Rohingya say Myanmar military cutting off their food supply

First, massacres, rapes and the destruction of villages by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. Now, the food supply appears to be another weapon that's being used against the dwindling numbers of Rohingya in Myanmar.

Refugees arriving in camps show signs of severe malnourishment, humanitarian workers say

In this photo taken Jan. 14, a volunteer carries a malnourished child from a newly arrived Rohingya family in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. The hunger the Rohingya faced at home is evident when they come to the Bangladesh camps, where new refugees, especially children and women, suffer from malnutrition, according to Dr. Ismail Mehr. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

Abdul Goni said the Myanmar government was starving his family one stage at a time.

First, soldiers stopped the Rohingya Muslim from walking three hours to the forest for the firewood he sold to feed his family. Then Buddhist neighbours and seven soldiers took his only cow, which he rented out to fertilize rice fields. Next, he said, they killed his uncle and strung him up on a wire for trying to stop the theft of his buffalos.

By the time Goni saw bodies floating down the local river, of fellow Rohingya killed for illegal fishing, he knew his family would die if they didn't leave. On bad days, they carved the flesh out of banana plant stalks for food. On the worst days, his children ate nothing.

"I felt so sorry that I couldn't give them enough food," the 25-year-old said, tears running down his face, in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, just across the border from Myanmar. "Day by day, the pressure was increasing all around us. They used to tell us, 'This isn't your land. … We'll starve you out.'"

In this photo taken Jan. 14, an elderly Rohingya refugee woman arrives with others at a transit camp in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

First, massacres, rapes and the wholesale destruction of villages by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, in reprisal for Rohingya militant attacks on Aug. 25, 2017. Now, the food supply appears to be another weapon that's being used against the dwindling numbers of Rohingya in Myanmar.

No reporters in northern Rakhine

The accounts of hunger could not be independently confirmed, as Myanmar's government does not allow reporters into the northern part of Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya lived. However, more than a dozen interviews by The Associated Press with the most recent refugees show growing desperation, as the noose tightens around their communities in what UN officials have said may be a genocide.

The United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have also warned of increasing hunger among the Rohingya in areas where conflict and displacement have been most rampant.

Repeated calls to Myanmar's military weren't answered, but the Myanmar government denies ethnic cleansing and said it is battling terrorists. Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye said the government has been distributing food aid to as many people as possible.

"There are many ways that we have been reaching out to villagers frequently," he said. "And that's why it's not possible that there are people who are completely cut off from food or facing hunger."

The Rohingya Muslims, who have been loathed by Myanmar's Buddhist majority for decades, are locked down in their villages — sometimes even in their homes — and prevented from farming, fishing, foraging, trading and working, the refugees and aid groups say. In other words, they can no longer do what they need to do to eat. 

Hunger 'was worse than jail'

"It was worse than a jail," said Goni, who finally left Hpa Yon Chaung village in Buthidaung township on Jan. 5. "People at least get food twice a day in jail."

The hunger the Rohingya faced at home is evident when they come to the Bangladesh camps, where new refugees, especially children and women, suffer from "unbelievable" levels of malnutrition, according to Dr. Ismail Mehr.

In this photo taken Jan. 15, Rohingya refugee Muslim children and their mothers wait for their turn to receive food packets from the World Food Program at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

"They are definitely coming in starving," says Mehr, who recently returned to the United States from treating refugees in the camps. "We saw the vitamin deficiencies in the children and the adults; we saw … severely malnourished people who are basically skin and bones. It looked like the pictures from the Nazi camps."

Activists, aid groups and researchers say Myanmar squeezed the Rohingya by severely hampering many of the humanitarian operations that were crucial for their survival. Food aid was further disrupted by violence in 2016 and the bloodshed after Rohingya insurgents staged an unprecedented wave of 30 attacks on security posts across Rakhine state in August and killed at least 14 people.

Aid agencies predicted hunger

Even before August, aid agencies in 2017 predicted a spike in severe malnutrition in children. In a report released Thursday, Amnesty International details evidence of forced starvation by the military, including stopping the Rohingya from harvesting their rice fields in November and December. The Food and Agriculture Organization has also warned that the lack of access to food and fuel is adding to hunger in Myanmar.

In this photo taken Jan. 13, a newly arrived Rohingya woman makes rice for her family at Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

Goni said that of the 500 families who lived near him, around 150 have fled to Bangladesh. Everyone else wants to leave, he said, but they either don't have enough money or are too old.

"Some families have enough food because they stockpiled rice, but that can't last forever," he said. "If they can't get to Bangladesh, and they run out of rice, the only option is death."