Hundreds feared dead after Cyclone Mocha hits western Myanmar’s Rohingya IDP camps

Hundreds of people are missing and feared dead following flooding in Rohingya internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps around Sittwe, Rakhine State, after Cyclone Mocha made landfall on the coast on Sunday afternoon. 

Sources who spoke to Myanmar Now confirmed that they had seen more than 20 bodies of storm victims, residents of Thet Kay Pyin and Dah Paing IDP camps. Others who are unaccounted for are from camps in Sanpya, Ohn Taw Gyi, Baw Du Ba and Bayda villages, all located along the shores of the Bay of Bengal, an area hit by winds of around 130 miles per hour. 

Bright Islam, a resident of Thet Kay Pyin, told Myanmar Now that he witnessed 15 bodies being held in a relief centre in Dah Paing and five in his own camp. 

“That’s what I can confirm right now. Many of them were children. There were elderly women as well,” he said, noting that others he knew had reported further casualties.

Several witnesses reportedly saw dead bodies from the coastal villages floating in the floodwaters during the storm. Phone services were disrupted as a result of Cyclone Mocha, making it difficult to reach sources on the ground and confirm further figures. 

Humanitarian aid needs in the camps were high, Bright Islam added, since food rations for the displaced Rohingya community were lost in the floods and survivors were in need of medical care.

“Some of the victims were very severely injured and have still not been treated,” he said. 

Zaw Thiha, a 24-year-old resident of Bu May village near Sittwe’s airport, said he had found two bodies suspended from a fence, belonging to young men believed to be teenagers. Locals buried them in accordance with Islamic practices.

“They were caught in the fence of the airport but we couldn’t determine their ages,” he said. “We prayed in the way of their faith, and gave them a burial.”

A 60-year-old Rohingya woman named Raweimiah told Myanmar Now that at least eight people, including a one-and-a-half-year old infant, drowned to death in Unit 17 of the Basare camp, which hosts around 2,500 IDPs. Only five of the adults—three women and two men—have been identified so far: Shuna Miah, 50; Banu, 65; Shawshida, 25; Abdul Gawni, 40; and Mazura, 45. 

Raweimiah, who helped with the victims’ burials, said that the infant was killed on Sunday when the cyclone made landfall in Sittwe. The adults’ time of death was not confirmed at the time of reporting.

Raweimiah (right), the woman who helped to bury some of the cyclone victims, said on May 16 that at least eight people, including an infant, from Unit 17 of the Basare IDP camp were killed when the site flooded (Myanmar Now)

Junta-controlled media reported on Monday that the cyclone had caused three deaths in total. 

Myanmar army soldiers warned the thousands of Rohingya residents of the coastal camps to evacuate on Saturday evening, the night before the cyclone was expected to hit, but did not facilitate their exit, according to locals.

Without sufficient support or transportation out of the area, most were unable to leave. 

People look for their belongings amid debris at a Rohingya IDP camp near Sittwe, on May 15, 2023, after Cyclone Mocha made landfall (Supplied)

Another resident of Thet Kay Pyin who has been helping the IDPs told Myanmar Now that only pregnant women, children and the elderly were moved to three sites considered to be safer—Sittwe University, a technical school, and another school in the same village as the camp. 

“There were also some people who didn’t want to come even when we asked them to, opting to wait and move later when things got worse,” the resident explained. 

A Sittwe-based journalist familiar with the area’s Rohingya IDP camps confirmed that junta forces had tried to pressure residents to leave, but noted that they were reluctant to join the troops—members of the same military that initially forced them from their homes and into makeshift camps years before. 

The journalist described the soldiers’ efforts as a publicity stunt. 

“The military pretended to evacuate people and took photos of themselves loading the IDPs into trucks,” he explained. “They were heavily armed and there were many of them. But they didn’t provide any real help, nor did they provide people in the camps with necessary information regarding the incoming storm. They just took photos.” 

International humanitarian organisations reportedly requested—and were subsequently denied—permission from the junta to provide “cyclone education” to the Rohingya IDPs, the Thet Kay Pyin volunteer said. 

“Even NGOs couldn’t provide any help because the military council didn’t allow them to,” he added.

A flash update issued on Monday by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the agency was still awaiting permission to reach the affected areas. 

It said that OCHA and its partners were preparing to carry out “rapid needs assessments,” starting on Tuesday “to confirm the impact of the cyclone and people’s needs.”

“Access requests for assessments have been presubmitted and hundreds of trained partners are standing by, ready to deploy across the affected areas once given access,” the update said, noting that they were still waiting on travel authorisation and customs clearance for supplies.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Myanmar Now on Tuesday afternoon that the agency was “saddened by emerging reports of deaths” following the cyclone.

“Based on preliminary information, deaths by drowning have been reported in displacement camps with many others missing,” UNHCR public information officer Reuben Lim said, adding they were “attempting to conduct assessments” at the sites “to get a clearer picture of the situation.” 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on the afternoon of May 16 to include the UNHCR spokesperson’s comments and in the evening to add information about the victims in Basare camp.

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