YANGON: She stood silently in a crowd of more than 20 people, as she cradled her two-year-old child on her hip.
But as Sarbeda heard others relay their stories to foreign journalists of how their husbands or sons have been arrested, she started to weep.
That is when I asked why she was crying. Her experience of how her 14-year-old son was arrested brought a flood of tears.
Sarbeda said the boy was working in the fields when security personnel arrested him, suspecting him of being involved in alleged terrorist activities.
An accusation she vehemently denies, saying “they took him without any question. My son is so young.”
Sarbeda’s 14-year-old son is one of at least 10 juveniles arrested alongside more than 400 Rohingyas accused of being involved in violent attacks since Oct 9 last year.
She has no idea how he is doing now or when he might be released.
This mother was just one of many who came forward with fear, helplessness and anxiety written all over her face.
One after another, women, many carrying children in their arms, rushed up to the foreign journalists who entered their villages as part of a government-led visit to showcase the latest development on the ground.
The five-day arranged visit to several villages in northern Rakhine state was the third such trip organised by the government.
But it is the first allowing international journalists into the area after the initial attacks.
The aim – to show how the government has nothing to hide and that allegation of abuse and atrocities against the Rohingyas are, according to the authorities, exaggerated.
Rakhine Chief Minister Nyi Pu defended the security forces’ actions saying “when we are working on security issues, there are terrorist attacks and conflicts happening so there can be some casualties.
"We are not performing genocide. It is very wrong to exaggerate the small casualties.”
To a certain extent, it must be said that the Information Ministry official leading the visit accommodated the journalists’ requests of wanting to visit villages off the prescribed list and to speak to any villager without the presence of the authorities.
Without the watchful eye of officials, another villager called Lalmuti stood by her father’s grave and told journalists that “my mother said my father was burned to death by the military. They put my father in the house and burned the house and him.”
The 23-year-old said “after three months, they took her (mother) for questioning and threw her into jail.”
When asked if she’s worried she might get into trouble for sharing her story, Lalmuti simply replied “Why would I be afraid? I am telling the truth.”
There were others, however, who didn’t want to be seen speaking to journalists, for fear they may be hauled up for questioning. One pulled me away from earshot of others and related to me how he was beaten and threatened by security forces.
Yet another kept looking over his shoulders while describing how insufferable their lives have become, only to quickly disappear into the crowd, waving me away, believing he was being watched.
The journalists had insisted that the heavily-armed security personnel escort us only to the entrance of villages, but some Rohingyas worry about government informants among them.
That was not paranoia because soon after, a man among the Rohingya villagers was caught red-handed taking pictures of those speaking to the media and recording the conversations.
As journalists track through fields and walk through yet another Rohingya village, a woman slipped a hand-written note to a reporter.
That note accused security forces of arbitrary arrests including a 15-year-old boy. What is more damning is that the note said that on the day of Eid al-Fitr, one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar, border police guards came into the village and brutally raped some women.
The distress among the Rohingyas met throughout the visit is palpable. The Oct 9 attacks against three border posts, killing nine officers, sparked a security lockdown in areas of Buthidaung and Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state.
The area is home to a majority of some one million Rohingyas, deemed as illegal immigrants by Myanmar.
The government initially accused a group they identified as Aqa Mul Mujahidin as the terrorists who launched the initial attacks.
Myanmar’s security forces then executed a “clearance operation” to hunt down the perpetrators.
Unfortunately, according to the United Nations, that led to more than 75,000 Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Allegations of arbitrary arrests, abuses, extra-judicial killings and security personnel raping Rohingya women prompted the exodus.
But the Myanmar government has denied most of the allegations, while rubbishing the number of Rohingyas who have fled the area.
The government claims only about 22,000 Rohingyas have left the area after the incident. For those who remained in their villages today, it was out of pure desperation that they decided to step up to tell their story.
DESPERATE TO GET THE WORD OUT
The Rohingyas were unsure of what the journalists could do for them or if their lives would be in jeopardy after they speak to the media.
