Witness from Amnesty International: Episode 3 – The Road

Amnesty International has launched a brand new podcast series ‘Witness from Amnesty International’. The series introduces listeners to the organization’s Research and Crisis Response teams – whose investigations take them to some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.

Listen On:

TANYA: August 25th, 2017. Tirana Hassan – Director of Amnesty’s crisis response programme – picks up a breaking news story on Al Jazeera…

TIRANA: I remember distinctly sitting on my couch in France – beautiful summer in the mountains – and looking at these people streaming across the river Naf, which separates Myanmar and Bangladesh. They look exhausted and terrified and there were very few complete family groups. Lots of older people, lots of women and lots of very very young children. For me, it brought back memories of watching people leaving Rwanda and flooding into DRC.

TANYA: The people pouring across the border into Bangladesh were the Rohingya, an ethnic group living in the northwest corner of Myanmar. Something had caused them to flee their homeland in their thousands.

TIRANA: And then as always, you start to obsessively watch. It comes from a fundamental need to do something about this and a deep sense of feeling uncomfortable being a passive recipient of this information. You begin to watch so that you can do something.

TANYA: I’m Tanya O’Carroll and this is Witness from Amnesty International. In this episode, we follow a week in the life of Tirana Hassan as she tries to make sense of the Rohingya’s terrified flight from Myanmar and tells us what it’s like to be first on the ground to piece together human rights abuses in the middle of a fast-moving chaotic crisis.

TIRANA: We didn’t know anything but the one thing we knew was this is not a refugee crisis. What is driving this desperation? What is driving these people to flee is something very dark.

You arrive into Bangladesh on a commercial flight into Dhaka, the capital. It’s about 5 a.m. in the morning, you pick up a SIM card and that’s the one thing that you do as soon as you arrive is you make sure that you’ve got comms because there’s no point asking people to tell us what’s happening and having them repeat some of the most horrific things that you could ever imagine and then not being able to tell the world about it.  And then I was on a small domestic airline going up to a place called Cox’s Bazar, which is Bangladesh’s longest beach and most romantic. And it just so happens that this weekend was the Eid celebrations and the place was packed.

TANYA: Tirana founder hotel and met up with her colleagues. they dropped off their bags and headed out to get a first look at what was going on,

TIRANA: So we get into the car that afternoon and the beach is packed with as you drive out, with families strolling along and enjoying their holiday. These tiny roads with Tuk Tuks weaving in and out, trucks, buses, cars, 4by4s with journalists in them, and us in a minivan driving along. We go through this sort of calm the stretch of road which is mostly paddy fields and lush green vegetation. Then all the sudden on the side of the road all you saw was women and lots of children squatting. It was raining… I remember that …and feeling guilty actually for being dry. And they had clearly been given tarpaulins and they didn’t know how to erect the tarpaulins into shelter so literally squatted on the ground and just covered themselves and their children. They just sat in rows, rows and rows and rows. And because the roads are so small the cars pressed right up against the side. You could see the exhaustion in their face. And so we were back that night and tried to unpack and quite honestly, I was a little stunned and slightly overwhelmed, but the one thing that we knew is that something very very bad is happening.

TANYA: Amnesty had been tracking systematic discrimination against the Rohingya by the Myanmar authorities for many decades.

TIRANA: When the citizenship law of Myanmar, then Burma, came into effect it actually listed the recognized ethnic groups with which were classified as Myanmar citizens, or Burmese citizens at the time. The Rohingya we’re not on that list. And since that day, the Rohingya are essentially citizenship less and from that flows restrictions on your education, restrictions on your movement, restrictions on your ability to access medical treatment, give birth in hospital.  Life is really precarious and fragile but not by accident. By construction. And Amnesty was just on the cusp of concluding that the level of the violation actually rises to the level of Apartheid.

TANYA: The Rohingya’s mass exodus suggested there had been a serious escalation. Tirana grabbed a few hours sleep and then hit the phones in search of information from local contacts.  She heard about a clinic that was providing medical help to the Rohingya and went to talk to the staff.

