SHAH PORIR DWIP ISLAND, BANGLADESH – On a remote beach looking out onto the Bay of Bengal, a baby boy lies swaddled in cloth, his face smeared with wet sand. The bodies of nine more children and eight women lie alongside. Another woman and a child have already been buried.
The group, all Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, were found washed up on the shore on Thursday by villagers from Shah Porir Dwip island in Bangladesh, a short distance from the mouth of the Naf river that separates the two countries.
They died after two rickety boats capsized as they fled a Myanmar army counteroffensive that followed Rohingya insurgent attacks on security forces last week. Nearly 30,000 more Rohingyas have made the perilous crossing by boat or on foot into Bangladesh, while 20,000 more are stuck in no man’s land at the border.
“We left after the army came early yesterday. They burned houses and shot many people. We ran away so they couldn’t find us,” said Samira, 19, a survivor from one of the boats, as the monsoon wind and rain blew off the sea to soak her bright orange hijab. “I have no words. I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Samira and others fled violence unleashed after Rohingya insurgents wielding sticks, knives and crude bombs attacked police posts and an army base on Friday, leading to clashes that have killed at least 117 people.
Journalists and other outside observers have been unable to independently travel to the northwest of Myanmar’s Rakhine state since an earlier outbreak of violence last year, although some aid programs had quietly been resumed.
Myanmar says its army is conducting clearance operations against “extremist terrorists” and that security forces have been told to protect civilians, but Rohingya arriving in Bangladesh say a campaign is under way to force them out.
The bodies washed up on Thursday were hardly the first Rohingya to perish trying to escape by boat from Myanmar.
Many died trying to cross the Naf after smaller-scale insurgent attacks last October provoked a harsh military response.
Over the years, tens of thousands have attempted to flee across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to Thailand and Malaysia.
A crackdown on people smuggling networks in Thailand in 2015 saw many Rohingya abandoned at sea by traffickers. The disruption to the smuggling networks also cut off a major escape route for the Muslim minority, which is denied citizenship and endures apartheid-like conditions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Samira’s group hailed from a village to the south of the major regional town of Maungdaw in Rakhine. A Reuters reporter who traveled with government minders to the area on Wednesday saw many villages on fire.
The two boats set off for the Bangladesh coast around 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The Naf here is about 3 km (1.9 miles) wide.
After the group arrived on the Bangladeshi side, someone shouted that the police were near, Samira said. They went back out to sea — and a large wave tipped the boats over.
Out of the 22 members of Samira’s extended family six died.
“My brother can swim so he managed to save some of us,” she said. In total, 14 people survived, but “young children and those women couldn’t swim and they couldn’t be saved,” she said, looking over the bodies lined up on the beach.
The island — which used to be reachable by a bitumen road on a causeway — is about an hour by boat from Bangladesh’s Teknaf peninsula. The road has been washed away by the Bay of Bengal’s tides and strong winds.
As the number of Rohingya refugees is expected to swell, humanitarian workers worry such boat accidents may become more frequent. Hundreds fleeing on boats were being pushed back by Bangladeshi border guards, according to authorities.
The United Nations is pressuring Dhaka to let those fleeing Myanmar seek shelter on its territory, but Bangladesh — one of the poorest countries in Asia — has said it cannot cope with any more refugees and will not allow people to cross the border.
Another boat in the area sank on Wednesday, killing two women and two children, after Myanmar border guards fired on it, Bangladesh Border Guard Lt. Col. Ariful Islam told Reuters.
One person survived by floating on a jerry can. Jahid Hussein Saddique, a local administrator, confirmed the Thursday accident took place and said that a broker has been sentenced to six months in jail by a mobile court for human trafficking.
“They didn’t know how to swim, so they died,” Saddique said. “We don’t know the actual cause of death.”