Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh — Hundreds of Rohingya Muslim women and girls living in refugee camps in Bangladesh are preparing to give birth to babies conceived during rape.
Humanitarians have provided services to more than 2,700 survivors of sexual violence in the camps, according to a UN Security Council report in March. Many of the Rohingya Muslim women and girls were raped as they fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar last year, according to aid organizations. Myanmar's military has denied killing, raping or torturing any Rohingya civilians, clearing itself in a November report.
In April and May, photographer Brian Sokol interviewed 10 girls and women in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar living with extreme trauma, shame and, in some cases, a sense of hope as they faced the prospect of motherhood. All of their names have been changed for their safety.
Click or tap a photo to read their stories
Rahenah, 15, was preparing a meal for survivors of earlier attacks by the Myanmar military when she says the soldiers arrived. She hid along with the others, but the soldiers set fire to the house, forcing them to flee.
“We ran out of the back door,” Rahenah said. “My brother-in-law died in the fire. Some men were able to escape, others could not. But we girls couldn't escape. The military caught us and tied us to a tree. They stuck tape over our mouths and stripped us. Then they raped us. Some of the girls lost consciousness and fell to the ground. I was one of them. I was bleeding a lot."
She later woke and, still bleeding heavily, began the trek to the Bangladesh border with the other girls. On the way, they met Rahenah’s husband who had been working in the woods outside the village when the soldiers came.
“When we arrived near the beach, my husband was shot by soldiers and I saw him die in the sand,” Rahenah said. “He was 19. We had been married for one year when they killed him."
Her sister-in-law later forbade her from terminating the pregnancy, telling Rahenah the baby was “a gift from the Almighty.”
“I am happy that I am going to be a mother. But I am worried too because it is hard to survive here in the camps. I am worried that he won't get the necessary things he needs in life. I am worried he won't get an education. If my baby survives, I will try hard to make sure he is educated."
Rahenah said that she would say yes if someone asked to marry her. “But my child will come first,” she said. “If no man wants me, I will lead the whole of my life together with the baby."
"I lost my husband in the chaos and haven't had any news of him since then," said 15-year-old Nafiza, who had been married for a year before her flight from Myanmar. “I don’t know if he is dead or injured.”
Sitting inside the small tarpaulin-covered shelter that is now her home, Nafiza reflected on her former life. Back in Myanmar, she and her family had owned land, livestock and a fisheries project.
“My husband was a very good man," she said. "He was hard working and kind to others.” She explains how she had felt too young to have a baby and had been given birth control pills by her husband without realizing what they were.
But now, seven months pregnant with a baby she believes was conceived after she was raped by soldiers, she can’t wait for her child to arrive.
That way, I’ll have “someone around for the rest of my life,” she explained. "One way or another, I will keep my child; I will never abandon him. If I was going to do that, I would have already done it by now."
"When my child grows up, I want him to become educated. But since I don't have any money I can't hope for him to achieve that because he doesn't have a father."
Nafiza insists she won’t get remarried before her child has finished school and she has found out whether her husband is still alive.
"If Allah has blessed us and he's alive, maybe he'll find me. If he is dead, it's pointless to wait around,” she said.
It was around midnight when the army arrived in Azara’s village and started shooting villagers and setting fire to their homes.
Azara, 20, says she and several women were rounded up and taken to one of the few buildings that hadn't been razed – where they were sexually assaulted by soldiers.
Semi-conscious, Azara was left for dead. On waking, she fled naked to the nearby jungle where she later found a group of injured women, most of whom had also been raped.
In the refugee camp in Bangladesh, Azara was reunited with her husband – but it was neither a joyous nor a long-lasting reunion.
After discovering the pregnancy and convinced he was not the father, he ordered her to get rid of the baby, Azara explains. He even beat her once, she says.
Now on her own, she refuses to see a doctor, although a Rohingya midwife visits her in her shelter.
The stigma associated with sexual violence prevents many survivors of rape in the camps from seeking medical aid, according to a recent report by NGO Medicins sans Frontieres. A team of 50 Rohingya volunteers now go from house to house in the camps, letting girls and women know about the help available. MSF has also set up a phone line for survivors to access information.
