TEKNAF: Hundreds of desperate Rohingya Muslims are still pouring over the Myanmar border into Bangladesh every week, bringing harrowing accounts of torture and murder, six months after a military crackdown sparked the massive refugee crisis.
One of the recent arrivals, Nur Mohammad, said his village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was surrounded by Buddhist vigilantes for days before they were allowed to leave.
“The Moghs (Buddhists) torched our houses, kept us confined and starving,” Mohammad said. “Villages are razed to the ground. We walked for days through mountains to reach here.” Thirty-year-old Enayetullah was among the 200 Rohingya who crossed the Naf river into Bangladesh on Friday.
Most of his neighbours had left earlier, part of a 700,000-strong Rohingya exodus since August 25, leaving behind desolate and burned-out villages.
“We stayed all these months hoping the situation will be fine. But in recent weeks, security forces have taken away our young men. If they abduct 10, only one returns,” Enayetullah said.
Enayetullah also accused Myanmar security forces of torching his shop, prompting him and his three brothers to flee their home in Mognapara village near the town of Buthidaung.
The military crackdown in the north of Rakhine has been termed “ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations and the United States.
While Bangladesh and Myanmar talk of repatriating the refugees, the influx continues. Some days 200 people cross the border, on others a few dozen make the perilous journey. More than 2,500 have entered the overflowing camps in Bangladesh so far in February.
Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been torched in the crackdown, according to refugees and monitoring groups. Human Rights Watch said that another 55 villages have been razed since November.
The Rohingya have been systematically stripped of their legal rights in mainly Buddhist Myanmar in recent decades and face rampant discrimination.
Myanmar denies seeking to eradicate the minority but refuses to give UN investigators access to an area where thousands of Rohingya are believed to have been killed.
In November Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to repatriate some 750,000 Rohingya over two years. Last week Dhaka sent a list of 8,000 names to Myanmar for verification.
But Rohingya leaders bluntly refuse to return. The UN says anyone who goes back must be a volunteer, while Myanmar shows no sign of accepting the Rohingya as full citizens.
“If they send us back, we’ll be tortured or killed. We would rather be killed here in Bangladesh. Here, at least I’ll get a Muslim burial,” said Mohammad Elias, whose group has staged protests against repatriation in recent weeks.
According to the UN, since the repatriation deal was signed on November 23, nearly 70,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh through different routes in and near Cox’s Bazar district.
“Those who came in recent days said they were tortured,” Mainuddin Khan, Teknaf town police chief, said.
Some Rohingya who remained in Rakhine’s three main Muslim districts said the situation has improved in parts of the region, but life in the empty villages was unbearable.
Maun Maung Tin, a Rohingya from Maungdaw, said it was impossible to buy or sell goods and they were afraid to complain to authorities.
“The new refugees say that they feel unsafe, threatened and harassed at home, in villages that are often abandoned,” said Kate Nolan, coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Bangladesh.
Aid agencies say there is still a critical risk of life-threatening diseases in the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, where most refugees live in flimsy tarpaulin-and-bamboo huts.
A new threat looms with the cyclone season that starts in April. The massive storms have killed hundreds of thousands along the coast in the past five decades.
“We are concerned about the nature of the shelters, how robust they are and if they are really prepared and equipped for the heavy rains,” said MSF’s Nolan.
Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam admitted a challenge lies ahead, saying authorities have to “shift 200,000 refugees” from the camps before the monsoon.
“It will be a big challenge for us to find sufficient places to be used as cyclone shelters for this huge number of people,” he told reporters on Sunday.
Despite the cyclone risk, the Rohingya say they are unwilling to go back.
“At least there is adequate food here and there is no one to kill or torture you,” said Enayetullah.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2018