IN the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Noor never got enough to eat so she mistook the fluttering feeling in her abdomen for hunger. But, when it became the more insistent push of a fetus, the teenager could not ignore the sensation any longer.
Myanmar soldiers, in their telltale green uniforms, had allegedly raped Noor for days last year — first in her village home, then in the forest, she said. She then fled along with some 700,000 other Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh, where she now lives in the world’s largest refugee settlement.
She carried with her a growing reminder of the Myanmar military’s brutal campaign to obliterate an unwanted minority through massacre, rape and mass burnings of villages. The baby — conceived during an explosion of violence against the Rohingya that United Nation officials have said may amount to genocide — makes it impossible to forget.
Everyone in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh knows of the rapes and how the Myanmar military has, for decades, used sexual violence as a weapon of war, particularly against ethnic groups that are not from the nation’s Buddhist majority.
They know it is not the fault of the Rohingya women and girls, who were often gang-raped at gunpoint, their mothers, sisters or daughters sobbing and screaming nearby.
Nevertheless, in traditional Rohingya Muslim society, rape brings shame to households. Any resulting pregnancies are viewed as heaping even more disgrace on families, according to counselors working in the refugee camps.
As a result, many survivors are made to suffer twice — first from the trauma of sexual violence, and then from the ostracism of a conservative society that abandons them when they most need support.
It is impossible to know how many babies conceived by rape in Myanmar are being delivered in the camps. Most Rohingya choose to deliver their babies in their shelters rather than in medical clinics, so there is no comprehensive record of births.
Nevertheless, health workers operating in the camps speak anecdotally of a spike in deliveries that would coincide with rapes from late August through September last year, the most intense period of violence against the Rohingya.
In a society that normally embraces children — to have six, seven or eight is common among Rohingya families. But, the babies who are now being delivered tend to be treated differently.
Traffickers have moved in, spreading the word they can relieve women of unwanted newborns. If an unusually pale child is born, the mother must endure whispers that the complexion is the result of a father from Myanmar’s Bamar ethnic majority.
Last week UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, where he met mothers of babies born of rape.
“I’ve just heard unimaginable accounts of killing and rape from Rohingya refugees who recently fled Myanmar,” Guterres said in a Twitter post.
“Nothing could’ve prepared me for the scale of crisis and extent of suffering I saw,” he added in another tweet.
Guterres described Rohingya Muslims as “one of the most discriminated against and vulnerable communities on earth”.
From the moment her belly began to swell, Noor, who, like others in this story is being identified only by her first name for her protection, stayed huddled in her tarpaulin shelter, hiding from the judgment of others.
She is unmarried and unsure of how old she is, although her grandparents estimate she is between 16 and 18.
“Only my parents know how old I am,” Noor said. “But they are dead.”
Her father was killed last year as they tried to escape the soldiers who rampaged through their village in Buthidaung Township in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. His name is on a casualty list compiled by human rights groups. Her mother is missing and presumed dead.
While many survivors of rape terminated their pregnancies after arriving in Bangladesh, half the Rohingya treated for rape in the refugee camp clinics run by Doctors Without Borders, the medical aid group, were 18 or younger. Several had not reached 10 years old. Like Noor, some girls did not understand what rape could do to their bodies.
In other cases, because malnutrition and trauma can cause menstruation to cease, women did not realise they were expecting until it was too late. Even for those who realised they were pregnant, a chronic lack of medical care back in their native Rakhine — part of the apartheid system inflicted by authorities in Myanmar — made women leery of visiting camp clinics where they could discuss their choices.
Instead, some women in the camps have relied on mystery potions or backroom abortions that can result in septic shock.
Aid groups have reported a rise in serious domestic violence in the camps, where the sustained uncertainty of refugee life heightens household stress. In this traumatised society, spousal abuse seems ingrained.
Days before her delivery, Noor continued to hide in the back of her shelter, making do with the barest of refugee rations. She had decided the baby would be handed to a human trafficker when it is born. Hopefully, she said, the delivery would be swift so any evidence could be swept away within hours.
No medical staff has ever monitored her pregnancy. But, she had heard that in the camps in Bangladesh there were doctors with magical cures. Noor was intrigued.
“Do you think they have a pill for sadness?” she asked, her hands cradling her abdomen. “I would like to have that pill after the baby is born.”