MAUNGDAW, Myanmar”•Ahead is a river they can’t afford to cross, behind is hunger and hostility. So hundreds of Rohingya encamped on a black sand beach in Myanmar’s Maungdaw cling to thinning hopes of safe passage to Bangladesh”•before their food runs out.
Thrust into a grim limbo by communal violence, women and children are among the desperate sheltering under plastic sheets from the blistering sun or late monsoon downpours on Gaw Du Thar Ya beach, an area charred by violence.
The relative safety of Bangladesh lies tantalizingly close”•just five kilometers across the Naf River that bisects the two countries.
But pincered by poverty, those massed on the beach are unable to afford the price for passage that has rocketed to upwards of $250.
“If we stay here we will starve. We have nothing,” Siru Bibu, a 45-year-old grandmother told AFP on a rare government-steered visit to the epicenter of the violence.
The majority of the Rohingya on the beach are from inland Buthidaung district, several days trek from the coast.
Some have waited for two weeks for a chance to board a boat, despite the dangers of a river crossing that has seen scores of Rohingya drown as crowded vessels capsize in choppy waters.
All they have to eat is the rice they could carry, a cache that dwindles by the day.
Myanmar authorities have not been providing aid and are instead imploring them to return to their villages.
“We want to persuade them that they don’t have to leave the country,” said Kyaw Thint Swe, a minister for the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, adding that the displaced would be given food and security.
But Rohingya who have made it to Bangladesh in recent days say returning to villages abutting ethnic Rakhine settlements is impossible as their erstwhile neighbors starve them out.
“The Rakhine Buddhists stopped us from leaving our village. They used to shoot at us when we reached the end of our villages,” 25-year-old Mohammed Nur said, from Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
The exodus began in late August after raids by Rohingya militants were met with a Myanmar army campaign the UN says amounts to “ethnic cleansing.”
Those that get to Bangladesh will join over 500,000 other Rohingya in overcrowded camps stalked by disease, hunger and insecurity.
The UN’s refugee arm has said nearly a fifth the new arrivals are suffering from acute malnutrition, underpinned by hard conditions the Rohingya have endured over the last several years inside Myanmar.
Myanmar’s army denies that ethnic cleansing is underway and has locked down the conflict-stricken area of Rakhine, denying free access to aid agencies and media.
But refugees in Bangladesh and rights groups say the army conducted a ‘scorched earth’ campaign of murder, arson and rape to systematically drive Rohingya over the border.
Half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population have fled since August, joining around 400,000 already in Bangladesh which now hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.
On the one-day government-led press tour this week reporters were whisked to several areas of Rakhine under watch from officials who chose the destinations.
Incinerated Rohingya villages scar the lush landscape of Maungdaw, one of the epicenters of violence.
Stray dogs pick through the charred wooden pillars of Muslim homes allegedly torched by the army and local mobs of ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhist.
They have long denigrated the Rohingya as illegal ‘Bengali’ immigrants and welcome their flight from Myanmar.
While the clashes between the militants and soldiers have abated, Rohingya said hunger is being used to drive out those who remain.
“We can’t go anywhere. The bus station has been closed for weeks,” Khin Khin Wai, 24, a mother-of-two, told AFP from Ah Nout Pyin village in Rathedaung district, where hungry children begged for food from the media.
Encircled by Rakhine villages, she says, the Rohingya have pulled together for weeks to survive, sharing the dregs of their rice stocks.
“Now there is no rice,” she added.
Three-quarters of Rakhine’s population lived in poverty before this crisis and were already heavily dependent on aid.
But those handouts have been stopped by the violence and accusations that international relief agencies harbor a pro-Rohingya bias.
The UN has called for unfettered humanitarian access to Rakhine, but Myanmar authorities have so far remained unmoved by the international pressure.
“The few villages we have been able to help were later attacked because they had received food,” a humanitarian officer in Myanmar said requesting anonymity.