Overnight exodus: Using cover of darkness to flee mass killings

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The strongest carry the weakest on their backs or on bamboo yokes — one man carried two newborn babies in a wicker basket.

Then, under the cover of night, comes the most dangerous stage of their journey — crossing land-mined border regions between Myanmar and Bangladesh and the silted waters of the Naf River.

Here, some scramble down muddy ravines or wade through waist-deep water to get across. Others take their chances by paying for space in a rickety fishing boat, which can cost up to $250 each — a huge sum in a country where the average annual income is barely $1,000 per person.

The UN Refugee Agency says a staggering 370,000 people have made the journey since August 25.

These men, women and children — they include the newborn, pregnant and elderly — are ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, often described as the most persecuted minority in the world.

They are escaping violent clashes in Rakhine State as the Myanmar military conducts “clearance operations” which intensified after Rohingya militants attacked police border posts in late August, according to state media reports.

This man and boy made it to Bangladesh by boat with only a few posessions.

“They torched my house, took away my daughter’s husband and we haven’t got any news of him yet,” said Noor Mohammad, a refugee, who arrived safely in Bangladesh. “There is nothing left in Rakhine, they destroyed everything.”

Some of them documented their treacherous journey in cell phone videos they shared with activists and CNN witnessed the night-time arrival of one group on board a high-tailed wooden boat in Bangladesh.

The predominantly Buddhist Myanmar has denied Rohingya residents the rights of citizenship, considering them to be Bangladeshi, but Bangladesh likewise denies them civil and political rights, saying they’re Burmese. As a result, they’re effectively stateless.

‘Textbook case of ethnic cleansing’

The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said on Monday that the situation in Myanmar seems like a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence.

The Myanmar government says the operations are only targeting terrorists, and insist that security forces will “exercise all due restraint” to “avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” according to a statement on Monday from Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry.

But for the Rohingya who fled – there’s no question about the government’s real intentions.

“They are killing us because we are Muslim,” Rohingya refugee Mohammad Kabir said. “They want to destroy all the Muslims of Rakhine State. We don’t want to go back. They will kill us.”

Rohingya militants known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had offered to pause “offensive military operations” until October 9 to give access to aid groups to address the “humanitarian crisis.”

But the government bluntly rejected their proposal. Zaw Htay, the spokesman for State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, told CNN the government would not “negotiate with terrorists.”

Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has repeatedly come under criticism for her lack of action to help the Rohingya, a stark contrast to her previous image as a champion of human rights.

Drowned

In just one day last week, 300 boats arrived in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh carrying Rohingya refugees, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bangladesh says.

But many of the boats are ill-equipped for the rough seas and overloaded with people. And some don’t make it.

Around 80 people have drowned trying to make it across the river – many of them women and young children, a senior Bangladeshi border guard said last week.

“No-one comes to collect these bodies. These people are so distressed, they are walking, coming across fields for five days, they hardly recognize their own relatives,” said the guard, who declined to be identified as he wasn’t authorized to speak to media.

People gather near the dead bodies of 10 Rohingya children who had killed after a boat carrying Rohingya people capsized off Bangladesh's southeastern coast, in Teknaf, Bangladesh on August 31, 2017.

Stranded

Several people have also been injured or killed by landmines along the border area in Myanmar, a UN official tells CNN.

An image provided to CNN by one Rohingya activist shows a man holding two live landmines, according to security expert Chris Clark, of UK-based Dynasafe Area Clearance Group.

At certain points along the border, thousands of people wait in limbo every day, too scared to turn back to danger, and blocked by the Bangladeshi border guards ahead.

Exhausted, hungry, and many of them injured, they rely on aid agencies and sympathetic locals to hand out food supplies to them

But after dusk, with the cloak of darkness, thousands make their move.

Now it seems, the only friend the Rohingya have is the night.

Humanitarian catastrophe

They arrive in Bangladesh to find what’s being described as a humanitarian catastrophe in the area of Cox’s Bazar, adding to an existing Rohingya refugee population of 400,000, who fled during previous bouts of violence.

Experts at aid agencies say the two official UN-administered refugee camps and several squalid makeshift camps are already full to bursting, leaving many refugees forced to set up camp on the roadside, in the woods, or wherever they can find space to lie down.

The UN agencies along with the Red Cross, Save the Children and other charities are ramping up efforts to supply food, water, shelter and medical supplies to the new arrivals. But the need is far greater than they can keep up with.

Taking a boat across the Naf river costs $250 -- a huge sum in a poor country.

“The humanitarian situation is distressing and the needs are enormous,” Save the Children humanitarian expert George Graham says.

“Thousands of Rohingya families including children are sleeping out in the open or by a roadside because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

The majority of the people arriving are women and children, aid agencies say, with many refugees reporting that their husbands and sons were taken away or killed.

“They burnt everything. They killed my husband…they beat him to death,” Rohingya refugee Dildar Begum says.

Worse for those left behind

The future for the Rohingya refugees who made it to safety looks bleak. But for those left behind, it’s even worse.

Many people fled to the hillside areas of Rakhine State – where an estimated 30,000 are still stranded without food, water or any options for escape.

“They will starve to death very soon,” 24-year-old Mohamed Raffique told CNN by phone from inside Rakhine State. CNN is using a pseudonym as his life could be in danger.

Many others are hiding out in villages, hoping the violence will end.

“Now we have reached another village, but we don’t know when they will start shooting and setting fire to our village,” he says. “But we hope we will stay safe here.”



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