COX’S BAZAR/YANGON (Reuters) - Hungry, destitute and scared, thousands of new Rohingya refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh from Myanmar early on Monday, Reuters witnesses said, fleeing hunger and attacks by Buddhist mobs that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
Wading through waist-deep water with children strapped to their sides, the refugees told Reuters they had walked through bushes and forded monsoon-swollen streams for days.
A seemingly never-ending flow entered Bangladesh near the village of Palongkhali. Many were injured, with the elderly carried on makeshift stretchers, while women balanced household items, such as pots, rice sacks and clothing, on their heads.
“We couldn’t step out of the house for the last month because the military were looting people,” said Mohammad Shoaib, 29, who wore a yellow vest and balanced jute bags of food and aluminum pots on a bamboo pole. “They started firing on the village. So we escaped into another.
“Day by day, things kept getting worse, so we started moving towards Bangladesh. Before we left, I went back near my village to see my house, and the entire village was burnt down,” Shoaib added.
They joined about 536,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar since Aug. 25, when coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.
Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labeled the militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who launched the attacks as terrorists, who have killed civilians and burnt villages.
The European Union said on Monday it would suspend invitations to Myanmar’s army commander-in-chief and other senior generals “in the light of the disproportionate use of force carried out by the security forces”.
A statement issued after a meeting of EU foreign ministers also called for thorough investigation of “credible allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses”.
Not everyone made it to Bangladesh alive on Monday.
Several kilometers (miles) to the south of Palongkhali, a boat carrying scores of refugees sank at dawn, killing at least 12 and leaving 35 missing. There were 21 survivors, Bangladesh authorities said.
“So far 12 bodies, including six children and four women, have been recovered,” said police official Moinuddin Khan.
Bangladesh border guards told Reuters the boat sank because it was overloaded with refugees, who pay exorbitant fees to cross the Naf River, a natural border with Myanmar in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh.
The sinking came about a week after another boat capsized in the estuary on the river, which has become a graveyard for dozens of Muslim refugees.
Refugees who survived the perilous journey said they were driven out by hunger because food markets in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State have been shut and aid deliveries restricted. They also reported attacks by the military and Rakhine Buddhist mobs.
The influx will worsen the unprecedented humanitarian emergency unfolding in Cox’s Bazar, where aid workers are battling to provide refugees with food, clean water and shelter.
On Monday, the Red Cross opened a field hospital as big as two football fields, with 60 beds, three wards, an operating theater, a delivery suite with maternity ward and a psychosocial support unit.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already been in Bangladesh after fleeing previous spasms of violence in Myanmar, where they have long been denied citizenship and faced curbs on their movements and access to basic services.
Monday’s EU move to shun further contacts with Myanmar’s army top brass comes after officials told Reuters the European bloc and the United States were considering targeted sanctions against military leaders.
The action announced by Brussels is largely symbolic, though the EU said it may consider further measures.
Western governments, who have invested politically in Myanmar’s democratic transition, are wary of doing anything that would hurt the wider economy or destabilize already tense ties between civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military.
The powerful army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, told the United States ambassador in Myanmar last week that the exodus of Rohingya, whom he called non-native “Bengalis”, was exaggerated.
But despite Myanmar’s denials and assurances that aid was on its way to the north of violence-torn Rakhine State, thousands more starving people were desperate to leave.
“We fled from our home because we had nothing to eat in my village,” said Jarhni Ahlong, a 28-year-old Rohingya man from the southern region of Buthidaung, who had been stranded on the Myanmar side of the Naf for a week, waiting to cross.
From the thousands gathered there awaiting an opportunity to escape, about 400 paid roughly $50 each to flee on nine or 10 boats on Monday morning, he added.
“I think if we go to Bangladesh we can get food,” he said.
Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in Cox's Bazar and Wa Lone in Yangon; Additional reporting by Jorge Silva and Nurul Islam in Cox's Bazar and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski and Alex Richardson; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez