By Saif Hasnat and Suhasini Raj
Hundreds of thousands of people began repairing or rebuilding their homes and livelihoods on Monday after a deadly cyclone hit Myanmar and Bangladesh over the weekend.
The storm, named Mocha, killed several people in Myanmar, though there were conflicting accounts from leaders as to exactly how many. The Myanmar government said the number was five, but the shadow government, called the National Unity Government, which may have more sources in the country’s remote conflict zones, said it was 18.
Though the damage from the powerful storm was not as dire as predicted, there were still hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees left homeless, along with reports of people stranded and having to make their way through storm debris to get home.
The damage in Myanmar was mostly confined to Rakhine state, Chin state and other areas in the west, according to officials and aid workers.
Ko Myo Khaing, a rescue worker in the city of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, said two people were reported to have died in his area.
“At least 90% of Sittwe was destroyed by the storm,” he said. “The electricity is still out and the phone lines are down. The number of people affected is unknown, due to communication difficulties.”
Khaing Thu Kha, a spokesperson for the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, said that food collected for the emergency was damaged by the rain, and that while floodwaters in Sittwe had receded, they were still high in other areas.
“Since it is impossible for us to help with our revolutionary forces alone, I would like to ask neighboring countries, including the U.N., to help,” the spokesperson said.
In Chin state, where phone and internet lines have been cut since Myanmar’s generals staged a coup in February 2021, communication was restored for a short while just before the cyclone struck. But that was not enough.
“We didn’t have enough time to tell people to evacuate,” said Salai Mang Hre Lian, the program manager of the Chin Human Rights Organization.
Although there were no immediate reports of fatalities in Chin state, Lian said more than a thousand people were stranded in the forests, in urgent need of shelter, food, and medicine, and had been unable to make it back to their homes. Transportation was harrowing; travelers had to brave military patrols and unexploded ordnance, along with the effects of the storm itself. Those conditions also made it hard to deliver relief supplies.
Before the cyclone made landfall, its strong winds and rain tore through the tarpaulin-and-bamboo shanties of the Rohingya refugees who live in threadbare camps along Bangladesh’s coastline. More than 1 million Rohingya people sought refuge in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Rakhine state, and they now inhabit the world’s largest encampment.
The storm came ashore on Sunday afternoon in the coastal area around Cox’s Bazar, right at Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, according to Bangladesh’s meteorological department. At that time, it was packing winds of up to 155 mph, according to estimates from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center just before landfall.
Videos posted to social media showed men and women wading in water and surrounded by broken electrical poles, blown-out tile roofs, pieces of billboards and crumpled metal sheeting.
In Bangladesh, where no deaths were immediately reported, around 3,000 Rohingya shelters were damaged by the cyclone, and some were completely destroyed, officials said. The office of Bangladesh’s commissioner for refugees reported that 32 learning centers and 29 mosques were damaged.
The refugee camps, which stretch over rolling, muddy terrain, suffered 120 landslides during the storm, and at least 5,300 refugees were relocated to more secure locations. In the wider Cox’s Bazar region, a total of 13,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. About 250,000 people were in need of food and shelter by Sunday evening, according to Bangladesh’s government.
In the Cox’s Bazar area, 25-year-old Arefa, who goes by one name and lives with her husband and two children, ages 6 and 4, described in horror how the storm brought a tree down onto her bamboo-and-plastic shanty. The family escaped unhurt and took refuge at a community leader’s home.
“I lay down on the floor of someone’s home with my children beside me, thinking, ‘Will we go on like this our entire lives?’” she said, her voice shaking.
A series of fires and floods have ravaged the Rohingya camps over the past six years, but Arefa’s shanty had only been damaged once before — two years ago, when another storm blew away its tarpaulin roofing. Life had already been tough for her family in Myanmar, even before October 2016, when armed forces came to her village and set it on fire. Her family was left homeless and had no choice but to flee to Bangladesh, she said, a journey that took several days on foot.
Now they are going to have to start again. She came back to her battered shanty this morning, she said, to find that someone had stolen the cooking gas cylinder. “We want to go home to Myanmar, but there is no hope of that happening anytime soon,” she said. “My two children, I don’t see any future for them.”