OKKAN, Myanmar // They slept terrified in the fields, watching their homes burn through the night. And when they returned yesterday, nothing was left but smouldering ash and debris.
One day after hundreds of rampaging Buddhists armed with bricks stormed a clutch of Muslim villages in the nearest outbreak of sectarian violence yet to Myanmar's main city, Yangon, newly displaced Muslims combed through the wasteland where their houses once stood, facing a suddenly uncertain future. Unable to go home, many were too fearful of more attacks to leave.
"We ran into the fields and didn't carry anything with us," said Hla Myint, 47, a father of eight, of the mobs who overran his village.
Tears welling in his eyes, he added: "Now, we have nothing left."
One of the 10 people injured in the assaults died overnight, said Thet Lwin, a deputy commissioner of police for the region. Police have so far detained 18 attackers who destroyed 157 homes and shops and at least two mosques in Okkan and three outlying villages, he said. Okkan is 95 kilometres north of Yangon.
The unrest was the first reported since late March, when similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila, farther north in central Myanmar, when at least 43 people were killed. It underscored the failure of the government of the reformist president, Thein Sein, to curb increasing attacks on minority Muslims in a nation struggling to emerge from half a century of oppressive military rule.
Muslim residents said a mixture of locals and outsiders were responsible for the attacks around Okkan. Police gave no details on who was behind the assault. But a local politician from the pro-government National Union party, Myint Thein, said that members of a Buddhist campaign called "969" were involved.
The movement, which urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims, is small but has spread rapidly in recent months, and human-rights activists say it has helped to fuel bloody anti-Muslim pogroms.
Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem - each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks - have been popping up on shops, taxis and buses in Yangon.
Hla Myint said that after the violence in March, residents of Okkan began conducting informal security patrols to protect the village. But nothing happened for weeks and authorities told them not to worry.
"Things happened unexpectedly," he said. "When the crowds came, they shouted things like: 'Don't defend yourselves, we will only destroy the mosque, not your homes, we won't harm you'."
They burnt the mosque in his village, and "they destroyed our houses" anyway, he said.
About 300 police stood guard yesterday in the area, which was quiet. The town's market was crowded, but Muslims were absent.
It was not immediately clear what would happen to the newly displaced in Okkan. Some were taking refuge in the few houses that were not razed; others simply sat under the shade of trees.
Several Muslims said that although they did not feel safe, they would not leave because they feared more attacks elsewhere. They also said they did not trust the police to protect them and wondered how they would survive and get food.
On Tuesday night, they spent the night in the open. Many could be seen late on Tuesday, crouching in paddy fields and sitting along roadsides. Some wept.
Khin Maung Than, 60, a Muslim in Okkan who is married to a Buddhist woman, said he recognised some of the attackers but many faces were unfamiliar.
The mobs smashed his shop, stealing watches, breaking glass, and leaving overturned lamps and furniture scattered across the floor.
He said he climbed to the roof to escape and then took refuge with Buddhist neighbours who hid him. Returning to the shop that doubles as his home, he said: "I am speechless. I have never experienced such riots in my life."