When he was in primary school, Futhu read a story about a girl who named her flowers. She wrote their names in a diary, logged when she planted and watered them and charted how they grew. The story was in a book Futhu’s uncle brought to their village in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State from across the border in Bangladesh — the words in English and in Bengali. Futhu was the first in his extended family to attend school — the first of 22 uncles, countless aunts and cousins — and though he excelled at Burmese and English class, he could not really understand the book on his own. His father was himself illiterate, as were most people in their community. So Futhu asked a village trader who often visited their home to read him the stories in the book, one by one.
Futhu followed along, practicing his English. Over time, the pages of the book tattered, until Futhu was able to read it himself. He thought the girl had a good idea and started keeping a diary of his own daily chores. He could not write in Rohingya, the language of his community, because it has had no written form, so he wrote in a mixture of English and Burmese.
The book told another story, too: The girl who kept the flower diary lived through a period in history known as World War II, when, as Futhu understood it, there was a fight between Hitler and the Jews. The girl’s entries about flowers became a diary of what was happening at that time. When Futhu looked around his village, he thought there were many similarities between this story and what he saw in his own Muslim community. He decided he should write the incidents of Rohingya oppression, because maybe someday, in the future, people might want to know about what happened.
Ever since Futhu was small, he knew that the government did not consider Rohingya to be of this place but instead thought of them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As far as Futhu knew, none of his family had migrated from Bangladesh. They’d only been driven there as refugees after one of the many armed operations against the Rohingya — of which there have been roughly a dozen since 1948, though Futhu did not know the exact number. Futhu had learned that there were 135 recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar, called taing-yin-tha, which is often translated as “national race” but literally means something like “offspring of the land,” or indigenous. Those 135 groups, including the neighboring Rakhine and the country’s main ethnic group, the Bamar, had the rights and citizenship that went along with official recognition, but the more than one million Rohingya did not.
Futhu began to write down some of the things he saw around him. The Rohingya, he noted, had to register all their livestock with the government. They required government permission to repair their homes. They needed permission from the government to marry, often paying hefty bribes and waiting for as long as two years to do so. They were unable to enroll in certain majors in college — they could not study to be lawyers or doctors. They could not join the army or the police, or serve as heads of governing bodies or run for public office. They were not allowed to have more than two children. Women were forced to take birth control or seek illegal abortions. Families paid bribes to register additional children or hid them from the authorities. Over time, almost every Rohingya had their nationality cards taken from them. They had to give the authorities their chickens and cows, to lend them their motorcycle or their bodies for forced labor when it was demanded, and received no compensation. Many doctors refused to treat them. Getting to a hospital would require so many travel permissions and so much time that Rohingya often arrived half dead and eventually did die. Families cast the blame on the hospitals themselves — they were sure the doctors intended to kill them. Many stopped going. More died of preventable causes.
Futhu did not know why the government focused on the Rohingya with such ferocity, only that they were unwanted. While the Burmese government maintained that the Rohingya were Bangladeshi and the government of Bangladesh said they were Burmese, a question hung over the community: How could we not be offspring of this land? Did we fall from the sky?
When Futhu set about writing down the story of his village back in the late 1990s, he did not have grand ambitions. He wanted to know about his community, about his family and his neighbors, to understand their own roots in this tiny sliver of earth. Dunse Para, as they called it — Koe Tan Kauk in Burmese — was nestled on a narrow stretch of flat, verdant land with the gray Bay of Bengal on one side and the rocky Mayu Mountains looming on the other. Each morning, the men of the village would wake in the darkness, walk to the shoreline and climb into boats, setting off for their daily catch. The boats — small wooden rowboats and 22 larger vessels with motors — belonged to a few wealthy villagers who employed shift workers to go far out to sea. When men weren’t fishing, they were farming their rice paddies or growing chiles. They tended to their animals — chickens, water buffaloes, cows and goats. The community was deeply conservative. Women stayed at home, far from the lingering eyes and hands of the Burmese security services, who often harassed them.
Futhu peppered his grandfather and village elders with questions about Dunse Para’s founding. His grandfather explained that their forefathers lived on a nearby hill where the community now grazed buffaloes. Futhu’s great-great-grandfather donated part of the family’s land there to make a cemetery, but after its construction, people started getting sick, and so they fled down the hill, to a village they called the Village by the Mountain. When it got too crowded there, people migrated, slowly moving closer to the surf. They set up the Big Village, then the Village by the Sea and then the Big Village Transferred by the Sea, where Futhu and his family lived. Dunse Para was composed of these four smaller villages, the roughly 1,000 homes arranged around straight, neatly plotted footpaths running through groves of trees. Dunse Para sat about a mile away from the nearest Rakhine settlement of about 100 households, also called Koe Tan Kauk, with a security checkpost stationed between. As far as Futhu had been able to verify, the land they lived on had been theirs for generations.
Once Futhu was satisfied with his documentation of the land, he turned to the stories of the people themselves. He went back to his grandfather and the elders in order to diagram the village’s family trees. He listed names and birth villages: a mother’s village, a father’s village and the children they had, the siblings of the mother and the father, backward and forward in time, until his chart sprawled across several villages. He found that in some cases, people who lived in the same village were actually related to one another through blood, though they did not know it. Or in others, that people were related by blood, but not in the way they thought. This was true in his own family. A girl whom Futhu had grown up calling his sister was in fact his cousin. Her father’s grandmother and Futhu’s mother’s grandmother were sisters, and then she was married off to another family. Futhu also found people who had relatives in different villages whom they had never met. Futhu would follow one little family’s bloodline until it grew like vines across the mountains.
The residents of Dunse Para did not always understand the value of Futhu’s inquiries. They asked him why he was always writing things down — was it perhaps for some kind of sorcery? But when they needed a question answered, about who was related to whom and how and when, they came to ask him, and he would explain. Slowly, as Futhu’s notebooks filled, then multiplied, these small proofs wove a larger web of authenticity — a document of roots in this earth, of offspring, ownership and belonging.
Dunse Para had no books that could have explained to Futhu that outsiders had documented the presence of the Rohingya community as far back as the 18th century. In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a Scottish physician living in India, visited what was then called Arakan and wrote that two groups populated the area — the “Yakein” and the “Rooinga.” (This record is crucial, and as such highly contested in the debate over who was or wasn’t in Burma before the British arrived, and thus, who is and who isn’t “offspring of this land.”)
