Five days after powerful Cyclone Mocha ripped through the Bay of Bengal, bodies of Rohingya Muslims are piling up in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, families and aid agencies have said.
The country's military government said the death toll had surpassed 145, but residents say it is much higher.
Thousands of Rohingya, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, live in squalid camps for the displaced and impoverished villages near the port town of Sittwe.
The region has been rocked by decades of ethnic conflict, with the country’s Buddhist majority accused of carrying out armed attacks and serious human rights breaches against the Rohingya..
Cyclone Mocha made landfall near Sittwe in Rakhine state on May 14, whipping up heavy rains and wind speeds of up to 209kph in Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh.
One of the strongest cyclones in a decade, Mocha wreaked havoc in the port town destroying bridges, uprooting trees and tearing roofs off buildings.
Thousands of flimsy Rohingya shelters were washed away.
“It is like someone dropped a bomb on us from above. Ninety per cent of the houses are flattened,” Sadak Hussein, 28, a Rohingya, told The National.
“We are digging graves with our own hands. I myself have counted more than 400 bodies in the first two days,” said Mr Hussein, a resident of DarPain village.
Hundreds of people are feared dead Myanmar’s military government initially said seven had been killed and later raised the number.
“Altogether 145 local people were killed during the cyclone,” the junta said on Friday. It said the victims included four soldiers, 24 locals and 117 “Bengalis”, a term used by the government for the Rohingya
Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya Muslims as an ethnic group and categorises them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Rohingya are denied citizenship and have no access to education and public health in the country.
In 2017, a deadly crackdown by Myanmar's army forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Evidence of mass murder, rape and violence was found, in what the UN called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
The cyclone caused damage in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar but no casualties were reported.
Children and pregnant women among the dead
Mr Hussein said the impact of the storm was devastating on a community already living in appalling conditions and without freedom of movement.
“I cannot even describe what I saw after the cyclone. I counted 83 bodies, mostly of children, on the first day,” the father of two said, bursting into tears over the phone.
“I pulled out dead bodies one after the other from the paddy fields. There were children and pregnant women trapped under trees,” he said, describing the harrowing scenes of death and destruction unleashed by the cyclone in the Rohingya villages and displacement camps.
He said a group of 10 young men have been documenting the death toll by visiting villages on the outskirts of Sittwe. “I am an eyewitness myself. In Basara, we counted 50 dead bodies. In Bogadip, we counted 110. In my village, there are at least 200 dead. In Futiladil, 50 and so on.”
Mr Hussein said his brother and a female cousin were among the thousands missing.
“People are left with no food or water. We are surviving by eating dead cattle. We cooked the meat of a cow killed by the storm and that is the only food my family has so far,” said Mr Hussein.
Brad Hazlett, President of Partners Relief and Development, an international aid agency, told The National that they estimate the death toll to be in the hundreds.
“We expect the death toll to rise in the coming days. Thousands of shelters made of bamboo got destroyed,” he said.
Aid has yet to come
The affected families are facing a nightmarish situation with ponds and rivers in Rakhine filled with salty water, according to residents. There is no power supply and a communication blackout has worsened the problem.
Shahida Bibi, 52, told The National that she has lost everything in the cyclone.
“I just have this pair of clothes that I am wearing. My daughter has gone missing. My house is destroyed. How will I live?”
Another Rohingya from BoGaDip, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, said his two sons were missing and he had not received any help.
“No aid has reached us,” he said. “My family is starving. Are Rohingya destined to die like worms?”
The UN estimates that more than 5.4 million people were in the path of the cyclone in Rakhine and that 3.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Mr Hazlett said one of the biggest challenges aid agencies face in Rakhine is lack of access to the affected areas.
“The reality is access is difficult. The authorities are restricting access,” he said.
“We are working with our local partners and sending essential relief materials.
“The situation is dire and fatalities are climbing. The cyclone has caused unprecedented destruction on a people who have nothing to begin with.”
Many aid agencies said communication failures caused by the destruction of mobile phone towers, government restrictions and infrastructure damage were affecting relief work.
UN agencies say they are still waiting for access to the affected areas in Rakhine.
"We are very concerned by local reports of deaths and of people missing in different villages and areas. Unrestricted access for coordinated field missions to distribute assistance based on observed needs has been requested, and we are awaiting formal approvals," Reuben Lim, Communications officer for UNHCR told The National.
"In the meantime, we understand humanitarian assistance has begun reaching people affected by cyclone Mocha in Myanmar’s Rakhine State." he added.
“The bureaucratic access constraints are affecting all partners, including the UN and NGOs,” Pierre Peron, the regional public information officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was quoted by CNN.
“To deliver, we will need access to affected people, relaxation of travel authorisation requirements and expedited customs clearances for commodities.”
Human Rights Watch has demanded that the junta lift all blocks on life-saving aid delivery.
“In the longer term, they should be charting a path towards holding Myanmar’s military to account for the oppressive conditions that left Rohingya trapped and exposed in the eye of the storm,” said the organisation.
'Genocide without bullets'
Myanmar’s pro-democracy National Unity Government has accused the junta of failing to relocate the Rohingya from the IDP camps to safer places, causing the death of hundreds.
Aung Kyaw Moe, human rights adviser to the shadow government told The National that the cyclone provided just another way of persecuting the Rohingya.
“It is a genocide without bullets and violence.”
He said the effects of the cyclone were so severe that many people were still at high risk of starvation.
“There is no food or clean water. People are surviving by drinking coconut water. The roads and infrastructure are destroyed, and without aid, people are starving. There is no flow of communication. The situation is so dire that 90 per cent of the shelters are destroyed.”
He said the world should put pressure on the junta and stop the cycle of impunity.
“The cycle of violence continues under the junta. The world has failed us again in the face of a natural disaster,” said Mr Moe.