At least six dead after armed gang attack in Rohingya refugee camp

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – At least six people were killed in an attack at a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar on Friday, a police official said – the latest incident of violence in the world’s largest refugee settlement.

A gang armed with guns attacked a religious school before dawn in Cox Bazar’s Ukhiya area and killed three teachers, two volunteers and a student, police superintendent Shihab Kaiser Khan said.

“A drive is underway to arrest those responsible for the incident,” Khan told Reuters, adding one Rohingya man with weapons and ammunition had been taken into custody.

More than a million Rohingya live in a cluster of refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, with most having fled neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2007.

The sprawling settlements have become increasingly violent, residents say, with armed gangs vying for power, kidnapping critics and warning women against breaking conservative Islamic norms.

Late last month, gunmen shot and killed a prominent Rohingya Muslim leader in the camps.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Edwina Gibbs)

Hundreds protest in Bangladesh over religious violence

DHAKA (Reuters) – Hundreds of people protested in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Monday calling for an end to religious violence that has gripped the country for four days, leading to at least two deaths and several injured.

The violence began on Oct. 15, when hundreds of Muslims protested in the southeastern Noakhali district over an allegedly blasphemous incident. Two Hindu men died following that protest, Mohammed Shahidul Islam, the police chief in Noakhali, told Reuters by phone.

“There is some confusion about whether they died due to the unlawful assembly, or otherwise,” Islam said, adding that police are investigating the deaths. “They (the protestors) were miscreants, actually, that is all we can say.”

Islam declined to share further details.

Several Hindu religious sites have been attacked in recent days, which the country’s home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said were attacks aimed at destroying the communal harmony in Bangladesh. Hindus make up around 10% of the Muslim-majority country’s population.

“No incident has been reported since Saturday night. Our security forces are working patiently based on intelligence information,” Khan told the news agency ANI.

Unidentified “miscreants” attacked some homes in the Rangpur city on Monday, police told the agency.

The unrest is some of the worst in Bangladesh since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party came to power there in 2009. It poses a challenge to her party, which is seen as the more secular one of the two political groups that have alternated power in Bangladesh for most of its independent history.

Some of those gathered to protest near the Dhaka University in the capital city on Monday held up banners that demanded the police identify the attackers and bring them to justice.

“Safety of minorities in the country must be ensured,” one of the banners read.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui and Rafiqur Rahman; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Rohingya community leader shot dead in Bangladesh refugee camp

By Ruma Paul and Poppy McPherson

(Reuters) – Gunmen shot and killed a prominent Rohingya Muslim leader in a refugee camp in southern Bangladesh on Wednesday, a United Nations spokesperson and a local police official said, following months of worsening violence in the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Mohib Ullah, who was in his late 40s, led one of the largest of several community groups to emerge since more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar after a military crackdown in August 2017.

Invited to the White House and to speak to the United Nations Human Rights Council, he was one of the most high-profile advocates for the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has faced persecution for generations.

Rafiqul Islam, a deputy police superintendent in the nearby town of Cox’s Bazar, told Reuters by phone that Mohib Ullah had been shot dead but had no additional details.

A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the agency was “deeply saddened” by the killing of Mohib Ullah. “We are in continuous contact with law enforcement authorities in charge of maintaining peace and security in the camps,” the spokesperson said.

Mohib Ullah’s group, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, made its name documenting atrocities the Rohingya suffered during the Myanmar crackdown, which the U.N. has said was carried out with genocidal intent.

At the Bangladesh refugee camps, Mohib Ullah went from hut to hut to build a tally of killings, rape and arson that was shared with international investigators.

His organization worked to give refugees more of a voice inside the camps and internationally. Speaking to the U.N. Human Rights Council, he said the Rohingya wanted more of a say over their own future.

But his high profile made him a target of hardliners and he received death threats, he told Reuters in 2019. “If I die, I’m fine. I will give my life,” he said at the time.

