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Buffalo's Rohingya refugees watch helplessly as horrors in Burma mount

Shamsul Alam cried when he watched the video showing the corpses of his brother and his brother's family lying in the dirt, 8,000 miles from Buffalo.

Another newcomer to Buffalo fields anguished phone calls from relatives in Burma, where they feel trapped in a jungle shack with little to eat.

And other new residents get videos from Burma showing the huts they once called home being burned to the ground.

Such are the nightmares that Buffalo's 160 or so Rohingya Muslim refugees live with daily. Months or years after they moved to Buffalo, largely unnoticed by the larger community, many local Rohingya recount recent horrors from back home and say there is little they can do for their families so far away.

"It is a helpless feeling," said Alam, 55.

The horrors and the helplessness have multiplied in recent months, as the Burmese Army, other security forces and local vigilantes responded to Rohingya rebel attacks with a scorched-earth retaliation.

Months or years after they moved to Buffalo, largely unnoticed by the larger community, many local Rohingya recount recent horrors from back home and say there is little they … 

As a result, 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Burma's Rakhine State, chased westward through muddy waters to Bangladesh.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week declared the Rohingya victims of ethnic cleansing. Rohingya refugees in Buffalo agree.

"The Burmese government, the Buddhists, they want to clean from Rakhine State every Rohingya generation," said Taslimah Binti, Alam's wife, who, like all the refugees interviewed for this story, spoke through an interpeter.

"So they're making the genocide," said Binti, 41. "They call us 'the virus.' To them, we are not human beings."

Trouble back home

Alam and his family fled Burma more than a decade ago when the Burmese government shut down Rohingya businesses, meaning he could no longer support his family by selling salt.

The family moved to Malaysia, where he worked until he finally got approval from the United States to move to Buffalo in 2015.

Here he joined more than 8,500 other refugees from Burma who have moved to the city in the past 15 years. They came to America through the government's program to resettle the world's outcasts, and to Buffalo because refugee resettlement agencies here decided to try to repopulate the city with such newcomers.

While most of the refugees from Burma who have moved to Buffalo are Christians, the Rohingya Muslims are among the most recent arrivals.

Like Alam and his family, the Rohingya usually settle on the East Side, near the growing Bengali community. Soon after arriving, Alam took a job at Buffalo Recycling, and his two sons enrolled in Buffalo schools.

Shakir Sumshul Alam, 16, a Rohingya refugee from Burma, looks out the window of his home. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

But Burma's troubles proved difficult to escape. Last year, Rohingya militants attacked a police station, and the Burmese Army responded by wiping out villages suspected of harboring rebels.

Alam's brother lived in one of those villages. The video Alam shared, aired by the Arakan Times and dated last Dec. 11, showed his brother's corpse next to those of his brother's wife and baby. All three were shot dead fleeing their village.

[From Burma to Buffalo: The refugee wave changing our city]

"When I heard about my brother, I was very, very sad," Alam said. "We couldn't sleep. The whole night, my wife and I, we prayed and we cried."

That was not the end of the family's suffering. Binti said two of her adult children, including a pregnant daughter, fled the most recent attacks and had to walk for days to a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Now they live in a ramshackle city of plastic tents in tropical heat where tens of thousands go hungry.

"Some babies are dying while their mothers are in the queue for ration," said Sultan Ahmed, a Rohingya refugee who resettled in Colorado last year but who is now in Bangladesh to help his people.

An escalating conflict

The conflict upending western Burma took root in ethnic and religious tensions stretching back to the British empire. At the time, the Burmese majority clamored for independence, and the Rohingya provided cheap labor for British businesses.

Burma won its independence in 1948, and so did the Rohingya.

But once a Buddhist-dominated military government took over Burma in 1962, it started stripping the Muslim Rohingya of their rights, culminating in a 1982 law barring them from citizenship.

Now many Burmese call the Rohingya "Bengalis" and say they are squatters from Bangaladesh, even though their ancestors have lived in Burma for generations. Burmese leaders won't even utter the word "Rohingya," and the Burmese consider the term so sensitive in Burma that Pope Francis avoided saying it during his visit to Burma this week.

Rohingya – including many of those now in Buffalo – started fleeing Burma more than 20 years ago, and the exodus has escalated in recent years.

Buddhist mobs burned dozens of Rohingya villages in 2012, prompting thousands to escape by boat. Thousands more left amid last year's violence.

Rohingya militants staged several attacks this August, and the Burmese Army responded with war crimes — which Human Rights Watch detailed last month in a letter to Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state.

"Refugees have provided first-hand accounts of unfathomable brutality: soldiers burning infants alive, gang-raping women, shooting villagers fleeing their homes," the letter said.

A son's heartbreak

Mohammed Hussein holds his 1-year-old son Arfaat. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Mohammed Hussein fled Burma decades ago, but in some ways his heart remains there. That's why it's breaking.

His mother and two sisters live in the village where he grew up. They cannot flee because his mother is 80 and too feeble to travel.

Hussein answers his cellphone in his apartment in Buffalo and listen to the anguish.

"They are always crying because they don't have enough food; they have no access to health care," said Hussein, 45.

Nearly 100 families in the village have fled to Bangladesh, leaving Hussein's relatives trapped in a ghost town, afraid to leave their home for fear of being shot by Burmese soldiers.

Hussein said all he can do about this is worry. Now his blood pressure is acting up, sending him to the emergency room several times this fall.

"The Burmese Army, they are raping, they are killing," he said. "I say to the international community: Please, please, do something about this. Many, many people are dying now."

International inaction

International leaders say they are outraged that more than half the Rohingya people have been driven out of Burma since August.

So far, though, neither the United States nor the United Nations has done much about it.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has proposed ending aid to the Burmese military and cutting off some trade to pressure the Burmese government.

Tillerson said last week that the United States will consider imposing sanctions against the Burmese government. He also reiterated the U.S. government's support for an independent investigation of the situation, as well as U.N. sanctions against Burma.

But China, which has deep business ties to Burma, stands in the way of possible U.N. action.

Burma's de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has had little to say about the situation, probably because Burma's constitution gives her no authority over the military.

Visiting the Rohingya homeland earlier this month, Burma's leader offered nothing but sweet nothings.

“I hope everything will go fine as local villagers handle the rebuilding process,” she said, the New York Times reported. “We all have to try our best to live peacefully.”

"God help us"

Rohingya refugee Guhaira Begum talks to her husband, Mohamed Noor, from the kitchen doorway of their home in Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Burmese troops arrived in Mohamed Noor's home village on the night of Sept. 28, guns and flamethrowers ablazing.

Noor heard about it all from his 73-year-old father and saw what happened in the video his father sent, which shows the village aflame in the night.

Mohamed Noor. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"The Burmese came in shooting," said Noor, 37, who resettled in Buffalo nearly four years ago. "People were running – older men, children, women."

Noor's family made an eight-day trek by foot to Bangladesh, through jungle and river. They're among the lucky ones. He said villagers who didn't escape were beaten, shot or tortured with electrodes.

Noor's wife, Guhaira Begum, told a similar story. The attack on her village started with shots from a helicopter, family members told her. Then the Burmese army rounded up suspects and set the village on fire.

Her parents, brother and a cousin fled for Bangladesh. A video they sent to Begum shows their village burning in the distance, flames and smoke stretching across the horizon.

"God protect us!" a young man screams in Rohingya as the village burns. He then asks viewers to share the video so the world can know what's happening to his homeland.

As the video ended, Begum cried softly. And her husband, his face flush with anger, texted the video to The Buffalo News.