Ro­hingya mourn sea tragedy

Cap­sized boat high­lights on­go­ing per­ils faced by those flee­ing Myan­mar

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Kath­leen Prior Cox’s Bazar Oliver Holmes

“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”.

Getty

More than 60 Ro­hingya refugees were killed when the boat sank

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