Rakhine State, Myanmar CNN  — 

As our convoy of white jeeps rattles along the dirt roads through a vast landscape of fertile farmland, it’s hard to see any physical evidence of the 392 villages that were burned down in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, other than the odd patch of blackened, decaying trees.

The rainy season has helped to replace much of the scorched earth with lush green fields, and rampant bulldozing and building work throughout the state has largely erased all memories of the Rohingya Muslims that lived here until they were forced to flee a little over a year ago.

CNN joined a government-led tour of the highly restricted area in late September, part of an attempt by authorities to convince the media – and the rest of the world – that accusations of genocide are false.

CNN drove through northern Rakhine State on a government tour, where patches of blackened trees – the remnants of burned Rohingya villages – are visible from the road.

Our visit comes a week after a UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar presented its full report documenting evidence that the military carried out mass rapes, murders, and set fire to villages during what they called “clearance operations” in reaction to alleged “terrorist activities” by Rohingya militants last August.

The UN report says more than 10,000 people were killed, 720,000 fled to Bangladesh, and it called for military generals to be prosecuted in an international tribunal for “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has rejected the mission and its findings.

Site of a massacre

One of the massacres detailed in the UN report occurred at Inn Din, which was the first stop on the media tour.

“Men, women and children were killed and wounded. They were shot. They were stabbed or slashed with large knives and swords,” the report says.

During the attack on the village, 10 Rohingya men were murdered and thrown in a mass grave, a crime documented by two Reuters journalists who were jailed for seven years for their investigation under the Official Secrets Act. Seven soldiers were jailed for the killings – the only atrocity from 2017 that the military has been punished for.

CNN asked to be shown the location of the grave, but locals said it was not allowed, as bad spirits would be released. Rakhine Buddhist villagers became increasingly agitated, and shouted for us to leave the area.

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Rakhine Buddhist villagers are now the only ones left in Inn Din, which used to have a population of 7,000 people, 90% of them Rohingya.

Inn Din used to have a total population of around 7,000 people, 90% of whom were Rohingya. Now, there is nothing left of the Rohingya people or their homes. The Buddhist areas remain untouched.

The Rakhine Buddhist villagers who remain were not surprised to see us there, suggesting they had been warned about our visit.

One Rakhine Buddhist man, Nay Phyu, told CNN that the Rohingya were to blame for the crackdown.

“Kalars (Rohingya) started threatening the Tatmadaw (army),” he said. “Using loudspeakers, the Muslims announced that they would have a celebration by slaughtering and cooking the soldiers and Rakhine people.”

Hla Tun, another Rakhine villager, also held deep grievances towards the population who fled.

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Nay Phyu, a villager from Inn Din, says the media only tells the story of the Rohingya, and don’t reflect the feelings of the Rakhine Buddhists.

“Rakhine people are crying,” he said. “Everything has been taken by Kalars (Rohingya).”

This sense of injustice is partly due to the long-held belief in Myanmar that the Rohingya receive more aid from international groups despite deprivation among the Rakhine population.

This anger is fueled by government propaganda which portrays Rohingya Muslims as an existential threat to Buddhism, and describes the stateless minority as illegal Bengali migrants, despite them tracing back their roots in Myanmar hundreds of years.

Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, even said during the crackdown that “the Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job.”

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A police officer stands guard in the village Shwe Zarr, Maungdaw, where 5,000 Rohingya Muslims fled last year.

‘There is nothing left’

Inn Din is just one of multiple villages across the state which have been destroyed and expunged of its Rohingya population, with little trace left behind. Another is Tula Toli, also known as Min Gyi, where a massacre took place, documented by the UN and CNN.

We were refused access to Tula Toli by our government minders, due to “security” and “transport” issues. Later, we also asked a local official, Yee Htoo, the deputy administrator in Maungdaw District, who seemed confused by our request.

“Everything related to the Bengali (Rohingya) was burnt. There is nothing left…I don’t know why you want to go there.”

CNN visited several locations including Inn Din and No Man’s Land on the government-led media tour.

The eerie message was reinforced by people we meet across Rakhine: the Rohingya have gone, so there is nothing to see.

In the ‘model village’ of Shwe Zarr near the main town of Maungdaw, we are led into a classroom where rows of hand-picked villagers are waiting to be interviewed. The local administrator, 37-year-old Mgtin Soe, tells us that 5,000 Rohingya left this village last year. But he denied they were forced to leave.

“The Muslims left for Bangladesh because they couldn’t earn their living here,” Mgtin Soe said. “No business anymore.”

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Villagers in the ‘model village’ of Shwe Zarr, where no one admitted seeing 5,000 Rohingya flee last year.

‘The government keeps us like prisoners’

Many of the Rohingya who spoke to CNN who did not flee Rakhine State were unable to speak freely, terrified of reprisals.

Fifty-year-old Mohammed Uddin, a Rohingya from Maungdaw, initially described the current situation in Rakhine as “good, very good.” Then after a pause, he added, “not real answer.”

Aye Myint, a 24-year-old Rohingya man, told us there was a “big problem” with talking to us, because “government collectors” were close by.

In the town of Maungdaw, 21-year-old Maung Amin spoke to CNN over the phone, as he was too scared to meet in person.

The main town in northern Rakhine State, Maungdaw, is visibly impoverished. Even before the 2017 violence began, the poverty rate in Rakhine State was 78%.

“Here is no freedom, no peace, for Muslims,” he said. “I have no job, no education. We can’t go anywhere, the government keeps us like prisoners.”

