For generations, Rohingya Muslims have called Myanmar home. Now, in what appears to be a systematic purge, they are, quite literally, being wiped off the map, reports AP.
After a series of attacks by Muslim militants last month, security forces and allied mobs retaliated by burning down thousands of homes in the enclaves of the predominantly Buddhist nation where the Rohingya live.
That has sent some 417,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh, according to UN estimates.There they have joined tens of thousands of others who have fled over the past year.
And they are still leaving, piling into wooden boats that take them to sprawling, monsoon-drenched refugee camps in Bangladesh. Decried as ethnic cleansing by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, few believe they will ever be welcomed back to Myanmar.
"This is the worst crisis in Rohingya history," said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which works to improve conditions for the ethnic minority, citing the monumental size and speed of the exodus. "Security forces have been burning villages one by one, in a very systematic way. And it's still ongoing."
The Arakan Project has found that almost every tract of villages in Maungdaw township suffered some burning, and that all of Maungdaw has been almost completely abandoned by Rohingya.
Of the 21 Rohingya villages in Rathedaung, to the north, only five were not targeted. Three camps for Rohingya who were displaced in communal riots five years ago also were torched.
Buthidaung, to the east, so far has been largely spared. It is the only township where security operations appear limited to areas where attacks by Rohingya militants, which triggered the ongoing crackdown, occurred.
The Rohingya have had a long and troubled history in Myanmar, where many in the country's 60 million people look on them with disdain.
Though members of the ethnic minority first arrived generations ago, they were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food or education.
The UN has labeled the Rohingya one of the world's most persecuted religious minorities.
In Rakhine, they had land for farming and a small shop. Now they have nothing.
This is not the first time the Rohingya have fled en masse.
Hundreds of thousands left in 1978 and again in the early 1990s, fleeing military and government oppression, though policies were later put in place that allowed many to return. Communal violence in 2012, as the country was transitioning from a half-century of dictatorship to democracy, sent another 100,000 fleeing by boat. Some 120,000 remain trapped in camps under apartheid-like conditions outside Rakhine's capital, Sittwe.
But no exodus has been as massive and swift as the one taking place now.
The military crackdown came in retaliation for a series of coordinated attacks by Rohingya militants led by Attaullah Abu Ammar Jununi, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.
Last October, the militants struck police posts, killing several officers and triggering a brutal military response that sent 87,000 Rohingya fleeing. Then on Aug. 25, a day after a state-appointed commission of inquiry headed by former UN chief Kofi Annan released a report about the earlier bloodshed, the militants struck again.