Fires rage in Rakhine as Myanmar army blames Rohingya for mosque blast

A house is seen on fire in Gawduthar village, Maungdaw township, in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar. (File photo by Reuters)
Updated 23 September 2017
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Fires rage in Rakhine as Myanmar army blames Rohingya for mosque blast

SITTWE, Myanmar: Myanmar’s army chief on Saturday blamed Rohinyga militants for an explosion outside a mosque in Rakhine state, as a rights group accused the military of starting fires in the region to prevent refugees from returning.
The unrest comes days after Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi declared troops had ceased “clearance operations” in the border area that have forced more than 430,000 Rohingya refugees to flee for Bangladesh in under a month.
The army claims it is targeting Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on August 25. But its operation has been so sweeping and brutal that the UN says it likely amounts to “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority, a group reviled by many in the mainly Buddhist country.
On Saturday Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing posted a statement on Facebook saying Rohingya militants planted a “home-made mine” that exploded in between a mosque and madrasa in northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung township on Friday.
The army chief accused the militants of trying to drive out around 700 hundred villagers who had remained in Mi Chaung Zay — an argument analysts have said makes little sense for a group whose power depends on the networks it has built across Rohingya communities.
“As our villagers did not want to leave their homes, the terrorists blew up the bomb during the prayer time as a way of terrorizing the villagers,” the army chief’s statement said.
“It is the act of ARSA terrorist group,” it added, using an acronym for the Rohingya militant group whose raids on police posts in August triggered the military backlash.
No one was reported injured in the explosion.
With the government blocking access to the conflict zone, it is difficult to verify the swirl of claims and counterclaims over who is driving the unrest, which has also displaced tens of thousands of Buddhists and Hindus.
But rights groups say there is overwhelming evidence that the army is using its crackdown on militants to systematically purge the 1.1-million strong stateless Rohingya from its borders.
On Friday Amnesty International said new videos and satellite imagery confirmed fires were still ripping through Rohingya villages, scores of which have already been burned to the ground.
“Not satisfied with simply forcing Rohingya from their homes, authorities seem intent on ensuring they have no homes to return to,” said Tirana Hasan from Amnesty.
Human Rights Watch on Saturday also echoed earlier allegations that Myanmar security forces were laying land mines along the Bangladesh border crossed by the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya seeking sanctuary.
“The dangers faced by thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities in Burma are deadly enough without adding land mines to the mix,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director.
“The Burmese military needs to stop using these banned weapons, which kill and maim without distinction.”


Nowhere to run: Rohingya hunker down as monsoon arrives

Roshid Jan, a Rohingya refugee who said she is not sure about her age, cries holding her son Muhammad Gyab at their shelter at the camp for widows and orphans inside the Balukhali camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 5, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 min 19 sec ago
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Nowhere to run: Rohingya hunker down as monsoon arrives

  • More than 200,000 people are living in areas considered at risk of landslides and flooding, according to the ISCG
  • Still, for many Rohingya refugees who have made it through mass killings, rapes and other abuse in a military crackdown, the fear of the monsoon is relative

