A Dhaka Tribune world exclusive brings you an eye-witness report from the first journalistic incursion into Rakhine since the area was sealed to outsiders by Myanmar.
Hundreds of Rohingya line the narrow path that leads to Teknaf Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
My journey started from Lomba Beel, a remote village in Howaikong union in Teknaf. From here, it takes an hour to walk to the Naf, where the three hour-long boat journey begins, ending with another hour spent trudging through the boggy coast of Myanmar.
Hundreds of Rohingya line the narrow path that leads to Teknaf | Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
The march from the Naf to Lomba Beel is a stern testimony to the horrors that have driven over 270,000 people over two weeks.
Nothing like a humanitarian crisis to get rich quick
On the banks of the Naf, the fleeing Rohingya arrived in groups of ten to twelve on small fishing boats. The boats shook tumultuously, even ten people too much for them.
But there were too many boats with well over a dozen passengers each. It comes as no surprise that there are so many Rohingya reported dead during the crossing.
They are operated by Bangladeshi boatmen who have found a lucrative niche in this corner of the world.
The boatmen charge Tk10,000 ($122) per head to ferry each Rohingya from Rakhine to Teknaf.
When asked about the exorbitant rates, a boatman glumly replied: “Our humanity compels us to help our fellow human beings. If we did not provide a route to escape, they would never be able to escape to Bangladesh.”
The humanity is there, but it does not come cheap. The sympathy of the boatmen doesn’t extend to offering the fleeing Rohingya a way across the river for free.
After a boat arrived with a dozen Rohingya, including a month-old baby, all from Buthidaung, I asked the boatman to take me to Myanmar. At first he refused, but the incentive of cash encouraged him to oblige my request.
The Rohingya refugee have but one aim in mind, to survive the onslaught they have left behind | Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
The boatman pushed away from the coast with all his might leveraged with the oar. He quickly rowed to get to the other side. I asked him what his hurry was. He replied it was to get into the Myanmar waters and away from Border Guard Bangladesh patrols.
As we cruised into international waters, a flotilla of boats, perhaps over a hundred boats – of the same size as the one I was on – filled the horizon. Thousands of Rohingya were huddled on these boats in their desperate attempt to escape the violence in Rakhine.
On my right, a BGB trooper stood like a sentinel atop an outpost, looking out over the flotilla.
After over 40 minutes of sailing, the boat slowly drifted into a canal flanked by border fences in Myanmar. The heart of the canal was crowded with empty boats, ready to ferry the Rohingya to Bangladesh, for a hefty price.
On Myanmar soil
The land of pagodas and fleeing minorities
He points towards an outpost and tells me it used to belong to the Myanmar BGP until August 25. ARSA had captured it and driven the BGP away. I gazed at the concrete structure in awe. This is what sparked the wildfire that was consuming the lives of hundreds of thousands.
The much vaunted Myanmar border outpost now overlooks Rohingya fleeing the country | Adil Sakhawat/Dhaka Tribune
A small bridge arched over the canal connects the two village tracts of Shilkhali and Kurkhali. Two men carrying staves stood guard over the bridge. The boatmen pointed towards them and whispered: “They are ARSA.”
These two haggard-looking men in shirts and lungi looked more like farmers or fishermen than armed insurgents. But the wooden sticks they carried would at least help them shepherd the Rohingya away from the violence, if not combat the armed forces outright.
The area is less of an insurgency camp and more of a getaway hub for fleeing refugees | Adil Sakhawat/Dhaka Tribune
It was an endless stream of people. Desperate people. Frightened people. A people without a land. For all their bonds to their homes in Rakhine, they were now forced to flee to Bangladesh.
My boatman introduced me to one Rashid Ahmed, an ARSA member, and took off, pleading his urgency to ferry another boatload of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh.
Where the army fears to tread
Rohingya refugees trudge across the mudplains to get to the shores of the Naf to embark on boats to take them to Bangladesh | Adil Sakhawat/Dhaka Tribune
I asked him how he felt about the conflict. He responded that the Rohingya had been oppressed by the Myanmar government for decades and the armed struggle was the only way they could resist. He hinted about another possible ARSA attack soon, but refused to reply to any further queries along these lines once he realised his slip.
I inquired about how far the Myanmar forces are. He confidently replied they were three kilometres away.
Those who have money, can purchase their crossing to Bangladesh. Those who do not, are stranded | Adil Sakhawat/Dhaka Tribune
“They do not have the courage to stand where you are standing right now,” he said.
I walked two kilometres upriver along the border fence, and found no end to the stream of Rohingya refugees. It was exhausting, to even see so many people arrive at the shores ragged and weary.
After all the perils they had braved, too many people remained stranded because they could not afford the Tk10,000 to make the crossing. But at least they were safer here, in ARSA territory, than their villages which burned on the horizon.
My excursion to Myanmar was over. I sought a boat to take me back to Bangladesh.
As the sun began to set behind me, I could not help but wonder how many of the fleeing Rohingya will ever see another sunset in Rakhine.
Republished with permission from Dhaka Tribune.