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Rohingyas will struggle to heed Pope’s call for forgiveness

The Pope’s appeal to Rohingya Muslims to forgive their tormentors and the world for its indifference is one tough call.

While the Pontiff was meeting a group of refugees who’d been taken to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, to see him, your Sky News crew was alongside a grieving father, burying his baby son in one of the camps, nearly 200 miles south.

As the little boy’s body was lowered into the ground, a group of refugees was digging another fresh grave nearby to accommodate yet another body from the camp.

Death is never very far away here for the Rohingyas.

They fled the brutal military crackdown in Myanmar, surviving burnings, bullets and beatings, only to die of disease and hunger in the land where they ran to safety.

It is to the world’s shame that it has been left to one of the globe’s poorest countries to offer sanctuary to these desperate people.

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Pope Francis avoids saying ‘Rohingya’ as he calls for ‘justice and respect’ in Myanmar

The United Nations has called what’s happening to the Rohingyas in Myanmar a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

But even the leader of the planet’s 1.6 billion Catholics felt compelled to follow the advice of his Cardinal in Myanmar and not mention the “R” word while being hosted by the country’s military and civilian heads.

He was told in what we can only assume was a compelling way, that to utter the word while inside Myanmar could further inflame an already inflammatory situation, provoke yet more trouble for the ethnic group and even instigate a backlash against the Catholic minority in the country.

But days later, in Dhaka, the papal gloves came off and he told them: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

For the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh, the words may well be horribly small comfort.

Children inside a Myanmar camp for Rohingya
Children inside a Myanmar camp for Rohingya Muslims

We sat in a bamboo shack with a crowd of women who told us they’d all been violated in some way by the Myanmar military.

A 14-year-old girl told us she had been raped by two soldiers while one of them pointed a gun at her.

Her entire family had been slaughtered. She told us this horrifying story with a completely blank face shrouded by a niqab but devoid of emotion.

It was almost as if her young mind found it impossible to process such wanton cruelty.

“I really thought I would die out there,” she said quietly.

Her 17-year-old friend next to her echoed her words, saying: “I thought so too. I just thought I was going to die.”

An older woman sobbed from the minute she began telling us her story.

“The soldiers entered the village and began rounding everyone up,” she said.

“They took my husband and one of my daughters and put them in a house and locked it and then set fire to it.

“I saw them burn in front of me.”

“We don’t want revenge,” another mother said. “We just want peace and to be able to return to our country.”

Aid agencies also find it difficult to access camps where hundreds of Rohingya live

The Rohingya camp the Pope won’t see on Myanmar visit

The Myanmar authorities refuse to accept the Rohingyas’ very existence and continue to deny them the right to be an official ethnic group in the country, and so the refugees are unlikely to want to return.

Some have spent days trekking across the country. They have evaded soldiers and checkpoints, survived gang rapes and witnessed the most appalling atrocities.

The idea that they would be willing go back into the toxic and dangerous atmosphere they have just fled, without any guarantees of security, seems like madness to them.

So they try to survive in the camps – now so big they rival some of the larger British cities in size.

Literally hundreds of thousands of people are living in squalor, in bamboo structures hastily rigged up with plastic sheeting thrown over them.

Disease is a constant battle, with the World Health Organisation warning it is now worried about the possibility of a diphtheria epidemic.

A severely malnourished elderly woman struggles to stand

Full special report: Rohingya refugee crisis

Hunger is another ever-present struggle. There are food stations and aid is being distributed but the speed of this humanitarian crisis has meant the aid agencies are struggling to cope with the numbers, and to rustle up adequate immediate funds to cope with the enormous number of those needing help.

They’re now finding their young and old are dying of starvation and disease.

The head of the Catholic church has asked them to forgive the rest of the planet for turning a blind eye to this; for not helping; for talking but not taking action; for looking on but not asking the tough questions of the Myanmar authorities; for appearing to give parity to the Rohingya Muslim militants’ attacks on police posts in August versus a three-month-long military crackdown so brutal it has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing across borders.

The Rohingya Muslims who were granted an audience with the Pontiff and heard those words may well have blinked in bitterly disappointed disbelief.

Ok they must have thought, so no change then?

The killings and rapes go on.

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