Tucked away in the shadows of her family’s bamboo shelter, the girl hid from the world.
She was 13, and she was petrified. Two months earlier, soldiers had broken into her home back in Myanmar and raped her, an attack that drove her and her terrified family over the border to Bangladesh. Ever since, she had waited for her period to arrive. Gradually, she came to realize that it would not.
For the girl, a Rohingya Muslim who agreed to be identified by her first initial, A, the pregnancy was a prison she was desperate to escape. The rape itself had destroyed her innocence. But carrying the baby of a Buddhist soldier could destroy her life.
More than 10 months have passed since Myanmar’s security forces launched a sweeping campaign of rape and other brutalities against the Rohingya, and the babies conceived during those assaults have been born. For many of their mothers, the births have been tinged with fear – not only because the infants are reminders of the horrors they survived, but because their community often views rape as shameful, and bearing a baby conceived by Buddhists as sacrilege.
Theirs is a misery spoken of only in murmurs. Some ended their pregnancies early by taking cheap abortion pills available throughout the camps. Others gave birth to unloved babies; some agonized over whether to give them away. One woman was so worried about her neighbours discovering her pregnancy that she suffered silently through labour in her shelter, stuffing a scarf in her mouth to swallow her screams.
In Bangladesh’s overcrowded refugee camps where shelter walls are made of hole-pocked plastic and sounds travel easily across the tree-stripped hills, A knew that hiding her pregnancy would be difficult and hiding a wailing newborn impossible.
She worried that giving birth to this child would leave her so tainted that no man would ever want her as his wife. In a panic, she told her mother, who swiftly took her to a clinic for an abortion. But A was so frightened by the doctor’s description of possible side effects that she thought she would die.
And so she retreated to her shelter, where she tried to flatten her growing belly by wrapping it in tight layers of scarves. She hid there for months, emerging only to use the latrine a few metres away.
There was nothing to do but wait with dread for the baby who symbolized the pain of an entire people to arrive.
For the women who became pregnant during last year’s wave of attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, to speak the truth is to risk losing everything. Because of that, no one knows how many rape survivors have given birth. But given the vastness of the sexual violence, relief groups had braced for the worst: a spike in deliveries from traumatized women, and scores of babies left abandoned in the camps that are home to around 900,000 Rohingya refugees.
By June, though, the birth rate in medical clinics had remained relatively steady, and only a handful of babies have been found left behind. Aid workers began to suspect that many women had quietly dealt with their pregnancies themselves.
“They will not come forward for antenatal checkups – they will try to hide their pregnancy,” says Médecins sans frontières midwife Daniela Cassio, a sexual violence specialist. “I’m sure many have also died during the pregnancy, or during the delivery.”
Yet, sprinkled throughout the sprawling camps, you will find women who have grown weary of the silence. Ten such women and girls agreed to interviews with The Associated Press. They consented to be identified in this story by their first initials only, citing fear of retaliation from Myanmar’s military.
The monsoon rains thundering down on the roof of A’s shelter threaten to drown out her words. Her voice still has a childlike softness, and when she speaks of the soldiers who raped her, it fades to a whisper.
Already, several men who had shown interest in marrying her have walked away when they’ve learned about the attack. Her parents worry no man will ever want her. And yet, with their blessing, she leans in close to share her story.
“I want justice,” she says, anxiously turning a plastic cup over and over in her hands. “That’s why I’m talking to you.”
To understand the fear that drove some of these women underground, enter the stifling shelter where M lives.
She sits on a mat, sweating and scratching at the angry scar on her breast left by the soldier who bit her. The baby who was the product of that attack wails in his 8-year-old sister’s arms. The little girl tries to hand the infant off to her mother, but M dismisses them both with a wave of her hand.
“I don’t want to carry him any more,” M says. “I don’t love him.” And so the girl gently places the screaming infant into a hammock crafted out of a rice sack and twine.
M’s husband is not home to help. He rarely is, she says. Ever since she told him of her rape and pregnancy, he has wanted little to do with her.
Her nightmare began the way it did for so many Rohingya women: With scores of soldiers swarming her village in August, shortly after Rohingya insurgents attacked several police posts. The details of her assault follow a pattern documented last year in an investigation by the AP. That investigation, based on interviews with 29 rape survivors, an examination of medical records and testimony from doctors, concluded the rapes of Rohingya women were sweeping and methodical.
From inside her house, M heard a rattle of gunfire and a chorus of screams. She looked outside and saw soldiers setting fire to homes. Her two daughters fled, but by the time M made it out the door with her 2-year-old son, six soldiers were waiting. One snatched the wailing boy from her arms, strangled him and threw his lifeless body to the ground.
The soldiers forced her back into the house. When she saw them undoing their pants, she pressed her hands over her eyes. They stomped on her stomach and feet, and one after another they raped her. She felt like she was dying.
Two days passed before her husband found her and carried her to the mountains, and then across the border to Bangladesh. He asked her if the soldiers had raped her. Too ashamed to tell him the truth, she said they had only beaten her.
After two months, her period still hadn’t arrived. She felt dizzy and nauseous, and craved sour foods such as tamarind, just as she had with her other pregnancies.
Terrified of how her husband would react, she said nothing. Another two months passed and she began to feel movements deep inside her. She knew she couldn’t hide the pregnancy much longer.
One night, she was too sick to make him rice for dinner. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
The truth spilled out: “I was raped by six soldiers. And I’m pregnant.”
