Dozens of people emerged from the dark, eerie waters, carrying babies, small children and stuffed plastic bags through the depth of the night, their faces barely visible under the dim stars. Setting foot on the remote shores of Shah Porir island in southern Bangladesh, they were the lucky ones.
One of the small wooden fishing boats carrying Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar capsized last week, killing dozens, their lifeless bodies dragged away by the current. They swept up on the shores hours later, skin weathered by the salt water and fish bites scarring the bodies.
Gulser Adji sat on the beach shivering, holding on to her husband and six-year-old son Mohammed, waiting for daybreak to continue the journey. They had made it from Tamanho village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to safety in Bangladesh, but their journey was far from over.
“The soldiers wanted to kill us all. They attacked our village, set houses on fire and cut the throats of young boys,” said 34-year-old Adji. “I don’t know how we managed to escape.”
They have joined about 582,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar since Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing the army and Buddhist mobs of arson, killings and rape.
Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labelled the Rohingya militants who launched the attacks as terrorists. UN aid agencies have not had access to the shrinking Rohingya population in Rakhine state and the United Nations says Rohingya there now face a “desperate choice whether to stay or go”, not only due to the violence but also humanitarian needs.
Scrambling across the sand
On Shah Porir island, the morning’s first light revealed a sweeping beach with lush palm trees and small colorful boats in the shallow waters - a paradise-like spot, but groups of Rohingya were scrambling across the sand, their faces telling stories of horrors they had witnessed.
“We see people arrive here most nights. It’s a less than a three kilometer journey from Myanmar, yet many don’t make it. Those who do often get robbed on the beach by local people, but we try to prevent that,” said Bangladesh Border Guard Senior Inspector Nor Nobi, sitting in the wooden shelter where he spends his night shifts.
“I will never forget what I have seen. Little boys were lying dead on the ground. We ran away, but my last image is that of my village burning,” Adji recalled.
Her family, equipped with their last set of belongings - two small white bags and a green thermos - had started the 30 minute walk across Shah Porir island early in the morning, to board another boat to take them across the mouth of the Naf River and to Bangladesh’s mainland.
Myanmar’s lush mountains were clearly visible on the other side; so close that even houses could be seen. Occasionally, smoke rose from the hills.
The short boat journey costs 50 Taka (0.60) a person, bringing the refugees to chaos on the Bangladesh side. Hundreds walked aimlessly, carrying their belongings barefooted, holding on to children, asking for much-needed food.
Many of the Rohingya didn’t know where to go next. They sat by the side of the road, sheltering from the sun under trees or old umbrellas.
Julaka, a woman in her sixties ran past, crying and screaming, tears dripping onto her faded blouse. “I saw my family getting slaughtered by soldiers, I have lost all of my children,” she sobbed, almost delirious.
Eventually she broke down by the roadside. Other refugees stopped curiously, but soon started walking past her. Most were quiet. Some begged by the side of the road, pointing to their empty stomachs, making hand gestures of putting food in their mouths.
The Rohingya’s official point of entry to Bangladesh is the registration centre in Haria Khali, just minutes away from the shores of the Naf. “We have already processed 69 families today - that’s hundreds of people. We are expecting many more,” said Mohammed Elias of the Population Movement Operation, a local aid organization. It was 9.30 in the morning.
Clutching on to belongings
Countless families were sitting on the ground behind Elias, clutching on to their belongings, waiting to put their names and fingerprints on a form before being allowed to proceed. From escaping their destroyed villages, hiking over a mountain, crossing the sea by boat and walking to the other side of Shar Porir island, hopping onto another dinghy and finally registering in Haria Khali, Adji and her family were now almost onto the last stretch of their journey.
The blue ink used for fingerprints still wet on their thumbs, they were pushed onto an open truck by the Bangladesh army that would take them to Kutupalong, now one of the world’s biggest refugee camps.
The almost two-hour-journey is uncomfortable. Families were shoved in as tightly as possible, balancing their few belongings on their knees or heads, babies crying in every corner.
“I don’t know what to expect in the camp. We’ve travelled for so long and are tired,” Adji said. “I know that we are not welcome in our homes anymore, we never have been. We are here to start our lives all over again.”