Zuhara is 24 years old. She has been leading the family with her three children after the tragic murder of her husband. Once living in Yin Ma Kyaung Toung village (Lameya Para) of Thoung Bazar in northern Buthidaung, she now survives in the world’s largest Refugee camp of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Though it fills her with fear, Zuhara recalls August 25, 2017. At about 4 am, she awoke to the sound of fierce rifle shots. It was the military and they had surrounded the area with the cap-a-pie of the armed forces. That night, soaring bullets seemed to rain over the village as the terrorist Burmese military junta took the lives of ten people.
Early the following day, all the male villagers gathered at the nearby mosque to plan for the security of their lives and dignity. Together, they decided that whatever they do and wherever they go, they would do it all together through deliberate discussion.
All the while, Zuhara’s elder brother Faisal had been asleep due to his struggle to sleep at night. Curious about the discussion she had been excluded from, Zuhara woke her sleeping brother and sent him to the meeting.
When he arrived, he found them singing a prayer: "Ya Allah! Please save us from this terrifying situation and make a way for the safety of all our lives and dignity and make a peaceful country".
After that, people returned to their homes and Faisal couldn’t hear anything more. So, he decided to ask the villagers attending the meeting what was discussed.
When he finally arrived back home, he shared with Zuhara what he had learned: "everyone is under fear of death by the terrorist Tatmadaw and so they are planning how we can save our dignity and lives. It was agreed therefore that for every decision to be made, it would be discussed and chosen by the whole group".
As the morning grew, people nervously prepared their breakfast by carving the bantams and taking green salad from the little shops of the village. Those who had attended the meeting then began to gather the villagers into groups of 20 to 30 people, instructing them to head straight to the other side of the nearby hill.
By 3:50 pm, the military had burned down the village. Zuhara and Faisal’s home, as well as all the houses and possessions of their neighbours, had been destroyed. Yet, by the strong organization of the villagers, most had managed to save their lives and dignity.
The journey to the hillside was treacherous, particularly for older people, pregnant people, sick people, disabled people, and younger children. As they ran for safety, many of the villagers were arrested and the cruelty of the terrorist Tatmadaw killed some. Zahura’s little brother, Khairul Amin, was killed by a gunshot to his eyes.
Zahura’s family knew they could not even give little Khirul Amin a proper burial, but they cried so profoundly in their hearts. Taking power from this wrenching sadness, they strove to ensure that no other villagers would die.
Forced by the threat of the Burmese military, the surviving villagers spent three nights on the hillside. With no food or shelter, they became overwhelmingly tired and hungry. The elderly, pregnant, sick, and disabled people, and the younger children, were crying for their lives as they struggled for survival.
Together the villagers decided to journey to Baadagga village (Fáteya Para), which is a day-long distance by foot from Yama King Dom village and near the May Yu Mountain.
On the way to Baadagga village, a pregnant woman died in labour. With the support of some of the villagers, the young woman’s husband performed a quick and painful funeral prayer. He then took the arms of his two surviving children and continued with the journey. As for all the villagers, there was no time for mourning.
Their stay in Baadagga brought no reprieve. Zuhara and the villagers dreamed that they would soon be able to return to their homes, but in the meantime, they had hoped Baadagga village would provide some sanctuary.
However, the bloodthirsty beat of the Tatmadaw drummed ever closer as the villagers waited in place. Zuhara felt the pressure grow with every waking hour, ripping at her dream and throwing her into despair. The screams of her family and friends never left her ears, perpetually ringing as the military raped, tortured, and killed her. She knew that she had no choice. Going home was never an option. The villagers could only and forever continue forward.
As they had agreed, the villagers continued to make their decision together. Zuhara found that she was not alone, for blood sounds rushed through all their ears. They all agreed that they must continue surviving and that the only way to realise this would be by reaching Bangladesh.
On September 10, 2017, Sunday evening, Zuhara and the villagers decided to leave and cross the May Yu Mountain. This would be another dangerous journey, but the villagers knew they had no choice. Along the way, there were two paths to cross the hill track. Both the paths were dangerous due to the muddy hills that they would have to climb, and of course because of the presence of military fighters.
As Zuhara followed the path they had all decided upon, it became clear that the military had been present only recently. The bodies of young people who had been murdered and sexually abused filled her with an intense feeling of death. The numbing pain violently tore at her chest, as her eyes swelled with rage. Oh how much her people had suffered and how much they continue to suffer!
Due to the muddy track took almost half a day and a whole night to cross the mountain. The villagers were exhausted, with only a little water some had brought along to share amongst them.
Thousands of people were crossing the top of May Yu Mountain and they all faced so many difficulties. Some of them died of hunger and thirst, some from pregnancy and others from the torture and abuse they met upon arrival at Paddaka Yathi village. Zuhara pauses her story and gently hums a song:
"I was born to Rohingya parents
For the seeking of peace and harmony
To save sublime dignity of life.
Was I born to be tortured by terrorists?"
The story continues with the villager's journey from Paddaka village to Bangladesh. At this point, a shooting gun killed her husband at the border of the Naf River, whilst she and her sister-in-law were raped together. Still, there was no time to mourn.
Left alone to care for her family of four, Zuhara continued her struggle. She migrated with her villagers to Bangladesh, hoping to find safety for her surviving family.
The villagers who had made it safely to the camps dream of sharing their stories. Due to the limited education opportunities, they have been unable to. People like her were killed by the knife and gunshot, tortured and abused. They have witnessed fields of limbs, mutilated bodies, and pools of blood. These are horrors that bring only dismay and anxiety to life. As Zuhara remembers, it is fear that overwhelms.
It is in the camps of Cox’s Bazar that these memories of horror are shared.