SHAH PORIR DWIP, Bangladesh — From a distance you can see elegantly carved wooden boats bob gently in the waters that surround this coastal town at Bangladesh’s southern tip. Across a sliver of the shimmering waters of the Bay of Bengal is Myanmar.
These boats and this place can mean both hope and tragedy for the Rohingya Muslims who are desperate to escape the violence that has engulfed their lives in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
High tide or low, day or night, rough waters or calm, when they can find a boat, the Rohingya take their chance to flee to Bangladesh. More than 430,000 have left Myanmar in less than a month.
Not everyone makes it.
Mounds of earth in the cemeteries of this little town are the only reminders of Rohingya who drowned as their boats capsized, often just a few heartbreaking meters away from the safety of the shore.
“Ten children are buried in that grave,” said Nur Islam, the imam of the town’s main mosque, pointing to a large mound covered in thorny branches to keep dogs and other animals from disrespecting the graves.
“Here there are nine women buried,” he added, pointing to another large mound.
A solitary pile of earth, away from the other graves, holds an infant whose body washed ashore days after the boat carrying him capsized.
“They get off the boat. The water looks shallow. They don’t know how deep it is and they drown,” Islam said. “It’s very painful … such small children.”
The persecution that the Rohingya Muslims face in Myanmar is not new and neither is their presence here. They’ve been coming in smaller waves since the 1980s when Myanmar stripped them of their citizenship rights.
But never has the influx been as massive as the one that started Aug. 25 when a Rohingya insurgent group staged deadly attacks on dozens of police posts in Myanmar. The reprisal has been swift and brutal. Myanmar officials describe is as a clearance operation aimed at militants. The U.N. calls it ethnic cleansing.
Bangladesh, an impoverished nation too small for even its own population, is struggling with the sheer number of refugees and is trying to put all of them in one place. In Shah Porir Dwip, loudspeakers announce that no one should shelter refugees in their homes. There is no room for them in this crowded and dirt-poor town.
They need to go to refugee camps further up the coast in Cox’s Bazar, but first they must find the money to pay for the nearly 60-kilometre (37-mile) journey.
The Rohingya who can afford it try to bring a cow or a few goats with them. There’s a thriving market in buying livestock at throw away prices from these desperate people. A cow bought from a newcomer can be sold for twice as much in the markets of nearby Teknaf.
On a recent day, only one tiny boat was able to make its way to Shah Porir Dwip.
It dropped off three emaciated and exhausted men some ways from the shore. They walked over kilometres (miles) of sand at low tide, under the scorching sun. Their bodies were bent under the weight of their belongings and their lips were cracked and parched from thirst.
They said many others were waiting to cross but were being stopped by soldiers.
“Myanmar army is shooting at them. They are not letting them go,” Mohammad Amir said as sweat poured down his face.
Abdul Haq watches such desperation play out daily. Since fleeing Myanmar in 2012 he’s lived in a row of shanties near a jetty in Shah Porir Dwip that’s home to Rohingya who came here during earlier waves of violence. They do menial jobs here — day labour or pulling cycle rickshaws.
On a clear day he can look across the water and see the coast of Myanmar. But he also sees the smoke from burning villages. He knows the dangers that lurk there.
“My soul cries for my home,” he said.