Futhu knew that the British began to wrest control over Rakhine State’s present territory in 1824, but he did not know that it would take them six decades to take the rest of Burma, which became a province of India, with open borders between the two. The British encouraged migration from India, which at that time included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, rewarding Muslim arrivals with high posts that drew the envy and ire of locals. Still, everyone in the community talked about life under the colonizers as a time of prosperity and peace.
Futhu’s grandfather explained that when the Japanese invaded Arakan in 1942 during World War II and battled the British in the mountains, the fighting did not touch the people of Dunse Para. His grandfather never told him that when the war broke out, the Rohingya and Rakhine took opposing sides. These communal strains would reverberate through generations. The Buddhist Rakhine backed the invading Japanese, who promised independence from the British, while the Muslim Rohingya supported the British colonizers, who treated them well. His grandfather said only that at that time of the great war, both communities took long knives and rocks and massacred each other.
Many Rohingya, like Futhu’s family, fled to the north of the state for safety, while the Rakhine congregated in the south to protect their own lives. Futhu knew that his grandfather’s grandmother, who was very old at the time, could not run fast enough and died in those battles, cut down with a knife. His grandfather told him that the family stayed in the north for a month, and when they returned, they found their houses smashed, their cows vanished. It was the first of what would be several violent upheavals in recent history, all distinct in origin yet all following a grim pattern of displacement and return.
Before Burma’s independence in 1948, the country was rocked by anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots. The rioters demanded that those who had come with the British leave with them. Many people fled, making their way to what was then East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh. In the 1950s, Burma’s first elected government under Prime Minister U Nu announced that anyone who lived within Burma’s borders before the British colonizers arrived would be granted citizenship. Many Rohingya, like Futhu’s family, were issued papers. There were promises of future autonomy and more rights.
But the coup of Gen. Ne Win in 1962 put an end to these plans. Ne Win believed that the identity of the state should be Buddhist and that all ethnic minorities agitating for rights should be suppressed in favor of national consolidation. His ire focused particularly on Muslims, whom he saw as transplants and feared would have more children, shifting demographics in their favor. In Rakhine State, the junta imposed travel restrictions on the Rohingya and tasked the Buddhist Rakhine with enforcing the new orders. More Rohingya fled — including Futhu’s grandfather, who took refuge in Bangladesh in 1963. He seldom spoke about those years, but Futhu knew that in exile he learned to read Bengali. When Futhu was very small, after evening prayer, he watched his grandfather read long Bengali poems, almost like music; people from the village would come, listen and make requests.
Beginning in 1977, the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, carried out a major operation called Naga Min, or Dragon King, designed to drive “illegal immigrants” out of Burma. The army descended on Rohingya villages, corralling people — including Futhu’s mother and father — and forcing them to roll up their sleeves to show if they had received vaccinations, claiming Bangladeshis had scars on their right arms while Burmese citizens had them on their left. During this campaign of intimidation, Rohingya had their citizenship papers confiscated. The soldiers burned villages, destroyed mosques and herded people into fenced stockades. They raped and murdered. More than 200,000 Rohingya refugees were crowded into ramshackle camps on the Bangladeshi side of the Naf River, which separates the two countries. The Bangladeshi authorities, who also didn’t want them, withheld food rations in an attempt to force the Rohingya back. Less than six months after they fled, the Rohingya were forcibly repatriated. Three years later, the military government passed the 1982 Citizenship Law. The act would be used to effectively bar Rohingya from citizenship. The Rohingya became the largest stateless population within a country in the world.
Futhu had just started primary school when his older sister and the family joined thousands of Rohingya walking to Bangladesh in 1992, all of them trying to escape a new drive to conscript the Rohingya, including his father, into forced labor. The family fled, trekking six days along paths already worn by earlier exoduses. That wave was made up of 270,000 people. They lived in the Bangladeshi refugee camps for four years. During that time, unknown to them, the Burmese government started a program of building “model” Buddhist villages on their soil. They lured poor Rakhine or Bamar prisoners from other parts of the country to repopulate the state, offering tempting deals of ample land, a pair of oxen and a house.
In the camps, Futhu’s father did not give up on his son’s education. Futhu attended private classes in an unused shack, where he learned English and Burmese in a small group taught by another Rohingya refugee. One morning, the family was informed that the next day they had to go back to Myanmar. They had no choice. Refugees who protested were beaten. Some were killed. The family boarded a speedboat that deposited them back to the land that did not want them. When Futhu’s mother stepped onto the shore, she saw the Tatmadaw and the Rakhine people and grew sick to her stomach. Nothing of their house remained. They would have to start from scratch, collecting timber from the hills.
Futhu walked to the Rakhine village to finish primary school, then boarded in a nearby Rakhine town for middle school. But the fear never left. It asserted itself in a variety of ways. His father was terrified every time he saw the military. He shook and worried, even if Futhu did not see the danger. The trauma carried over to the next generation even if history’s dates and details did not. Children absorbed it through their mother’s embrace or their father’s anger. It was present in the way their fathers flinched when they saw an approaching patrol, or the way the men of the village sometimes ran away, spending nights in the hills, thinking the security services were after them. It was erasure without eradication, the inability to conceive of a peaceful future. Some refused to build nice houses. Others made do and continued to invest in a land that did not want them. All of them, one by one, generation by generation, had no choice but to survive. They grew up to live their parents’ traumas themselves. They never knew the origins or when something might come again to throw them violently off the earth.
Futhu’s father did not have the funds to send him to university. Education was expensive — between 1.8 million and 2 million kyat ($1,250) to put a child through one year of high school. Families usually could afford to educate only one son while his brothers worked.
After he finished high school, Futhu began keeping another journal, a special smaller red notebook, where he documented incidents in which the government’s brutal frontier force, the NaSaKa, came to the village from their nearby outpost — bribes, extortion, beatings, fines, arrests. Futhu’s father offered to loan him money to start a small shop, but he wanted something more. A friend of his, who taught Quranic school in the morning and afternoon at the mosque, suggested that Futhu hold a small class teaching children English and Burmese during the day. There were so many children who wanted to learn, the friend said. Together they collected two dozen students. Futhu visited parents to explain that they needed to try to save money for textbooks. When some families couldn’t find the funds, Futhu asked wealthier people for donations. If those weren’t enough, he paid for the students’ books himself.
