COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Shona Miah wept as he gently closed the lifeless eyes of his three tiny daughters, young Rohingya refugees he could not save from the huge surf that upended their rickety fishing boat a stone’s throw from safety in Bangladesh.
Their bodies washed up on the beach along with 17 others, all women and children risking a dangerous voyage to escape ethnic violence in Myanmar that has driven half a million refugees into Bangladesh by land and sea. Dozens more are missing, feared drowned after their boat capsized Thursday.
Four weeks after the outbreak of fighting that sparked the exodus, Rohingya are still dying trying to flee Myanmar, where a military crackdown on the stateless Muslim minority has been likened by the UN to ethnic cleansing.
More than 130 refugees have drowned on ill-fated voyages to Bangladesh since violence erupted in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on August 25, police say.
The survivors of Thursday’s capsize came from Mwai Daung, a village two days’ walk from the coast in Rakhine’s inland Buthidaung township, Miah said.
Among the latest victims to perish at sea was Saiful Rahman, a one-year-old Rohingya boy lying on the concrete floor of a southern Bangladesh primary school Friday near the beach where he washed up.
His mother Nur Fatemah unwrapped the yellow plastic covering her son and stared blankly at his tiny corpse covered in sand, too exhausted for tears.
She barely survived herself after two days at sea with little food or water and a devastating monsoon storm that smashed their vessel against rocks.
“I’m just so tired. I don’t know what to say,” she told Agence France-Presse flatly, waving flies off her youngest’s body.
Lost at sea
But her grief is not over.
Police rush into the school courtyard carrying yet another corpse, a woman in an orange sarong who washed up early Friday and had been left on the roadside for three hours.
It is Fatemah’s sister-in-law. She weaves past the corpses on the floor and squats next to the body, gently removing sand clotted in her black hair.
Her husband Abdus Salam said a monsoon gale was kicking up enormous waves late Thursday as the boat veered dangerously along the Bangladesh coastline.
“The captain couldn’t steer the boat. He didn’t see the rock underneath the water and hit it,” he told Agence France-Presse.
The boat was smashed in two, tossing upwards of 100 people—mainly children—into the raging grey ocean, Salam said.
“I lost two children,” wailed Lal Miah, gesturing to a row of lifeless infants uncovered on the muddy concrete floor.
“My two others are still missing.”
Some washed ashore, but most did not. Locals stood horrified as the lifeless bodies of women and children were thrown ashore by pounding waves.
By morning, the high tide had churned out more victims but the vast majority remain missing, said coastguard commander Nasir Uddin, whose men found two dead boys early Friday and brought them to the school.
The UN migration agency said the death toll could pass 60, with 40 missing and presumed drowned.
As humidity rose, Bangladeshi women began preparing the bodies for Islamic burial, weeping as they carefully cut away clothing and washed the children before wrapping them in white shrouds.
As the wrapped bodies were laid out on an orange tarpaulin, one stood out as larger than the others—a heavily pregnant woman.
Police assistant inspector Chotan Chandra Das counted the bodies—12 children and eight women, he said—attaching post-it notes with identification details where possible.
As the wrapped remains were taken to a nearby clearing for burial rites, the body of a small boy, long drained of color, was rushed into the schoolyard.
Washed and prepared, he was laid alongside the others and blessed by an imam, who offered prayers as hundreds of local Muslims stood in silent rows, heads bowed. AFP