Survivors wait ‘in hell’ after Cyclone Mocha ravages Myanmar

Many people in Rakhine say they are still waiting for help days after the devastating cyclone. (Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP)

Hla Tun made a crucial decision on Saturday, as "extremely severe" Cyclone Mocha gained speed in the Indian Ocean and traced a direct path for Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine coast.

While the overwhelming majority of residents of the coastal city of Sittwe, including his wife and daughter, fled inland or to higher ground, he taped up his windows, stocked up on food, and prepared for the cyclone with 11 neighbors who had sought refuge in his home.

Explaining his decision, he told Al Jazeera, "If I stay here, I might be able to save some people if the flooding or something serious occurs."

Si Thu also pondered his options in a camp where Rohingya refugees have been confined since fleeing 2012 clashes with the state's majority Rakhine population.

His low-lying camp, which was overcrowded with bamboo huts, was unlikely to withstand strong winds and flooding, so he and his family decided to remain with relatives in the nearby Rohingya village of Thae Chaung.

The following day around noon, Cyclone Mocha rushed across the Rakhine coast with winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour). Five hours later, it had left what the United Nations termed a "trail of devastation" behind, particularly in Sittwe.

"It is like a broken city," said Hla Tun, who estimated that 95 percent of the homes in the capital of the state of Rakhine had been damaged.

As he rode his motorcycle 100 kilometers (62 miles) inland to the town of Kyauktaw in search of his family, he encountered collapsed bridges, destroyed farms and homes, and the corpse of a drowned Rohingya woman washed up on a pile of mud and detritus.

He was concerned not only for the upcoming days but also for the upcoming year's survival of communities.

He stated, "Many vulnerable households will be unable to rebuild their homes." This is the agricultural season, but it has ended.

Si Thu reported to Al Jazeera from the Rohingya camp of Thet Kae Pyin that 95 percent of the shelters had been destroyed and that at least 400 Rohingya were believed to have perished.

Survivors now face a dramatic increase in the price of food and basic goods, as well as imperative medical and sanitation requirements, he said.

"Various types of materials struck many people," he said. There is no one to clean the corpses, and nearly every toilet in the camp has been completely devastated.

Hla Tun and Si Thu use pseudonyms because speaking to the media in Myanmar is dangerous.

Initial reports indicate that the cyclone was the worst natural calamity to strike Myanmar since Cyclone Nargis in 2008, although the full extent of the destruction is still being assessed. In addition to Rakhine state, the cyclone severely damaged homes, infrastructure, and farms in portions of Chin state, Magway region, and Sagaing region, as reported by the United Nations.

Numerous human rights and media reports indicate that the military, which seized power in a coup in February 2021 and has since obstructed humanitarian aid to areas harboring armed resistance, is actively opposed by armed groups in many of the affected regions.

Even in areas administered by the military, such as Sittwe, access to humanitarian aid remains dubious. Humanitarian responders, including UN agencies and international aid groups, were still awaiting permission from the military to enter the six worst-affected townships in Rakhine state or to distribute emergency supplies as of Thursday.

Many now fear a repeat of 2008, when Cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta and more than 130,000 people perished as a result of what Human Rights Watch called the "brutal indifference of Burma's military government to the welfare of its people"

"This is the most difficult time of my life," a Rakhine humanitarian worker with over a decade of experience in the international aid sector said on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from his employer. "We have numerous problems, including natural disasters, armed conflict, inter-communal conflict, and areas where international communities struggle to do their work effectively. We are in the depths of torment."

'Pushed to The Brink'

In regions ravaged by war and underdevelopment, twelve interviews conducted for this report reveal enormous community needs as well as significant obstacles to the response. In ravaged Rakhine, the situation appears to be especially dire.

The inhabitants of Rakhine are no strangers to adversity.

In 2012, inter-communal violence displaced more than 140,000 people, the majority of whom were Rohingya, whose freedom of movement has since been severely restricted. In what is now being investigated as genocide, a military campaign against the Rohingya in the state's northern townships drove more than 740,000 people to Bangladesh.

In the subsequent two years, tens of thousands of primarily Rakhine people were forced from their homes as a result of conflict between the military and the Arakan Army.

In addition to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the February 2021 military rebellion precipitated what the United Nations termed in January an "unprecedented political, socioeconomic, and humanitarian crisis" throughout the country.

A specialist in international peacebuilding who focuses on Rakhine told Al Jazeera, on the condition of anonymity out of concern for the safety of her colleagues in the country, that the cyclone would likely deplete people's savings and have severe, long-lasting effects. She said, "The scale leaves me breathless when I consider the worst-case scenario." "With this additional layer of suffering and vulnerability hitting these communities so hard, people will be forced to take greater risks to survive, as they were already pushed to the edge."

The 200,000 people who were already living in colonies before the cyclone, including 140,000 Rohingya and other smaller minority groups, are especially vulnerable.

