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Rohingya Find Help, Sympathy in Bangladesh

Rickshaws clog afternoon traffic in the busy border town of Teknaf, Bangledesh. Rohingya Muslims have been arriving in the area, fleeing persecution in Myanmar. (S. Sandford/VOA)

On the shores of the Naf River in southern Bangladesh, fishermen aren’t the only ones taking to the waters.

In the last two months, hundreds of boats loaded with Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the river from Myanmar have arrived near this border town.

Most residents in the predominately Muslim country are sympathetic to the plight of the ethnic Rohingya, who are trying to escape persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

While some arrivals have been pushed back by Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), many have received food and aid from local Muslims such as Rohingyan fisherman Shamsul Alam.

"I've seen about 1,000 people get off boats from here," said the boatman, who left Myanmar 16 years ago and has never before witnessed a migration of this size. "The small boats usually can carry seven or eight people and the big boats carry about 20 passengers."

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Last month, Alam and fellow fishermen could see smoke rising inland on the Myanmar side of the river, an observation that matches satellite photos confirming arson attacks on Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine state.

"They only bring a few bits of clothes, taking whatever they can grab, and some people don’t have anything but the clothes on their back," Alam said of the migrants. "They look very exhausted and starving and some people have nothing with them."

A network of villages surrounding Teknaf serves as a temporary sanctuary for new arrivals and as a transit point to the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps, along with a string of unregistered areas to help with the overflow of arrivals.

Participants prepare for midday worship at a mosque near Teknaf, Bangladesh. (S. Sandford/VOA)
Participants prepare for midday worship at a mosque near Teknaf, Bangladesh. (S. Sandford/VOA)

Following midday prayer at the Boroitoli village mosque, Hazir Ahmed met with a dozen men and women who’d journeyed across the river in recent days. The local Teknaf union council member arrived here years ago from Myanmar and understands the newcomers' plight.

"Like them, I am also a Rohingya," he said. "I feel sad to see them get destroyed, but I don’t know what to do. We need to have powerful people to help solve the Rohingya problem in Myanmar."

Ahmed explained that some newcomers have relatives who live in southern Bangladesh, where they can stay temporarily. Those without family are taken to Kutapalong refugee camp or lodged with local residents until plans can be made.

Among the latest arrivals standing near the road was a distraught mother and her daughter, whose face was covered with a pink veil.

"In my village, my cousin got raped by the Myanmar soldiers," said Kaw Dee Ya, who once had a home in Nang Jong village. "She is my family and I saw what happened, so we had to escape from Myanmar."

Burmese soldiers forced the villagers to walk to a nearby rice field while the village was burned to the ground, Kaw Dee Ya said.

"The Burmese soldier beat my son and my younger brother and three people had broken legs and ribs after they were beaten and some had their throats slit," Kaw Dee Ya said.

Bangladesh border guards patrol the shore of the Naf River opposite Myanmar's Rakhine state. (S. Sandford/VOA)
Bangladesh border guards patrol the shore of the Naf River opposite Myanmar's Rakhine state. (S. Sandford/VOA)

As allegations mounted, Kyaw Moe Tun, director general of the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked witnesses to come forward with evidence.

This week, the Myanmar government sponsored a media trip, escorting 13 journalists from mostly local media companies to nine villages surrounding Maung Daw and Buthidaung townships, where some of the arson attacks and other crimes allegedly occurred.

Observers were unclear how much access to evidence was allowed during the tightly controlled visit.

Entrance to northern Rakhine state remains tightly controlled, though more Rohingya arrivals are expected in Bangladesh seeking aid.