The sprawling camps in Bangladesh have become increasingly violent, residents say, with armed men vying for power, kidnapping critics, and warning women against breaking conservative Islamic norms.

Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya civil society activist and an adviser to Myanmar’s National Unity Government, the parallel civilian government established after February’s coup, said Mohib Ullah’s death was a “big loss for the Rohingya community.”

“He was always aware there is a threat, but he thinks that despite the threat if he is not doing the work he is doing, no one else would,” he said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul and Poppy McPherson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Cyclone leaves more than 150,000 people homeless in eastern India

By Subrata Nagchoudhury and Jatindra Dash

KOLKATA, India (Reuters) – More than 150,000 people were left homeless in the aftermath of a cyclone that unleashed storm surges in eastern India and Bangladesh, officials said on Thursday, with heavy rains hampering relief work in some low-lying coastal areas.

At least five people were killed in the two countries after Cyclone Yaas moved inland from the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday, packing gusts of up to 140 kph (87 mph) and whipping up tidal surges in India’s West Bengal state and neighboring Bangladesh.

Indian officials said the storm had weakened into a depression after hitting the coast but heavy rain poured down in parts of West Bengal, where there was fresh inundation of sea water along some coastal villages on Thursday.

“Restoration work will be difficult unless the weather improves,” West Bengal state minister Bankim Hazra told Reuters.

In West Bengal’s Sundarbans delta, which stretches into Bangladesh, at least 25,000 homes, many of them traditional mud houses, had been destroyed, leaving 150,000 people homeless, Hazra said, citing preliminary estimates.

The storm, the second to hit India in a week, arrived as the country grapples with a deadly second wave of coronavirus infections that has stretched the healthcare system to breaking point.

Some 500,000 people were sheltered in relief camps in West Bengal and officials said they had taken steps to reduce the risk of a potential spread of the virus.

“Flood shelters have quarantine rooms for those showing symptoms of COVID-19 like fever, sore throat, body ache,” Dr. Indranil Bargi, a medical officer in Gosaba area, told Reuters.

People are being tested for coronavirus using the rapid antigen test and anyone who tests positive would be shifted to safe homes set up in government offices and schools, he said.

Authorities in Bangladesh reported flooding of villages due to torrential rains and tidal surges. Three people were dead, two by drowning and a third who was hit by a tree, an official at the Disaster Management Agency said.

“I have never seen a tidal surge rising to this level. It flooded many villages and washed away houses. Many people are marooned,” said Humayum Kabir, an official in the coastal district of Khulna.

Elsewhere on the sub-continent, Nepal was bracing for floods in its plains and landslides in the hills as heavy rains have lashed the Himalayan country since Wednesday and were forecast to last till Saturday.

(Reporting by Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneshwar, Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata, Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore/Mark Heinrich)

‘Can’t take this pain’: Rohingya mother searches for son after refugee camp blaze

By Ruma Paul

BALUKHALI REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) – After losing her husband, two young sons and her home, Noor Banu thought she had seen the worst of life.

She made the perilous journey from her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to the refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017, with nothing except her four surviving boys.

Now she fears she has lost another son to the massive blaze that ripped through the Cox’s Bazar camps, reducing tarpaulin and bamboo shelters to ash. More than 300 refugees are missing. Eleven-year-old Mohammed Karim is among them.

“I can’t take this pain any more,” Banu said, breaking into sobs as she spoke to Reuters inside a temporary shelter on Friday.

“I believe Karim is dead, and I may not even be able to identify his body.”

The 32-year-old Rohingya Muslim has already seen two sons die by fire.

In 2016, as the Myanmar army poured into Rohingya villages in response to coordinated insurgent attacks on security posts, Banu said her home was set ablaze in Pawet Chaung, killing the two boys – one barely a year old, and another seven.

“My home was torched in front of my eyes,” she said. “I could do nothing to save my children from the blaze.”

Her sons still bear burn marks from the fire.

