Rohingya mourn sea tragedy
Capsized boat highlights ongoing perils faced by those fleeing Myanmar
“He just slipped from my hands,” said Rashida, as she described the moment her seven-month-old son drowned, one of more than 60 people presumed dead when a boat carrying Rohingya Muslims capsized off Bangladesh. As the vessel broke in two, the force of the water dragged her baby under.
Rashida’s mother and eight-yearold sister also died, but her father and two other sisters were rescued. The 23-year-old clutched a surviving sister’s hand as she recalled the accident from a hospital bed in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Survivors said the boat was carrying about 80 people, including 50 children, when it overturned late last Thursday in rough waters just metres from the shore. Those on board were escaping from bloodshed in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and seeking safety in Bangladesh. Many had travelled for days through thick forests to board the boat.
Twenty-three people were confirmed dead with 40 missing and presumed drowned, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said in Geneva.
At another hospital Mohamed Khasim mourned the loss of his wife and two of his daughters. His son clutched his father’s leg as another daughter stared blankly, in shock. “The water was choppy and there was this big wave, and the boat just fell apart,” he said.
The boat had left at 8pm last Wednesday for a journey that should have taken a couple of hours at most. But the crew appears to have got lost. “We begged the boatman to take us back, take us anywhere, just to get us off the boat,” Rashida said. When those on board finally saw land almost 24 hours later, they had no food and little drinking water. Last Friday bodies, including those of children and babies, continued to float to the shoreline. “They drowned before our eyes. Minutes later, the waves washed the bodies to the beach,” said Mohammad Sohel, a shopkeeper.
More than half a million minority Rohingya Muslims have fled an army campaign that has been described by the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.
The violence – the latest and most deadly upsurge in years of government oppression and hatred between Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine – exploded on 25 August when Rohingya insurgents attacked army posts. A ferocious counter-offensive has destroyed more than 200 Muslim villages. Refugees in Bangladesh have told of rape, mass murder and infanticide.
Myanmar has blocked UN aid access to the region for UN humanitarian agencies, preventing civilians in the conflict zone from receiving food, drinking water and medicine.
The UN in Myanmar says it is worried that many people are still on the move or trapped in remote areas far from the border and are unable to reach safety. Meanwhile, aid workers in Bangladesh warn of a humanitarian catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of refugees kept in muddy camps over the border.
The BBC reported last Friday that the head of the UN in Myanmar had been accused of mishandling the issue by prioritising development in impoverished Rakhine over pushing for Rohingya rights. It cited Caroline Vandenabeele, former head of office for the UN resident coordinator, Renata Lok-Dessallien, who said raising the Rohingya problem had negative consequences for UN staff.
“An atmosphere was created that talking about these issues was simply not on,” she was quoted as saying. But the UN said it disagreed “with the accusations that the resident coordinator ‘prevented’ internal discussions”.
More than 60 Rohingya refugees were killed when the boat sank