Walking amid burning homes and sounds of distant gunfire: Ground zero in Maungdaw, Rakhine

Walking amid burning homes and sounds of distant gunfire: Ground zero in Maungdaw, Rakhine

Channel NewsAsia’s May Wong was among foreign journalists who were allowed a rare, first-hand look at the destruction in Northern Rakhine, via a government-organised visit.

A war zone with only stray dogs and farm animals as the only living things around - once bustling villages in Maungdaw, Northern Rakhine State, are now eerily-silent ghost towns, littered with animal carcasses and charred or smoldering houses. 

RAKHINE: A war zone with stray dogs and farm animals as the only living things around - once bustling villages in Maungdaw, Northern Rakhine State, are now eerily-silent ghost towns, littered with animal carcasses and charred or smoldering houses. 

This is a result of a spate of arson incidents following an attack on Aug 25, dubbed “Black Friday” by the Myanmar government. That very day, hundreds of militants attacked about 30 police posts in various parts of Maungdaw.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks and has promised more are on the cards – all in the name of seeking justice and rights for the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which they claim to be rightful citizens of the country.

The government of Myanmar and much of the Buddhist-majority country regards the estimated one million Rohingyas - most of whom live in Northern Rakhine - as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government has also branded ARSA "extremist terrorists" in light of the attacks. Over the last two weeks, the militants have launched several attacks, periodically clashing with security forces.

 The entire Maungdaw district in Northern Rakhine is now under security lockdown and classified as an "operational zone". Only authorised personnel are allowed into the area.

But on Wednesday (Sep 6) and Thursday, foreign journalists were led into the zone and allowed a first-hand look at the destruction via a rare media visit organised by the Myanmar government.

Gunfire and smoke in distance in Maungdaw
Smoke and gunfire in the distance in the heart of Maungdaw (Photo: May Wong)

Thick smoke and ferocious flames greeted the journalists who ran across muddy fields to arrive at a burning village. Rohingya inhabitants were nowhere to be seen, but a few local Rakhine citizens carrying machetes and slingshots were leaving the village just as journalists were running in. 

It is unclear who started the fresh fires destroying the homes in that Gawdu Zara village which had at least 40 houses. But the arson meant more were forced into homelessness.

No one was in sight to put out the raging fire, and journalists left as it grew increasingly dangerous to stay.

Gunshots were also heard at a distance – an unexpected punctuation to the sound of houses buckling under a growing inferno.

The bleak, near-apocalyptic scenes underscored that Myanmar's fight against insurgents is far from over.

Before Black Friday, Myanmar had hardly resolved the fallout from an initial round of attacks on October 9 last year, and has been dealing with allegations of atrocities against the Rohingyas. To this day, it is still trying to convince the international community that Rohingyas are not being mistreated and the chorus of criticism has only grown louder following the second attack.

Many international human rights organisations have accused Myanmar authorities of shooting at Rohingyas indiscriminately and deliberately torching their homes. All this, non-government organisations believe, is in bid to drive the Rohingya Muslims out of Myanmar.

The words “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are being bandied about.

Some have alleged that security forces are planting mines along the Myanmar border to prevent the Rohingyas from returning into Myanmar after they have fled.

Rakhine state's Security and Border Affairs Minister, Colonel Phone Tint, has brushed off the allegations, saying: "There's no landmine planted by the military in the area. The terrorists planted the landmines. The military will never do that."

Addressing accusations that security forces deliberately set fire to the Rohingya villages, the minister added: "Who started the attack? The military has always been there. Are they saying that they are afraid of the military? And that the military is torching the villages? The terrorists are the ones who started the attacks, they're the ones carrying out these violent acts."

Clearance operations have led to about 100 clashes between security forces and the militants. Authorities have said security forces killed about 400 militants and the hunt continues for more. 

Amid the chaos, more than 6,800 homes in 60 villages have been wiped out, the government has said. And while a quarter of a million Rohingya refugees are estimated to have fled to Bangladesh, more than 26,000 Rakhine citizens have fled inland to safer ground as well, staying temporarily in monasteries, schools or personally arranged accommodation since the attacks.

RESIDENTS SPEAK

Some Rakhine people are adamant in the face of the spiraling state of affairs, saying they cannot and will never accept Rohingyas in their midst. 

Rakhine resident, Aung Lwin, believes that all Rohingyas or Bengalis as the government calls them, are “terrorists", saying "all Arakan (Rakhine) people don't believe them". The 28-year-old expects increased fighting if the two communities continue to live together, causing "big problems".

But some Rohingyas choose to stay put, despite hostility from Rakhine locals whom they used to live side-by-side with.

One of them is Mohd Hussein, a storekeeper in Maungdaw. Neighbouring Rohingya villages have seen continued attacks, and those left behind in his village are “suffering … they don’t have anything to eat", he told Channel NewsAsia. Rohingyas "can neither go out to other parts of the state nor can anyone come in", he said.

Leaving now is not an option for him. "If I go further away, the police will arrest me,” the 26-year-old said.

Another Rakhine villager, San Hla Phyu said his village used to house more than 600 residents. But since the attacks, only about 120 are left with most of the women and children being sent away temporarily for their own safety. 

"It's okay to live together (with the Rohingyas) if they can become citizens under the 1982 citizenship law," the 57-year-old said. But he was quick to add that "if another country is accepting them, please take them". He said he "cannot trust the Bengalis anymore”. “They are violent terrorists."

Myanmar's 1982 citizenship law does not allow Rohingyas to identify themselves as an ethnic group, prompting many of them to reject the legislation and verification process.

The latest round of coordinated attacks has also affected another group – Hindu citizens. Some also had to flee as masked attackers entered their village in the evening, wielding machetes. 

Some members of the Hindu community have been housed temporarily in a school. They too, say they are now wary of Rohingyas.

ONE MAN'S JOURNEY - THAT OF THOUSANDS OF OTHERS

That is why one Rohingya man I met felt he had no choice but to leave the country. Having walked barefoot for days from his village, I found him on the beach in Maungdaw where he was trying to get to Bangladesh, which could be seen at a distance. 

Man fleeing Maungdaw for Bangladesh
Habi Aman who was fleeing Rakhine for Bangladesh (Photo: May Wong)

The disheveled-looking, dehydrated man in his late 50s had a backpack with few personal belongings.

Upon seeing me and a uniformed security personnel approaching, he dropped his belongings, squatted and raised both hands in a surrender position.

That is when I explained I was a journalist and Habi Aman got up.

Despite a bit of a language barrier, the exhausted-looking man communicated that his village was burnt and he was trying to flee to Bangladesh.

His family was trailing far behind because they were too weak to keep up, he said, while trying to demonstrate that someone in his family was limping.

As Habi Aman described their arduous journey, he started to get emotional, but couldn't offer any tears as he might have been too parched. 

Before parting ways, I gave him my bottle of water which he was grateful for, but stared at as though wondering if he should drink it or save it for his family.

It's unclear how far Habi Aman managed to go or whether he and his family made it to Bangladesh.

But his perilous journey is just one of hundreds of thousands which will be repeatedly seen, as the world can only voice concern, displeasure and hope for an end to this crisis, but look on with helplessness, as it unfolds. 

Source: CNA/ly

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