Banu was among hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar in 2017 following army operations that the United Nations called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar denies the charge and says it was waging legitimate counterinsurgency operations against Rohingya insurgents.

SEARCHING

Banu is one of around a million Rohingya refugees living at the camps. Myanmar denies most Rohingya citizenship and considers them interlopers from Bangladesh even though they have lived in Myanmar for decades.

She – like many others – arrived with the trauma of the violence back home. Her husband went missing in 2015, and she said she later learned he had been arrested and was in jail – she does not know on what charges. She has not heard from him since.

The family stayed at a shelter close to those of her relatives and survived on food aid.

The boys began to attend the religious school at the camps. Slowly, they were learning to build a life out of ruins.

On Monday, Banu said she had just finished with lunch when she heard people screaming and rushed out of her hut. Her four boys, who had been at the madrassa, were running toward her, and behind them, flames were rising from shelters.

“My sons were hurrying home to take me away,” she said.

She grabbed her youngest and ran, but as people scurried from the fire, Banu said she was separated from her other sons.

That evening, two of the boys managed to reach her by making calls through the phones of other refugees. Four days on, there has been no word from Karim.

The ruins of scores of charred huts can be seen at the hilly camps. Some 45,000 refugees have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Some refugees are working to rebuild their tent homes, others search for their relatives. Eleven people have so far been confirmed dead.

Banu has approached aid agencies at the camps to seek help in finding Karim, but her hope is fading.

“My son knows the camps very well,” she said. “If he was alive, he would have returned to me by now.”

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Additional reporting by Mohammad Hossain; Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Alison Williams)

‘Devastating’ fire at Rohingya camp in Bangladesh kills 15, leaves 400 missing – UN

By Ruma Paul and Emma Farge

DHAKA (Reuters) – At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while at least 400 remain missing, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.

“It is massive, it is devastating,” said UNHCR’s Johannes Van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble.”

He said the UNHCR had reports of more than 550 people injured and about 45,000 displaced.

Bangladeshi officials are investigating the cause of the blaze even as emergency and aid workers and families sift through the debris looking for further victims. The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of shanties as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.

“Everything has gone. Thousands are without homes,” Aman Ullah, a Rohingya refugee from the Balukhali camp, told Reuters. “The fire was brought under control after six hours but some parts of the camp could be seen smoking all night long.”

Authorities in Bangladesh have so far confirmed 11 deaths.

Some 40,000 huts in the camp were burned down, said Mohammad Mohsin, secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, after visiting the camp.

Two major hospitals of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Turkish government were also destroyed, he told reporters in Cox’s Bazar.

“A seven-member committee has been formed to investigate the matter,” he said.

Sanjeev Kafley, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’s delegation head in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed and tens of thousands of people displaced.

More than a thousand Red Cross staff and volunteers worked with fire services to extinguish the blaze, spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, he said. That represents around one-tenth of an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees in the area, Kafley said.

“I have been in Cox’s Bazar for three-and-a-half years and have never seen such a fire,” he told Reuters. “These people have been displaced two times. For many, there is nothing left.”

BARBED WIRE

Some witnesses said that barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.

Humanitarian organization Refugees International, which estimated 50,000 people had been displaced, said the extent of the damage may not be known for some time.

“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps,” it said in a statement.

John Quinley of Fortify Rights, a rights organization working with Rohingya, said he had heard similar reports, adding the fences had hampered the distribution of humanitarian aid and vital services at the camps in the past.

“The government must remove the fences and protect refugees,” Quinley said. “There have now been a number of large fires in the camps including a large fire in January this year… The authorities must do a proper investigation into the cause of the fires.”

The vast majority of the people in the camps fled Myanmar in 2017 amid a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya that U.N. investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting and writing by Alasdair Pal in New Delhi and Euan Rocha in Mumbai; Editing by Jane Wardell and Bernadette Baum)

Fire destroys thousands of homes in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – A huge fire swept through Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh on Monday, destroying thousands of homes, officials and witnesses said.

