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 the border town of Teknaf.
Most residents in the predominately Muslim country are sympathetic to the plight of the ethnic Rohingya who use the area as an entry point into the country to escape persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“I’ve seen about 1,000 people get off boats from here,” says the boatman who left Myanmar 16 years ago but has never witnessed anything of this size before.
“The small boats usually can carry seven or eight people and the big boats carry about twenty passengers.”
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. They look very exhausted and starving and some people have nothing with them,” Alam explains.
As a support network, a nest of villages surrounding Teknaf serve as a temporary sanctuary for new arrivals and as a transit point onward to the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps, along with a string of unregistered areas to help with the overflow of arrivals.
For local Teknaf union council member Hazir Ahmed, who arrived here years ago from Myanmar, there is an unspoken understanding of their plight.
Following a mid-day prayer at the local mosque in Boroitoli village, Ahmed meets with a dozen men and women who’ve made the journey across the river in recent days.
“Like them, I am also a Rohingya. 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 explains that some newcomers have relatives who live in Southern Bangladesh where they can stay temporarily while those without family are taken to Kutapalong refugee camp or lodged with local residents until plans can be made.
Among the latest arrivals standing next to the roadway – a distraught mother and her daughter, whose face is covered with a pink veil.
“In my village my cousin got raped by the Myanmar soldiers. She is my family and I saw what happened so we had to escape from Myanmar,” says Kaw Dee Ya, who once had her home in Nang Jong village.
Kaw Dee Ya says that Burmese soldiers forced the villagers to walk to a nearby rice field while the village was burnt to the ground.
“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 explains.
As the allegations mount, Myanmar government spokesman Kyaw Moe Tun, director general of the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is asking witnesses to come forward with evidence to back up the allegations.
This week the Myanmar government sponsored a media trip to the affected areas, allowing 13 journalists from mostly local media companies to be escorted to nine villages surrounding Maung Daw and Buthidaung townships, where some of the arson attacks and alleged atrocities happened.
But observers are unclear how much access was allowed during the tightly controlled visit to gain access to evidence of the alleged crimes against humanity.
As the days pass and entrance to Northern Rakhine state remains tight, more new Rohingya arrivals are expected in Bangladesh seeking aid.
-Voice of America