Azara says she is “happy” in the camp “because I feel safe.” That’s despite aid workers warning that heavy monsoon rains – beginning now and likely to last until October – threaten the homes of around 200,000 Rohingya refugees in the camps.
"Because I lost my entire family, if Allah does give me a son or a daughter, it will allow me to survive this life. When I will see him or her come into this world and I look upon him with my eyes – that thought gives me strength."
Supriti, 30, lives with her 10-year-old daughter in a Rohingya refugee camp. But her family used to be a lot bigger.
She describes how she watched soldiers from the Myanmar army killing her husband and three of her four children, including a baby son.
During the attack, she and seven other women were gang-raped in a smoke-filled house as nearby buildings were burned to the ground.
Three months after arriving in Bangladesh, she lost a fourth child to miscarriage, leaving just her and her daughter.
Her suffering is compounded by a severe head wound Supriti said was inflicted with a machete by one of her attackers.
Supriti’s daughter must now care for her mother, who is unable to collect food from distribution centers as over exertion leaves her nauseous.
She is fearful for her daughter’s safety, who Supriti says could be prey for traffickers. “I have to keep an eye on her," she said. “My daughter has been told not to talk with strangers offering sweets to her – because their real intention is to take her away."
Supriti said she is considering finding a husband for her daughter by the time she turns 14, explaining that she believes she would be looked after by a man.
But she is not without hope for her daughter’s future. “She is learning to read Arabic,” Surpriti said. “If she becomes educated, she may be able to get a job and earn money.”
It was a Friday morning in August last year when the army surrounded Manoshi's village. In the ensuing mayhem, she says she witnessed scores of people – possibly up to 1,000 Rohingya Muslim villagers – being killed.
"In Burma [Myanmar], my brother and my four sisters were murdered [by the army]," she said. "My father was also killed, leaving my mother and me as the only survivors."
She explains how six or seven army men carrying knives and guns forced their way into her house and one of them raped her while the others watched. Manoshi says her husband was later killed in a battle between the soldiers and around 300 Rohingya boys and men. Only around 50 returned alive, she explains.
The most conservative estimates suggest that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State between August 25 and September 24, 2017, including at least 730 children below the age of five, according to MSF. Almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since the violence began, the NGO estimates.
Manoshi, who is sure her unborn child was conceived in the assault, now finds herself isolated. She speaks only rarely with her mother, who lives in a different camp, and has been spurned by her husband’s parents because her baby was not fathered by their son.
But she is facing the future with courage. "If he or she looks Burmese [like the rapist], what will I do? I will keep my baby,” she said. “I never considered a termination because Allah has given me this baby. I am not thinking about the future, I am thinking about what God has given me.”
"We had been married three or four months when they killed my husband," recalled 17-year-old Sameera. "The military came into our village, shooting randomly. Men from the village banded together, carrying sticks as they went to protest against the Myanmar army. But all of them were shot and killed by the soldiers."
Sameera was raped two days later at home, she says. Three soldiers arrived at her door, bringing two Rohingya girls with them. All three of them were assaulted – one by each man. Two were beaten severely – she was battered with the butt of a gun.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in November, “mass sexual violence” is one of the Myanmar military’s most feared weapons, “with untold numbers of women and girls brutally gang raped by government soldiers.”
"After getting married, I wanted to have a baby as soon as possible,” Sameera said. “Two months after arriving in Bangladesh, I realized that I was pregnant... When I found out for sure, I was happy."
She does not know if her husband or the rapist are the father. But she insists that she will treat the baby the same either way. "As I will give birth to the baby, he or she will be mine, no matter who the father is," she said.
Although she lives in a different camp to her parents, her eight siblings and her in-laws, she doesn’t feel alone.
"My in-laws still support me and they sometimes call on me. Among them, only my mother-in-law knows about the rape. But no matter what the baby looks like, I believe that they will view him or her as their grandchild."
Hamida Begum, 18, had only been married for two months when the soldiers arrived. It was around midnight when they dragged her new husband out into the dark – and she hasn’t seen or heard from him since. She assumes he is dead, like most Rohingya men who were “disappeared” during the mass violence.
Around three in the morning, the soldiers returned. "I was alone, praying for the return of my husband," Hamida says. "But it was three soldiers who came."