Video shot by a resident showed a blaze ripping through the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, with people scrambling to recover their possessions amid burning shanties and tents.

“Fire services, rescue and response teams and volunteers are at the scene to try to control the fire and prevent it spreading further,” said Louise Donovan, spokesperson for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, where refugees live in ramshackle huts.

Rohingya refugees in the camps said many homes were burned down and several people had died, but neither the authorities nor UNHCR confirmed there were any deaths.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent,” charges Myanmar denies.

“The fire spread so quickly that before we understood what happened, it caught our house. People were screaming and running here and there. Children were also running … crying for their family,” said Tayeba Begum, a Save the Children volunteer who witnessed the fire.

A Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he saw several dead bodies.

“Thousand of huts were totally burned down,” Mohammed Nowkhim told Reuters.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said: “We are trying to control the blaze.”

Another large blaze tore through the camp in January, destroying homes but causing no casualties.

The risk of fire in the densely populated camps is high, and Monday’s blaze was the largest yet, said Onno Van Manen, Country Director of Save the Children in Bangladesh.

“It is another devastating blow to the Rohingya refugees who live here. Just a couple of days ago we lost one of our health facilities in another fire,” he said.

The UNHCR said humanitarian partners had mobilized hundreds of volunteers from nearby camps for the support operation, as well as fire safety vehicles and equipment.

“So far the fire has affected shelters, health centers, distribution points and other facilities,” spokeswoman Donovan said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Mike Collett-White)

Bangladesh to move 2,000-3,000 more Rohingya Muslims to remote island despite criticism

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh will move 2,000-3,000 more Rohingya Muslim refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal this week, a navy officer said on Wednesday, despite complaints by rights groups concerned about the site’s vulnerability to storms and flooding.

Bangladesh has relocated about 3,500 of the refugees from neighboring Myanmar to Bhasan Char island since early December from border camps where a million live in ramshackle huts perched on razed hillsides.

Bhasan Char emerged from the sea only two decades ago and is several hours by boat from the nearest port at Chittagong. The Rohingya, a minority group who fled violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are not allowed to move off the island without government permission.

“Most probably, they will be taken to Chittagong tomorrow and the next day, they will be sent to Bhasan Char from there,” Navy Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury told Reuters.

“Last time, we had preparations for 700 to 1,000 but finally more than 1,800 Rohingya moved there. People who moved earlier are calling their relatives and friends to go there. That’s why more people are going there.”

Bangladesh justifies the move to the island saying overcrowding in the camps in Cox’s Bazar is leading to crimes.

It also dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2-metre (6.5 feet) embankment for 12 km (7.5 miles) to protect the island along with housing for 100,000 people, as well as facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals.

Its actions, nevertheless, have attracted criticism from relief agencies that have not been consulted on the transfers.

“The U.N. has previously shared terms of reference with the government for the technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char, though we have not yet been permitted to carry out these assessments,” the U.N. refugee agency said in an email.

“We emphasize that all movements to Bhasan Char must be voluntary and based upon full information regarding the conditions of life on the island and the rights and services that refugees will be able to access there.”

The government says the relocation is voluntary but some refugees from the first group that went there in early December have spoken of being coerced.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Fire destroys homes of thousands in Rohingya refugee camps – UNHCR

(Reuters) – A huge fire swept through the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh in the early hours of Thursday, the United Nations said, destroying homes belonging to thousands of people.

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said more than 550 shelters home to around 3,500 people were either totally or partially destroyed in the blaze, as well as 150 shops and a facility belonging to a non-profit organization.

Photographs and video provided to Reuters by a Rohingya refugee in Nayapara Camp showed families including children, sifting through charred corrugated iron sheets to see if they could salvage anything from their still smoldering homes. But little remained of the camp, which had stood for decades, aside from concrete poles and the husks of a few trees.

