Usually it takes an hour to travel from the port city of Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf, the southernmost town in Bangladesh, on a road that runs along the sea. But these days, buses plying Marine Drive take at least four hours to reach Teknaf.
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state have flooded the roadside spaces. These hapless people, especially children, pass their days on the road, forcing drivers to proceed carefully.
Hungry men, women and children run toward vehicles whenever they see one approaching, hoping to get some food or water to stop the crying of hungry children, the worst victims of the military operation that Myanmar security forces launched on Aug. 25.
The suffering of the unaccompanied children beggars description. They cannot survive in the fight for relief with adults. Every adult is focused on getting food for their dependents, the elderly and children.
Assigned to report on the Rohingya refugees for BenarNews, I flew to Cox’s Bazar from Dhaka on Sept. 9, then traveled to Ukhia and Teknaf. These two sub-districts have received the majority of more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh since Myanmar launched a military operation against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) late last month.
Before then, another 400,000 Rohingya refugees were in Bangladesh. So now these two districts seem like one huge refugee camp.
It was raining when I reached Ukhia. Thousands of Rohingya of all ages were walking along the highway in the rain. Many were weak and walked slowly with hope of finding shelter. But where? Nobody knew. They walked, walked and walked. Small children followed in the footsteps of their parents. And many hungry, thirsty and traumatized Rohingya sat along the road in the rain with their belongings.
I saw the line of refugees stretch into the distance as our vehicle proceeded slowly toward Teknaf from Ukhia. The Rohingya were carrying goats, chickens, crockery, solar panels and other items.
A Rohingya family waits for transportation at Sabrang Bazar, Teknaf to move to Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Sept. 16, 2017. (Jesmin Papri/BenarNews)
Some of the luckier people were building rooms using bamboo poles and plastic sheets – thanks to individuals and organizations distributing relief materials.
The Rohingya encircled the trucks, vans and microbuses to get relief materials: dry food, used furniture, old clothes, water, plastic sheeting. They pushed to get a front-line position for the handouts. Such desperate struggles reportedly killed one man and a child.
At first, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) tried to stop the Rohingya from crossing into Bangladesh and put restrictions on fishing in the Naf River that divides Teknaf and Rakhine. So the horrified, desperate Rohingya took shelter in no man’s land between the two countries and along the bank of the Naf River on the Myanmar side.
That turned into an opportunity for local fishermen. At night, they started a brisk business of transporting the Rohingyas across the river, charging up to 10,000 taka per person (U.S. $122) for a berth on rickety fishing boats. Small boats carried at least 15 passengers; bigger ones took up to 40. Many of the overloaded boats sank, killing nearly 100 people – mostly women and children.
The Rohingya also entered Bangladesh overland through Naikhangchhari, a subdistrict of neighboring Bandarban district. But at least four Rohingya died in land mine explosions there. So, they were willing to cross the Naf River to enter Bangladesh at any cost.
Bangladesh authorities finally lifted the border vigilance as the situation deteriorated further. Around 800 boats were seen transporting Rohingya refugees round the clock. Opening up of the border reduced the boat fare, which slumped to 2,000 taka ($24) per person.
As soon as boats reached the river bank, the refugees jumped into shallow water, lest their boat sank. They assembled at an open space near a market. The BGB then took them to Putubinua in Teknaf and Thaingkhali in Ukhia, whether they were allowed to remain.
Rohingya refugees gather at Sabrang Bazar, Teknaf, before moving toward Rohingya camps in Teknaf and Ukhia, Sept. 16, 2017. (Jesmin Papri/BenarNews)
During my 10-day reporting trip, I visited most of the old and new refugee camps. It rained almost every day. The rain multiplied the sufferings of the Rohingya, most of whom were yet to get any shelter.
Yousuf Hossain, a physician at the medical camp set up by Al Qamar Welfare Association, told me that 85 percent of the Rohingya children he saw were suffering from cold, fever, pneumonia, diarrhea and other water-borne diseases. The numbers were increasing every day. Adults were also sufferings from these diseases.
The water and sanitation system at the old camps were in near collapse because of the huge number of people. The new camps have no water and sanitation facilities. The refugees were resorting to open defecation.
I talked to many Rohingya refugees. One of them, Hafez Solaiman Uddin, who used to teach at a madrassa in Maungdaw township, told me that he and 10 members of his family entered Bangladesh to escape the atrocities of the Myanmar military, the border guard police and the vigilante Buddhists – all of whom took part in killing, hacking, raping of the Rohingya Muslims, torching and looting their houses.
He said the Myanmar government and military were executing a long-term plan to obliterate the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. The Buddhists occupy Rohingya land and take Rohingya crops, he said. But if they lodge a complaint with police, they are likely to get beaten.
Being a woman gave me an advantage. Many Rohingya women openly told me how they were raped by the security forces and the vigilante Buddhists, whom they call Mogh, in front of their family members. They take the beautiful Rohingya girls, rape them in groups and sometimes kill them by cutting their bellies.
No Rohingya can live in Rakhine unless the state-sponsored torture comes to an end. But will it? Possibly no. Then the exodus from Rakhine will continue. Are the Rohingya Muslims going to perish in a human tragedy? Time will answer.