The majority of ethnic Rakhine internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in high-risk areas were relocated to safer areas beforehand, whereas the overwhelming majority of Rohingya were left behind – a factor that likely contributed to "hundreds" of deaths in the Sittwe region.

The military, which administers Sittwe through its State Administration Council, claimed in state media that it had evacuated more than 85,000 people from Rakhine state, including 62,000 from IDP camps, to safer ground in the days preceding the storm; however, Al Jazeera was unable to verify this figure independently.

In the days preceding and following the cyclone, interviews with six people on the ground in Rakhine, including four in Sittwe, indicate that while independent volunteer groups were actively involved in the evacuation process in areas under military control, including for IDP populations, the majority of these evacuations were conducted through existing community networks and referrals, and did not include the Rohingya.

As the death toll continues to rise, some are beginning to query whether international aid organizations could have done more in the days leading up to the cyclone.

The Rakhine humanitarian worker stated, "In Rakhine, there are over 30 INGOs, including UN agencies, and several context analysts, including disaster experts, but they are extremely unprepared and unresponsive." Before the cyclone, the international humanitarian community had time to respond, but they did not do enough.

A United Nations press release issued the day following the typhoon stated that preparations had been made.

"Authorities and humanitarian aid agencies launched a massive evacuation plan" before the storm, the report stated without further explanation.

The cyclone-affected regions of Chin, Sagaing, and Magway are confronted with additional obstacles.

Since the coup, these regions have witnessed the emergence of a large number of armed resistance groups and have been subjected to intense military attacks, resulting in widespread civilian displacement that persisted even during the cyclone.

Salai Tun, a member of an armed resistance group in Chin state's southern Paletwa township who was granted a pseudonym due to political sensitivities, told Al Jazeera that many locals feared being subjected to military scrutiny if they participated in cyclone preparation or relief efforts. "The SAC doesn't like it when we volunteer or do social work," he said, using an abbreviation for the State Administration Council, the official name for the military administration. "We have become weaker in social work."

The United Nations has repeatedly warned that landmines may have moved during the cyclone as a result of the severe flooding. According to UN statistics, 390 persons were killed by landmines and unexploded ordnance in Myanmar in 2022.

"It will be very difficult to help people because we must traverse the mountains and the jungle," said Salai Tun. Because of explosive landmines, we cannot even attempt to enter these areas.

In addition, the municipality is one of 48 in the country, most of which are in cyclone-affected regions where the military has disabled internet access.

Nobody Came Yet

Military restrictions on humanitarian access are not a novel phenomenon. Aid organizations have had a difficult time reaching vulnerable people in Rakhine for many years due to its restrictions on travel authorizations.

According to rights organizations and media reports, the military has also obstructed aid across the country by arresting and attacking humanitarian workers, impeding road access, destroying relief supplies, and shutting down telecommunications services.

In October, the military tightened its regulations on the aid sector by requiring international and local organizations to register with it and prohibiting registered groups from assisting in areas outside its control or to those opposed to its rule.

"Since the coup, organizations have been operating with their hands tied, with a great deal of mistrust from the military administration, a great deal of interference, and many restrictions," said the peacebuilding expert. All of this information will determine how well these organizations will be able to respond to the requirements of cyclone-affected communities.

The issue delays the relief response and increases the pressure on United Nations agencies and international humanitarian organizations, which have been heavily criticized for their continued engagement with the military since the coup.

Critics have argued that this strategy legitimizes the military and is ineffective when the military is losing control over large portions of the country.

Meanwhile, resistance organizations say they are willing to accept international aid for cyclone relief. Monday, the United League of Arakan, the administrative arm of the Arakan Army, which claims to control more than two-thirds of the state, issued a statement requesting "immediate help and assistance" from abroad. The Humanitarian and Development Coordination Office emphasized in a statement that the current situation required "global effort and international assistance."

The National Unity Government, the administration of Myanmar supported by the public and contending for international recognition as the country's legitimate government, also issued an appeal for international aid in cyclone-ravaged areas under its jurisdiction.

The Rakhine humanitarian worker expressed a desire for innovative approaches to aid.

"The international community must recognize the reality of the ground situation. "SAC does not control the ground, especially in rural and high-risk areas, which are primarily under the control of local [resistance] authorities," he stated. Both the international community and the local community must find a means to collaborate with them.

In a Thursday morning message to Al Jazeera, a Myanmar-based employee of an international organization expressed concern that the military was repeating what it had done after Cyclone Nargis, "delaying first-line humanitarian assistance until it felt it could organize and portray itself as a competent and authoritative first responder."

The aid worker stated that while international relief organizations awaited formal permission from the military, some were attempting to deliver aid through local organizations and charities.

"There is an internal desire to provide humanitarian aid while taking into account the potential repercussions from the junta," they stated.

Si Thu is among the thousands still waiting in Sittwe.

"We want international communities to assist us as soon as possible because, in the aftermath of the cyclone, we face a variety of challenges," he said. "Until now, no one has assisted us. Nobody has yet arrived."

Publish : 2023-05-18 15:19:00

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