Pope Francis meets Rohingya refugees during an interreligious meeting at the Archbishop's house in Dhaka, in this Dec. 1, photo. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
The soldiers came without warning in the middle of the night. They torched the village, killed the men, and raped the women and girls.
The carnage took place in September in Maungdaw town in the northern part of Myanmar's Rakhine State, but for survivors, especially the women, it seems like it was only yesterday.
Sayeda, a Rohingya woman, told Pope Francis about her ordeal when she met him during his recent three-day visit to Bangladesh.
"I told the pope what we have been through," she told ucanews.com inside a makeshift tent in the middle of a crowded refugee camp in Cox's Bazar.
She told the Catholic Church leader how four soldiers abused her after killing one of her brothers and a cousin in the middle of the night on Eid al-Adha, the Islamic feast of sacrifice.
"The pope assured me that he would do everything possible to help us," she said.
Sayeda, 25, arrived in the vast and dusty camp in October after her village was burned down and pillaged by the Myanmar military.
"The soldiers and [the mobs] killed our children and destroyed our homes," she said.
"Allah saved us from being killed and we fled to Bangladesh to save our lives," she recalled telling Pope Francis during their brief meeting.
Hajera, a 29-year-old rape victim, also shared her ordeal with the pontiff. She told him how the soldiers took her children away before raping her.
"I told the pope that we suffered a lot," she said. "We could not escape because they would shoot at us. "They burned down our mosques," she said.
She said that for 13 days she and her neighbors hid in the forest. One day, her eight-year-old child asked for water. "I took him to a stream. The soldiers caught me, and raped me for days," she said.
About 16 soldiers abused at least 20 women with Hajera for five days. When the soldiers left, they crossed the river to Bangladesh where Hajera was reunited with her husband and three children.
"The pope told me that he will tell the world about our stories. He also told me to pray to Allah," Hajera recounted her meeting with Pope Francis.
Several women have slowly come forward to tell the world about their harrowing ordeal.
Rabeya, 34, recalls with tears in her eyes how three soldiers abused her and her teenage daughter in separate rooms.
She has since fled with her husband and five children to a refugee camp across the river in Bangladesh's Cox Bazar.
She told ucanews.com how the gunmen herded the men outside the village, leaving behind wives and children at the mercy of the attackers.
"From the women and girls they picked out those they saw as pretty and raped them one by one," said Rabeya. "We lost consciousness and the soldiers thought we were dead," she added.
"Many other women were killed after they were raped," she said.
The husband of Hafiza, 28, was killed before four soldiers raped her. Her 14-year-old daughter, who was able to escape, has not been seen since.
"I suspect she was caught, raped and also killed," said Hafiza, who calls out for her daughter every time she wakes up in the middle of the night after a nightmare.
Doctors helping refugees in temporary shelters in Bangladesh said many abuse victims are reluctant to speak about their ordeal due to social stigma attached to sex crimes.
"I have spoken to several women who said they were tortured, but did not mention rape," said Dr. Misbahuddin Ahmed, a family planning official in the town of Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar.
However, he told ucanews.com that most Rohingya women seeking medical attention in makeshift clinics in refugee camps are rape victims.
A Rohingya woman who claimed she was raped several times by soldiers in Myanmar's Rakhine State says she told Pope Francis about her ordeal during a meeting in Dhaka in early December. (Photo by Joe Torres)
Widespread and systematic abuse
A report released by Human Rights Watch on Nov. 16 noted that reported incidents of rape committed by Myanmar's military have become widespread and systematic in recent weeks.
Interviews conducted by the organization with 52 Rohingya women and girls who sought refuge in Bangladesh revealed that "all but one of the rapes were gang rapes, involving two or more perpetrators."
"In eight cases women and girls reported being raped by five or more soldiers. They describe being raped in their homes and while fleeing burning villages," Human Rights Watch said.
Pramila Pattern, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, noted "a pattern of widespread atrocities, including rape, gang-rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery."
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in the past three months following a bloody crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State after Rohingya militants reportedly attacked police outposts in August.
Rights groups have called on the international community to look into reports of widespread atrocities, accusations that Myanmar officials repeatedly deny.
Tin Mg Swe, a senior government official in Rakhine State, told ucanews.com that reports of human rights violations are "baseless accusations that attempt to tarnish the image of [Myanmar's] security forces."
He said the government and police in Rakhine State have not received complaints of rape committed against Rohingya women and girls, adding that reports by human rights groups are part of an international conspiracy that portrays Bengali Muslims as victims.
But Chris Lewa, director of the Rohingya advocacy group, Arakan Project, said incidents of rape perpetrated by soldiers in the northern part of Rakhine State have been documented.
"The worst savagery appears to have occurred there, children thrown in fires, men brutally killed, women raped and then locked in houses that were then set on fire," Lewa told ucanews.com.
Sultan, a Rohingya man from the town of Maungdaw, said a woman raped by border police in October filed a complaint but there was no action taken.
"How can women and girls demean themselves by making up rape stories?" said Sultan.
No end in sight to displacement
There seems to be no end in sight to the suffering of poor Muslim Rohingya people as thousands continue to cross Bangladesh's southeastern border with Myanmar.
Early this year Bangladeshi authorities refused to accept refugees, even pushing boatloads of them back to sea.
The exodus, however, continues as thousands avoid being arrested or shot by border guards by swimming across the Naf River in the middle of the night.
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but Dhakar says they are citizens of Myanmar, which has even signed previous agreements with Bangladesh to take back refugees who fled persecution in 1979, 1994 and 2011.
The Rohingya, people of the medieval Arakan kingdom, have been complaining of persecution in their own homeland due to ethnic, religious, and cultural differences with the predominantly Buddhist people of Myanmar. The kingdom became a province of the then Burma in 1784.
The Rohingya people have been living in western Myanmar since ancient times. In 1982, however, the government stripped them of citizenship, leading to the growing persecution they are experiencing now.