Futhu made deals with traveling traders to bring him the weekly newspaper from Maungdaw to better understand the world. He loved history and languages. He was obsessed with writing down the lyrics to English songs. He collected books. He read about World War I, Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton. From the start, he loved to teach. He sang his students songs and read them poems so they would better remember. He translated the Burmese curriculum into Rohingya, so it was easier to understand. Like the history in his notebooks, he started every explanation at the very, very beginning.
Within a few months, his students were reading and writing. Within two years, they started passing exams for middle-school placement. The teachers at the nearby primary school in the Rakhine village were surprised when Rohingya started scoring better than their Rakhine peers. How did you do it? they asked.
In the country’s 2010 elections, when the Rohingya still had the right to vote, the candidate from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (U.S.D.P.), known for its ties to the military, held a campaign event in Dunse Para. The junta was loosening its reins after the “saffron revolution” — a series of antigovernment protests in 2007 led by Buddhist monks calling for political reforms. The election was boycotted by the party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and international observers would slam the vote as unfair, but in Dunse Para, the U.S.D.P. promised the Rohingya rights for votes. They offered seven million kyat for local development. Instead of dividing it among the residents, which would net each family enough to buy a cup of tea, Futhu thought they should establish an official school. Until that point, Rohingya students who wanted to attend a registered government primary school had to walk to the one Futhu himself attended in the Rakhine village. For middle school and high school, they had to board in larger villages, as Futhu had.
The village chief, Foyaz Ullah, agreed with Futhu, but the community took some persuading. For weeks, Futhu went door to door. He met with parents. He held community meetings. He noticed differences between his community and the taing-yin-tha groups. They might say: “My son has a B.A.” or even “My son has a master’s,” but in Futhu’s community, people said things like “I have seven kani of land,” or “I have two cows and a goat.” He thought the Rohingya should measure the value of their lives differently.
Not everyone was convinced. If we send our children to Burmese schools, will they forget their culture? they asked. Will they ignore the values we taught them? Will they start to drink beer like the Rakhine people? And even if a child could pass primary school, middle school and secondary school, what was the point? They could not go to college or get good-paying government jobs, or join the police or the army. Children were needed for labor and errands. Why spend money on bribes, books and exams when the future was already predetermined?
But, Futhu argued, if the Rohingya were educated, they could put an end to these rules. More of their community could run for Parliament. If they had a dozen members of Parliament, even if the authorities killed one or two of them, the rest would remain, and they could come up with new ideas for how to cast light into their darkness.
Together with prominent members of the community, Futhu eventually persuaded the town. He organized the school’s registration with the government. He tabulated and retabulated the budget in his diary. He realized that the promised money wasn’t nearly enough: A properly built school would cost 10 times the U.S.D.P. contribution. He put together a committee to figure out how to build it more cheaply. To avoid paying laborers for construction, they collected 25 volunteers. They needed coconut trees for wall beams, but to buy a whole coconut tree and carry it from the hills would cost a huge sum. Futhu had another idea: Many people in the village had coconut trees on their land that had not given fruit in years. He mapped those trees and went to their owners. Could they not buy their useless trees for a reduced price? Within a week, all barren coconut trees of the village became stumps.
During construction, to attract more free labor, they put up speakers at the site and loudly played Hindi and English pop songs. When people gathered, drawn by the commotion, they asked: Can you help us? Students made fires and tended stoves; they fetched water from the well and made tea for the laboring guests. They built fences to block the school grounds from the nearby stream, so the kids wouldn’t stumble and fall in. They strung up tarpaulins for walls, taking care to make sure fresh air could come in to the classrooms. They blocked the view of the road, so children would not be distracted.
In 2010, when they were done, the first official government school in Dunse Para had space for four classes, blackboards and 260 pupils. Starting one village school, which may seem so simple, was actually so difficult, and so monumental, it was like changing the course of a deep river.
In 2013, Futhu married his wife in a big ceremony attended by many people from the village. She was beautiful, with soft round features, sparkling eyes, olive skin and a laugh that sounded like little bells chiming. Futhu had loved her since they were children and had won her heart secretly over time. When Futhu’s parents came to her house to officially arrange the match, her mother and brothers were keen: Futhu was educated, and he spoke English. Her mother blessed the union.
By then, Futhu’s red logbook was full of short entries about the punishments meted out by the NaSaKa, which he wrote in Rohingya but spelled in a mixture of English and Burmese — a code only he could decipher. He also kept his daily diary, writing in it every night in the bed he now shared with his wife. Sometimes she grew angry with him for keeping their kerosene lantern on long into the darkness. The Rohingya were not allowed to have the lights on late at night. About this, their conversations grew heated and sometimes verged on fights. Futhu explained to her that the information he was writing was more valuable than money; if something happened to him and he died, the knowledge he was collecting would live on forever.
By the time Futhu and his wife had their own sons, he had more than 40 diaries. He lived in the house he shared with his parents and three brothers, and he kept the diaries in a wooden chest he’d paid a small fortune to build. They were mixed in together with other schoolbooks and papers like camouflage.
Two years after the school’s founding, the structure needed repairs, and Futhu organized a soccer tournament to raise the money. In early June 2012, after the final match, the villagers saw many Rakhine people passing along the road. Futhu thought they were going to a nearby mountain, where they held a yearly festival to celebrate the end of the Rakhine year with songs and dramas. But that evening, as the people of Dunse Para were deconstructing the field and stands, they heard rumors that Rohingya houses in nearby towns were being burned.
Over the next few days, Rohingya began showing up in Dunse Para with stories of fires swallowing their villages and Rakhine mobs out to kill them with sticks and knives. The communal violence eventually led to the deaths of several hundred people, including dozens of children who were hacked apart, as the security services either looked the other way or joined in the bloodletting on the Rakhine side. Futhu had heard about times like these, the interethnic riots of the past, though he had never witnessed them himself. Only later did he learn that it began when a Buddhist woman had been raped and killed, and there was a rumor that Muslim men had committed the assault. The story had spread online, and in retaliation a bus of Muslim men was set upon by a Rakhine mob numbering hundreds. Ten Muslim men were killed in revenge.
Though Dunse Para was far from the violence, it was not immune to the fallout. Villagers’ land was commandeered to house those displaced. After running over the mountains in hordes to Dunse Para and a nearby village called Chein Khar Li, the newly homeless never left. The villagers heard that in Sittwe, the state capital, Rohingya were herded into a few city blocks, ensnared by barbed wire and couldn’t leave. They had been living in a ghetto ever since.
