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Ahmed Mahmood looks at the spot in Myo Thu Gyi village, in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where he saw the Myanmar Border Guard Police executing three villagers, on March 19, 2017  Antolin Avezuela Aristu

Rohingya Villagers Bear Witness to a Brutal Crackdown in Myanmar

On the morning of Oct. 10, Hussein Muhammad, an old Rohingya man who doesn’t know his age, was awoken at 6 a.m. by a noise outside his home. When he stepped outside, he saw that dozens of soldiers and members of Myanmar's Border Guard Police had his hut surrounded.

“They asked us if there was any ‘terrorist’ in our house," he says, speaking from his home in Myo Thu Gyi village near Maungdaw town, in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. "Then they dragged two of my grandsons. I tried to stop them and give them my family list to show them they were my grandsons, but they beat me up and threatened me with their weapons,” Muhammad recounts, breaking into tears.

His two grandsons, Ali Muhammed and Ali Ayaz, were 20 and 13 years old respectively. They were dragged to a small forest locally known as “betel garden” on the fringe of the village. There, Muhammad says, they were executed along with another man.

The raid on Myo Thu Gyi village followed a series of attacks on Oct. 9, in which a group of suspected Rohingya insurgents stormed three Border Guard posts in Rakhine state's Maungdaw and Rathedaung towns, killing nine policemen. In response to the attacks, the Myanmar military launched violent counteroperations in the north of the state, in which several villages were burnt to the ground, and up to 1,000 Rohingya people may have been killed. In the wake of the so-called clearance operation, more than 70,000 people fled to Bangladesh, bringing with them stories of extrajudicial killings, gang rape and children thrown into the flames of burning buildings.

Myo Thu Gyi was the first village attacked by the security forces. Until now, the area has been completely closed off to foreign journalists, but TIME was granted a permit to visit Maungdaw independently, the first since the violence began.

Ahmed Mahmood, a farmer in his late 20s from the same village as Hussein Muhammad, was hiding in a hut nearby and says he saw the executions. "Four members of the Border Guard Police made them sit down on the ground with their hands under their legs. One of the policemen executed them while the others were looking around. He kicked them first in their backs and then put a bullet in their heads, one by one. He shot the youngest one twice, once in his back and once in his head," Mahmood says.

According to several eyewitnesses interviewed by TIME in Myo Thu Gyi, seven villagers were killed on Oct. 10. Villagers say the military returned hours after the assault and took four bodies with them. Relatives and neighbors say they were able to hide three other corpses and gave them a proper Muslim burial the next day.

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About 80% of the population in the area, along the border with Bangladesh, belong to the 1 million strong Rohingya Muslim community, an ethnic group that has suffered decades of persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government. Labeled as “Bengalis” by authorities, they are regarded as illegal interlopers from Bangladesh and denied citizenship. Most live in apartheid-like conditions with restrictions on education, healthcare and freedom of movement.

Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International, who investigated the incident and spoke with eyewitnesses, said the killings are part of a wider pattern. “What happened in Myo Thu Gyi is a clear example of how security forces targeted villagers at random, often without any evidence or known links to armed groups," she says, adding that the military and police would enter villages and open fire "shooting at people even as they fled."

"The lack of access to the area, and intimidation and threats against those who speak out means that we simply do not know how many were killed during this appalling offensive," says Haigh.

The speed at which the military moved in on the village — just one day after the attacks on the Border Guard posts — has experts doubting that proper investigations were carried out.

“It is impossible that the security forces could have enough time to have conducted a proper investigation to ascertain if there were insurgents hiding in that village,” says Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, a human-rights watchdog that has been documenting human-rights violations in Rakhine state for years. “And how a 13-year-old child could take part in the insurgency? Those were just random summary executions,” she adds.

“My grandsons had nothing to do with the insurgency, they were here in our house when the insurgents attacked the Border Guard Police. They just sell betel nut, work and try to study,” Muhammad says.

A convoy of the Myanmar police patrols the streets of Maungdaw Town during the night curfew on in Maungdaw, Myanmar, on March 19, 2017  Antolin Avezuela Aristu  

Five months after the attacks and subsequent raids, daily life in Maungdaw — a dusty city near the Naf River marking the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh — continues, though a curfew remains in place from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. In an unusual display of openness, the security forces allowed TIME to accompany a police convoy patrolling the town.

As the three trucks wound their way through the streets, the contrast between the Rohingya and the Rakhine quarters was stark, at least during the first hour of the curfew. Though the majority of people living in Maungdaw are Rohingya Muslims, the town has a sizable Rakhine Buddhist community and the two ethnic groups mostly live in separate neighborhoods. The patrol passed houses with lights on; people sit watching TV or talk with neighbors in their courtyards. "This is a Rakhine quarter," said the police. But the Rohingya areas were eerily deserted: all windows closed, no lights were turned on, and no human presence visible.

Since the crackdown, about 600 people have been arrested on charges of terrorism, the government said. Security forces are still trying to find the leaders, though the police captain in charge of the patrol says he knows who they are. “We haven’t been able to find them so far, they must be hiding somewhere. We know their faces and their names," says Kyaw Aye Hlaing, adding: "For us all these 'Bengalis' look the same, so it’s difficult to recognize them."

In the darkness, 4 km away, lay Myo Thu Gyi. Kyaw Aye Hlaing says that the security forces launched the first assault on that particular village in October because the village "is full of extremists."

"It was a very troublesome village during the violence in 2012,” he says, referring to the successive waves of attacks between the Buddhist and Muslim communities that swept Rakhine state that year, resulting in up to 200 deaths and 140,000 internally displaced people, most of them Rohingya.

A few days after TIME visited the area, the U.N. Human Rights Council approved a resolution on March 24 to "dispatch urgently" an international fact-finding mission to probe alleged abuses by military and security forces, particularly against the Rohingya community. The Myanmar government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, rejected the decision, alleging that the probe would only "inflame" the situation in Rakhine. Myanmar authorities have been accused of pursuing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, which on Wednesday Suu Kyi denied, saying it was "too strong an expression" to use.

For those whose lives have been shattered by the crackdown in Maungdaw, there is little hope for recourse.

"There is no protection for us," Muhammad says. "I know we will never get justice for this."

The names of all the Rohingya villagers interviewed for this report have been changed for security reasons.

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