Myanmar’s ruling military group is overseeing evacuations from villages along the Rakhine coast, Burma’s state media reported Friday.
Thousands of people have fled Myanmar’s west coast as officials in neighboring Bangladesh scrambled to evacuate Rohingya refugees this Saturday as the strongest cyclone in the region in more than a decade battered the Bay of Bengal.
Cyclone Mocha has winds of up to 220 kilometers per hour, according to the Indian Meteorological Office, which is equivalent to a category four hurricane.
Mocha is expected to weaken before making landfall Sunday morning between Cox’s Bazar, where about a million Rohingya Muslim refugees live in camps filled largely with flimsy housing, and settle on Burma’s western Rakhine coast.
On Saturday, Sittwe residents packed their belongings and pets into cars, trucks and tuk-tuks and headed for higher ground, AFP correspondents said.
“Our grandmother is with us and we have to take care of her… There is only one man left in Sittwe to take care of our homes,” Khini Min told AFP from a truck loaded with his relatives on a road leading out of the state capital.
Shops and markets were closed in the town of about 150,000 people, with many locals taking refuge in monasteries.
For his part, Kyaw Tin, 40, said he could not leave the area because his son was in the hospital. He added, “I hope that this cyclone does not reach our state… I am worried that the impact of this cyclone on our state will be similar to that of Nargis,” referring to the storm that hit the country in 2008 and claimed the lives of more than 130,000 people in southern Myanmar.
Myanmar’s ruling military group is supervising evacuations from villages along the Rakhine coast, state media in Burma reported Friday. Myanmar Airways International said it had suspended all flights to Rakhine state on Monday. For its part, the Myanmar Red Cross Society announced that it was “preparing to respond to a major emergency.”
In neighboring Bangladesh, officials took action to evacuate Rohingya refugees from “dangerous areas” to community centers, while hundreds of people fled one of the country’s best resorts.
“Cyclone Mocha is the strongest storm since Cyclone Sidr,” Azizur Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, told AFP, which struck the southern coast of Bangladesh in November 2007, killing more than 3,000 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
The authorities in Bangladesh have prevented the Rohingya from building concrete houses, fearing that this will push them to settle in the country permanently instead of returning to Myanmar, from which they fled five years ago.
“We live in houses made of tarpaulin and bamboo,” said refugee Inam Ahmed, who lives in the Nayapara camp near the border town of Teknaf. “We are afraid. We do not know where to turn. We are in a state of panic,” he added.
Meteorologists expect that the hurricane will cause heavy rains that may lead to landslides. While most of the camps are built on hillsides, landslides are a common phenomenon in the area.
Mocha is also expected to unleash floods up to four meters high that could inundate low-lying coastal and riverine villages. Officials said thousands of volunteers were evacuating Rohingya from “dangerous areas” to more solid facilities such as schools. But Bangladesh’s deputy commissioner for refugees, Shamsud Doza, told AFP: “All Rohingya in the camps are at risk.”
“We are very concerned. We may be in danger if the water level rises,” said a camp official near Kyaukpyu in Rakhine State, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions from the military group. “There are about 1,000 people in the camp…the authorities only gave us sacks of rice, oil and five life jackets. The local authorities did not arrange any place for us,” he said.
“At least 6,000 people have been evacuated” to cyclone shelters on the island of St. Martin, which is considered one of the best resorts in the country, said Bengali official Aminur Rahman.
Disaster Management Minister Kamrul Hassan told AFP that Bangladesh was planning to evacuate “tens of thousands of people” from low-lying coastal areas expected to be hit by the storm.
“Katir left. It’s an island in the middle of the sea. We’ve been living in fear for days,” said Dilara Begum, a resident of St. Martin, who moved to Teknaf to wait out the storm.
Also, operations were suspended in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s largest seaport, with boat transport and fishing halted.