As the Rohingya were stripped of their rights, the outside world didn’t seem to notice. In 2012, President Barack Obama eased sanctions on Myanmar after by-elections netted Aung San Suu Kyi a majority of the seats in Parliament. The first sitting United States president ever to set foot in Myanmar, Obama arrived shortly after the 2012 communal violence. He only briefly mentioned the Rohingya in a glowing speech that focused on the nation’s new democratic future.
Two years later, Futhu used a mobile phone with internet access for the first time, and it changed everything. He was struck by the wealth of information this tiny object held — the weather in Delhi or diseases in other parts of the world. When he opened Facebook, he saw something else: posts disparaging his community, calling them kalar (a derogatory term for foreigners), dogs and rapists, and agitating for them to leave Myanmar. Muslim-owned shops burned in other parts of the country. Muslims were killed in the street. A group of fanatic monks, who called their organization 969, and then MaBaTha, had been preaching violence for years. Though Futhu knew about these incidents, they did not form any kind of early warning pattern in his mind. In 2015, he began teaching at the first official middle school in Chein Khar Li, shared by the two Rohingya communities. His focus remained on his students.
On Oct. 9, 2016, in the early morning hours, when Futhu was sleeping in the middle-school dormitory in Chein Khar Li, the sound of bullets ripped across the paddy fields and through the thatched houses of Dunse Para. Men rushed outside to try to figure out what was going on. Robbers? Thieves? A gang? They trampled the dirt paths to ask their village chief, Ayub, for surely he would know. Ayub had been in the position for two years, serving under the head chief from the Rakhine village, who was often referred to as Chairman. Ayub, short and stocky, was a wealthy businessman. He had a good relationship with the authorities and had been doting on them for far longer than his current term. His house was made of tin, and the door was locked from the inside. The villagers pounded until he answered. “What is happening?” they demanded. He had no idea.
The men stayed together until dawn broke. The gunfire had subsided, and the anxious crowd shifted from Ayub’s house to tea stalls next to the Big Village’s main mosque. By the time Futhu returned, Dunse Para was undulating with fear. Ayub and his deputy chiefs, who headed the smaller villages, had been called to the checkpost by the Myanmar Border Guard Police, known as the B.G.P. A security-service detachment had surrounded the village. Women were told to stay indoors, while men clustered here and there, trying to figure out what was going on.
At the post, Ayub was taken inside to see the B.G.P. sector commander, who showed him a captured militant, presumably among those responsible for the violence.
“Do you know him?” he asked.
Ayub said he did not.
They showed him a dead militant’s body.
“Do you know him?”
Ayub swore he did not. The imprisoned man seconded Ayub’s claim under interrogation. The militant said that the men had come to attack the checkpost, with no help from the local community.
In the afternoon, the sector commander told Ayub to bury the dead body in secret. The man had a beard; he was obviously a Muslim. “It’ll be better if you bury the dead body in a Muslim graveyard. Take three people. Make sure nobody sees it.”
When Ayub returned to the village, he informed two town criers — saingom — that the authorities had handed down additional rules. The men walked the dirt paths of the villages, calling out the orders: Curfew from dusk to sunrise! No more call to prayer! Men cannot gather in groups greater than four! Quranic school is suspended! Fishing and going to the mountains for timber are forbidden! All house fences must be torn down!
In an instant, the men’s livelihoods were taken. No one understood what had happened. Two days later, a video was posted online by a group claiming responsibility for the Oct. 9 attack. They called themselves Harakah al-Yaqin, the Faith Movement, and would later take the name the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, ARSA. Suddenly, everyone in Dunse Para was talking about them, even the small children. They wondered who these people were and which village they had come from. The group, led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia, used their language. In the video, they explained that they were spurred to act after the 2012 oppressions. They had launched simultaneous strikes on two B.G.P. checkposts and the B.G.P. headquarters in Maungdaw township. It was not a major offensive, but it had come as a surprise. In total, nine policemen and eight militants were killed. ARSA fled with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The government estimated that the total attackers numbered 400 and accused the local community of helping.
As the ARSA video circulated online, the security services returned to Dunse Para. Officers fanned out through the village on patrol. A cluster approached Futhu’s house. They told everyone to come outside and bring their household list, an official record of every member of their family. Anyone missing during a security check could be crossed off the list and banned from ever returning.
The family came down into their yard. Other than Futhu’s older brother, who had fled more than a decade before and eventually settled in Malaysia, braving the risky sea journey in which thousands of Rohingya have died over the years, everyone was present. Seemingly satisfied, the officers said they could go back inside. They were at the edge of the family’s property when the commander turned back and called for Futhu.
“Where were you on Oct. 9?” the commander asked.
Futhu explained he was at the middle-school dormitory. If they had any questions, they could speak to the Rakhine chairman. The commander eyed him, reached up and grabbed him by his hair. “Why are you trying to fight against the Tatmadaw?” he spat. “Why are you doing this violence?”
“I’m not involved in any kind of violence,” Futhu said. “Why would I? You’re like our brothers.”
Futhu recognized one of the B.G.P. officers. He was stationed at the checkpost Futhu crossed every day as he went to the school. They often exchanged greetings and sometimes played soccer together. “I know that man,” Futhu pleaded. “He knows me. Why do you suspect us? We all help each other, we do each other favors. I’ve never been involved in this kind of work. I am a teacher.”
The commander continued pulling Futhu’s hair at the root. “Why are people coming from Bangladesh fighting with the police and military?” he said. Futhu managed to keep himself quiet. The commander released his grip and strode away. Before the officers left, they kicked down the family’s outhouse fence.
In the days after the ARSA attack, men of the village were plucked out for interrogation. The village chief’s brother, who was an Islamic teacher, was beaten, and then Ayub himself was taken. The two deputies who accompanied him on the day he was detained fled to the hills, terrified that they would be next.
A few weeks later, the Rakhine chairman sent word that an international delegation would be coming to several towns, including Dunse Para, to learn about their situation. The villagers did not know what to expect. After the 2015 elections, when Aung San Suu Kyi became de facto head of the country, no one pushed the new leadership to account for previous sins. They used many excuses to abdicate “the lady” from responsibility for the apartheid that had flourished for years, including that the Tatmadaw, not the government, was actually still in control. But the ARSA attacks focused international attention on the state, as the Tatmadaw launched “area clearance operations.”
Futhu was getting ready for prayer at the mosque when he saw a cluster of elders and young students sitting on the ground, discussing what the community should do when the foreigners came. The group was debating making signs in English about their oppression — they could write “RAPE, GENOCIDE, KILLING, TORTURE” in big letters. Someone suggested asking a teacher to write the words in English correctly.