Her husband offered no comfort, only blame. He demanded to know why she hadn’t run away from the soldiers. He told her he could never have sex with her again. And then he asked if he could marry another woman.
“You are useless to me,” he said.
M pleaded with him not to leave her, told him she needed help with their girls. And so he stayed, although he treated her as if she was invisible. At night, she curled up in the corner of their shelter with her daughters; he slept along an adjacent wall.
With her other pregnancies, she excitedly counted the days until delivery. With this baby, she paid no attention to her due date. She felt detached from the life growing inside her.
Her contractions began late one night. She laboured quietly for hours, until her screams awakened her husband. She told him to find a local birthing assistant to help her. He did, and then left.
When the infant finally arrived, he looked nothing like her other children. In his eyes, she saw her rapists. To look at him was to relive her attack, over and over again.
Her husband returned hours after the birth. He said nothing to her, and ignored the baby. He wouldn’t help her clean up the mat she’d given birth on, and she was in too much pain to clean it herself. She lay on it for days, until one of her daughters came to her aid.
The baby’s cries just made her angry. She found herself crying all the time, too.
Before the rape, her husband was loving and kind. Now, he leaves their shelter early in the morning and doesn’t return until midnight. He is often irritable and impatient with her. He has never kissed the boy, or cuddled him.
She didn’t bother to name the child until a community leader told her to. She chose the first name that popped into her mind. It means nothing to her, she says. And neither does the boy.
She doesn’t want to give him to a foster family. Her only other son was killed in the attack. So she takes care of this new boy in the hopes that one day, he will take care of her.
For now, she pretends to love him. After all, she says, he is just a baby. This is not his fault.
Nor is it hers, although she still berates herself for the rape. She questions her decision not to run from the house sooner, but running faster probably would not have saved her.
She spends much of her days lying on a mat, praying for Allah to end her life.
“I don’t have any money to buy anything. I am always depressed. My husband doesn’t love me. I want to die as soon as possible,” she says, weeping. “My life is meaningless.”
For some rape survivors, the idea of giving birth to a child conceived by someone other than a Muslim felt like a fate worse than death. So they turned to clinics and makeshift pharmacies set up in the camps for abortion drugs they hoped could end their agony.
The pain of D’s rape was so severe that she had to wrap a supportive scarf around her battered pelvis to endure the dayslong walk to Bangladesh. Yet through it all, she survived. When she discovered she was pregnant, she wished she had not.
She was a widow, and to give birth to a child without a husband was to invite admonishment. She quickly sought out a pharmacy to find the drugs that would induce an abortion.
As she swallowed the first tablet, she cried and prayed to Allah. But nothing happened. So she bought more medicine, taking pill after pill until, at last, her stomach twisted with intense cramps and heavy blood began to flow. Her relief was instant.
“I felt that I had found a new world,” she says. “I would have taken poison if I had to give birth to that baby because it is a big shame for me. People would criticize me.”
Others, though, found surprising support. So certain was T that her husband would divorce her, that she waited a month to tell him about her pregnancy. Her heart hammered the day she revealed the truth. When she did, her husband began to cry, and so did she.
“It’s not your fault,” he reassured her. “Maybe it was your fate that this happened to you. You didn’t want this.”
She had no idea she could go to a hospital for an abortion. But one day, she met an aid worker who was walking through the camps looking for pregnant women in distress. The aid worker provided her with abortion drugs. T took the pills, then visited a religious leader who performed a ceremony that he said would remove the baby. When she began to bleed, she felt as if a dirtiness inside her had been washed clean.
Slowly, a few women have forgiven themselves, although there was never anything to forgive. H, who also had an abortion, was once so ashamed of her pregnancy that she told no one. Now, though, she has begun to share her story with others, and has focused her fury on the men who brutalized her. She did nothing to invite their violence, she says. So why should she feel ashamed?
In Myanmar, where the Rohingya people have few rights and Rohingya women even less, she had no voice. Here, she says, she feels she can finally speak.
“I don’t want to hide any more,” she says.
The moment that A had long feared arrived one day in May. After months of isolation, her contractions had finally begun.
She was still a child herself, overwhelmed with uncertainty over what to expect. And she cringed at the thought of what others would say.
For hours, she laboured on the floor of her shelter, her mother and grandmother by her side, until at last, she pushed out a baby girl.
She looked down at the infant and began to shake. She felt like she was going into shock.
The baby was fat and strong, with a round face and small eyes. As A gazed at her child, she saw beauty. But she also saw pain. She knew she could not keep the girl.
Her father hurried to a clinic run by a relief group and asked them to take the baby away. An hour after A gave birth, an aid worker arrived to retrieve the infant.
She held her daughter in her arms and began to cry. She kissed her head and her tiny hands. And then she handed the baby over.
She doesn’t know who is caring for her baby now, but groups such as Save the Children and Unicef have found Rohingya families within the camps who are willing to take in such children. The organizations have placed around 10 babies with new families, says Krissie Hayes, a child protection in emergencies specialist with Unicef.
For now, A tries to imagine what her future will be like. She hopes someone will marry her one day, and give her more babies. She hopes for a sewing machine, so she can earn money mending clothes.
Sometimes, she says, an aid worker stops by the shelter to show her photos of her daughter, so she can see that she is safe and well.
“Even though I got this baby from the Buddhists, I love her,” she says. “Because I carried her for nine months.”
For her, giving the baby away was the right decision. It was the only decision.
But she aches for her still.