World News

In Myanmar’s Divided Villages, Fear Prevails and “Life Has Stopped”

Posted December 13, 2017 7:05 p.m. EST

GENEVA — Just a few hundred yards separate two villages at the northern end of Rakhine state in Myanmar, but after a brutal crackdown by security forces in August, a deep chasm of fear now divides the Muslim residents of one from the non-Muslims in the other.

The villagers share the same health clinic, farm adjoining fields and know all their neighbors, but since August residents of the two villages have not spoken to one another.

Dominik Stillhart, operations chief of the International Red Cross, said that last weekend the health clinic’s watchman told him: “'We are very scared. We know that our neighbors there are very scared, too.'”

Three months after Myanmar’s security forces swept through the area, burning down villages in a campaign the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide, the residents who remain have become paralyzed by fear, Stillhart said. His account provided a rare snapshot of conditions in an area still shut off from most international relief agencies and reporters.

“It’s as if life has stopped in its tracks,” Stillhart said after his three-day visit to the area. Homes destroyed by fire observed along the road gave a clue to the scale of the destruction, he said. “And then there is this pervasive sense of absence,” he added.

A working estimate among relief agencies is that about 300,000 people remain in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, including about 180,000 people in the mainly Muslim north, but no one is moving around, he said.

Apart from being at a few checkpoints on the roads, soldiers and police officers are hardly visible, but villagers do not venture from their homes or the fields immediately adjoining them, Stillhart observed. Markets that were bustling with life before August are largely deserted, and most of the shops are closed.

About 300 Rohingya Muslims a day still cross the border from Rakhine state to Bangladesh, international relief agencies report, swelling a population of nearly 650,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled since August. The refugees are cramming into squalid camps of improvised shelters that lack basic sanitation.

Aid agencies struggling to cope with high levels of malnutrition among children are now battling an outbreak of diphtheria, which the World Health Organization reported on Tuesday had struck more than 770 people and killed nine. But refugees who are able to communicate with those who remain in Rakhine state report that life in the camps offers greater security, Stillhart said.

Despite reports of sporadic violence, the main problem fueling the Rohingya exodus is not continuing attacks, Stillhart said, but a combination of pervasive fear, deep anxiety about the future and a lack of basic services.

Stillhart asked villagers how long it would take for their lives to return to normal. “They said it will take at least two years” to restore confidence, he said, and that would require a clear message from Myanmar’s authorities that they would be protected.

Those fears also remain a barrier to any repatriation of the refugees. Bangladesh and Myanmar reached agreement on repatriation at the end of November, and officials in Myanmar said they planned to start the process within two months.

International organizations emphasize that the returns must be voluntary and accompanied by guarantees of security. “Plans alone are not sufficient,” Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, urging Myanmar to draw on the expertise and resources of the United Nations to arrange the mass repatriation.