Futhu wasn’t sure what he thought of the idea. There had been no trouble in their village during the 2012 riots. Was it wise to be writing such things when they lived in peace and harmony with their Rakhine neighbors? Futhu never said he was a brave man. He was helping to oversee the reconstruction of the primary school, which had been wrecked by a cyclone in 2013. They had jury-rigged the roof. He kept his head down; he avoided eye contact; he hurried to finish his prayers.
The foreigners came during harvest. The rice at the top of the stalks in the paddies was hard and yellow, ready to be cut, threshed and dried in the sun. When the helicopter landed, everyone working in the fields gathered on the dirt roads. Some held placards, while others strained for a glimpse, as if at a soccer match. One sign read, “How long we suffer mass killing, rape Rohingya mothers and sisters from Rakhine and B.G.P. and government.” Futhu thought his students had looked up the correct English spellings on Facebook.
There was a foreign woman and a few foreign men wearing clothing from their own countries. The villagers believed they really had come to help. Delegations usually brought their own translators, but more often than not these translators could not speak Rohingya, and most villagers could not speak Burmese. The Rakhine chairman was charged with translating, but he was having trouble with the words.
The authorities asked if Futhu could help. He stepped forward, along with another teacher. An older woman was crying and crying. The delegates asked what was wrong. She wanted to explain that her brother had been arrested and she had no idea where he was, alive or dead. Other villagers tried to explain their situation: We are not recognized with our real ethnicity. We don’t have permission for anything. We don’t have freedom to move from here to there. We need to receive permission to marry. We don’t have rights. They say that we are foreigners. They say we’re Bengali, and we’re not. All our ancestors, fathers and grandfathers have been living here for a long time. Why do they not accept us as citizens? Please, you, delegation of different countries, please, try to fix this problem and give us recognition.
When the meeting ended, the members of the delegation began walking back to their cars, but the Rakhine chairman lingered. He turned to the villagers with anger: “You complained about us and shamed our government,” he told them. “There will be a big problem waiting for you.”
Several mornings later, the village found a dozen B.G.P. trucks parked on the main road. Futhu and his father raced to hide his diaries, shoving them in a sack and stowing it in a rice paddy next to some bushes. Hurrying home, they saw the officers making their way to the Big Village. By 11 a.m., they heard the calls of the saingom: All males over 12 years old, report to the Big Village!
When they arrived, they saw their neighbors, hundreds of them, maybe a thousand, seated in a formation of rows in identical, unnatural positions. The men had their legs straight in front of them, their hands clasped behind their necks, heads bowed. The B.G.P. lined the path. As the new arrivals approached, the officers hit them with sticks or kicked them with their boots. They forced each man to take off his watch and put them in a big, shiny pile. Futhu handed over his watch — a wedding gift from his wife’s family that had come all the way from Yangon, the former capital. But before he could take his place, he was called out of the line. Officers tied his hands behind his back and started beating him. There was no explanation, just a torrent of blows that fell on his head and his body. Futhu fell over. The beating continued. He was bleeding, dizzy. He saw that his father was bleeding from the mouth. He lost consciousness and woke intermittently. He was being dragged now. The sharp points of knives were piercing his skin. A cigarette smoldered his arm. As the villagers watched Futhu’s torment, no one was surprised. They all knew what happened to the educated when the authorities came.
When Futhu woke up, his arms were still tied behind him. Everything — his back, his stomach, his arms and his head — hurt. He had been dragged a short distance from the group. If anyone protested or looked up, they were beaten harder. The B.G.P. officers lit cigarettes, smoked and chatted. One man recorded the detention on his mobile phone, turning it around to film his face, as if he were taking a vacation selfie. An officer barked at Futhu to get up. He could barely stand, but he followed the officer to a clearing, where three higher-ranking officials sat under the shade of betel nut trees.
“You did the translation for the delegation?” one of them asked.
Futhu confirmed that he had. “This is not your country,” Futhu remembers him saying. “You’re Rohingya. Your ancestors came from Bangladesh. You claim that you’re indigenous of this country, and you demanded rights? How dare you.”
Futhu saw that one of the officers in the group was the highest-ranking officer from the nearby B.G.P. post. Another was a man he had played soccer with. He looked to him as he spoke. “I’m the schoolteacher here.”
“Who wrote the placards?” the officers asked him.
“I don’t know,” Futhu responded. “I don’t know.”
The officer Futhu had recognized from the checkpost came over and smashed him in the head with a rifle. They wanted to know about ARSA. Futhu said he knew nothing about them. The Rakhine chairman was there, and the officers turned to him: “What kind of person is he?”
“I know his parents and his ancestors,” the chairman said. “He is a good man. He goes to school straight and comes back. Maybe he was involved in the placard writing, but he is not involved with any bad people.”
It was as good of a character reference as Futhu could have hoped for. “Ask the other military and police soldiers how good a relationship our relationship was,” he begged, unable to stop himself from talking. “They see me going to school and coming back directly from the school! Morning and evening, every day! I don’t know any of those people. I have never been involved in this work!”
Futhu was ordered to return to the others, his life spared.
By the evening, it had started to rain, turning the ground the men sat on to mud. The officers told the soaking mass to get up. They were herded into a two-story thatched house with the interior walls removed. Hundreds of men were pushed in and piled on top of one another.
In the morning, women and children appeared, having been told that they could bring food for the captives. Futhu’s mother arrived with fish curry and rice, but her son could not swallow through the pain. As the men ate, the B.G.P. came for the women. In the Big Village, they stormed into their homes. They rooted through their things. They ripped the gold ornaments off their necks and the mobile phones from inside their blouses. They chased women, and if they caught them, they touched all of their bodies.
At Futhu’s house, his wife, along with one of Futhu’s sisters and his 11-year-old brother, sat under a tree watching the officers toss their belongings outside. They began to tear apart Futhu’s chest and collect his papers. The papers were useless to everyone except Futhu; even his careful father hadn’t thought to hide them. Futhu’s wife was eight months pregnant with their second child. She had never known her mother-in-law to be particularly forceful, but she charged up to the officer. “What are you doing?” Futhu’s mother demanded. “Why are you going through my son’s papers?” Having just come from seeing her son’s wounds, how much more could she take? Futhu’s wife watched in shock as she tried to grab some of the papers from the officer’s hand. The man did not let go. The officers took all the papers except one, which she picked up off the ground and slid next to her heart. Futhu’s diaries, which he and his father hid that morning, remained safe.
