That afternoon, several Muslim men yanked a monk off a motorcycle and burned him to death. Buddhist mobs in turn torched Muslim businesses and 12 of the city’s 13 mosques.
In Mingalar Zayone, some teachers skipped courses. Then classes were canceled altogether.
Students rushed to the dormitory’s second floor and gazed out of the windows, in shock. Black and gray columns of smoke were rising in the air.
At dinner a couple of hours later, the sound of a teacher weeping filled the hall. His family home had been burned with his parents inside it. Some students pushed their food away.
As the sun slunk in a hazy sky, a Buddhist government administrator came to the gate of the madrassa and took the headmaster aside.
‘‘You need to get your students out of here,’’ he warned. ‘‘You need to hide. The mobs are coming — tonight.’’
At sunset prayers, the headmaster told everyone to collect their valuables, their money, their ID cards — and prepare to leave. He asked them to remove their head caps, Islamic dress and anything that might identify them as Muslim.
He never explained why. He didn’t have to.
‘‘If they try to destroy this place, we'll do our best to stop them,’’ he said. ‘‘But whatever happens, we will not let you die.’’
After dark, they crept deep into a swampy jungle of tall grass a block away called the Wat Hlan Taw, and the tall reeds swallowed the school’s refugees whole.
Most were students and teachers. But at least 10 women and their children were also among them, relatives or residents too terrified to stay in their own homes.
They sat down in the mud. Nobody said a word.
Soon, they heard the mob approaching — dozens, maybe hundreds of voices, a cacophony of menace and anger that grew louder by the second.
The voices were at the gate of their madrassa. And then they were inside, kicking in doors and smashing windows.
In the darkness of the Wat Hlan Taw, a teacher named Shafee with a stomach ailment reached for his wife’s palm and squeezed it hard.
‘‘If they find us,’’ he whispered nervously, ‘‘you know I won’t be able to run.’’
‘‘Don’t worry,’’ his wife, Thida, replied, cradling their 3-year-old son in her arms. ‘‘We'll be together, every step. I'll never leave you.’’
As the long night wore on, the madrassa burned down.
At 4 a.m., Buddhist prayer gongs rang out, and the mobs began shining flashlights into the Wat Hlan Taw. Some Buddhists fired rocks into the bush with homemade slingshots.
‘‘Come out, Kalars!’’ they shouted, using a derogatory word for Muslims.
The Muslims ran to a neighboring compound, owned by a wealthy Muslim businessman. Some tore down a bamboo fence to get inside.
The mobs were not far behind.
Thida heard a boy screaming behind her, a student who had been trying to call his mother on his cell phone.
He had waited just a few seconds too long to run.
As the first rays of dawn touched Mingalar Zayone, Koko, a quiet, heavy-set 21-year-old student, peered over the compound’s thin fence and felt numb. Men clutching machetes and sticks were girding for a fight outside.
Hundreds more were gathering on a road running across a huge embankment that shadowed the neighborhood’s western edge. The embankment had always been there, but now it seemed to seal them inside the bottom of a huge, oppressive bowl from which they could not escape.
Koko could almost feel the blood draining from his cheeks. He felt weak, no longer human.
‘‘We’re trapped,’’ he thought, ‘‘like animals.’’
Some students were frantically making calls for help — to parents, to police. Some were chanting loudly. Others were scouring the property for anything they could use to defend themselves — wooden boards, rocks the gangs outside had thrown at them.
By the time an opposition lawmaker, Win Htein, arrived around 7:30 a.m., dozens of helmeted riot police were on the scene. The security forces, equipped with rifles and gray shields, had formed lines to keep the Buddhist hordes away from the Muslims.
Win Htein saw the head of police and the district commissioner standing nearby, and the bodies of two dead Muslims on the edge of the Wat Hlan Taw. Over the next 45 minutes, he watched in horror as mobs of men chased five more students out of the bush, one by one, and hacked or bludgeoned them to death in broad daylight.
As stone-faced police officers stood idle just steps away, crowds cheered like spectators in a Roman gladiator show.
‘‘They must be wiped out!’’ one woman shouted.
‘‘Kill them all!’’ shouted another. ‘‘We must show Burmese courage!’’
Win Htein felt nauseous. He wanted to vomit. In two decades of prison and torture under brutal military rule, he had never seen anything like this.Continued...