If there was ever hope that Myanmar's ruling junta might create the conditions for the safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees like me, it should be dispelled by the military’s disturbing response to – and lack of preparation for – Cyclone Mocha in Rakhine state.
Mocha, which made landfall in Myanmar on 15 May, was one of the strongest storms to hit the country this century. With winds reaching 250 kilometres an hour, it levelled homes, washed away livestock, and downed power lines.
The official death toll is 145, though survivors believe the real figure to be several times higher. Some 1.6 million people have been identified as in need of assistance by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, but access for aid groups in the midst of Myanmar’s civil war is difficult. In Rakhine’s displacement camps – where more than 130,000 Rohingya have been forced by the military junta to live in squalid, dangerous conditions – an estimated 85% of shelters were destroyed.
Conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps where I’ve lived with around one million other Rohingya since fleeing the junta’s deadly crackdown in 2017 aren’t much better, but at least significant efforts were made in the days leading up to the cyclone to prepare, so as to mitigate any damage or loss of life. Fortunately for us, the storm’s path shifted and our camps avoided the worst of its wrath.
My compatriots trapped in Rakhine – especially marginalised and persecuted Rohingya Muslims – weren’t so lucky.
Mobile services were down for many days, making contact extremely difficult. But as communication has improved, I’ve been able to speak with more survivors and a clearer picture has emerged of both the devastation and just how preventable some of it was.
Several Rohingya survivors told me they were ill-prepared for the storm and that the military government failed to evacuate them even as it helped move their Hindu and Buddhist neighbours. All spoke on the condition of anonymity as they feared retaliation from the junta.
“On the night of the storm, I had no knowledge of the approaching Mocha cyclone,” Abul*, who lives in a displacement (IDP) camp near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, told me. “When I heard the government loudspeaker warning, I did not anticipate that it would be such a powerful storm. We had nowhere to evacuate to, and the government did not come to help evacuate the people in our IDP camp as they did for the Rakhine people.”
The squalid Rohingya displacement camps in Rakhine, where scores of thousands of people have been made to live against their will, have become wholly unlivable and residents are begging to be resettled in their home villages – unlikely, as the junta continues to force us into mass detention and segregation.
An elderly man who lives in another displacement camp said that officials did broadcast a message over loudspeakers that people living in Sittwe should evacuate to the University of Sittwe campus, but this came when the winds were already strong. And while soldiers used their trucks and vehicles to move Hindi, Rakhine, and other communities to safer locations, they did not do so for the Rohingya.
“Considering the increasing wind speed and seeing the breaking of trees, we were concerned that it might not be safe for us to move at this time,” the man told me.
The deadly effects of discrimination
Though many Rohingya can trace their roots in Myanmar back generations, we aren’t considered citizens, and we are given none of the rights or freedoms of other ethnic minorities. Rohingya residents of Rakhine who wish to travel away from home must request government passes. As a result, the Rohingya I spoke to said they didn’t even consider that they might be permitted to evacuate.
“We need government authorisation to move from one place to another, and it takes three or four days to get it. But we heard just one day before about the potential Mocha. So we thought we would not [be allowed to move] and remained at home,” explained the older man.
Once the storm struck, the destruction was instantaneous. Abul told me that as the water began rising rapidly, many people ran for higher ground, even as trees and homes were being knocked down around them. Unable to move as quickly, children, those with disabilities, pregnant women, and the elderly were left behind, some swept away by the rushing water.
In the weeks since, medical care has been almost impossible to come by, while clean water is even scarcer than before the storm. Prices of goods have skyrocketed, and attention from NGOs and the government has been almost non-existent, Rohingya survivors told me.
"I don't feel bad about losing all my belongings, but I am devastated by the loss of my two young children. It felt like doomsday for us, and we were unable to share our feelings with each other because everyone was in the same crisis of loss.”
When I spoke with Abul in the days after the storm, he said no officials had yet come to inquire about their needs, but he had heard that his non-Muslim neighbours had received tarps and rations from the government.
A few days later, according to another Rohingya survivor, the military provided IDP camp residents with rice, oil, and peas. And in recent days, the World Food Programme has brought tarps, blankets, cooking pots, and more. But with so many homes destroyed, the needs are far greater than what has been supplied. This storm survivor also corroborated reports that the military appears to be blocking international NGOs from entering the camps, where residents face acute water shortages and have no access to toilets or electricity.
“A horrifying challenge people faced was locating their family members, as the internet connection was down,” Abul said. “Almost all the people in our IDP camp went frantic searching for missing individuals and bodies of the deceased.” He recalled how one of his uncles saw six of the eight members of his immediate family die in the storm. Another friend lost five of his six family members.
Abul and several other survivors said they believe the death toll is closer to 500.
"I don't feel bad about losing all my belongings, but I am devastated by the loss of my two young children," another man told me. "It felt like doomsday for us, and we were unable to share our feelings with each other because everyone was in the same crisis of loss.”
Like many Rohingya struggling to process the present and the future in the aftermath of the storm, this man wondered whether he even should have survived: “Why are we still alive after this cyclone if we have to suffer like this with everything and no one there to help us?"
In late May, a couple of weeks after Mocha struck, Bangladeshi officials welcomed their Chinese counterparts – China is the key international backer of Myanmar’s military government – to discuss ways to move forward with the repatriation of the Rohingya. This meeting followed a tour of model villages erected in Rakhine state, during which the junta extolled the virtues of their pilot programme to return refugees to their home nation.
The situation in the camps where I live in Bangladesh remains dire, but the devastation of Cyclone Mocha within Rakhine and the Myanmar military’s callous neglect for Rohingya lives should give pause to any repatriation plans. Returning Rohingya under these circumstances would be misguided and only cause them further pain and heartache.
*Name changed for security reasons.
Edited by Abby Seiff.