The B.G.P. commander explained that because Ayub was detained and his two deputies had fled, they needed new leadership. He asked Futhu if he wanted the job. “I am only a teacher,” Futhu said. “I don’t want to be responsible for this.”
The commander told the group to pick their new leaders. Everyone looked to Foyaz Ullah, because he had held the job before Ayub. Foyaz Ullah was crestfallen. He had no choice but to accept.
“This time we are letting you go, but next time we will burn your houses and turn them into ashes,” the commander said. “Now, we are warning you orally. Next time, this will talk!” He turned his rifle on the crowd.
The officers brought Futhu a blank paper. On it Futhu was instructed to write: “The B.G.P. came to our village. They did a check. They did no harassment or looting. They took good care of us.” The men signed their names.
In the days after the mass detention, men who had run up into the mountains returned to Dunse Para. Those who sheltered in the paddies crept back by night. In the end, the village counted 10 men who had been arrested, including the other translator for the foreign delegation. Relatives would spend months trying to figure out where these men were held and whether they had been hurt. For those who remained, their already small world was shrinking — the restrictions were still in place. Men could not fish or cut timber from the hills, but they had families to feed, marriage fees to pay, bribes to register children outside the two-child law. What happens to men when they are powerless? What happens to women who live in fear? Some got desperate and sneaked into the mountains to forage for wood scraps. Others, forbidden to fish with boats or nets, ran into the sea with plastic bags tied to their bodies.
Since the Oct. 9 attacks, ARSA was growing in strength. They set up cells within dozens of villages, led by local leaders, usually imams. They recruited young, frustrated men, promising money and rights. They revealed a more menacing side. ARSA began targeting Rohingya they suspected of being informants — they killed more than a dozen village heads and other local administrators. For Foyaz Ullah, the pressure would be coming from all sides — if he received ARSA pressure and reported it, he could be executed for collaboration. The military, meanwhile, demanded ARSA updates, even if he had none to give. The community swore they’d never seen or heard from actual ARSA members, but who could be sure what was happening high in the mountains, where they weren’t technically even allowed to tread.
Ever since the village detention, schools had been closed. With no students to teach, Futhu thumbed his books, read his newspapers and listened to the radio, but he began losing patience. The children were falling behind their Rakhine peers. He heard members of the community say that even if the schools reopened, they would not send their children back. The middle school was about an hour’s walk to Chein Khar Li from Dunse Para, past the checkpost, and parents did not want their children anywhere near the officers.
Futhu saw that the video taken by the officer at the village detention had been posted to Facebook. A commission came to Dunse Para to “investigate” — the villagers later heard that some officers, including the one Futhu knew, were put in jail. It would be one of the only cases in which the military or the police charged its own with crimes committed against the Rohingya. But nothing in the village changed. The men detained that night were still missing. The villagers heard that one had died in custody. By the summer, Ayub was still in detention. His family had retained a lawyer who told them that with enough money, she could get him released on Aug. 30, but they would have to wait. Futhu had spent the spring focused on rebuilding the primary school. They had collected all the materials, and by August 2017, they were almost done with the new roof.
In the dark early hours of Aug. 25, everyone in Dunse Para and Chein Khar Li woke together and at once to a barrage of bullets, so many that it sounded like pounding rain. Futhu’s wife, who had given birth not long ago to their second son, told her brother-in-law to call Futhu, who was sleeping at Chein Khar Li, but the line would not connect. The sounds were coming from that direction, and they began to fear for his life. A crowd went to see Foyaz Ullah, who was unsure of what they should do. Though the nearby village was being attacked, perhaps the military would not come to Dunse Para. We are innocent people, they repeated to themselves.
Awake in Chein Khar Li, Futhu could think only of his family. One of his friends told him to stay put, that there could be danger on the road. As the hours dragged on, the bullet rain kept falling. By dawn, Futhu decided to risk it. In the morning light, he could see the security services and gunfire on the main road. To the north, the beach was calm, waves lapping at the shore. He ran. When he arrived home, the house was empty. His thoughts, normally so ordered and rapid, now broke apart and scattered: How will I find my family? What will I do now? How will I save myself? He hurried to the Big Village to check his in-laws’ house, with the thought that his family could have fled there. At his mother-in-law’s place, he found a woman he did not know taking refuge. She had not seen his wife or his parents.
The bullet rain was now joined by the thunder of heavy weapons and explosions. Futhu picked his way from one house to the next, asking for his family. At the main mosque, he spotted a crowd of men making their own calculations: Those with small children were running to the hills, while older people were staying put. They told Futhu to check his aunt’s house. They thought they’d seen his family there.
When Futhu finally saw them — his father, mother, wife and children all together, all safe — there was the briefest moment of relief. They had fled that morning, not knowing how to pass him the message that they were seeking shelter. Futhu filled his father in on what he’d seen along the way.
“What should we do?” his father asked.
“We don’t have a choice,” Futhu decided. “We follow the crowd.”
The path to the mountains crossed the road on which the military trucks traveled. Though they were parked outside Chein Khar Li, they could move at any moment. Futhu and his family agreed to run fast. They could only hope the trucks did not shudder to life.
When the family set out, they tried to stay together, but the young couple were weighed down by two babies. Futhu’s wife carried their youngest, and Futhu carried their toddler. Soon they lost each other in the scrum of people scrambling up the hills, jagged with rocks and slippery with monsoon mud. Futhu’s sandals got stuck immediately, so he threw them off. All he had was a red T-shirt, trousers and a raincoat. The tiny cluster collided with other families picking their way up the mountains, everyone using any limbs they could to cling to the land while moving toward the sky. When they got above the village, they cast their eyes below. In Chein Khar Li, smoke and red flames danced in unison. Bodies were strewn on the ground. Dunse Para appeared empty. A few young men braved the route down to Chein Khar Li to scavenge food and returned with burned rice and tales of burned bodies. Darkness came. Futhu and his family decided they would sleep there. There were about two dozen people sheltering under a tiny scrap of tarp.
The next morning, an ethereal, unnatural calm settled like mist. In Dunse Para, Foyaz Ullah held out hope. Maybe the military wouldn’t come. First one day passed, then two. Soon the people in the hills would return. Their village would again be spared. Futhu and his family walked to another village, Boshora, where they slept two nights. They ate and prayed it was all over. They collected a few pots, dried meat and a larger tarp, in case they would have to run again.