Each of the men raped her, she says, and the assault was so aggressive that she had to seek hospital treatment for physical injuries.
Hamida is sure that one of those men is the father of her child.
"Religious people ask me, ‘Who is the father? Who is the father?' I don't say anything. I remain silent, but people know."
Despite the circumstances, Hamida is happy that she will soon be a mother. "If Allah chooses to give me a boy, that is good. If He chooses to give me a girl, that is good as well," she says. "I just want my baby to become educated – to speak English, Arabic, Rohingya and Bangla."
"I am not afraid for my baby. If people do anything, I will take action. I will say that it was not my decision – that I was raped. Many women were. I am not alone."
Arefa, 17, left Myanmar when her 18-year-old husband went to protest against persecution carried out by the military and was shot dead. They had been married for just one and a half months, she says.
After burying her husband, Arefa and her family fled to Bangladesh. On the way, she became separated from the others in the forest and was raped.
"When I hadn't had my period for one and a half months, I knew I was pregnant,” said Arefa. “I couldn't eat properly and I was dizzy.”
Like many Rohingya girls and women who have survived rape, Arefa is reluctant to go to a clinic to give birth. "I would like to have the baby in my house," she said. "If I can do it here safely, why would I go to the clinic?"
But she is worried about the labor. “Giving birth is not easy, so I'm a bit scared. This is my first baby and we're in a refugee camp. What will the labor be like?”
Of the ten women in MSF’s maternity ward at any one time, four are there because they were raped, according to the NGO. But the majority of rape survivors – around 80% – give birth at home, limiting their options if something goes wrong.
Arefa is also worried about the reactions of other refugees in the camp. Although she’s not certain whether her husband or the man who raped her is the baby’s father, she said: "I'm scared they will call the baby a mongrel,” Arefa said. “But as long as I and my mother are here, nothing will happen to him. As long as we're here, he can live a peaceful life.”
"Because Allah gave me this child, I shouldn't be afraid.”
It was a typical working day in Myanmar's Rakhine State for Shofika, who was 14 at the time.
"I was grinding chilies when the military came to my area," she said. "They started to shoot at random. My mother went out of the house. She told me to get ready and lock the doors. I was doing that when the soldiers entered our yard. Two of them raped me."
Shofika’s husband was killed in the attack. After the soldiers left, she gathered her clothes and fled towards Bangladesh, at one point swimming across a river.
"After crossing it, I took shelter in a house where I met my mother,” she said. “We stayed there for 15 days before making our way to Bangladesh."
Shofika and her mother are two of almost 700,000 Rohingya who have fled the violence in Rakhine State since August last year. Most of them now live in camps in Bangladesh.
When Shofika first discovered she was pregnant she wanted to abort the baby, but was advised against it by medical staff, who said the operation could damage her health.
She has since resigned herself to becoming a mother at the age of 15. Despite the stigma of carrying a child while no longer having a husband, Shofika has twice visited a clinic for prenatal checkups, a bold step that many pregnant sexual assault survivors in the camps have been unable or unwilling to do.
Sitting in her bamboo and plastic shelter, Maryam recounts the events that forced her from her home at age 16.
"In a nearby village, the army had been burning houses and shooting people. Many of them fled to our village," she said.
"My husband, mother-in-law and family members went to the forest to hide food when they heard the military were coming. But before they came back soldiers entered our house, brandishing knives. I lost my senses. I was so scared that I was not even able to walk."
The soldiers took her to a building with two other girls, Maryam says. Two of them held her down while a third raped her and a fourth stood outside the house to keep guard. Troops raped the two other girls as well, slitting the throat of one of them afterwards. She says she doesn’t know why one girl was killed and she was not.
Maryam's husband vanished in the aftermath of the attack and she never saw him again. "Maybe he is dead," she said. "I don't know, but I think so. If he was alive he would have come for me by now."
She considered terminating the pregnancy when she found out, but grew scared after hearing it was painful and might have consequences for her health, so decided against it.
"I am worried about having the baby. I don't have my mother even, they killed her too," she said. “In this camp I am alone.”
Brian Sokol reported from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and was facilitated by UNICEF. CNN’s Judith Vonberg contributed to this report from London. The As Equals reporting project is funded by the European Journalism Centre via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme. Read more stories like this.