In the early morning hours of of Aug. 25, Abul Kalam, a bearded, 35-year-old Muslim religious teacher, was sitting in his village in Myanmar's Maungdaw township when the call came.
"Our commander ordered us to attack the military post in our village," he says.
So he did, along with about 150 other men, he says. All were members of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority, and many were volunteers recruited by a Rohingya militant group to fight against security forces.
Kalam — not his real name, but one he has asked us to use out of fear of retribution — says the attackers mostly used knives or homemade weapons. They had only two pistols, which they had seized from the security forces during a wave of attacks launched last October by the Rohingya militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
It didn't go well.
About 50 of Kalam's fellow fighters were killed. The next day, he says, the military came and burned his village to the ground. He and other survivors fled with their families, he says.
They now live in a tent, high on a hill, in one of many makeshift camps that have sprouted just across the border in Bangladesh.
The attack Kalam took part in was one of dozens of simultaneous attacks on security posts in Myanmar's Rakhine State. The Myanmar military responded brutally, in what the United Nations human rights chief called a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." And it has led to an exodus of more than half a million Rohingya to Bangladesh, something the U.N. says is "the world's fastest developing refugee crisis."
Another man who says he is an ARSA fighter, and wishes to be called Abu Alam, tells a story similar to Kalam's. In Abu Alam's case, 52 of his fellow Rohingya attackers were killed, he says.
The men's accounts couldn't be independently verified; Myanmar's government is not allowing independent access to Rakhine, and the ARSA leadership isn't talking. But the detail the men provided about the attacks and preparation for them is persuasive.
Despite their side's heavy losses, and the military's response, both men say the attacks were worth it.
"The world community hasn't been able to help us," Abu Alam says. "The Myanmar government hasn't listened to them. If we don't stand up for ourselves, we won't get our rights back. So we must fight, even if we die."
It's an opinion you hear a lot in Bangladesh's Rohingya refugee camps. Members of the ethnic Muslim minority have long been persecuted by the government of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Most are not even recognized as citizens.
But as people struggle now to survive in wretched conditions, with too little food, too little water and inadequate sanitation — conditions aid workers call a ticking time bomb for the spread of cholera and other waterborne diseases — there's a competing narrative: that ARSA overstepped, catastrophically. And innocent civilians are paying the price.
"I'm angry at the military for killing my husband," says 20-year-old Dildar Begum, a name she chose out of fear of reprisal. "But I'm also angry at those who told my husband to go fight with them."
Her husband, she says, was recruited by ARSA, then killed by the military in one of theAug. 25 attacks. Dildar Begum took their 9-month-old baby and fled to Bangladesh.
Now she cradles her boy, trying to get him to stop crying. She is sitting in a shelter, and it's brutally hot. The people with whom she shares a tent are cooking behind a partition. The sun beats down on a plastic sheet that serves as a roof.
"Now my son is fatherless, my village is destroyed and we have nothing," she says. "It was stupid for them to attack like they did, without weapons."
Syed Alom, another recent arrival, says he worked for an international nonprofit in Maungdaw township before fleeing. He also questions ARSA's tactics.
"It was a big mistake," he says. "If ARSA hadn't launched its attacks, the military wouldn't have reacted as it did. And there wouldn't be nearly half a million refugees here."
He wonders whether there might be a foreign influence behind ARSA, which formed just a few years ago, but doesn't elaborate.
ARSA denies any links to transnational terrorist groups like ISIS or al-Qaida. But the Myanmar military and some human rights groups have accused ARSA of brutality of its own — forced conscription, murdering suspected informers and killing members of other ethnic groups. And there are worries that ARSA's actions will attract foreign jihadists' interest.
"The actions that they took on Aug. 25 were appalling and clearly have sowed the seeds of tension and the violence that has ensued, and we condemn those attacks, " Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy told NPR during a Sept. 22 conference call with reporters. "Whether this organization has ties elsewhere is not particularly germane given the fact that it could be creating an incentive for foreign terrorists to look at a new opportunity."
Elliot Brennan, an Australia-based independent researcher who specializes in Myanmar and Southeast Asia, warns that ARSA is making things worse.
"I don't think we'd be in the current situation if ARSA didn't exist," he says. "ARSA has accelerated bad outcomes for the community and they will continue to do so. Where we're at now is something new and very dangerous, an environment which is much more conducive to radicalization than we've ever had before."
