Scared, hungry and badly beaten, Rohingya women fleeing an army crackdown in Burma recount harrowing tales of destruction and death: a father burned alive, an uncle slaughtered with a machete, a brother arrested and not heard from again.
But huddled in makeshift refugee camps, dependent on food rations and the mercy of fellow refugees, they also carry something else: hope inspired by their newborn children, for whom Bangladesh is now home.
The babies’ delicate features present a sharp contrast with the squalid conditions of the makeshift refugee camp, where a skipped meal or food poisoning can mean the difference between survival or death.
The Burma army launched its “clearance operation” after Rohingya insurgents attacked border guard posts in northwestern Rakhine state in October.
The United Nations said it had committed mass killings and gang rapes and burned villages in a campaign that may amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
“One-and-a-half months ago the military came to our village and kept firing their guns,” said Amina, 30, one of the refugees, as she cradled her 16-day-old daughter, Sumaiya.
“You see us alive only because God was so kind,” she added. “They caught my uncle and my younger brother and we don’t know whether they are dead or alive.”
Rohingya mothers face persecution
Rohingya mothers face persecution
Ramida Begum holds her 10-day-old daughter in their shelter in Kutupalang, an unregistered refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. 'The military caught my husband and burnt our house down a week before I left Myanmar. Since then I don't know whether my husband is dead or alive'
Minara Begum sits inside the shelter, cradling her one-month-old son Ayub. Minara fled to Bangladesh from Nasha Phuru village in Myanmar with her husband and mother-in-law. 'My child doesn't get enough breast milk as I don't eat enough nutritious food. I have to buy milk powder from local market though it's not very good for my son'
Amina, pictured with her 16-day-old daughter Sumaiyin, is in a refugee camp Balukhali that neighbours Ramida and Minara's. 'One and a half months ago the military came to our village and kept firing their guns. I ran away with my neighbours to save our lives. You see us alive here only because the God was so kind. They caught my uncle and my younger brother and we don't know whether they are dead or alive'
Fatema sits beside her one-day-old daughter Aasma in Kutupalang. Fatema fled to Bangladesh from Jambuinna village in Myanmar two months ago after her house was burnt down by the military. She crossed Naf River by boat during the night. 'Our situation is better than many other refugees as my husband Mohammad Alom works here as a day labourer. Many of the new refugees have no work here, so they have to rely on relief'
Jamalida cradles her two-month-old daughter Shahida. Jamalida came to Bangladesh with her husband from Nasha Phuru village in Myanmar
Rehana Begum lays her one-day-old daughter in front of her inside their tarpaulin shelter. Rehana fled her village of Jambuinna in Myanmar three months ago. 'We were in our home and suddenly the military came to our village and started shooting. When we heard the sound of gun shots we immediately went to our relatives. We walked for four hours without any food and water to reach the border at 1 a.m. We paid 25,000 Myanmar kyat (£14) to a broker to cross.' Intercepted by Bangladesh border guards, Rehana's family narrowly escaped being sent home. 'They wanted to send us back, but then we heard gunshots from the Myanmar side and the guards released us, saying, "Stay in Bangladesh and save your lives"'
Noor Begum sits next to her one-day-old daughter Sumaiya as she stares into the camera. Noor came to the camp one-and-a-half months ago from Nagpura village with her husband Jahangir
Rajuma Begum observes her one-month-old son Raihan. 'I fled to Bangladesh because of fear, because I needed to save my children. I was pregnant and suffering from fever while crossing the border. I also have an 11-month-old boy, so it was very difficult to reach the border from our village Wabek in Myanmar. I had to rest frequently. After six hours of horrible walking we finally reached the border at 2am and crossed after paying a broker'
Eighteen-year-old Asmot Ara rests her newly born daughter on her lap. Asmot said she came to the camp one month ago with neighbours from Nagpura village. In Myanmar her father-in-law was killed and their home burnt down by the Myanmar military
As Marijaan holds her 25-day-old daughter Noor Habi, her son peers over her shoulder. Marijaan fled to Bangladesh from Khyeri Prang village in Myanmar one month ago after her house was burnt down by the Myanmar military. 'I reached the border at night and crossed by the boat. I paid the boatman to cross the Naf River'
The military calls its crackdown on the Muslim minority a lawful counterinsurgency operation to defend the country and has denied the allegations. Burma launched several investigations into the alleged abuse, but human rights monitors say they lack credibility and independence.
Amina is one of about 75,000 refugees to have successfully made an often perilous crossing through the fields, eventually fording a river boundary to reach Bangladesh.
Some starved for weeks, while others gave everything they had to pay off people smugglers. Many never made it, drowning or getting shot by Burmese security forces on the journey.
Survivors, who rely on shelters of bamboo sticks and black plastic sheets for protection from a scorching sun, face a major challenge in keeping their newborns alive.
The camps often lack medical facilities and running water, leading aid agency workers to worry about an outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera.
“People are living in tough circumstances,” said Azmat Ulla, an official of the International Federation of Red Cross in Bangladesh, which has launched an emergency appeal for help. “Most don’t have access to regular medical services and are not getting enough food.”
Surviving on rations
Many women struggle for funds, having lost male relations, the sole breadwinners in most families. They rely on handouts from the World Food Programme and other agencies.
Clinics run by non-government bodies and the UN are overrun, scrambling to treat thousands of patients each month.
Minara Begum, 22, calms her crying one-month-old son, Ayub, as she tells of fleeing from her village of Nasha Phuru with her husband and mother-in-law.
“My child doesn’t get enough breast milk as I don’t eat enough nutritious food,” she said. “I have to buy milk powder, though it’s not very good for my son.”
Many women said they survived or witnessed acts of gang rape by soldiers.
An official of a large Western aid agency told Reuters it had distributed more than 660 “dignity kits” for assault victims, besides counselling nearly 200 women who suffered trauma after the killing of a family member, usually male.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said the worker, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
Lucky to be alive
The quiet of Cox’s Bazar, a beachside resort town, makes for a jarring contrast with the temporary camps amid rice paddies and salt flats just an hour’s drive away.
Large groups of desperate women line the roads, begging for money from passing cars, often well after sunset.
A red blanket spread on the earthen floor of her shelter, Rehana Begum, 25, cares for her one-day-old daughter. She fled her village of Jambuinna three months ago.
“We were in our home and suddenly the military came to our village and started shooting,” she said.
“When we heard the sound of gun shots we immediately went to our relatives. We walked for four hours without any food and water to reach the border at 1am. We paid $18 (£14) to a broker to cross.”
The figure is equivalent to 25,000 Burmese kyat.
Intercepted by Bangladesh border guards, Begum’s family narrowly escaped being sent home.
“They wanted to send us back, but then we heard gunshots from the Burma side and the guards released us, saying, ‘Stay in Bangladesh and save your lives’,” she said.