Cyclone Mahasen Misses Burma, Bringing Relief to Displaced Rohingyas

By Paul Vrieze & Htet Naing Zaw 16 May 2013

SITTWE, Arakan State—Tropical Cyclone Mahasen missed western Burma’s Arakan State on Thursday afternoon, bringing relief to tens of thousands of internally displaced Rohingyas living in camps near the coast.

An official at the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology said the cyclone had made landfall at the Chittagong coast in central Bangladesh at 3:30 pm.

“In Bangladesh, the cyclone caused winds of 100 KPH (60 MPH). In Myanmar there were some rains and on the Arakan coast there were high waves,” he said. In northern Arakan State, at Maungdaw Township, waves of 2-meter (6-feet) were recorded as the cyclone passed by and near Sittwe waves rose to about 1.5 meter, the official added.

Reuters reported that the ports of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh were lashed by strong winds, while heavy rains were likely to cause widespread flooding. The UN said that 4.1 million people in Bangladesh were being threatened by the cyclone.

Five people in Bangladesh were killed by the storm on Thursday, Reuters reported, while thousands of small huts were destroyed by torrential rains.

In Sittwe town on Thursday, the cyclone passed by unnoticed.

In the days before, Arakan State authorities and the UN had been trying to evacuate tens of thousands of Rohingyas from low-lying internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, located in a coastal zone near Sittwe.

Tens of thousands of IDPs there were considered vulnerable to the cyclone’s impact, but some Rohingya camps had refused to comply with the government’s evacuation plan.

A UN official said that by Thursday morning most Rohingyas had begun evacuating the sites. “The majority are moving now,” said James Munn, a public information officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

“We had pockets of resistance, but people have been moving since May 13,” he said. “We had a big storm last night… Those areas that were reluctant to move [earlier] were ready to move today.”

Munn said that in many cases IDPs had moved into nearby villages, located on higher ground.

A day earlier, Arakan government spokesperson Hla Thein had stated that most Rohingya IDP camps had turned down a government plan to evacuate them to a large military base near Sittwe. Rohingyas at three camps said on Wednesday that they would not be moved to the base, as they did not trust the military and police units that would transport them.

Munn said that he was unfamiliar with the claims made by Hla Thein, adding, “That’s certainly not what we have seen on the ground.”

On Thursday, several hundred families at two low-lying camps near Hmanzi Junction who had resisted evacuation, agreed to be moved to the nearby village of Thit Kal Pyin.

Steve Gumaer, CEO of Partners Relief and Development, said that the US charity had arranged several trucks to evacuate the Rohingyas from an unofficial camp called Dar Phim.

“We and the UN helped the army to leave from here,” he said, adding that Rohingyas agreed to be moved because the military and police were no longer involved in the operation.

Hundreds of evacuated Rohingyas from Dar Phim were waiting inside the secondary school in Thit Kal Pyin village on Thursday morning as rains poured down.

Most had no belongings and many looked despondent after having been put through yet another ordeal. Some wondered how they would survive while they waited at the crumbling old school building.

“We have no food here,” said Ukarlu, an emaciated-looking 60-year-old Rohingya man. “We are hungry today, we need food.”

A group of anxious young Rohingya mothers holding their babies, waited under an awning of the school building. They complained of having no food or shelter for their vulnerable infants. “We moved here because we are afraid of the storm,” said Shar Si Tar Pik, a 35-year-old mother of four.

She said that she had given birth to her baby daughter three months ago at Dar Phim camp, a cluster of rickety bamboo huts covered with plastic tarpaulins, located on a muddy paddy field.

Shar Si Tar Pik said it was extremely difficult to take care of her daughter in the conditions that her family was facing. “I’m so troubled, I feel so bad. I have no food for my family,” she said, while clutching her tiny baby tight.