NAYAPARA REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh – Abdul Goni says the Myanmar government was starving his family one stage at a time.
First, soldiers stopped the Rohingya Muslim from walking three hours to the forest for the firewood he sold to feed his family. Then Buddhist neighbors and seven soldiers took his only cow, which he rented out to fertilize rice fields. Next, he says, they killed his uncle and strung him up on a wire for trying to stop the theft of his buffalos.
By the time Goni saw bodies floating down the local river, of fellow Rohingya killed for illegal fishing, he knew his family would die if they didn't leave. On bad days, they carved the flesh out of banana plant stalks for food. On the worst days, his children ate nothing.
“I felt so sorry that I couldn't give them enough food,” the 25-year-old says, tears running down his face, in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, just across the border from Myanmar. “Everything just got worse and worse. ... Day by day, the pressure was increasing all around us. They used to tell us, 'This isn't your land. ... We'll starve you out.'”
First, massacres, rapes and the wholesale destruction of villages by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, in reprisal for Rohingya militant attacks Aug. 25. Now, the food supply appears to be another weapon being used against the dwindling numbers of Rohingya in Myanmar.
The accounts of hunger could not be independently confirmed, as Myanmar's government does not allow reporters into the northern part of Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya lived. However, more than a dozen interviews by The Associated Press with the most recent refugees show growing desperation, as the noose tightens around their communities in what U.N. officials have said may be a genocide.
The Myanmar government denies ethnic cleansing and says it is battling terrorists. Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye says the government has been distributing food aid to as many people as possible.
The Rohingya Muslims, who have been loathed by Myanmar's Buddhist majority for decades, are locked down in their villages – sometimes even in their homes – and prevented from farming, fishing, foraging, trade and work, the refugees and aid groups say. In other words, they can no longer do what they need to do to eat.
While restrictions on freedom of movement and access to food have long been in place, they have tightened dramatically in recent weeks, the AP interviews show.
“It was worse than a jail,” says Goni, who finally left Hpa Yon Chaung village in Buthidaung township on Jan. 5. “People at least get food twice a day in jail. ...We were always surrounded, always under stress, always watched.”
The hunger the Rohingya faced at home is evident when they come to the Bangladesh camps, where new refugees, especially children and women, suffer from “unbelievable” levels of malnutrition, according to Dr. Ismail Mehr.
“They are definitely coming in starving,” says Mehr, who recently returned to the United States from treating refugees in the camps.
“We saw the vitamin deficiencies in the children and the adults; we saw ... severely malnourished people who are basically skin and bones. It looked like the pictures from the Nazi camps.”
Threat not new
The government's restrictions on access to northern Rakhine make it almost impossible to tell how many people are without food, how widespread the problem is or whether people are dying. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that since the end of August, it has distributed food to more than 180,000 people in northern Rakhine state.
Activists, aid groups and researchers say Myanmar squeezed the Rohingya by severely hampering many of the humanitarian operations that were crucial for their survival. Food aid was further disrupted by violence in 2016 and the bloodshed after Rohingya insurgents staged an unprecedented wave of 30 attacks on security posts across Rakhine state in August and killed at least 14 people.
Even before August, aid agencies in 2017 predicted a spike in severe malnutrition in children. In a report released today, Amnesty International details evidence of forced starvation by the military, including stopping the Rohingya from harvesting their rice fields in November and December. The Food and Agriculture Organization has also warned that the lack of access to food and fuel is adding to hunger in Myanmar.