Hundreds of people are feared to have died after a powerful cyclone hit Myanmar on Sunday, with rescue groups warning of “a large scale loss of life” following one of the strongest storms to ever hit the country.
Cyclone Mocha barreled into Myanmar’s coast on Sunday, collapsing houses, felling trees, bringing down telephone poles and severely compromising communication lines in conflict-racked Rakhine state, home to hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Myanmar’s shadow government on Tuesday said that at least 400 people have been killed and an unspecified number of people are still missing. CNN cannot independently verify that figure, which stands in contrast to an earlier report by the military junta’s Myawaddy TV, which said the official death toll stands at three people, with 13 others injured.
But sources speaking to CNN said many of the bodies of Rohingya victims, who are Muslims, have already been buried per “religious customs.”
“I can’t control my tears,” said Aung Zaw Hein, a resident of Rakhine state’s capital city Sittwe, who told CNN that he had seen the bodies of children, and elderly and pregnant women lying on the ground after the cyclone.
“People are having a very hard time … because they don’t have food, they don’t have a place to lay down,” he added. “The people become homeless, shelterless, some people even become powerless. The same situation has repeated again in our life for the Rohingya people.”
Aung Zaw Hein also said he had performed Islamic funeral prayers for eight victims
Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing visited Sittwe to assess damage and deliver donations to its residents, state media MRTV reported on Monday.
‘A large-scale loss of life in the camps’
Largely impoverished and isolated, Rakhine has in recent years been the site of widespread political violence.
Nearly a million stateless Rohingya members of the persecuted Muslim minority group have crossed into neighboring Bangladesh since 2017, fleeing a brutal and bloody crackdown by Myanmar’s junta.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya remain in Rakhine, mostly confined to camps where authorities place strict controls on their movement.
It is in these poorly constructed camps that aid agencies fear Cyclone Mocha has hit the hardest.
There has been “a large-scale loss of life in the camps,” said Brad Hazlett, president of the non-government organization, Partners Relief and Development.
“We are unable to say an exact number, but know of one small village we have connected with today where we have provided toilets and hand water pumps in the last year. That village was totally destroyed by the cyclone and at least 20 people have lost their life there,” he said.
He added that fatality numbers shared online vary significantly and his organization was unable to give a precise breakdown for now – but they expect the number of casualties to rise.
“During this time, the phone network remains unstable, the roads are blocked and at least one concrete bridge was washed away so confirming the numbers is challenging,” Hazlett said. “We have heard that many people remain missing or may be under the destroyed shelters.”
People living in refugee camps in Sittwe drowned in floods unleashed by the cyclone, wrote the National Unity Government (NUG) in a situation report Tuesday, with NUG Rohingya advisor, Aung Kyaw Moe, tweeting that the number of deaths in Sittwe alone stood at 400.
NUG consists of a group of ousted lawmakers, opponents of the coup and representatives of ethnic minority group that seeks to gain recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar. It operates undercover or through members based abroad.
Another group, the Arakan Civil Society Organization Network (or Arakan CSO Network), told CNN they have undertaken rescue efforts in the northern part of Rakhine state, and that some 400 people died in a “Muslim” camp in Sittwe, including many children.
Video showed wind gusts over 200 kilometers per hour (195 mph) roiling Sittwe, flattening homes in some areas and leaving bamboo and other wood debris dangerously strewn across villages.
Additionally, torrential rains caused landslides in towns in Myanmar’s western Chin state causing the destruction of buildings and homes, according to the NUG.
The NUG also said that communications have been interrupted or are down in cyclone-hit areas and that casualty figures are “very likely to increase.”
It added that roofing material, especially tarpaulins, are needed for some 500,000 households, and that emergency food and drinking water is urgently needed for about one million people in Northern Rakhine state.
“It is crucial to provide humanitarian assistance in the most devastated areas such as Rakhine state, Sagaing, Magway and Chin State as soon as possible,” it wrote in the report, which included before and after satellite imagery of hard-hit areas.
The shadow government also said some 32,300 acres of farmland has been flooded with extensive destruction of crops in towns across Sagaing and in Magway.
“It is estimated that over 90% has been destroyed in (11) Townships in the entire Rakhine State by the cyclone.”
As Cyclone Mocha built up power in the Bay of Bengal last week, the UN’s humanitarian office (OCHA) warned that about 6 million people in the region were already in need of humanitarian assistance, among them 1.2 million people internally displaced by ethnic conflict, Reuters reported.
Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a 2022 coup, view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya counter that they have lived in Rakhine for generations.
An estimated 1 million Rohingya now live in what many consider to be the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh after fleeing a brutal campaign of killing and arson by the Myanmar military.
At one point Cyclone Mocha had been predicted to hit the camp but it was spared a direct hit with the storm making landfall further down the coast.
An estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine, according to Human Rights Watch, and are “subject to government persecution and violence, confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, and cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods.”
The last storm to make landfall in Myanmar with a similar strength was Cyclone Giri in October 2010. Giri caused more than 150 fatalities and roughly 70% of the city of Kyaukphyu was destroyed. According to the UN, roughly 15,000 homes were destroyed in Rakhine state during that storm.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis carved a swathe of destruction through Myanmar’s low lying Irrawaddy Delta, killing nearly 140,000 people.