How much should you sacrifice to save your husband’s life?
And how much hardship do you inflict on your son to rescue your husband?
Those are the questions Jano Begum faced. Jano, 22, and her husband, Robi Alom, 30, are among the more than 1 million Muslims who belong to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, subjected to an ethnic cleansing that a Yale study suggests may amount to genocide.
I’ve written several times over the years about the brutalization of the Rohingya, but I know that for some readers it seems obscure and remote. Why worry about a distant people when there are so many crises in our own backyard? But put yourself in Jano’s situation, as she sits in a hut in a concentration camp here, and think how far you would go to save your spouse.
Jano, Robi and other Rohingya have been confined since 2012 to concentration camps or isolated villages, stripped of citizenship and denied education, jobs and adequate food and health care. The conditions are calculated to induce despair. Sure enough, Robi proposed to his family that he join the wave of Rohingya boat people fleeing to Malaysia.
“I wouldn’t let him go,” Jano recalled. “We were arguing. He said, ‘Even if I die in the ocean, it’s better than being here.’”
Then one evening in October 2014 Robi disappeared. A friend passed a message to Jano: He had hopped on a human trafficker’s boat. He hadn’t dared to say goodbye for fear that Jano would stop him.
Jano was wounded and angry, but she also understood.
“Here we live in something like a prison,” she said. “No jobs. No nothing. So that’s why he left.”
The Rohingya feel abandoned. The U.N. system, with the exception of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has downplayed the problem. Western embassies and governments have been too complacent. And Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose party just won elections in Myanmar, has been silent.
In the same camp where I spoke to Jano I also met Arafa Begum, a 27-year-old widow who arranged with human traffickers last year to travel with her five children on a different ship to Malaysia. Arafa knew she was at risk of being sold to a brothel, along with her daughters. But, not knowing how her children could survive if she stayed in Myanmar, she boarded a human trafficker’s ship in July.
“There was almost no food or water,” she remembered — and conditions were hellish in the hold.
The ship sailed for 50 days, as its operators tried to sneak past the Thai navy, but they finally gave up. Arafa and her children are back in the concentration camp, but she’s thinking of trying again.
As for Robi, 2 1/2 months after he disappeared, Jano received a message from a human trafficker in Thailand. He was holding her husband, and he demanded $1,200 for her husband’s life.
Jano sold belongings, borrowed from relatives and pawned her food-ration card, managing to raise $500 and transfer it to the traffickers’ bank account. In phone calls, the traffickers pressed for more money. Sometimes they put Robi on the line and beat him with sticks, so the family could hear his screams.
But Jano told them she had nothing left. She didn’t quite tell me so, but she hinted that perhaps she could have raised a little bit more but feared that their 5-year-old son, Muhammad — already hungry — would starve. I got the sense that she also thought the traffickers would capitulate and eventually release Robi.
If that’s what she thought, she miscalculated. She received a final call from the traffickers: Robi had died in the jungle.
“I didn’t raise the money, so they killed him,” Jano told me. After a long, aching pause, she added: “I blame myself. I didn’t save my husband.”
It’s not clear what happened. Maybe the traffickers beat Robi to death or killed him to sell his kidneys. Perhaps he died of malaria. Or perhaps they sold him to a Thai fishing boat on which he is enslaved.
Jano hasn’t told Muhammad that his father may be dead. The boy is losing weight, from either worry or malnutrition. The family owes $200 to get back its ration card, so food is scarcer than ever. Jano washes clothes for neighbors, earning 20 cents a day to eke out an existence. (A human-rights group called Fortify Rights is trying to help her.)
Multiply Jano’s tragedy by a million and you get the tapestry of the Rohingya suffering today. The horror arises not just from the savagery of human traffickers but from a government’s systematic effort to destroy a particular ethnic group, one met by global indifference.
Genocide? I don’t know. A stain on our collective humanity? Absolutely.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.