Two Rohingya Muslims living as refugees in Bangladesh recently managed to return to Tula Toli, their former village in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar. Two years ago, the Myanmar army massacred hundreds of people there and burned the village to the ground. The refugees filmed the ruins of their village, capturing rare images of Rakhine state, which the Burma government has tried to cut off from the rest of the world.
The Myanmar authorities, who are majority Buddhist, have been persecuting the Rohingya Muslim minority for decades. In 2017, a spike in repression and violence forced 741,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Since 2018, the United Nations has used the term “genocide” to describe the violence perpetrated by Myanmar's military, who they say is responsible for the slaughter of at least 10,000 Rohingyas in 2017. A 2018 report by the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar found evidence for “widespread, systematic, deliberate and targeted destruction, mainly by fire, of Rohingya-populated areas”.
On August 30, 2017, one of the most deadly massacres carried out during this period took place in Tula Toli, a village in the northern part of Rakhine state that was home to about 4,300 people. From survivors’ accounts, the NGO Human Rights Watch estimates that several hundred villagers were killed. Most of those interviewed said that they were the only survivors in their families. Before the massacre began, Myanmar soldiers surrounded the village and then separated the men, women and children, which suggests the massacre was planned in advance.
Myanmar soldiers methodically burned down all of the homes in Tula Toli. Satellite photos taken before and after the massacre confirm this series of events.
The satellite image on the left shows the northern part of Tula Toli on May 23, 2017, before the attack. The image on the right was taken on October 25, 2017, two months after the massacre.
'When they returned to Bangladesh, the two men sent me about 30 short videos.'
When British Bangladeshi documentary filmmaker Shafiur Rahman found out in early August that two former residents of Tula Toli, now living as refugees in Bangladesh, were getting ready to sneak across the border to go back and see what was left of their hometown, he asked them to use their mobile phones to take videos of what they found. Rahman, who made the film"Testimonies Of A Massacre: Tula Toli”, has been reporting on the Tula Toli massacre since 2017.
When the refugees returned, they shared their footage with him. Rahman then published the videos as part of an article for the Dhaka Tribune, “Tula Toli: 2 years on from the bloody crackdown“.
I’ve known these men since 2017. They lost family members in the massacre and are still very traumatised. They knew that their village had been destroyed and that they weren’t going to find anything there, but they just wanted to see it for themselves, even if it is extremely risky to go there. After their trip, they sent me about 30 short videos on WhatsApp and I edited the footage down into one video.
In the videos that they sent me, you can hear them react when they see the remains of burned-out buildings.
"Look at the state of it. You can’t recognise it,” one says.
Ultimately, I decided to remove the audio from my final edit to protect their identities. But in the original videos, you can hear the emotion and the anger in their voices when they recognise the places where their homes -- and the homes of friends and family members -- used to be.
The jungle growth over the past two years is extraordinary, but it carries within it the weight of this mass tragedy.
'It’s devastating to see what the village is like now'
Sultan, a Rohingya refugee now living in Camp No. 11 in the Kutupalong-Balukhal refugee camp in Bangladesh, is a survivor of the Tula Toli massacre. When he saw the videos, he immediately recognised his village, where he had served as an elected official. He spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about what happened there on the day of the massacre, on August 30, 2017.
The soldiers entered the village from the north and forced us all to gather on the beach. That’s how they were able to kill so many people. They dug big trenches and put the bodies in. Then, they burned down all the homes. A lot of people also died while trying to cross the river.
When I saw the videos, I recognised the place where my brother’s house once stood. All that was left were some of the foundations. It’s devastating to see what the village is like now. When we lived there, Tula Toli was pleasant and clean.
We want to clear away the jungle and return to live there. It’s our land. We are deeply attached to it. But we will only go back if Myanmar agrees to grant us citizenship and if justice is served for those who were killed, raped or who drowned in the river. If they don’t agree to our demands, then we know that they still intend to kill us.
'No one has been able to take photos or videos of Tula Toli since the massacre'
The images that documentarist Rahman was able to share are rare, because the Myanmar authorities make it almost impossible to get into Rakhine state. It’s also hard to get information out as, back in June, they shut down all telecommunications there.
Since July 2017, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to grant visas to three UN-backed experts tasked with investigating human rights abuses by Myanmar soldiers, especially in Rakhine state.
The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to one of these investigators, Australian human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti, who confirmed just how hard it is to get any images of Rakhine state.
The Myanmar authorities have refused to cooperate with us in any way. We’ve never been able to get into Myanmar. We haven’t been to Tula Toli -- in fact, not a single journalist or aid worker has been able to go there since the massacre, let alone take pictures.
We’ve interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses, gathered many accounts of the massacre and examined photos and videos of the attack, as well as satellite images of the destruction.
But for the time being, we have no way to gather any physical proof on the ground. We’d like to be able to look for human remains and the ruins of burned buildings. We’d like to interview other eyewitnesses, who still live in Rakhine state.
The massacre in Tula Toli took place five days after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya guerilla group, carried out attacks on about 30 different police outposts. According to the government, they killed 12 police officers and wounded a soldier near Tula Toli.
A return for Rohingya refugees remains unlikely
In late August, Myanmar authorities agreed to repatriate 3,500 Rohingyas who volunteered to be sent back. But, for the time being, not a single refugee has signed up. The Rohingya fear that if they return to Myanmar, they will be sent to internment camps for displaced people. They also want a guarantee of full citizenship rights before returning.
News agency Reuters recently uncovered an unpublished resettlement map drafted by the Myanmar government. Judging from this map, officials don’t plan on allowing repatriated Rohingyas to return to their villages. Instead, they would be resettled in dozens of new sites that would be exclusively Rohingya, thus separating them from the rest of the population and allowing the government to keep them under better surveillance.
Reuters asked the minister responsible for resettlement, Win Myat Aye, whether the Rohingya could return to their old villages.
“If their house is still there and if they want to go, they can,” he said.
There are no homes left in Tula Toli, which means its former residents will not be allowed to return.
Article by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi).