Child’s view of Burma’s horror: The crayon drawings that reveal the trauma of children forced to flee ethnic violence in Myanmar

Drawings by the children of 140,000 Muslim refugees show the level of ethnic violence in Myanmar

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The Independent Online

One drawing shows houses on fire, the sky black with smoke. Another portrays gunmen aiming and firing their weapons. All contain images of people fleeing, running, frantically clambering into boats and leaving their homes. They are drawn in crayon by children.

This series of drawings shared with The Independent reveals the trauma of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims. In particular, it reveals the pain of the tens of thousands of children forced to flee ethnic violence and take refuge in hastily constructed camps. Many were killed or else died along the way.

“Our house was set on fire with a petrol. The paramilitary police shot at people escaping,” a 15-year-old called S, from Narzi village, told an aid-worker. [For security reasons, the children’s full names are not being used.]

 “A Buddhist monk cut the arm off a Muslim who was escaping. Police and Rakhine fired guns, cut with swords, kicked, used catapults and bows and arrows to kill. It was very hot.”

There are anywhere up to 140,000 Rohingya Muslims scattered in a series of camps in Burma’s Rakhine state near the city of Sittwe. They fled there last year after sectarian clashes with the Buddhist majority, clashes that were encouraged by local nationalist politicians and members of the Buddhist clergy.

At its most simple, the violence that swept through this western part of Burma stems from a belief among the Buddhists that the Rohingya are not Burmese and should “go back” to Bangladesh. The Rohingya say they have lived there for centuries.

Both President Thein Sein, who was last week in Washington receiving plaudits for the steps he has taken in moving Burma closer towards democracy, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have been criticised to failing to try and end the violence. The official position of Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is that the Rohingya are “Bengalis”.

“President Sein has also made genuine efforts to resolve longstanding ethnic conflicts within the country, and has recognised the need to establish laws that respect the rights of the people of Myanmar,” claimed Mr Obama when he met the Burmese leader.

But he added: “We also shared with President Sein our deep concern about communal violence that has been directed at Muslim communities inside of Myanmar.”

As it is, this weekend, the state authorities in Rakhine revealed plans to introduce a two-child limit for Muslims in some districts. The rule will not apply to Buddhists.

These drawings tell their own stories. They were created by the children of the camps during a visit by Nora Rowley, a medical doctor and human rights activist who has worked with people from conflict zones who have suffered torture or trauma.

On a visit to the camps this spring, she handed the children pencils and crayons but was careful not to dictate to them what they should draw. Around seventy-five youngsters aged nine and older took part.

“I asked the kids to tell the world what is going on here and why you had to leave your homes,” said Ms Rowley, speaking from Bangkok. “I did not mention violence. I did not prompt them to say anything.”

Over several sessions in late February and early March, the children’s experiences poured out in the most startling, graphic fashion onto the paper they had been given. Some of the children found the experience itself traumatic; one little boy covered his piece of drawing paper with his hand so that others could not see.

“Sometimes the children blame themselves for what has happened,” said Ms Rowley. “It is amazing they are able to communicate so much.”

She added: “They are kids. Not adults. They have not adjusted their stories...What I found was that most of these kids had not told their stories to anyone.”

One boy, 13-year-old N, came from the coastal town of Kyuak Phuyu, which was attacked last October. Over the course of two days, local Buddhists set fire to the Muslim quarter of town. Satellite imagery examined by Human Rights Watch suggested that at least 811 houses were destroyed. The Muslims took to their fishing boats to save their lives

When he was handed a piece of paper, N drew a picture which showed how his house had been set on fire and that when his family had run outside they discovered men in green military uniforms

Some of the Rohingya tried to fight back and defend their mosque and a number were killed. After making their way to their boats, the vessels were intercepted by the navy and were not allowed ashore for three days, he said. There was no fresh water. The teenager said she saw several people die in the boats.

Another nine-year-old, Z, who lived in a neighbourhood in the north of Sittwe, close to the Kaladan River, told Ms Rowley that the paramilitary police, or Hlun Htin, had set fire to their house.

“Rakhine (Buddhists) chased and killed people with swords as the people escaped to boats,” the boy said. “People swam to boats. There were many dead bodies in the water.”

Experts and Burmese watchers say the conditions in the Rohingya camps remain wretched and that the Burmese government appears to have little plan.

British MP Rushanara Ali, the shadow minister for international development, recently visited the camps and last week gave evidence on her findings at the House of Commons. Among the places she visited was a camp accessible only by a two hour boat journey and established on a stretch of beach, littered with human faeces.

She said there was barely any sanitation, little shade and nothing for people to do. She met with groups of Rohingya women, clearly traumatised by their ordeal. Many of them told her they felt they “might as well be dead”.

“The children are children,” she said. “They are trying to get on with their lives, but it is very difficult.”

One of the problems is that the government of Thein Sein has made it difficult for aid groups to operate there, so much so that most of those that are able to work there prefer to keep a low profile.

Some basic facilities for children have been established by one international charity that requested that its name was not used, such is the sensitivity of the situation. But even these facilities are limited in their both their scope and scale.

Campaigners say it is essential the West uses its leverage with Thein Sein during these crucial weeks and months to try and push him to do more.

“Thein Sein's strong focus on improving international relations demonstrates that he is sensitive to international opinion,” said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK.

 “If he did face stronger pressure over restrictions on aid to the Rohingya and the need to give them citizenship, he would need to respond.”