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, although there were conflicting reports from leaders about exactly how many. Myanmar’s 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.
Although the damage from the powerful storm was not as severe as predicted, there were still hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees left homeless, along with reports of people stranded and having to wade through storm debris to get home.
Damage in Myanmar was mostly confined to Rakhine state, Chin state and other areas in the west, officials and aid workers said.
Ko Myo Khaing, an emergency worker in the town of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, said two people were reported dead in her area.
“At least 90 percent of Sittwe was destroyed by the storm,” she said. “Power is still out and phone lines are down. The number of people affected is unknown due to communication difficulties.”
Khaing Thu Kha, spokesman for the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, said food collected for the emergency was damaged by the rain and that although 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 the neighboring countries, including the United Nations, to help,” the spokesman said.
In Chin state, where telephone and internet lines have been cut since Myanmar’s generals staged a coup in February 2021, communications were briefly restored just before the cyclone hit. But it wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t have enough time to tell people to evacuate,” said Salai Mang Hre Lian, program manager for the Chin Human Rights Organization.
While there were no immediate reports of deaths 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 return to their homes . The transports were jarring; travelers had to brave military patrols and unexploded ordinances, along with the effects of the storm itself. These conditions also made it difficult to deliver relief supplies.
Before the cyclone made landfall, strong winds and rain tore through the tarpaulin and bamboo shacks of the Rohingya refugees living in dilapidated camps along Bangladesh’s coast. More than a million Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Rakhine state, and are now living in the world’s largest camp.
The storm made landfall on Sunday afternoon in the coastal area around Cox’s Bazar, right on Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. At that time, there were packing winds of up to 155 miles per hour, according to estimates from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center shortly before landfall.
Videos posted on social media showed men and women wading in water and surrounded by broken power poles, blown-out brick roofs, pieces of billboards and crumpled sheet metal.
In Bangladesh, where no deaths were immediately reported, about 3,000 Rohingya shelters were damaged by the cyclone, with some completely destroyed, officials said. The Office of the Bangladesh Refugee Commissioner reported that 32 learning centers and 29 mosques were damaged.
The refugee camps, which stretch across rolling, muddy terrain, were hit by 120 landslides during the storm, and at least 5,300 refugees were moved to safer places. 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 as of Sunday night, according to the Bangladeshi government.
In the Cox’s Bazar area, 25-year-old Arefa, who goes by one name and lives with her husband and two children, aged 6 and 4, described in horror how the storm brought down a tree on her bamboo and plastic shack. The family escaped unharmed and took refuge in the home of a community leader.
“I was laying on the floor of someone’s home with my kids next to me and I thought, ‘Are we going to go on like this for the rest of our lives?'” she said, her voice shaking.
A series of fires and floods has ravaged the Rohingya camps for the past six years, but Arefa’s shanty had been damaged only once before – two years ago, when another storm blew off its tarpaulin roof. 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 have to start all over again. She returned to her battered shanty this morning, she said, to find that someone had stolen the LPG cylinder. “We want to go home to Myanmar, but there is no hope of that happening soon,” she said. “My two children, I see no future for them.”
Judson Jones contributed reporting.