Brennan doesn't see any clear links yet between international terrorism groups and ARSA. But other analysts do.
The ARSA leader, Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi, more often known as Ata Ullah, was born in the Rohingya diaspora in Pakistan and moved as a child to Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group.
Jihadist social media have lit up since the Aug. 25 attacks and subsequent military reprisal, with calls for volunteers to go to Myanmar to help ARSA fight against Myanmar's military.
"The propaganda machine of ARSA has been quite formidable as well," Brennan says. "That's not something we particularly see among other ethnic minority groups [fighting Myanmar's military] and does suggest there has been an outside hand in there, to some degree."
That outside hand, Brennan says, may be looking to get an inside track in a place where people have resisted advances from jihadist groups in the past. He and other analysts believe ARSA's attacks have given Myanmar's military a justification to do what many say it has wanted to do all along: drive the Rohingya from Myanmar once and for all.
The U.S. government seems to be coming around to a similar line of thinking.
"We cannot be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authorities what they appear to be, a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority," the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, told the Security Council last week.
Before the latest wave of violence, that ethnic minority was estimated to number between 1.1 million and 1.3 million people in Myanmar. Nearly half of them have now fled to neighboring Bangladesh. And they keep coming.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have the remarkable backstory this morning of a military assault on civilians. We've told you a lot about members of a minority group who've had to flee Myanmar. The country's military has forced out half a million Rohingya Muslims. The military's excuse is that it was attacked first. A militant group did strike security posts. And reporter Michael Sullivan spoke with men who took part in those attacks. He found them in Bangladesh.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the early morning of August 25, Abul Kalam says, he was sitting in his village when the call came. That's not his real name. He asked that we call him that on a fear of retribution.
ABUL KALAM: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "Our commander ordered us to attack the Myanmar military post in our village," he says. One-hundred-fifty men armed with just two pistols seized from the security forces during a previous wave of attacks launched by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army - or ARSA - back in October. The rest of the men, he says, had only knives and homemade weapons. It didn't go well.
KALAM: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "Because we had so few weapons, about 50 of our men were killed," he says. The day after the unsuccessful attack, the 35-year-old religious teacher says the military burned his village. He and the other remaining fighters fled here with their families.
ABUL ALAM: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: Twenty-five-year-old Abul Alam - that's what he's asked to be called also to protect his identity - tells a similar story about a similar attack with similar results in his village. Fifty-two Rohingya attackers killed, he says, out of about 200. Yet despite the heavy casualties, both men say the attacks were worth it. Abul Alam.
ALAM: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "The world community hasn't been able to help us," he says. "The Myanmar government hasn't listened to them, so we must fight, even if we die."
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
SULLIVAN: Twenty-year-old Dildar Begum, a name she chose out of fear of reprisal, isn't buying it. She's sitting with her 9-month-old boy in a brutally hot makeshift shelter in one of the new informal refugee camps. Her husband was recruited by ARSA and killed by the military in one of the August 25 attacks.
DILDAR BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "I'm angry at the military for killing my husband," she says. "But I'm also angry at those who told my husband to go fight with them because now," she says, "my son is fatherless. My village is destroyed. And we have nothing. It was stupid," she says, "for them to attack like they did."
Another new arrival, Syed Alom, puts it even more bluntly.
SYED ALOM: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "If ARSA hadn't launched its attacks," he says, "the Myanmar military wouldn't have reacted as it did. And there wouldn't be nearly half a million new refugees," he says.
And lost in those stories is ARSA's own alleged brutality, murdering those it suspects of collaborating with Myanmar's military and members of other ethnic communities as well, according to human rights groups. The ARSA attacks and the military's response is a game changer, says longtime Myanmar analyst Elliot Brennan.
ELLIOT BRENNAN: Where we're at now is something new and very dangerous, an environment which is much more conducive to radicalization than we've ever had before.
SULLIVAN: Brennan doesn't see any clear links yet between international terror groups and ARSA even though its leader grew up in the Rohingya diaspora in Pakistan and went to school in Saudi Arabia. Still, he says...
BRENNAN: The propaganda machine of ARSA has been quite formidable as well. That's not something we particularly see amongst other ethnic armed groups and does suggest there has been an outside hand in there to some degree.
SULLIVAN: An outside hand that may be looking to get an inside track in a place that's resisted advances from jihadi groups in the past, he says, but might be more amenable, more desperate now. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "DEATH AND THE MAIDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.