“The work was painful to me, but someone had to do it. As a member of my community, it was my duty.”
Since 2014, Rohingya lawyer and educator Razia Sultana has spoken out for the rights of her people, and worked with some of the 725,000 Rohingya refugees now in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As a volunteer researcher for Kaladan Press, an independent news service focusing on Myanmar and Rohingya-related issues, she has fearlessly documented the stories of those victimized by waves of government and army violence in Myanmar. Razia was born in Myanmar but raised in Bangladesh. She’s a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition, director of the Women’s Section in the Arakan Rohingya National Organization and founder of Rohingya Women Welfare Society, a grassroots organization working in local refugee camps. Last April, she spoke before UN Security Council’s Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
The testimonies you collected for the Kaladan Press reports Witness to Horror, which details the 2016 waves of anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar, and Rape By Command, documenting the army’s use of rape as a weapon, were beyond horrifying. Stories of torture, murder, gang rape – how did you cope with doing this work?
Everyone asks me this question! I admit that in 2016, there was a time when I ran away from Cox’s Bazar. My close friends, even my doctor asked me "What do you want to do?" They knew that even when I was young I tried to be involved in politics. The attacks against Rohingya had gone for years before they became systematic. I needed justice, I needed to help my people. They supported me saying "Then do it. They need you."
The work was painful to me, but someone had to do it. As a member of my community, my nation, it was my duty.
What is life like for the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh?
To be a refugee is not to live a normal life. The 23 camps in Cox’s Bazar are the size of a town, and are cramped and crowded. Because Rohingya are considered to be from a foreign nation, they cannot freely leave. Some of my relatives are in the refugee camp, but won’t talk to me because they feel so embarrassed by what their lives have become.
Do the refugees feel accepted in Bangladesh?
Day by day, it has become worse. Every time I am in Cox’s Bazar, I hear Bangladeshi people complaining, “The Rohingya are trafficking, the Rohingya are doing drugs...” In the last two months, I’ve heard from the security forces, "We are watching you. You have come here, we have given you shelter and soon you will be asking for land." This is a warning sign. If there is a problem, where will the Rohingya go?
Is life in camp especially hard for women?
Women were the most deeply affected by violence against the Rohingya – women were raped, lost their husbands, saw their children killed before them. The majority of refugees in Cox’s Bazar are women, and they have arrived deeply traumatized. Health care is an issue – the medical clinic is located outside the camp, so to access it, you must show ID to the security forces. Sometimes people aren’t able to get there, especially pregnant women who go into labor at night. The most vulnerable in the camp are the single women, the war orphans, the young girls.
What is the work of the Rohingya Women Welfare Society?
We support women in the camp, offer protection against domestic violence and trafficking. Girls are kidnapped or disappear after being promised jobs or marriage. It’s not done by force, but brainwashing, as is true of child marriage. I can’t blame the parents, they are looking for ways to protect their children.
In addition to the difficulty reaching the medical clinic, there are very conservative families who don’t want their wives and daughters to see a male doctor. I’m planning midwife training – there are many traditional midwives who can learn more advanced skills.
I’m also very worried about our youth. They ask for education, but now can only roam the refugee camps, depressed, disappointed, and angry. This is very dangerous.
Despite ample warning that the Rohingya were in danger, the international community did not protect you. What would you like to see now?
We ask the international community to support us. The international community created the UN – for what purpose? We are human beings! You cannot blind your eye, you have the responsibility to save us. It is not only about the Rohingya but other ethnic groups within Myanmar who are facing the same thing. Every non-Buddhist community is being targeted. One Kachin leader told me last year, “You are at the end, but we are at the beginning.”
After all that has happened, do the Rohingya people still want to return to Myanmar?
Each and every Rohingya person asks me “is it safe?” They ask if there is peace, they long for peace. Create a peaceful environment, and we will go – we will empty this Bangladesh land and go home.
[NOTE: Shortly after this interview was done, the countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to start repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, even as UN investigators warned that the genocidal violence they’d fled still continued.]
Visit our online photo exhibit, We Are Not Afraid: We Want Our Stories Told.
Read Razia's statement to the UN Security Council's Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Check out this profile of Razia ahead of September's Women Foreign Minister's Meeting in Montreal, in which she participated.