The approximately 240,000 Rohingya still in Rakhine State are in a precarious position: they are living under strict curfews and movement restrictions, which combined with their fear of the security forces, means many of them too scared to leave the house, which exacerbates their existing economic deprivation. Even before the 2017 violence, the poverty rate in Rakhine State was 78%.

“While some self-restrict their movement for real or perceived sense of insecurity, or fear of neighboring communities, others – particularly the Muslim communities - are not allowed to move freely,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said on October 5, after UN agencies conducted an initial needs assessment visit in northern Rakhine State after being largely blocked from the area for the past year.

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The coastline near the village of Inn Din, where Rohingya villagers fled for safety when their houses were burning.

‘We are scared for our lives’

Outside the tightly-controlled northern part of Rakhine, many Rohingya are still penned in physically, but they feel a little more safe to speak freely. That includes the 5,000 refugees who are trapped in a makeshift camp in ‘No Man’s Land,’ a 1-kilometer strip of land between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“We are afraid for our lives,” says Dil Mohammed, one of the refugees who spoke to us through the 10-foot barbed wire border fence. “Our main importance is to save life.”

They are too scared to return to Myanmar, and say they are blocked from entering Bangladesh by border guards. They are surviving on aid provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross – their only lifeline.

Their homemade tents cobbled together with bamboo and plastic sheets have been ravaged by the recent monsoon rains, and a lack of sanitation facilities means sewage is running through the camp.

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A watch tower at the heavily-policed border between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

They fled from one hell to another, but still, they say this is better than risking their lives.

“Nobody wants to stay in these conditions,” Dil Mohammed says. “(But) still the situation is not safe for us in Myanmar.”

He says that the Rohingya “want to return to our homeland soon,” but not until they receive justice and guarantees of their safety.

“(The) ICC must take (the) perpetrators to trial” for the “genocide” they committed, he adds.

However, the narrative of what occurred in the military crackdown is very different on the Myanmar side of the fence.

More than 5,000 Rohingya refugees are stuck in limbo in ‘No Man’s Land’ - a small patch of land between the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

‘Genocide never happened’

“Genocide never happened in our country,” says U Myint Khine, administrator of Maungdaw township, during an official briefing. “Why are Muslims still here if there was genocide?”

U Myint Khine also accused Rohingya militants of burning down their own villages, and blamed the Rohingya for stoking violence, accusing them of trying to “get an autonomous region” since the 1940s.

“Muslims will kill ethnic people when they get the chance,” he says.

The officials were asked about a video recently published by human rights organization Fortify Rights - which appears to show a Myanmar soldier telling a crowd of civilians that they would “clear out” Rohingya villages “severely and fast,” and inciting the villagers to join in. Yee Htoo said the government would seek to verify the video, and “if it is true, take legal action.”

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A police officer watches over the border fence between Myanmar and No Man’s Land.

“The Tatmadaw has to defend national sovereignty and what it did was all within the law,” Yee Htoo added. “Still, there may be mistakes committed by individuals.”

Under Myanmar’s quasi-democratic system and constitution, the military retains full control of the security forces, therefore the civilian government has little power to question military operations.

During our tour we encounter dozens of police and immigration officers, many keeping a close eye on our activities. But the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – are conspicuously absent everywhere we go.

A Myanmar-based journalist says soldiers used to be out on the street – sometimes marching – during these media tours, but they stopped appearing several months ago.

Myanmar: No Rohingya will return to their homes

One place the government is keen to show us is the camp, known as Taung Pyo Letwe, they have built at the border to house any returning refugees. Here, they say, refugees would stay for a few days before being sent to other camps, then eventually to new settlements. But no timeline or guarantees have been outlined so far.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed three agreements on repatriation, but the reality is that any large-scale resettlement is a distant prospect.

The UN’s Yanghee Lee says Myanmar has “made no progress” or “shown any real willingness” on the issues at stake.

Myanmar immigration officials say this camp is built to process 150 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh per day, but so far only 11 have come through.

To date, only 11 people have come back through the Taung Pyo Letwe camp.

Yee Htoo told us that “verified” refugees can return, but added that “a citizen and a non-citizen cannot be equal” and that the refugees should stop “asking impossible things.”

Immigration officials also admitted that Rohingya returnees will not be allowed to return to their original villages – a major sticking point for any repatriation.

“What they are asking for is that they go back to their place of origin,” says Ahmad Ullah, a Rohingya activist based in Yangon. “We are not asking the government to build luxurious homes, we don’t want that, we just want our properties back.”  

Living in an ‘open-air prison’ 

One of the biggest fears among refugees is that if they return to camps inside Myanmar, they will never be allowed to leave.

That fear is rooted in historical precedent. In 2012, a previous period of violence in Rakhine meant thousands of Rohingya were relocated to camps, in a move they were told was temporary.

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A refugee camp near Sittwe in Rakhine State, where thousands of Rohingya have been stuck since 2012.

Despite government pledges to close them, nearly 130,000 people remain in the camps to this day, with little or no access to food, healthcare, and education.

“It is a lot like living in an open prison,” says Saed, a 32-year-old Rohingya living in Thet Kaye Pyin, one of the camps near the Rakhine capital Sittwe. “But even in prison, the prisoners know how long they have to be there. But as for us, how long do we have to be here? We don’t know.”

When asked if he had a message for the refugees in Bangladesh, Saed said, “I will tell them not to come back now. It’s not the right time.”

“The refugees need to go to their home, they don’t want to go to camps,” Saed said. “It is like cheating, like they cheated us. We cannot trust our government.”

Editor’s note: The names of Rohingya who spoke to CNN have been changed to protect their safety.

Ye Min Zaw contributed to this report.