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Life 'stopped in tracks' in Myanmar's Rakhine state: Red Cross

© AFP/File / by Nina LARSON | Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar crossing the Naf River on a makeshift raft made from jerrycans to Sabrang, Bangladesh, in November

GENEVA (AFP) - 

Rohingya Muslims remaining in Myanmar's Rakhine state and other communities in the violence-racked region are so terrified of each other that life has basically ground to a halt, the Red Cross said Wednesday.

More than 620,000 of Myanmar's Muslim minority have fled across the border to Bangladesh since late August, when the Myanmar army launched a sweeping crackdown on Rohingya rebels in northern Rakhine state.

The Red Cross, the only international aid organisation with broad access on the ground in Rakhine, estimates that only about 300,000 Rohingya remain in the entire state.

But Dominik Stillhart, director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the number should be taken with a "big pinch of salt" since a proper count has so far been impossible.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva after a three-day visit to the area, Stillhart said the situation in Rakhine appeared to have "stabilised", with few incidents of violence.

Yet people are continuing to flee, with around 300 still crossing the border each day, mainly because of fear and anxiety for the future, he said.

He said he was especially struck by a lack of people on the roads, in the markets and out in the fields.

"Life has stopped in its tracks... There are hardly any people moving around and you can really see that life has come to a halt," Stillhart said.

- 'Scale of destruction' -

While it was no surprise that the remaining Rohingya are living in fear, he said it was striking that Buddhist populations in neighbouring villages also appeared to be frightened.

"You really get a sense that both communities are deeply scared of each other," he said.

The United Nations has warned that abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar could amount to ethnic cleansing.

Stillhart refrained from commenting on the abuses, but did say he had personally seen several burned villages.

"You really see on both sides of the road, villages that are completely destroyed. It just gives you a bit of a sense of the scale of destruction," he said.

Meanwhile, Red Cross staff in the area had not seen many wounded people in the hospitals, and surprisingly few people appeared to have been rounded up and detained, he said.

"Apparently there wasn't a huge wave of people arrested. The wave is out to Bangladesh, and not into the detention centres."

Stillhart also said the area did not seem heavily militarised at the moment, and there was no indication troops or police were restricting people's movement.

Rather, it appeared that people were restricting their own movement, he said.

"People are deeply traumatised by what has happened and they are full of fear and anxiety," he said, emphasising the need for "a very clear message from the authorities that it is fine" to move about and that all communities "will be protected".

Until then, any large return movement from Bangladesh is unlikely.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation deal last month, but so far, Stillhart said, basically no Muslims have returned home.

There has been concern that Myanmar is planning to build camps to house returnees, as they did in central Rakhine state after a 2012 outbreak of violence.

More than 100,000 Rohingya have been trapped in those squalid camps ever since.

"One thing that we definitely don't wish to see is people being in camps," Stillhart said, saying the camps in central Rakhine were "clearly not a model to follow."

by Nina LARSON

© 2017 AFP