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Cyclone Hits Bangladesh, Destroying Huts Sheltering Rohingya Refugees

Bangladeshi villagers evacuate to cyclone shelters in Cox's Bazar district on Tuesday, as more than 350,000 people fled coastal villages to avoid Cyclone Mora.

Cyclone Mora has made landfall in Bangladesh, causing devastating damage at camps housing thousands of Rohingya refugees.

The storm was expected to create storm surges of 4 feet to 5 feet, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi.

Authorities had been bracing for an even more severe cyclone: "They had planned to evacuate one million people," Julie reports. "Fewer than half of that were reportedly moved to safer ground." She says 350,000 people were relocated ahead of the storm.

Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar were the hardest hit by the storm, Julie reports. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from that Muslim minority group have sought shelter in Bangladesh.

"Community leaders say that 10,000 thatched huts that sheltered the refugees have been destroyed," Julie says.

Reuters has more on the extent of the damage:

"Shamsul Alam, a Rohingya community leader, told Reuters that damage in the camps was severe ... 'Most of the temporary houses in the camps have been flattened,' Alam said.

"Omar Farukh, a community leader in Kutupalong camp, said conditions were dire: 'Now we're in the open air.' ...

"A U.N. official working with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh said the damage in the camps could not be assessed while the storm was raging.

" 'Heavily pregnant women have been evacuated but most people in areas like Balukhali and Kutupalong makeshift settlements have stayed,' said the official, who declined to be identified.

" 'The winds are strong and people there live in flimsy structures, so we're worried.' "

The flimsy huts that were demolished by Cyclone Mora were sheltering people who fled persecution in Myanmar and are constrained by strict rules in Bangladesh.

As Michael Sullivan reported for NPR last month, the Rohingya have been fleeing violence in Myanmar for decades. More recent refugees describe the Myanmar military using a program of widespread, systematic rape of Rohingya women as a "brutal form of collective punishment" after attacks by Rohingya millitants.

Bangladesh has offered the Rohingya "refuge, but not acceptance," as Sullivan put it.

"Myanmar's government doesn't consider the Rohingya to be citizens; it says they are immigrants from Bangladesh who are living in Myanmar illegally," he writes. "About 1 million Rohingya live in Rakhine state, and they are almost entirely disenfranchised and need permission, for instance, to travel outside their own villages or to marry. Many are restricted to living in internment camps, segregated from the local Buddhist population."

NPR's Ashley Westerman asked Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh about their hopes for the future. Many had difficulty answering the question, or even understanding it, despite interpreters' best efforts.

"I don't hope anything for me," one woman told Ashley.

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