Thousands of Evacuees Return to IDP Camps, After Cyclone Misses Arakan

By Paul Vrieze & Htet Naing Zaw 17 May 2013

SITTWE, Arakan State—Many evacuated Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese began returning to their camps on Friday, after Cyclone Mahasen had missed Burma a day earlier. Although many Rohingyas were glad to have avoided the storm, some complained that life at the camp sites would continue to be extremely difficult.

By Friday afternoon, most evacuated Rohingyas in northern Arakan State had returned to their old camp sites, said James Munn, a public information officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

“In Maungdaw [Township], the reports we received…indicate that the returns there have been comprehensive, and that there was little damage caused by the storm,” he said.

In Sittwe Township, many evacuated Rohingyas and Buddhist Arakanese had also moved back to their camp sites and villages, Munn said. “There is quite a lot of movement and that will continue over the weekend,” he said, adding, “We also received reports that in some places, people want to stay where they are now.”

Cyclone Mahasen was moving through the Bay of Bengal and had threatened to hit the Arakan coast on Thursday afternoon, but its course did not affect the region. Instead, it slammed into the Chittagong region in central Bangladesh.

Millions of people there were at risk of being hit by the cyclone, but it quickly weakened after making landfall. The Associated Press reported that about 40 people were killed in Bangladesh during the cyclone. In the past, tropical cyclones have killed tens of thousands of people in Burma and Bangladesh.

“We were lucky this time,” said Munn, from the UN OCHA. “But we anticipate that the Bay of Bengal will develop tropical storms and this is just the beginning of the rainy season. So, we advocate for more disaster preparedness.”

In western Burma’s Arakan State there had been concerns that the cyclone could impact many of the 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. The IDPs lived there after fleeing the inter-communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims that broke out last year.

The UN and local authorities instructed the groups to move to higher ground earlier this week, but the Rohingyas’ mistrust of the authorities and police caused a delay at many sites. Eventually most moved to nearby villages.

On Friday afternoon, a few hundred evacuated Rohingya families returned to an unofficial camp near Hmanzi Junction, after having spent a night at a secondary school in nearby Thit Kal Pyin village.

“We are happy to be back,” said Joh Joh, 28, while he was sitting with his six family members in a tiny bamboo hut covered with a plastic tarpaulin. “The women and children went away and I stayed here overnight to protect our place,” he said, gesturing to the few reed matts and pots and pans that the family possessed.

“I am happy that we avoided the storm. If it hit here, we would have had many difficulties—we could have died,” Joh Joh said. However, the family’s troubles were far from over as they would have to continue to find ways to survive at the site, where they first arrived seven months ago

Holding up a pan full of cooked rice, he said, “We only have this rice to eat, with chili paste.”

Earlier on Friday, hundreds of families were still waiting on rice distributions at a secondary school in Thit Kal Pyin village, which had been designated as an evacuation site for the IDPs.

Earlier this week, the World Food Program had supplied rice to about 10,000 IDPs living at sites in southwestern Sittwe Township.

Several senior Rohingya leaders were coordinating rice distribution at the school building. “One person can get 2 cups of rice per day,” said Hle Thin, adding that they had about 5 tons of rice for the approximately 4,500 IDPs there. “We only received rice, no other foods,” the 67-year-old said.

Asked if people were relieved that the storm had missed them, Hle Thin said, “The people are confused; they worry that the storm will come again.”

Outside the building, dozens of women waited anxiously with plastic bags or buckets to collect their rice rations.

“We received some rice. We try to find some chilies in the field and add some salt to prepare it,” said Ajidah, a 25-year-old widow with five children. “In the rainy season we can get fish, now we have no fish or meat,” she added.

Ajidah said that she had struggled to care for her children ever since Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists clashed in Sittwe in June 2012.

At the time, police units moved her and other Muslims from Sittwe’s Narzi quarter to safety, evacuating them to sites several kilometers away from the town. “My husband disappeared, I never saw him again after the fighting,” she said. “Life at the camp is difficult. It’s not safe; it’s very crowded and hot.”