But what is clear is that without phones, other communication devices and being rather isolated in rural, difficult-to-get-to villages, they simply wanted to get their word out – to whoever is willing to listen.
So desperate were some that they waved us down from a riverbank as we were traveling past in speedboats.
A group of some 20 women attracted our attention by calling us to shore and pointing us towards their village.
That’s when we knew we had to stop, turn back and speak with them. Once on shore, we were quickly surrounded by many Rohingya women wanting to relay their experiences of how their sons, brothers, fathers, husbands have been arrested as suspects and how they’re unsure of what will happen to them.
One woman, 48-year-old Mamuda Hatu, spoke of how authorities arrested her 27-year-old son, accusing him of going to Bangladesh and potentially having connections with terrorists.
But she said “some falsely reported that he went to Bangladesh. That's why he was arrested”. She said her “son has no connection with the terrorists. I have only one son. They took him for no reason.”
Such experiences are similar to many that have surfaced in various media over the last nine months post-Oct 9 but it is difficult to authenticate and verify the facts.
But that doesn’t mean it is not true.
Hence the call by the international community and the United Nations to allow a UN-backed fact-finding mission to enter Myanmar and to investigate the allegations and accusations made against the security forces.
But Myanmar has strongly rejected that suggestion.
The country’s National Security Advisor, Thaung Tun reiterated Myanmar’s position that such a mission will “only aggravate the situation on the ground”.
He said such a mission was derived from “allegations of wide-spread human rights abuses by the Myanmar security forces” and is “less than constructive”.
Speaking to foreign diplomats and international aid agencies based in Yangon recently, Mr Thaung Tun said “since October 2016, 44 civilians have been murdered and 27 abducted”.
And based on recent reports of abductions and killings of Rohingyas, he said “it is clear that Muslim militants are taking out Muslim villagers who are perceived to be collaborating with the government.”
He added “there is evidence of increasing terrorist activities in northern Rakhine” with the discovery of a terrorist training camp and tunnel in Maungdaw, Rakhine.
This is the same narrative given by Myanmar’s Border Guard Police Commander, Brigadier-General San Lwin.
Brigadier-General San Lwin said “the terrorists conduct secret trainings in the villages. There are some murder cases because the terrorists ask the villagers to kill the village administrator or certain people.”
He suggested that some of the violence could be due to personal or business fallouts, while in other cases, “there can be some involvement by the terrorists.”
Seemingly to drive the point home about terrorist activities among the Rohingyas, authorities brought journalists to a location where a house was burnt to the ground in one of the Buthidaung villages.
There, the authorities related how a shoot-out between security forces and those in the house happened in July.
They said Muslim militants in the house fired at security forces who were conducting checks after receiving information about suspicious activities there.
Such incidents and increased security threats in Northern Rakhine have also affected Rohingyas already living in internally displaced persons or IDP camps just outside the state’s capital Sittwe.
The Rohingyas were placed in IDP camps after violence broke out between the Buddhists and Muslims in 2012.
Many Rohingyas have been living in those camps for more than five years now with no end in sight.
One such camp is Thet Kay Pyin IDP housing some 6,000 Rohingyas, near Sittwe. Rohingyas are not allowed to leave the camps without authorisation and they complained of a lack of education, healthcare, food and unemployment.
I saw children who were severely malnourished with the sick elderly unable to receive medical treatment.
A resident, Zadah asked “we’re not animals. So why we have to live in this area? Why we have to live in this detention centre for five years?”
The government insists the continuous violence in Rakhine is due to terrorist attacks or Muslim militants killing Muslim villagers. However, the Rohingyas say they are being discriminated and violently targeted by security force personnel.
Whatever the case, it is clear the Rohingyas continue to live in fear, the security situation remains vulnerable and a complete resolution seems nowhere in sight right now.
For Myanmar, which is trying to attain full democracy and to achieve national reconciliation, a divided nation and many other challenges will make those goals even more of a struggle.