Mohib Bullah is not your typical human rights investigator. He chews betel and he lives in a rickety hut made of plastic and bamboo. Sometimes, he can be found standing in a line for rations at the Rohingya refugee camp where he lives in Bangladesh.
Yet Mohib Bullah is among a group of refugees who have achieved something that aid groups, foreign governments and journalists have not. They have painstakingly pieced together, name-by-name, the only record of Rohingya Muslims who were allegedly killed in a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military.
The bloody assault in the western state of Rakhine drove more than 700,000 of the minority Rohingya people across the border into Bangladesh, and left thousands of dead behind.
Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, working in Cox’s Bazar at the southern tip of Bangladesh, estimated in the first month of violence, beginning at the end of August 2017, that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed. But the survey, in what is now the largest refugee camp in the world, was limited to the one month and didn’t identify individuals.
The Rohingya list makers pressed on and their final tally put the number killed at more than 10,000. Their lists, which include the toll from a previous bout of violence in October 2016, catalog victims by name, age, father’s name, address in Myanmar, and how they were killed.
“When I became a refugee I felt I had to do something,” says Mohib Bullah, 43, who believes that the lists will be historical evidence of atrocities that could otherwise be forgotten.
Myanmar government officials did not answer phone calls seeking comment on the Rohingya lists. Late last year, Myanmar’s military said that 13 members of the security forces had been killed. It also said it recovered the bodies of 376 Rohingya militants between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5, which is the day the army says its offensive against the militants officially ended.
Rohingya regard themselves as native to Rakhine State. But a 1982 law restricts citizenship for the Rohingya and other minorities not considered members of one of Myanmar’s “national races”. Rohingya were excluded from Myanmar’s last nationwide census in 2014, and many have had their identity documents stripped from them or nullified, blocking them from voting in the landmark 2015 elections. The government refuses even to use the word “Rohingya,” instead calling them “Bengali” or “Muslim.”
Now in Bangladesh and able to organize without being closely monitored by Myanmar’s security forces, the Rohingya have armed themselves with lists of the dead and pictures and video of atrocities recorded on their mobile phones, in a struggle against attempts to erase their history in Myanmar.
The Rohingya accuse the Myanmar army of rapes and killings across northern Rakhine, where scores of villages were burnt to the ground and bulldozed after attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents. The United Nations has said Myanmar’s military may have committed genocide.
Myanmar says what it calls a “clearance operation” in the state was a legitimate response to terrorist attacks.
Clad in longyis, traditional Burmese wrap-arounds tied at the waist, and calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace & Human Rights, the list makers say they are all too aware of accusations by the Myanmar authorities and some foreigners that Rohingya refugees invent stories of tragedy to win global support.
But they insist that when listing the dead they err on the side of under-estimation.
Mohib Bullah, who was previously an aid worker, gives as an example the riverside village of Tula Toli in Maungdaw district, where – according to Rohingya who fled – more than 1,000 were killed. “We could only get 750 names, so we went with 750,” he said.
“We went family by family, name by name,” he added. “Most information came from the affected family, a few dozen cases came from a neighbor, and a few came from people from other villages when we couldn’t find the relatives.”
In their former lives, the Rohingya list makers were aid workers, teachers and religious scholars. Now after escaping to become refugees, they say they are best placed to chronicle the events that took place in northern Rakhine, which is out-of-bounds for foreign media, except on government-organized trips.
“Our people are uneducated and some people may be confused during the interviews and investigations,” said Mohammed Rafee, a former administrator in the village of Kyauk Pan Du who has worked on the lists. But taken as a whole, he said, the information collected was “very reliable and credible.”
Getting the full picture is difficult in the teeming dirt lanes of the refugee camps. Crowds of people gather to listen – and add their comments – amid booming calls to prayer from makeshift mosques and deafening downpours of rain. Even something as simple as a date can prompt an argument.
What began tentatively in the courtyard of a mosque after Friday prayers one day last November became a sprawling project that drew in dozens of people and lasted months.
The project has its flaws. The handwritten lists were compiled by volunteers, photocopied, and passed from person to person. The list makers asked questions in Rohingya about villages whose official names were Burmese, and then recorded the information in English. The result was a jumble of names: for example, there were about 30 different spellings for the village of Tula Toli.
Wrapped in newspaper pages and stored on a shelf in the backroom of a clinic, the lists that Reuters reviewed were labeled as beginning in October 2016, the date of a previous exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine. There were also a handful of entries dated 2015 and 2012. And while most of the dates were European-style, with the day first and then the month, some were American-style, the other way around. So it wasn’t possible to be sure if an entry was, say, May 9 or September 5.
It is also unclear how many versions of the lists there are. During interviews with Reuters, Rohingya refugees sometimes produced crumpled, handwritten or photocopied papers from shirt pockets or folds of their longyis.
The list makers say they have given summaries of their findings, along with repatriation demands, to most foreign delegations, including those from the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, who have visited the refugee camps.
The list makers became more organized as weeks of labor rolled into months. They took over three huts and held meetings, bringing in a table, plastic chairs, a laptop and a large banner carrying the group’s name.
The MSF survey was carried out to determine how many people might need medical care, so the number of people killed and injured mattered, and the identity of those killed was not the focus. It is nothing like the mini-genealogy with many individual details that was produced by the Rohingya.
Mohib Bullah and some of his friends say they drew up the lists as evidence of crimes against humanity they hope will eventually be used by the International Criminal Court, but others simply hope that the endeavor will return them to the homes they lost in Myanmar.
“If I stay here a long time my children will wear jeans. I want them to wear longyi. I do not want to lose my traditions. I do not want to lose my culture,” said Mohammed Zubair, one of the list makers. “We made the documents to give to the U.N. We want justice so we can go back to Myanmar.”
Matt Wells, a senior crisis advisor for Amnesty International, said he has seen refugees in some conflict-ridden African countries make similar lists of the dead and arrested but the Rohingya undertaking was more systematic. “I think that’s explained by the fact that basically the entire displaced population is in one confined location,” he said.
Wells said he believes the lists will have value for investigators into possible crimes against humanity.
“In villages where we’ve documented military attacks in detail, the lists we’ve seen line up with witness testimonies and other information,” he said.
Spokespeople at the ICC’s registry and prosecutors’ offices, which are closed for summer recess, did not immediately provide comment in response to phone calls and emails from Reuters.
The U.S. State Department also documented alleged atrocities against Rohingya in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity, U.S. officials have told Reuters. For that and the MSF survey only a small number of the refugees were interviewed, according to a person who worked on the State Department survey and based on published MSF methodology.
MSF did not respond to requests for comment on the Rohingya lists. The U.S. State Department declined to share details of its survey and said it wouldn’t speculate on how findings from any organization might be used.
For Mohammed Suleman, a shopkeeper from Tula Toli, the Rohingya lists are a legacy for his five-year-old daughter. He collapsed, sobbing, as he described how she cries every day for her mother, who was killed along with four other daughters.
“One day she will grow up. She may be educated and want to know what happened and when. At that time I may also have died,” he said. “If it is written in a document, and kept safely, she will know what happened to her family.”