TIRANA: We got some numbers from them about how many people had arrived with bullet injuries and that of course gives you another indication because you ask ‘where are the bullet injuries?’ And they are from the back …often hitting people in the arms, or skimming, it was legs, there were torsos. There were babies that had been hit. That starts to tell you that people being hit as they are running but also this seems to be pretty random. They were not looking for   people per se.  They just went in literally guns a blazing.

TANYA: These first accounts came from Rohingya who’d arrived in Bangladesh a few days earlier. Tirana and her colleagues needed to talk to more recent arrivals to get up-to-date information. They drove to a beach nearby where many Rohingya were coming ashore after their river crossing.

TIRANA: It was chaos. People everywhere and it was difficult to distinguish who were people who were recently arrived, who were spectators from the village who would just watching. And as soon as you arrived somewhere, there would be a group of people that would amass and they would tell you all sorts of things at the same time. So it was very difficult to actually get one coherent story without lots of people jumping in which is not the way that we take our testimony but at this point we would just try and get a picture for what was happening.

We saw smoke billowing from the water and it was boats coming in. It was the smoke from the engines on these traditional fishing boats which are very ornate with these curved sort of edges on the side and in each of these boats there about 50 people. And I remember distinctly watching men jump out and holding, if they had anything to hold, holding empty sacks of rice just filled with whatever or a cooking pot, a chicken. And their older people, the Grandparents struggling to walk and move and so they were being piggybacked by the stronger men.

And a photographer actually made contact and said ‘I’ve just photographed a young man who told me a horrific story. You should speak to them.’

So I met with this young man and another person there from the same village and they described in detail how the village of being attacked, how they hid and how one of the brothers was left behind. And they watched and waited for the security forces to leave and he eventually -once he thought they’d left – he tried to call his brother’s phone and somebody picked up the phone. And it wasn’t his brother and the voice on the phone said something to the effect of you can come and collect his body. That was the last that he heard and that’s when he said ‘I need to leave and I need to get my family out.’

TANYA: You’d been in Bangladesh at this point for about two days. Complete chaos and the global community is still talking about this as refugee crisis.  What conclusions were you forming? Where were you starting to think that this was going? 

TIRANA: There were some themes that were definitely emerging – that this was not a bunch of rogue soldiers. It sounded systematic.

TANYA: What were the authorities and the military saying at this point?

TIRANA: That this was a security operation in response to terrorist attacks. And there was one thing when you see little boys, children, older people hit by bullets – that’s not a military operation to stamp out terrorism. That’s an attack on a community. And at this point we were thinking about what did we need to do. And the priority at this stage is having a much more informed discussion in the global media because there is so much talk in our business about atrocity prevention. This was it. These were atrocities that appeared to be playing out in real time. And we weren’t seeing the sort of response that was required and so we placed an op-ed I think in the Washington Post that day. And it was just part of that desperation that we need to inform people about what’s happening here. This isn’t a refugee crisis.

TANYA: Next day Tirana continued taking witness statements. It’s a big part of what Amnesty crisis researchers do. The painstaking and amassing of evidence that might one day lead to people being held accountable. The picture that was beginning to emerge was of systematic village clearing. Soldiers from the Myanmar military firing indiscriminately on the Rohingya community… setting fire to their homes.  There were also rumours about sexual violence, a notoriously hard crime to investigate. Tirana and her colleagues kept hearing about a particular village where this had happened but initially they couldn’t find a witness.

TIRANA: All of a sudden, my translator at the time…he had a friend that worked in a medical clinic who had met somebody who was from this particular village. And so we asked if he would meet us. And we had found this small house, this sort of concrete room with four chairs, plastic chairs, and this man walked in and he was an older man and he came in.  I started the interview with asking for his name, where he was from, the date, explaining what Amnesty was. You know, making sure he understood why we were doing the interview.

He said  ‘Yes, I want to tell this story. The world needs to know what is happening.’ And when I asked him ‘who have you come with? Or how many people in your family?’ As that is the other demographic that we try and capture. He broke down and sobbed in a way that you don’t see when someone is upset. It’s a sort of crying of somebody who has lost everything and he said he said ‘I have a family of eleven, but it’s just me.’  He just sobbed and then we gave him the chance to be able to stop and we talked for a while and he recomposed himself and said ‘no you need to hear what happened.’ 

Listening to him, to be honest, as I had experienced many times that week,  there was a part of me that said ‘this can’t be true.’ This is just so dark and violent. Like you had to keep asking questions because as an investigator that’s your job but also as a human I couldn’t understand what drives other humans to do this. 

The security forces came around, surrounded the village, opened fire and everyone was corralled on a bank. Essentially trapped and he jumped into the water and he swam and he stood on the other side and he watched and one of the things that he had described to us was that they had dragged women and girls into the houses and that they had been raped. And then the house is set on fire.

TANYA: In the midst of all of that and hearing stories like that, how are you processing it?

TIRANA: If you ask somebody to relive and tell you or if somebody has the drive to come to you and say ‘you need to take my story. You need to tell the world what is happening,’ you have a responsibility to document that, to make sure it is factually correct, and then to do something with that information that will make a difference. So that’s your responsibility, so you’ve become very driven.  So even amongst the chaos, there is a sense of clarity amongst this. You know why you’re there and that’s why you work.

TANYA: Tirana and her colleagues continued collecting testimonies. Day five brought a strange story – a Reuters report about a Rohingya man who had been injured in an explosion at one of the border crossings.

TIRANA: People were calling it no man’s land. So this explosion had taken place in no man’s land. What is this no man’s land? And when we arrived, it literally was a muddy bank just with hundreds and hundreds of people in makeshift shelters. It was the rainy season and so there was a moat of water around it. They literally were trapped and they weren’t allowed to cross to Bangladesh. There they were in this moat of water in between Myanmar and Bangladesh and desperate to speak to us. Everybody stopped. The entire community that was there sort of lined up watching to see if we would come over. And they described something that was very strange. That they had seen lines of Myanmar soldiers walking up and down this border post digging in the ground. Their theory was that they had been planting landmines, whether it’s to stop people from leaving or stop people from going back. Eventually by speaking to people, we got the original photographs and sent that to our military and weapons expert who was able to identify that there was definitely the use of landmines.

TANYA: It was almost time for Tirana to swap out with other colleagues and return home. She’d seen the crisis escalate rapidly, even in the short while she’s been in Bangladesh. 

TIRANA: Every single time we passed up and down this road, going to and from the hotel, there was just more and more people and they seemed to be streaming in from every little muddy pathway. And what was just essentially forest was being chopped down to build structures because everyday people had arrived in the night and every morning they had got up and cleared another hill and cut into it to make tiers to offer some stability and were erecting tarpaulin structures on it. By the end of the week that we had been there, it went from being rolling hills to just a sea of naked muddy mounds dotted with plastic and bamboo structures. The estimates were 10,000 people at some point, entering per day.

TANYA: I think before hearing you talk about this, I would have assumed that watching that would feel very powerless whereas actually I think what’s really interesting is what was powerless was sitting watching it on the TV screen which is how most of us experience these things from far away with no sense of what we can do about it. Whereas being there with a really clear mission, it is something that you can do, it is something that’s even empowering in the face of so much colossal scale suffering.

TIRANA: Yeah. You look for the Achilles heel every day. You look at where you can chip away, you look at where you can change the narrative because in a fast-paced environment like that, that’s what we have to do. We are not reporting on the situation.  We are putting forward evidence of what is happening, we are bringing clarity to this through a human rights lens and we are saying ‘this is what needs to happen, if you want to protect these people.’ There are other people handing out blankets and providing the important medical aid, that’s not what we are there for.  We are continually filing away and trying to create the momentum that is required to move the powers that be.

But if anybody is looking for the names of some of these people… we have them. We’ve named some of the commanders which we have been able to, through months of my colleagues going back years actually, going back to the camps and interviewing people. They’ve been able to pull together compelling evidence that will provide guidance for future justice and accountability processes we hope. And there are things that can be done right now domestically, as well as internationally, to ensure that the people that we believe are responsible for committing abuses ,some of them war crimes, will be held to account.

Amnesty International is calling on the Myanmar government to stop the persecution of its Rohingya population and preserve any evidence of its past atrocities, including crimes against humanity. If you’d like to read more about the campaign, visit amnesty.org

This episode of Amnesty’s Witness was presented by me, Tanya O’Carroll. It was produced by Cathy FitzGerald, with original music by Stephen Coates. Special thanks to Tirana Hassan.