A column of smoke rising from a burning village forms the backdrop to one of the worst humanitarian crises the world is facing—and a powerful reminder to thousands of people who have fled that all that they had is now gone.
An estimated 400,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh in the past three weeks to escape a surge of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, home to a Muslim minority for centuries.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, has described the violence as “textbook ethnic cleansing” at the hands of the army and local militias, who retaliated against the civilian population following an Rohingya insurgent attack on security forces on August 25, resulting in 71 deaths, at least 59 militants and 12 soldiers.
“No one has any hope of return,” Tejshree Thapa, senior South Asia researcher for the U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch, tells Newsweek a few days after she returned from the region.
“The reality on the ground is much much worse than any image can describe. The sheer scale of it is beyond belief,” she says. “I’ve worked with a lot of refugees but I’ve never seen a group this devastated, this destroyed. It’s incredibly bleak.”
The suffering the Rohingya are experiencing in recent weeks isn’t new. Myanmar’s largest minority, they have been persecuted for decades. They have survived waves of ethnically-motivated violence by the military government, which has progressively deprived them of basic human rights.
The reason for this hatred, according to human rights activists, is simple: nationalism-fuelled racism.
“Rohingyas have been facing genocide for many years,” human rights activist and president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, Tun Khin, tells Newsweek.
He explains that the group is an easy target for Myanmar’s ultra-nationalists: “Rohingyas are a different ethnic group, they have a different appearance and religion.”
When Myanmar—known as Burma at the time— became independent from…