UKHIYA, Bangladesh: The hill on which the young woman’s shelter is being built is so unstable that the earth crumbles under your feet. The threat of landslides is so dire that her neighbors have evacuated. Though living here could spell doom as the monsoon rains fall, she will live here anyway.
For Mustawkima, a Rohingya woman who fled Myanmar for the refugee camps of neighboring Bangladesh, there is no other option.
Hers is a dilemma repeated over and over for many of the 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in ramshackle huts across this unsteady landscape: With the long-dreaded monsoon season now upon them, they have run out of places to run.
For months, officials raced to relocate the most at-risk families to safer areas that had been bulldozed flat, but there simply isn’t enough available land. Most refugees believe it is too dangerous to return to Myanmar, where the military launched a brutal campaign of violence against the minority Rohingya Muslims last year. And so, as the rains begin to flood parts of the camps, many Rohingya find themselves trapped — by geography, by poverty and by fear.
The bamboo shelter on the crumbling hillside will be Mustawkima’s third attempt at finding a home in the camps. She has had to do everything on her own; Her husband was killed when the military stormed their village in August 2017.
Mustawkima, who like some Rohingya uses only one name, abandoned her first shelter when the soil washed away. With five children under the age of 8, she wanted her new home to be close to relatives living at the base of the hill, so she erected a flimsy tarp halfway up. But when the rains began in June, the water quickly poured in, transforming her dirt floor into a muddy mess.
Frightened, she sold off some of her donated rations of rice, lentils and oil so she could hire men to build her a sturdier shelter in the same spot. The bamboo and sandbags were donated by aid agencies. She fears there isn’t enough material, but she has no money to buy extra bamboo.
Families living in five shelters on the hill recently evacuated, she says. She can only hope that her relatives will protect her and her children when the worst of the rains arrive.
The most intense rains are expected over the next few months, though heavy downpours began pummeling the camps in June. There have already been more than 160 landslides, 30 people injured and one toddler killed, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group, or ISCG, which oversees the aid agencies in the camps.
“Within 24 hours of the first rains falling, we were seeing small landslides and we were seeing flooding everywhere,” says Daphnee Cook, a spokeswoman for Save the Children. “I’ve been here for seven months and I was appalled at how quickly things started to fall apart.”
The ferocity of the rains and the swiftness with which they can wreak havoc is stunning. On a recent day, it took just minutes for a downpour to transform the face of another hill into a waterfall, with torrents of muddy water cascading down dirt steps.
Beyond the landslides and flooding, there are worries about waterborne diseases like cholera. Some of the latrines are piled high with fly-riddled excrement, which seeps out the sides during downpours. Water pumps are generally just a few meters away — worse, some are located downhill.
Aid workers have cleaned out thousands of latrines. Children are receiving identity bracelets in case they are separated from parents in the flooding. Families have received extra materials to fortify their shelters. Trenches have been dug to try and redirect floodwaters.
Ultimately, though, the topography of the camps is the biggest problem. The trees that once covered the hills have been cut down to make room for shelters, and the roots dug up for firewood. That process has dramatically loosened the soil, which the rains turn into heavy mud that slips down the hillsides, burying anything in its path.
The jagged scar on Mohamed Alom’s head is a grim reminder of the dangers of those landslides. The 27-year-old was asleep in his shelter last month when a torrent of mud crashed through the plastic wall next to him. A tree root slammed into his head, slicing open his skin. His agonized screams awakened his wife and two young children, who rushed him to a doctor.
Now, he and his family are among 13 people living in a one-room schoolhouse. Alom is hoping officials will help him build a new shelter, but he has no idea how long that will take.
More than 200,000 people are living in areas considered at risk of landslides and flooding, according to the ISCG. Around 34,000 refugees have been relocated to other areas, with some moving into sturdier shelters further away from the hills.
Hotiza Begum, 25, recently moved into one of the new shelters with her husband and five children after mud crashed through the roof of her old one. She likes her relatively spacious new home. But it is hard to find firewood, she says, because they now live far from the mountains. And the markets can only be reached by tuk tuk, which costs about $1 — more than they can afford.
Yet at least her family is safe, for now. Abu Bakker’s family lives at the base of a hill where a landslide destroyed eight shelters. A few weeks ago, Bakker’s 60-year-old mother was trying to scoop a bit of soil out of their shelter when a deluge of mud crashed through their tarp wall, knocking her to the ground and burying her up to her thighs.
Bakker dug his terrified mother out and knew he had to get his family away. An aid group promised him supplies to rebuild, but they still haven’t arrived. And even if they do, he asks, where will he rebuild?
He is scared whenever it rains, which is often. He prays every day for Allah to protect them.
Still, for many Rohingya refugees who have made it through mass killings, rapes and other abuse in a military crackdown, the fear of the monsoon is relative.
“In Myanmar, it’s scary because there’s no guarantee for our lives,” says Alom, as the rain begins to fall on the roof. “Here, even if there’s a landslide, at least we don’t have to worry about the military.”