On September 7, I decided to go into Myanmar following the same routes the Rohingya were taking to escape to Bangladesh.
My journey started from Lomba Beel, a remote village in Howaikong union in Teknaf. From here, it takes an hour to walk to the Naf river (which marks the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar) where the three hour-long boat journey begins, ending with another hour spent trudging through the boggy coast of Myanmar.
Thousands of Rohingya swarmed the roads, desperate to find shelter. They had haunted expressions and downcast, fearful eyes, aching to tell their stories of being chased away from their lands. Everyone had a story to tell, to anyone who would listen.
The march from the Naf to Lomba Beel is a stern testimony to the horrors that have driven over 270,000 people over two weeks.
Nothing like a humanitarian crisis to get rich quick
On the banks of the Naf, the fleeing Rohingya arrived in groups of 10-12 on small fishing boats. The boats shook tumultuously, even 10 people too much for them. But there were too many boats with well over a dozen passengers each. It comes as no surprise that there are so many Rohingya reported dead during the crossing.
The vessels are operated by Bangladeshi boatmen who have found a lucrative niche in this corner of the world.
The boatmen charge Bangladeshi Taka 10,000 ($122) per head to ferry each Rohingya from Rakhine to Teknaf.
When asked about the exorbitant rates, a boatman glumly replied: “Our humanity compels us to help our fellow human beings. If we did not provide a route to escape, they would never be able to escape to Bangladesh.”
The humanity is there, but it does not come cheap. The sympathy of the boatmen doesn’t extend to offering the fleeing Rohingya a way across the river for free.
After a boat arrived with a dozen Rohingya, including a month-old baby, all from Buthidaung, I asked the boatman to take me to Myanmar. At first he refused, but the incentive of cash encouraged him to oblige my request.
The boatman pushed away from the coast with all his might leveraged with the oar. He quickly rowed to get to the other side. I asked him what his hurry was. He replied it was to get into the Myanmar waters and away from Border Guard Bangladesh patrols.
As we cruised into international waters, a flotilla of boats, perhaps over a hundred boats – of the same size as the one I was on – filled the horizon. Thousands of Rohingya were huddled on these boats in their desperate attempt to escape the violence in Rakhine.
On my right, a Border Guard Bangladesh trooper stood like a sentinel atop an outpost, looking out over the flotilla.
After over 40 minutes of sailing, the boat slowly drifted into a canal flanked by border fences in Myanmar. The heart of the canal was crowded with empty boats, ready to ferry the Rohingya to Bangladesh, for a hefty price.
On Myanmar soil
“You do not need to be worry about their Border Guard Police or the Tatmadaw here. This area is under the control of Harakat al-Yaqeen (the former name of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army),” my boatman told me.
He points towards an outpost and tells me it used to belong to the Myanmar Border Guard Police until August 25. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA had captured it and driven the Border Guard Police away. I gazed at the concrete structure in awe. This is what sparked the wildfire that was consuming the lives of hundreds of thousands.
It was hard to tear my gaze away from the outpost. But as I did, I saw hundreds of people scrambling for the boats. In the light of the setting sun, the lines of hardship on their faces seemed to be getting more and more distinct.
A small bridge arched over the canal connects the two village tracts of Shilkhali and Kurkhali. Two men carrying staves stood guard over the bridge. The boatmen pointed towards them and whispered: “They are ARSA.”
These two haggard-looking men in shirts and lungi looked more like farmers or fishermen than armed insurgents. But the wooden sticks they carried would at least help them shepherd the Rohingya away from the violence, if not combat the armed forces outright.
It was an endless stream of people. Desperate people. Frightened people. A people without a land. For all their bonds to their homes in Rakhine, they were now forced to flee to Bangladesh.
My boatman introduced me to one Rashid Ahmed, an ARSA member, and took off, pleading his urgency to ferry another boatload of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh.
Where the army fears to tread
Rashid told me that the bridge is a crucial point for ARSA and the Rohingya alike. The two villages it connected were controlled by ARSA. The canal was one of the major, if not the only, point of contact for the boatmen and the refugees.
I asked him how he felt about the conflict. He responded that the Rohingya had been oppressed by the Myanmar government for decades and the armed struggle was the only way they could resist. He hinted about another possible ARSA attack soon, but refused to reply to any further queries along these lines once he realised his slip.
I inquired about how far the Myanmar forces are. He confidently replied they were three kilometres away.
“They do not have the courage to stand where you are standing right now,” he said.
I walked two kilometres upriver along the border fence, and found no end to the stream of Rohingya refugees. It was exhausting, to even see so many people arrive at the shores ragged and weary.
After all the perils they had braved, too many people remained stranded because they could not afford the Bangladeshi Taka 10,000 to make the crossing. But at least they were safer here, in ARSA territory, than their villages which burned on the horizon.
My excursion to Myanmar was over. I sought a boat to take me back to Bangladesh.
As the sun began to set behind me, I could not help but wonder how many of the fleeing Rohingya will ever see another sunset in Rakhine.
This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.