By Grace Guo*
In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 25-year-old Meher breastfeeds her newborn. Her daughter’s name is Yasmin, the Muslim namesake for the fragrant jasmine flower. “She is my baby, she is completely mine, and I love her,” she says, “but when I look at her, I also remember the horrors.”
Yasmin is a child of rape, conceived in September last year when Meher, a Rohingya Muslim interviewed by CNN, says she was gang raped by members of the Myanmar military. She is not alone in her allegations, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing the Buddhist-majority Myanmar for the refugee camps of southern Bangladesh.
Yasmin is just one of countless babies born in recent weeks to mothers who claim they were raped by soldiers in a bloody campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The UN has called it a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Just as devastating is the fact that the intolerance Meher faced at home was not left at the border: with deep-seated prejudices and misunderstanding of sexual violence in their community, these women, and their children, now face a lifetime of pain. It is a pattern that plays out in conflict zones the world over.
In November 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report alleging that Myanmar’s army was engaged in the mass rape of Rohingya women and girls as a function of ethnic cleansing. An AP article followed soon after, confirming the use of “sweeping and methodical” rape as a weapon of war. That same story foretold the future of the Rohingya women: one woman’s husband responded to the news of an attack on his pregnant wife by threatening to abandon her.
Nine months on, and aid workers are working against the clock to coax pregnant Rohingya women out of the world’s largest refugee camp and into appropriate medical care. Fears are growing that newborns will be abandoned, and that mothers will die without care as they hide under a shroud of shame. One Rohingya refugee, Tosminara, has been working for months to find these women, promising secrecy.
“We tell them a password they can use when they arrive at the hospital or health post. The guard then sends the woman directly to the right spot,” says Tosminara. “They are afraid to come forward.” Rohingya women made pregnant by rape are often warned by their neighbours to avoid the humiliation of coming forward. The UN has reported that girls as young as 14 were undergoing self-induced abortions.
The babies that will live face a lifetime of discrimination. “People will take one look at them and … guess that they are half Bamar (Myanmar’s ethnic majority), because their features are more Chinese and their skin is paler,” says Iftikher Mahmood, a paediatrician at the camps. The burden these children will bear on behalf of their fathers’ crimes is incalculable.
The destruction left in the wake of the violence against Rohingya women draws disturbing parallels with crimes of two decades ago. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina has long ended, but survivors of rape – and their children – will never be allowed to forget it. Teams of lawyers have already sought out the victims of rape and torture during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, in which an estimated 50,000 women were raped during the conflict, and the ensuing court proceedings – and the associated fees – are forcing victims into an even deeper resignation that they will not live to see justice.
Meanwhile, those conceived by the mass rapes, now in their twenties, are demanding that their stories be validated. “I was a child with three identities,” says Alen Muhic, abandoned at birth by his mother, as he recounted to an audience at the UN Headquarters his personal battle to overcome the social stigma he faces daily. After a childhood of name-calling, Muhic has made peace with his mother’s choices. However, he has not forgiven his father. “Even in spite of [the war crime] and being prosecuted for it, he still denies it,” says Muhic, “he’s still not able to admit… the wrong that he has done to my mother.”
It is this same recognition sought by a generation of Vietnamese women who were raped by South Korean forces during the Vietnam War, now the sole carers of their mixed-race children, the Lai Dai Han. The Vietnam War saw scores of civilian women raped and exploited by invading troops, and the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act saw tens of thousands of people resettled on US soil as a result. South Korea, however, has never acknowledged the allegations of rape by Korean forces, and has refused to investigate the reports.
The offspring of South Korean soldiers, however, remain a testament to their crimes: they are marked on their faces for life. “I was bullied repeatedly,” says Tran Dai Nhat, a child of mixed South Korean and Vietnamese descent, conceived by rape. He recalls an assault from a Communist soldier at the end of the war: “Your father was a dog, boy,” the man yelled, “Now run!” The Lai Dai Han and their mothers have been forced to live on the margins of Vietnamese society ever since.
Even today, the plight of Rohingya women is no isolated example. As Yazidi women work to rebuild their community in Iraq, they see traces of their Islamic State rapists in the faces of their children. For the escaped abductees of Boko Haram forces in Nigeria, the trauma will be lifelong – and played out in communities ill-equipped to deal with their myriad of experiences. Some women and girls have fled Boko Haram only to be raped by their own government’s security forces.
Governments and international institutions can no longer plead ignorant to the violent reality of war as lived by civilian women and girls. Long-term support for mothers and their children is no doubt essential, but so is the hard, quiet slog to end the cultures of shame that prevent their recovery.