Desperation spreads in Rohingya refugee camps as food stocks dwindle
Rohingya refugees from Burma packed into camps and makeshift settlements in Bangladesh have become desperate for scant basic resources and dwindling supplies.
Fights are erupting over food and water. Women and children are knocking on car windows or tugging at the clothes of passing reporters while rubbing their bellies and begging for food.
UN agencies estimate that more than a quarter of a million Rohingya Muslims have arrived in the Cox's Bazar region in just the last two weeks, joining at least 100,000 who were already there after fleeing earlier riots or persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma.
Many of the newly arrived were initially stunned and traumatised after fleeing violence that erupted on August 25 in Burma's Rakhine state.
They are now growing desperate as they search for food distribution points that appeared only in recent days, passing out packets of biscuits and 55lb bags of rice.
One aid worker who asked not to be identified said "stocks are running out" with the refugees' needs far greater than what they had imagined. "It is impossible to keep up," she said.
At one food distribution point, women were volunteering to help keep order by gently tapping people with bamboo sticks to urge them back in line.
Weary women carried infants in their arms while clutching other children to their sides, afraid of being separated in the crowds.
One 40-year-old man, faint with hunger, collapsed while waiting and could not stand again by himself when others tried to help him up. They drizzled water between his lips in an attempt to revive him, to no avail.
"Everyone is hungry. Everyone has been waiting for hours," said another aid worker.
He said the crowds were becoming unmanageable, and that aid agencies may need to ask for a police presence.
"We are not prepared here for such a huge number," he said.
The UN refugee agency said the number of Rohingya refugees is now estimated at roughly 290,000.
UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the number of people arriving continued to grow.
She said with camps already "more than full", the new arrivals are setting up spontaneous settlements along roadsides or on any available patches of land.
She said there is an urgent need for more temporary shelters. "We are seeing the mushrooming of these very flimsy shelters that will not be able to house people for too long."
The UN has asked Bangladesh authorities to make more land available so they can build new relief camps.
An increasing number of Rohingya were also arriving by boats that crossed the monsoon-swollen Naf River or the rough waters in the Bay of Bengal. Some 300 boats from Burma reached Cox's Bazar on Wednesday alone, the International Organisation for Migration said.
The exodus began after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in northern Rakhine state. The military responded with what it called "clearance operations" to root out any fighters it said might be hiding in villages.
It is not known how many Rohingya remain in Rakhine state. Previously the population had been thought to be roughly one million.
The Burma government says nearly 400 people have been killed in fighting it blames on insurgents, though Rohingya say Burma troops and Buddhist mobs attacked them and destroyed their villages.
Journalists in Rakhine state saw active fires in areas Rohingya had abandoned, adding to doubts over government claims that Rohingya themselves were responsible for setting them.
Dozens of Rohingya have died in boat capsizings as they fled the violence. Those who trek days through the jungle to cross the land border face other dangers, including land mines.
On Monday, the AP saw an elderly woman whose leg had been blown off in a land mine blast.
Land mines were planted years ago along parts of the border. Bangladeshi officials say Burma soldiers have planted new explosives since the latest wave of violence began, though the Burma military denies it.