Facebook should pay for what it did to my people, Rohingya

For six years, I have been stuck in an overcrowded refugee camp in Bangladesh with little hope for the future. Facebook helped create the conditions that got me here.

A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
For the past six years, since the Myanmar military started conducting “clearance operations” on Rohingya villages, I have been living across the border in Bangladesh, in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, writes Sawyeddollah [File: Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

I am from a village called Nga Yent Change in western Myanmar. I had a happy, peaceful childhood there. My father had a thriving store, and I lived with my parents and six younger siblings in a large house in a spacious compound surrounded by mango, coconut, and banana trees. Sometimes elephants would meander into our village and back out into the forest.

When I was a child, there was no communal violence in our lives and we had no major problems with our neighbours, even though we were Muslim Rohingya and they were Buddhist Rakhine.

I, for example, had many friends in the Rakhine village next door. We’d often meet in a field between our villages and play “chinlone” – a popular ball game. We had a lot of fun together.

Now, that idyllic life, full of hope and joy, is nothing but a distant memory.

For the past six years, since the Myanmar military started conducting “clearance operations” on Rohingya villages, I have been living across the border in Bangladesh, in a refugee camp called Cox’s Bazar. It is the largest such settlement in the world. About a million of my people are now crammed into this place, living in tiny shelters made from bamboo and tarpaulin. Our life here is a daily struggle. We often do not have enough food or clean water. There have been fires, there have been killings. We do not feel safe here.

How did we end up here?

I blame Facebook, its parent company Meta, and the man behind it all, Mark Zuckerberg, for helping create the conditions that allowed the Myanmar military to unleash hell upon us. The social media company allowed anti-Rohingya sentiments to fester on its pages. Its algorithms promoted disinformation that eventually translated into real-life violence.

Sure, the history of tensions between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in Myanmar is long. But, in my personal experience, there was no substantial day-to-day animosity between our peoples until smartphones, and Facebook, entered into our lives and allowed politicians, bigots and opportunists to propagate hate against my people in real time.

I realised that Facebook could be a tool for hate for the first time in 2012, when I was just 11 years old. A group of Rohingya was accused of raping and killing a Buddhist girl. That heinous crime, to my knowledge, has never been solved. But lack of evidence did not stop people from blaming it on our entire community. Hate speech against my people became commonplace in Facebook posts. It was around then that my warm friendships with my Rakhine neighbours began to cool.

A few years later, in late 2016, the anti-Rohingya sentiment fuelled by Facebook, and the persecution that it encouraged and legitimised, started to have a direct impact on my family.

My father and some other financially stable Rohingya were falsely accused of attacking a police station and handed big fines. My uncle Abusufian and his son Busha were arrested for not paying their fine and jailed without trial.

By then, hateful and Islamophobic posts and messages about Rohingya had become commonplace on Facebook. I saw messages calling on people to come together to “save the country and kick out the illegal ‘Bengalis’”. One particularly hateful message stated, “The birth rate of the illegals is very high. If we let it continue, soon the president of our country will have a beard.” The days of playing chinlone with my Rakhine friends were truly over.

I reported these messages to Facebook, but those in charge did nothing, claiming that those objectively hateful posts and messages “do not violate [Facebook’s] community standards”.

Soon after, killings began.

It all started in the early hours of August 25, 2017.

I was only 15 at the time and a good student. I hoped to become a lawyer.

That morning I had woken up early to study for my matriculation exams. Suddenly, I heard gunfire. It was coming from the village police station. Not knowing what to do, we stayed at home. The sounds went on for about three hours. By then, the military had also arrived.

When we finally stepped out, we realised that Mohammad Shomim, who owned a shop in the local market, was killed. I did not see him die, but I saw his body lying in the street.

While they were raiding the village, security forces had also laid explosives. As they acted in secret, we were not aware of the danger. A villager, called Hussein Ahmed, triggered one of the bombs and died in front of my eyes in a massive explosion.

Everyone was scared, and many went into the forest to hide. Some families started heading towards Bangladesh the very next day, but we decided to stay home.

Soon, the military ordered all remaining villagers to gather in a field near a Red Crescent office. We did not go. We were sure they would kill us if we went. We had heard that the authorities were slaughtering Rohingya in other villages.

We left the village and stayed with family and friends in other villages for a few nights. We briefly returned home and found our village completely deserted. However, the signs of widespread violence were everywhere. It was obvious that many had been killed.

Realising that we have run out of options, and have no chance of finding safety in Myanmar, we also decided to head towards Bangladesh on foot. On the way, we saw countless dead bodies – in abandoned villages, on the roads and in the paddy fields. Most houses were burned to a crisp. We trekked on through the jungle and across the mountain in the cold and the rain. We didn’t eat for days. After 15 days, we arrived in Bangladesh.

Today, exactly six years since I first heard gunshots in my village, I am still living in the packed Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. I still yearn for home and dream of a different life where I could return to my village and continue with my education.

I refuse to give up on my dream of becoming a lawyer, but there are very few opportunities for young Rohingya to escape the camp – we have no right to education.

Facebook helped us get here. Despite repeatedly being warned, not only by us Rohingya but also by international NGOs, it took no action to stop the spread of disinformation and hate speech. Now it needs to take responsibility for its actions and help us get our lives back on track.

Zuckerberg and those who help him run Facebook should come and meet us at Cox Bazaar. They should spend a couple of nights in the camp, and see the conditions we are in. Perhaps then they can understand what they did to me and my people. Perhaps then they could be encouraged to finally do something to help us.

Facebook cannot bring back those who lost their lives in the genocide or help survivors reclaim all that they left behind in Myanmar. But Mr Zuckerberg can still help us. He can fund the education of young people like myself in Cox’s Bazaar and help us build a brighter future for ourselves and our people. Given the harm his company inflicted on my people, this really is the least he can do.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.