NAYAPARA REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (AP) — Abdul Goni says the Myanmar government was starving his family one stage at a time.
First, soldiers stopped the Rohingya Muslim from walking three hours to the forest for the firewood he sold to feed his family. Then Buddhist neighbors and seven soldiers took his only cow, which he rented out to fertilize rice fields. Next, he says, they killed his uncle and strung him up on a wire for trying to stop the theft of his buffalos.
By the time Goni saw bodies floating down the local river, of fellow Rohingya killed for illegal fishing, he knew his family would die if they didn't leave. On bad days, they carved the flesh out of banana plant stalks for food. On the worst days, his children ate nothing.
"I felt so sorry that I couldn't give them enough food," the 25-year-old says, tears running down his face, in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, just across the border from Myanmar. "They used to tell us, 'This isn't your land. ... We'll starve you out.'"
First, massacres, rapes and the wholesale destruction of villages by the Myanmar military in western Rakhine state forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, in reprisal for Rohingya militant attacks on Aug. 25. Now, the food supply appears to be another weapon being used against the dwindling numbers of Rohingya in Myanmar.
The accounts of hunger could not be independently confirmed, as Myanmar's government does not allow reporters into the northern part of Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya lived. However, more than a dozen interviews by The Associated Press with the most recent refugees show growing desperation, as the noose tightens around their communities in what U.N. officials have said may be a genocide. The U.N. and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have also warned of increasing hunger among the Rohingya in areas where conflict and displacement have been most rampant.
Repeated calls to Myanmar's military weren't answered, but the Myanmar government denies ethnic cleansing and says it is battling terrorists. Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye says the government has been distributing food aid to as many people as possible.
"There are many ways that we have been reaching out to villagers frequently," he says. "And that's why it's not possible that there are people who are completely cut off from food or facing hunger."
The Rohingya Muslims, who have been loathed by Myanmar's Buddhist majority for decades, are locked down in their villages — sometimes even in their homes — and prevented from farming, fishing, foraging, trade and work. In other words, they can no longer do what they need to do to eat. While restrictions on freedom of movement and access to food have long been in place, they have tightened dramatically in recent weeks, the AP interviews show.
"It was worse than a jail," says Goni, who finally left Hpa Yon Chaung village in Buthidaung township on Jan. 5. "People at least get food twice a day in jail."
The hunger the Rohingya faced at home is evident when they come to the Bangladesh camps, where new refugees, especially children and women, suffer from "unbelievable" levels of malnutrition, according to Dr. Ismail Mehr.
"They are definitely coming in starving," says Mehr, who recently returned to the United States from treating refugees in the camps. "We saw the vitamin deficiencies in the children and the adults; we saw ... severely malnourished people who are basically skin and bones. It looked like the pictures from the Nazi camps."
The government's restrictions on access to northern Rakhine makes it almost impossible to tell how many people are without food, how widespread the problem is or whether people are dying. The International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Yangon, says since the end of August it has distributed food to more than 180,000 people in northern Rakhine state.
The people AP interviewed were mostly from Buthidaung township, where many day laborers, farmers and foragers were hit hard when the restrictions tightened, and Rathedaung township, where the impoverished Muslim communities are often encircled by Buddhists.
Activists, aid groups and researchers say Myanmar squeezed the Rohingya by severely hampering many of the humanitarian operations that were crucial for their survival. Food aid was further disrupted by violence in 2016 and the bloodshed last year, after Rohingya insurgents staged an unprecedented wave of 30 attacks on security posts across Rakhine state in August and killed at least 14 people.
In a report released today, Amnesty International details evidence of forced starvation by the military, including stopping the Rohingya from harvesting their rice fields in November and December. The Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the lack of access to food and fuel are adding to hunger in Myanmar.
Mohammad Ilyas, 55, fled to Bangladesh with only a shirt and a lungi sarong, along with dozens of others from Rathedaung township. He says the military and his neighbors took Rohingya rice paddies and rice stockpiles.
"Sometimes we stayed hungry for a day, two days, even five days," Ilyas, who is from Ah Nauk Pyin village, says. "The Myanmar government doesn't want a single Muslim to remain there. They want to erase us completely."
Goni says that of the 500 families who lived near him, around 150 have fled to Bangladesh. Everyone else wants to leave, he said, but they either don't have enough money or are too old.
"Some families have enough food because they stockpiled rice, but that can't last forever," he says. "If they can't get to Bangladesh, and they run out of rice, the only option is death."
Video journalist Rishabh Jain contributed to this story.
Foster Klug has covered Asia for the AP since 2005. Follow at www.twitter.com/apklug