The rapid mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar belies the extreme dangers – land mines, violence, drowning – on the routes out of violence-torn Rakhine state. Refugees describe their weeks-long flight to Bangladesh and fears for those still trapped.
COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH – Three sacks of rice, a piece of black tarp for shelter, some firewood, a solar panel for charging cell phones and two bottles of water.
That was all Rohi Mullah, a Rohingya Muslim man in his mid-40s, and his large family carried with them during weeks of hiding in the mountains of Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state and trekking over the border into Bangladesh.
Over half a million Rohingya – members of a persecuted and stateless minority – have fled Rakhine state since late August, after a campaign of violence against the group that U.N. officials have called ethnic cleansing.
They endured a long and fearful journey – which Rohi Mullah said he undertook with a soldier’s bullet lodged in his foot. “They fired guns and the bullet hit me,” he recalled, pointing to his bandaged foot. The family stood dazed, by the side of the road, hours after arriving in Bangladesh in mid-September.
The refugees describe an exodus on a Biblical scale. Unknown numbers died on the way. Babies were born and died. Elderly people were carried in cotton slings. Some were maimed by land mines placed at the border, allegedly by the military.
After initially pushing back Rohingya at the border, Bangladesh has taken in at least 507,000 refugees in a few weeks. Refugees continue to take perilous routes out of Myanmar every day. Last week, at least 60 were feared drowned when their boat capsized trying to reach Bangladesh. Countless others are trapped inside Rakhine, waiting for a way out.
Many refugees recount alleged atrocities – mass rape, massacres and arson – by Myanmar soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists. The accusations cannot be independently verified as the army – which has blamed Rohingya militants for killing Buddhists and Hindus and burning homes – blocks access to the region. Human rights groups have documented the burning of a vast number of Muslim villages, while non-Muslim areas have been left largely untouched.
Rohi Mullah’s home, Koe Tan Kauk, was one of the first places to go. In the early hours of August 25, militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army stormed dozens of police posts across Northern Rakhine state.
By that afternoon, Koe Tan Tauk was in flames. “As soon as [soldiers] surrounded the village they just started firing guns and burning the houses,” said Rohi Mullah. Pictures published by Human Rights Watch show almost every structure in Koe Tan Tauk destroyed.
Rohi Mullah and his family grabbed what they could before running up into the nearby Mayu Mountain range. “It took less than 10 minutes,” he said. They stayed in the mountains for more than a week with thousands of other villagers, sheltering under a piece of tarp and slowly eating into their reserves of food and water.
While they hid, violence spread across Northern Rakhine. In the north, Rohingya in Maungdaw township were closer to Bangladesh and had an escape route in the Naf River, which runs between the two countries. In the south, many in Rathedaung township were encircled by mountains and trapped.
For Rohi Mullah, the only way out was to take a boat from the Bay of Bengal. But the military and hostile Rakhine Buddhists were waiting at the base of the mountains, blocking their access to the beach, he said.
One night, after weeks of waiting, when the soldiers closest to them were asleep, they seized an opportunity. At the coast, Bangladeshi boatmen were able to ferry them across the bay – for a fee of 2,000 taka (around $25) per person. They let the children ride for free. Women with the group were forced to hand over their jewelry.
Three days after setting off from the mountains, the family arrived on Bangladeshi shores, weak and disoriented. Like many people from Rathedaung, they knew nobody there, Rohi Mullah said.
The first night in Bangladesh, they slept in a hut a few dozen meters from the shore, with a local family who gave them shelter for the night, before preparing to walk on to a refugee camp they’d heard about.
Others barely made it over the border alive. A middle-aged Rohingya man who, in a pained whine, gave his name as Ismail, groaned as several men hoisted him into Bangladesh’s Kutapalong camp. He had flesh wounds on his legs and shoulders and a badly distended stomach.
“The military took me into the jungle and then every day they tortured me,” he wheezed. “Every part of my body. They tortured and tortured and tortured.”
He said soldiers scraped their boots down his legs, which were swollen and red – a sign of infection under the skin.
“It’s very painful,” he said. “Very painful. I cannot bear it… I need to stop the swelling. It’s raising from my leg to my whole body.”
It took him three days to cross the border from Buthidaung township, he said, before his companions helped him limp in the direction of a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières.
The U.N. says the surge of refugees has slowed in recent days. Thousands of Rohingya are still believed to be trapped in Northern Rakhine, according to activists documenting the crisis.
Some 11,000 are stuck in five isolated villages in Rathedaung where mobs of Buddhists are stopping them from leaving or traveling to buy food, Burma Human Rights Network said in a statement on Monday.
“The locals have said that when they pass Rakhine villages they are threatened and hear gunshots in the distance,” the statement said, referring to predominantly Buddhist local ethnic group. “As these villagers’ supplies are running out, they say they’ve requested to be moved but have had their request unanswered.”
As he stood in the relative safety of Bangladesh, Rohi Mullah voiced concerns for his stranded neighbors at home. “If they try to leave the village – to escape to the forest – they fire their guns,” he said.
Echoing the thoughts of many Rohingya, stateless and trapped between Bangladesh and Myanmar, neither of which wants them, Mullah now feels at the mercy of the international community.
“We will follow the rules that the outside world will make for us,” he said. “We are waiting for that plan.”
JOURNALIST BASED IN MYANMAR
Poppy McPherson is a journalist based in Myanmar. She has spent the past five years mainly covering Southeast Asia, most recently focusing on Myanmar and Bangladesh, for the Guardian, Guardian Cities, Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy, Time and others. Follow her on Twitter: @poppymcp