“E block is completely burned down,” said the refugee, Mohammed Arakani. “There is nothing left. There was nothing saved. Everything is burned down.”

“Everyone is crying,” he said. “They lost all their belongings. They lost everything, completely burned down, they lost all their goods.”

UNHCR said it was providing shelter, materials, winter clothes, hot meals, and medical care for the refugees displaced from the camp in the Cox’s Bazar district, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh.

“Security experts are liaising with the authorities to investigate on the cause of fire,” the agency said, adding that no casualties were reported.

Onno van Manen, Save the Children’s Country Director in Bangladesh, called the fire “another devastating blow for the Rohingya people who have endured unspeakable hardship for years”.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the fire service spent two hours putting out the blaze, but was hampered by the explosion of gas cylinders inside homes.

The Bangladesh government has moved several thousand Rohingya to a remote island in recent weeks, despite protests from human rights groups who say some of the relocations were forced, allegations denied by authorities.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

The fire destroyed part of a camp inhabited by Rohingya who fled Myanmar after an earlier military campaign, according to refugees.

(Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson and Ruma Paul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

A day on Rohingya’s remote Bangladesh island

By Mohammad Ponir Hossain

BHASAN CHAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – As a Bangladeshi naval ship anchored off a remote Bay of Bengal island, some of the Rohingya refugees aboard clapped in anticipation of starting a new life on a piece of land that did not even exist two decades ago.

Carrying poultry and sacks of belongings, they are part of a second group of about 1,800 Rohingya that Bangladesh moved on Tuesday from cramped refugee camps on the mainland to the low-lying island despite opposition from rights groups.

“Welcome to Bhasan Char,” read a banner as the refugees walked off the jetty on the island, nearly as big as Manhattan. Navy trucks and tractor trailers took them to multiple rows of concrete houses with their pinkish-red painted tin roofs.

A Reuters photographer was among a team of journalists given rare access to the island that is about three hours from the nearest port in Chittagong, and is fully exposed to nature’s vagaries in a country with a tragic history of deadly storms.

Bangladesh says it has spent more than $350 million of its own money to ready housing and other infrastructure to voluntarily move some 100,000 Rohingya to the island in an effort to ease overcrowding in camps near the Myanmar border, even though rights groups said many were being coerced or paid to move. The government denies the charges.

“Mashallah! Wonderful place,” one man, a father of six, exclaimed using an Arabic expression for appreciation at the arrangements at Bhasan Char.

“We are so happy with the accommodation. The children are so excited to see the playground,” he said, but added: “We just pray floods don’t kill us.”

CHEEK BY JOWL

The government said earlier this month that the housing was built on concrete foundation which could withstand natural disasters, noting it withstood cyclone Amphan in May which killed more than 100 people in Bangladesh and eastern India.

A middle-aged man who reached Bhasan Char with his wife and three children on Tuesday said his camp leader had convinced him that they were better off relocating than staying back in the dilapidated shelters on the mainland where one million of them live cheek by jowl.

Reuters is withholding the names of the Rohingya to protect their identity as some in the community are against the move to the isolated island from where they won’t be allowed to leave without government permission.

The government has built a 2-metre (6.5 feet) high embankment for 12 kms (7.5 miles) to protect the island, where sheep grazed on its greenish-grey grass as the new arrivals were screened for coronavirus by health workers in white overalls.

Reuters was not allowed to meet with a previous group of some 1,600 Rohingya that was relocated early this month, but a Navy SUV drove journalists through the cemented lanes separating neat rows of grey-walled housing blocks with wide porches.

Journalists were also shown around an empty room with two steel-and-plastic bunk beds for four people, a community kitchen with multiple stoves separated by small concrete partitions and a fresh-water pond. A big white bungalow enclosed with a fence is reserved for VVIPs in case anyone fancies a visit.

“The Rohingya people who have shifted there are very happy with the arrangement,” Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Writing by Krishna N. Das and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)