the child. But Asma is adamantly fiery and defiant.
Bah! This child is innocent, and I will protect her with my life. Asma raises a fisted arm and pumps it boldly. My husband would have wanted me to do exactly what I am doing. Many, including my kin, wanted me to abort her, even the religious mullahs. They say the child is illegitimate and unclean. They are the ones unclean. In their heads. This is my child, my flesh and my blood. What do they want me to do? Strangle her? Dump her in the garbage? Throw her in the backdoor cesspit? I had no choice in protecting my son. But now I am in charge. I will return to Rakhine, return home. One day I will. And my daughter will return with me. My daughter will live, she will blossom and she will be strong and educated. I will see to it.
Asma sounds furious and resolute, her oval eyes spit fire; her tirade seems directed towards me, so I squirm in discomfort at the fury she emotes. As if sensing she is the subject of our conversation, baby Tamanna frets and lets out a moan. Asma is instantly on her feet and by her side, cooing and comforting. I get up as well and assure Asma any and all help for Tamanna, now and in the future, especially in regards to her education. I know Asma and the child are good for food and medical support. But I want the little girl to have an opportunity to education. CAI donors will help. I leave baby Tamanna a parting cash gift that her mother is clearly bashful accepting. More importantly, I leave with intense prayers for a peaceful future for all of them.