On Aug. 28, in the early morning, the security services entered Dunse Para and Boshora, weapons firing. Instantly, the residents knew they had never been safe. Futhu and his family ran again. They heard explosions at their backs. They clambered up the mountains again, higher and higher, and sheltered under the trees. When the military entered Dunse Para, those who had remained tried to run up the same paths. Foyaz Ullah’s family dashed out of their house. As they ran, a bullet tore through Foyaz Ullah’s torso. He was murdered by the same people he’d tried to appease, in front of those he’d tried to calm. There was such chaos, such surprise, that mothers let go of their children. They left elderly grandparents who could not run behind. Those bodies would burn in the houses they’d built with their own hands. One mother’s body was found charred, tied, dragged to a boat and mutilated.
From the heights of the hills, just as the security officer had prophesied, Futhu watched his world turn to ashes. He could see half a dozen villages below. All were bathed in bright red flames topped with plumes of black smoke. He thought about the school he had built and almost rebuilt. The books and newspapers he had read and collected. And the diaries. The knowledge and stories and proofs he’d painstakingly chronicled, which he believed would outlast him no matter what happened to his body, vanished to soot.
Across Rakhine State, in the early hours of Aug. 25, ARSA had launched 30 simultaneous attacks on checkposts, but the government response did not distinguish between civilians and militants. It was as if the authorities had been waiting for an excuse. Troop buildup had been underway for months. At least 27 army battalions, joined by the B.G.P. and civilian Rakhine militias, began to cleanse the land.
The military had seeded Facebook with anti-Rohingya propaganda, taking cues from the ultrafanatic monks who had propagated anti-Muslim sentiment. Massacres spread like waves. At least 10,000 men, women and children were slaughtered — stabbed, beheaded, quartered, set on fire, shot. Babies were pried from their mothers’ arms and tossed in fires. Some were cut into pieces. Women were abducted, locked in houses, bitten and gang raped, their breasts cut off, before they, too, were set aflame. (U Tin Thin Soe, the Rakhine village administrator for the Koe Tan Kauk village tract, denied that 10 men had been arrested; he said the Rohingya were terrorists who burned down their own houses and fled.)
For days, the hills were a jumble of confusion and rumors. Families set off in one direction, thinking it was safe, only to reverse course and walk back upon seeing destruction or a new checkpost. Bodies, alive and dead, were everywhere. If you could not see them, you could hear them talking through the trees. By night, young people gathered and planned to make trips down to their villages, to scavenge for food, to look for and bury their dead. Futhu wanted to join them and look for his diaries, but his father forbade it. “If we die, we die here without eating. You don’t need to go down there to die again.”
On the fifth night, there was a new rumor — the military would come into the mountains soon, so everyone was fleeing into Bangladesh. Futhu and his family followed, walking all night through the mud and crossing a small river the following day. When they came upon the white sandy beach of the large Naf River, they saw a never-ending collection of people. The most crowded marketplace Futhu had seen did not compare. People were pitching tarpaulin tents, spreading their meager belongings on the sand.
Boatmen came and went, ferrying families. Futhu did not want to go to the nearest Bangladeshi shore. The government might set rules about who could enter, and they might end up stranded on the water. He wanted to go to Cox’s Bazar’s main port, deeper into Bangladesh. When the boatman wanted an exorbitant fare, he didn’t bother negotiating. The night of their trip, it rained more than Futhu had ever remembered it raining. Fourteen hours later, on Sept. 7, 13 days after they fled their village, the boat stopped in chest-high water, and Futhu helped his mother and wife off to the shore.
Futhu’s family was among the 700,000 Rohingya who arrived to Bangladesh in one of the largest, most precipitous exoduses of refugees in recent history. They slept along a main highway, stringing up tarps as a tent. On their third morning on the road, the Bangladeshi military commanded them to all move away into the dense jungle. They trudged through the trees, forming the biggest and most congested refugee settlement on Earth. As if overnight, the jungle was cleared. Bamboo and tarp shacks upon shacks sprang up along the muddy hills, which shifted under their weight. Monsoons caused landslides; new arrivals were unable to find even a small patch of earth to tolerate them. Endangered Asian elephants now found their paths brimming with endangered human bodies. They trampled tents, killing 13 refugees and injuring dozens.
One night, that first hectic week, Futhu sat down and started a new diary. He tried to write down what happened to him as carefully as he could — the dates of fleeing the village, the nights spent in the hills — but he found that his usually orderly brain had broken. His thoughts seemed to disintegrate: Had it been this day or that one? The images of death, flames and violence were strong, but the facts and dates were hazy. It was as if his brain had not recorded the memories in order. He drafted the timeline for a week, starting and stopping, and then beginning again.
Because everyone from Dunse Para fled at roughly the same time, they lived in roughly the same patch of camp — an entire village transported. Every time he met a familiar face on a muddy path, he inquired about the person’s family. He asked how many relatives were injured or if anyone had died. If the person’s family survived, he asked what they had heard about their neighbors. Futhu decided he needed another document. Where once he had mapped the lives of his villagers, he now chronicled their deaths. He wrote in English and titled it “List of Died.” With each name, a face swam through his mind. In the end, there were 12 names on his list. Futhu reminded himself that he was lucky: He was alive. He had not written any of his own family members’ names. Still, he knew all of these souls — mothers, children and sons. It was important to keep track of history.
I met Futhu one afternoon almost a year to the day after the August carnage, next to the largest metal bridge in the camps, which had been donated by the Japanese government, its inscription now reading, “From th e ple of Japan.” The news from the summer of 2017 had been pornographic in its misery, shocking the world. A United Nations fact-finding mission has since levied charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against Myanmar’s military commanders. But for anyone who had been following the plight of the Rohingya, what happened in August was inevitable. How had the Rohingya lived every day in a country that did not want them, through generations that have been marked by exodus as steadily as the seasons? I met an old man who had been a refugee four times. How did he return each time? How could he start again and think it would end any differently? How do you live every day on borrowed time?
