The militant group ARSA had waged a more ambitious attack in the early hours of Aug. 25, 2017, across security posts in northern Rakhine. In the military’s response, the U.N. said, entire Rohingya villages were razed, scores of women were raped and murdered, and an estimated 10,000 people, if not more, were killed. The military denies these allegations and says it made a proportionate response to militant attacks.
As houses went up in flames in Hlaing Thi, Formin’s mother called her at her lodgings. “Our village is burning. We are leaving for Bangladesh,” she said. “What will you do, Formin?”
Formin didn’t know what to do. She felt paralyzed as the rattle of bullets went on and on around her.
For the first time in her life, she said, she felt hope slipping away, and she cried – cried because she was scared for her life, and cried for her dream of attending college.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I thought that would be the last day of my life.”
Formin remained locked up inside her lodgings for two days. But as she saw local Buddhists and the military start to burn houses in the village, an account that echoes those of other eyewitnesses on both sides of the conflict in Rakhine, she decided to escape with five schoolmates.
She was in a panic over how to get away. From afar, her sister Nur Jahan helped her once again.
“She didn’t know the way. When I called her on the phone, Formin was crying,” Nur Jahan said. “There was military everywhere.”
“Just follow the people,” Nur Jahan told her.
Using the dim light of a small phone her father had given her, Formin walked with crowds of people heading toward the border through monsoon-drenched forests and streams, protecting her belongings that were wrapped carefully in plastic under her arm.
The group moved by night to avoid security forces and civilian mobs, stopping at abandoned houses for shelter. Along the way, Formin said, she saw several bodies.
At the border with Bangladesh, Formin paid the equivalent of $10 to a boatman to cross the Naf River. On a wooden boat with nine other people, she reached the other shore and a refugee camp that would become a home in exile.
When she was reunited with her family at the camp, one of the first things she asked about was her books back home. Between tears, her mother told her the house had burned down.
Formin’s most prized possessions had turned to ash.
Gone too, was a small pink-and-white notebook – her first diary.