At least 3,000 Muslims who fled communal violence in their villages in Myanmar's Rakhine state by boat more than a week ago remain missing. Concern for their safety continues to grow.
In the latest spate of communal violence that broke out between Muslims and Buddhists on October 23 in several Muslim areas in southern part of Rakhine, more than 4,600 houses have been destroyed, according to a UN report. A Burmese government report said this week that 28,000 people lost their homes in the unrest.
When Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim localities in Minbya, Minpra, Myebon, Mrauk-U, Pauk Taw, Rathedaung, Kyauk Phyu, Ramree, Kyauk Taw and other villages and townships last week, a large number of people set out by boat to seek asylum in Bangladesh.
According to Rohingya sources, as many as 150 houseboats and fishing vessels were used by more than 14,000 Muslims to flee.
"Most boats sought to land in Sittwe. But people from only 19 boats managed to land here after they paid bribes amounting 1.6 million kyats to the Navy," Aung Kyaw Oo, a Rohingya community leader in Sittwe, told DW.
"When the men, women and children on other boats were prevented from landing in Sittwe, they headed for Myaukni Maw and nearby Sandama Island."
But there have been an increasing number of reports that a number of people have gone missing.
"When around midnight they attacked our village, with my two daughters I boarded a boat," 36-year-old Halima Khatun, an ethnic Kaman Muslim woman from Kyaukphyu, told DW. "My husband and my son got separated in the melee. Sometime later I got a phone call from my husband and knew that they were on another boat. Now I have reached Akyab [Sittwe] with my two daughters. But my husband and son are missing." She is now camping along with 4,900 newly displaced Muslims in Sittwe.
"It seems they have not landed anywhere in Myanmar. It has been more than a week since I have not heard from them. I am very anxious about them," she added.
Khatun's is not a lone case. After reaching shore, scores of Muslims in the past week complained that their relatives and friends were untraceable.
Aung Kyaw Oo said around 11,000 refugees had landed in Sittwe Kyaukni Maw and the nearby Sandama in the past week but that around 3,000 of them were still missing.
He voiced concern about their safety as some boats were refused permission to land in Maungdaw, which is close to Bangladesh border.
As the Muslims in Burma anxiously keep searching for their missing relatives, several sources in neighboring Bangladesh report that the Muslim boats from Myanmar were lying stranded in the Bay of Bengal and on the Naf River, which flows along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
A Bangladesh-based Rohingya fisherman named Foizullah told DW that he had seen 50 fishing vessels loaded with Rohingyas waiting around the mouth of Naf River on Sunday.
"There must be around 2,000 or 2,500 people on board. There were men, women and children, and they were looking for chances to enter Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi coast guard patrol was around, so the Rohingya boats did not venture ahead."
He said he had come very close to two boats and that the children on them looked very ill and exhausted. "The men said they were Rohingyas from Kyauk Phyu and they asked us for drinking water. We gave them water and also some food or the children."
In the past week Border Guard Bangladesh [BGB] and the country's coast guard have been very active on their patrol to thwart entry of the fleeing Muslims from Myanmar.
"We have the intelligence input that the Rohingyas are seeking to sneak into Bangladesh. We are alert. We will not allow them the entry," said local BGB head Lt Col Zahid Hassan, who is stationed in Bangladesh's southern Cox's Bazar, which is relatively close to Myanmar. "In fact they are regularly trying to seek shelter in Bangladesh. Every week we are intercepting and pushing back scores of Rohingyas from Myanmar," he added.
Bangladesh's doors shut tight
Although the UNHCR has urged Bangladesh to open its borders to the Muslim refugees, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said this week that Bangladesh was firm on its decision not to allow any Burmese Rohingya enter Bangladesh.
Rohingya rights activist Tin Soe said he feared that aside from the refugees spotted in the boats at the Naf River, the Burmese boat people who were reported missing in Myanmar might have already died at sea.
"Bangladeshi fishermen have told our sources this week that they have seen several dead bodies being dropped from the boats on which people were waiting to enter Bangladesh. Villagers from Maungdaw reported to us that they had seen 12 Rohingya carcasses floating near their shore. Then today 30 Rohingya bodies have been found around the Naf River."
He also spoke of reports from fishermen who had seen dead bodies floating around in the Bay of Bengal. He feared there would be further deaths if Bangladesh did not open its doors to the asylum seekers.