With the help of a translator, I interviewed more than two dozen people to understand what had happened in Dunse Para, and Futhu, still in his early 30s, was referred to me as one of the most knowledgeable members of the community. He asked that his name not be used and offered a childhood nickname to protect him from retribution in the case of repatriation. Futhu’s story tumbled out in a torrent. He often started years before the event I had asked him about. His explanations went on for hours. Futhu worked during the day, and foreigners could not stay in the camps after dusk, so we met at his work, at his shack and in the huts of his family members, snatching hours when we could, spending the days he had off together. Other people I spoke to called their own community “miserable,” “pitiful” and “wretched ” — but Futhu did not speak this way. He lived in Myanmar as he meant to, as anyone would, believing things could change if you just tried hard enough; not because it was some grand idea he had, though he did have it, but because ultimately he had no other choice.
Life in the camps was at once better and worse than life in Myanmar. Unlike in their village, they could sleep through the night without worrying about being killed. But they were forbidden to leave the camps and needed permission to travel to proper hospitals outside its boundaries. Forces far outside their community controlled their fate. Myanmar and Bangladesh are negotiating for repatriation. Many Rohingya say they will refuse to go without official ethnic recognition, but they have no elected leaders or representatives at the table. ARSA, meanwhile, has made its presence known in the camps, and executions of those who speak out against them continue. The United Nations refugee agency is trying to arbitrate. But who knows how suddenly this place too would again cast the Rohingya off.
Bangladesh does not allow Rohingya to enroll in government schools. UNICEF had set up “child-friendly spaces” — but children went there to play and draw pictures, not to learn. Aid agencies also set up some “learning centers” without a set curriculum. Futhu scoffed at the uselessness. Private tutoring schools cropped up, like the kind Futhu attended as a refugee, but they covered only basic math and language instruction, not history or science or anything else children would need to pass exams. Classes were held for just an hour a day. Another generation living in a grave. They were still teaching to the Burmese education system, hopeful as ever that their situation would change and they would return to their land.
Day to day, Futhu survived, and you could even say he prospered. He volunteered for the World Food Program and received promotions to become the manager of an aid-distribution site. But he stopped teaching, and he stopped keeping his diaries. Sometimes he wrote down the dates and times of a few events on his cellphone — an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation visit or the birth of a baby — but his nightly chronicles had ceased. He told me that it was because the camps were crowded and humid, that there was no peace in which he could put together his thoughts, but I wondered if there wasn’t something else, if this life was not really the one he wanted to document.
In all the hours we spent talking, Futhu only ever asked me one question: What did I think would happen to the Rohingya? I told him I didn’t know. I asked what he thought about returning to Dunse Para. One day he told me he wanted nothing more than to return with his rights; another day he decided he would rather perish in the sea.
I’d read that the Burmese government was building a model village on Dunse Para’s lands, which now were nothing more than unkept fields with burned stumps. When I mentioned this to Futhu, he told me he had heard the same but did not want to believe it. It seemed too much — to cast them off their earth and then just take it? The events of Oct. 9 and Aug. 25 played regularly in his mind. When he dreamed, he saw only his father, who died several months earlier, buried in the camp graveyard, far from the land he sprang from. “Everyone will die one day,” he told me. “I will also have to die. I convinced my mind of that. But about the hardship we went through, I failed to convince myself to forget about them.”
On my last night in the camps, at around 8 p.m., well past the dusk curfew, Futhu was kneeling in the bamboo hut as the darkness stretched its arms through the cracks in the thatch, his face silhouetted against a single solar-powered light bulb. Something happened in him then — I still don’t know what — but Futhu, who had always been so optimistic and purposeful, suddenly crumbled. The hut had filled with relatives and neighbors, and in front of his family and villagers, he started weighing his life.
“Is this a life anybody can look forward to? Why live such a life full of hardship?” he asked. “My kids, my father. … My father died, my grandfather died. Nothing has changed. Now it’s my turn. I have kids. This is the time, I have to try to support my kids. I don’t even want to have kids anymore. Thinking about it is useless. We are just trying to survive here, and also I don’t know what will happen to my future. My head gets messed up if I think about it. All the things I used to do. That time I was very much into this campaign for education, but right now I don’t want to think about it. My heart is in so much turmoil.”
He sat on his knees, his face in anguish. He looked at me, calling me “sister,” as he had begun to after our first week together.
“Sister, your parents supported you for better education, they suffered for your literacy, spent hard-earned money to make you an expert. Now you are using that expertise to help your relatives, your country or maybe other countries too. If someone doesn’t get that type of opportunity to use this expertise, what’s the use of doing all this hard work and making your parents suffer through this the whole time?” he asked.
“My parents supported my education. It would have been better if they hadn’t. I would have been saved from all the trouble and the beating. It’s like that, sister. If you die, it’s the end. Or maybe if we died … many people died … it would have been the end. Instead, we came running with our lives. Sometimes when I think about it, it feels so painful. I feel like letting go of everything.”
I spent one month in the camps in Bangladesh listening to stories of rape and destruction, but nothing prepared me for the genocide of the mind. A people can survive a mass murder; those who remain can rebuild their lives. But what happens when a people’s identity is taken from them? When for years they are repeatedly erased from their earth? When for generations they are told that they do not exist? And what about when the brightest among them give up, stop writing, stop teaching and stop thinking? Is this not what the Burmese government was seeking all along? How useless was all the work Futhu put into educating people, when the goal of one man was subject to forces so far beyond his control?
Before I left that night, I gave Futhu a present, a notebook I thought he could use as a diary if he ever found the inspiration. Our parting was heavy and clumsy. Futhu told me he was sure that if they went back, they would all be killed.
We kept in touch over WhatsApp when Futhu could get signal — the network in the camps was terrible at best. After I left, he messaged me and told me he had started keeping his diary again. He told me he dreamed of saving enough money to buy a computer. A few weeks later, he messaged to say that he was involved in a new project, planting trees in the camp to help stop landslides — to cement roots into the earth. A few weeks after that, he messaged again, saying that he was working with other community leaders to open a new school. It would teach Burmese, English and math. It aimed to reach 1,000 students.
In December, they finished building the school — a large bamboo shelter with blue tarp. By January, it needed repair. Futhu explained that they did not have money for proper construction. They were collecting money from students’ parents, but those refugees did not have jobs, and there was no real income to pay for education. The landslide project had moved forward, and he often sent me photos of trees and plants. He messaged me about the dreams he had of his father. Sometimes they were running from the Burmese military; sometimes they were just talking about his life. He most often messaged me lamenting his diaries, the destruction of his carefully collected histories. He asked frequently about this article. He wanted to know how people in America felt about the Rohingya. He wanted to know if he could hold a copy of this magazine. He begged me not to forget to send it to him. He said he wanted to keep it for the future.