Beyond the border
Inspired by The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, one British woman is defying the Burmese military regime to bring hope to the world's most forgotten Muslim children. Nick Ryan talks to the charity worker Rachel Bentley a week before the Burmese election
'We met her on the second day. Her husband had been badly beaten by the military as they were forced back across the border. She'd lost her week-old baby."
Rachel Bentley, a 42-year-old Briton who runs an international charity called Children on the Edge, turns to the photographs, focusing on a young woman with careworn features.
She then flicks to another picture on her laptop, this time revealing a sprawling, makeshift camp spreading over a lumpy landscape of mud and stunted trees.
"That's a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar district, in southern Bangladesh. Home to the Rohingya, Burmese Muslims who can neither marry, nor lead safe lives, inside Burma. They flee to Bangladesh, where they face an equally uncertain future."
Bentley, speaking softly from her office in Chichester, in south-east England, looks over the sea of shacks and children's faces, then sighs.
"Since October 2009, the camp has grown by 6,000 people, with 2,000 of these arriving in January 2010 alone. It's grown by a quarter in just those few months, to around 30,000 people. With the Burmese elections coming on November 7, we expect thousands more to flee into neighbouring countries.
"Meanwhile," she adds, "the refugees are trying to eke out a living as best they can and give the children what little schooling they can afford. But for how long? They don't belong - neither in Burma or in Bangladesh. It's a tragedy that few in the world know."
But it is such tragedies that Bentley fights against on a daily basis.
Her struggle began in 1990, just a few months after the Berlin Wall had tumbled, when she started a journey that would change her life and the lives of thousands of the world's most vulnerable children.
"Everything was changing," Bentley remembers. "For the first time we were seeing these awful images of orphaned children, abandoned, hungry and helpless, held in terrible conditions inside state institutions."
Bentley was a 22-year-old law graduate when she joined The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and a small group of volunteers on a momentous aid trip to Romania.
"The Body Shop had never done anything like this before," she says. "It was Anita's vision to put together a team to go and help refurbish the orphanages."
She adds: "We slept on the floor of a clinic in rural Romania; myself, a friend and Anita and her two daughters. Anita was very motherly." Bentley smiles. "She would go down to the market every morning and just cook up this wonderful Italian food for us and the kids."
Twenty years later Roddick is no longer alive (she died of a brain haemorrhage in 2007) but Bentley has taken up her mantle. Children on the Edge, the charity that Bentley helped to shape and now heads, was born out of that first, desperate Romanian trip.
Still with strong links to The Body Shop, Children on the Edge has gone on to help vulnerable children across Eastern Europe as well as in Asia. It helped ravaged Indonesian communities cope after the Boxing Day tsunami, built schools for the blind in Bosnia, and developed "child friendly spaces" (special community centres) in East Timor.
Without Children on the Edge's help, many of these youngsters and their families would never get an education, a safe place to play or a chance to recuperate from trauma.
"Ultimately it comes down to our name: Children on the Edge," says Bentley. "We can go in, under the radar in many cases, and help extremely marginalised children."
Indeed, there are dozens of Romanian orphans who have grown up, succeeded and owe their education and livelihoods to her.
"For me, that's the reward," Bentley says.
Born near Birmingham, England, Bentley moved with her family to the island of Fiji when she was just two. She then spent the next 10 years on the South Seas island while her father worked as an engineer for an international development agency.
"I grew up running around barefoot," she says, smiling. "I was really at ease with different cultures from a very young age."
At nine she went to an international school, and the family returned to Britain two years later. It meant an adjustment for a girl used to running barefoot on beaches and mingling in the Pacific sun with children of all races.
But instead of a quiet life in the beautiful Sussex countryside, it was to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma and run by one of the world's most repressive military regimes, that Bentley became drawn.
The south-east Asian country is ruled by one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world, headed by Snr-Gen Than Shwe. In 1990, the military junta refused to hand power to the democratically elected National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, imprisoned, tortured or forced into slavery since. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled to Thailand, India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Gulf states.
bentley says she went to the Burmese-Thai border area (where more than 100,000 Burmese have settled) in 2006 to simply meet as many groups as she could.
"Everywhere I travel I meet vulnerable children," she says. "Those who've lost out to war, famine, natural disaster... In Burma, there are thousands of them in state institutions. We wanted to operate inside the country, to help those children but our hands were tied by the dictatorship there.
"Once the refugees get to places like Bangladesh or other nearby countries, they're regarded as illegal immigrants, unable to work, treated as slave labour, threatened with detention or, like the women we met, often violently expelled.
"And of course it's the children who suffer the most. There's really no life... no life at all," Bentley repeats, shaking her head.
Then the flicker of a smile returns as she remembers the children from the refugee camp in Bangladesh whom she met last year.
"They are Rohingya," she says, pointing to the images on her laptop screen. "Burmese Muslims. One of the world's last great stateless nations."
Bentley, who is single and childless herself, is one of the few western women to visit the Rohingya. She has spent the past three years travelling to the Burmese region and has supported basic "apartment schools" in Malaysia and refugee schools in Thailand for Burmese Christian refugees.
Moreover, she has risked reprisals from the Burmese generals by entering the country with teaching materials and giving stipends to groups that run children's nurseries.
The conditions in the camps are some of the worst she has seen. "It's become very bad. Squalid. When I spoke to the children and the mothers, I could see the fear in their eyes. They used to live alongside the Bangladeshis in their villages. Now, they're being forced to move to these camps, and live in terror of being sent back."
Most people have never heard of the Rohingya, she says. Last year boatloads of these refugees were intercepted at sea by the Thai army. After days in outdoor detention they were towed back out, then abandoned with no food or water and no motors to power their boats. More than 500 men, women and children died.
Several other aid organisations warn of starvation and beatings facing the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
"People are crowding into a crammed and unsanitary patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them," the aid organisation Médicins Sans Frontières recently reported. "Prevented from working to support themselves, neither are they permitted food aid. As the numbers swell and resources become increasingly scarce, we are extremely concerned about the crisis."
An organisation called Physicians for Human Rights has observed children with severe protein malnutrition and those with swollen limbs and often distended abdomens. One out of five children with acute malnutrition, if not treated, would die, the medical teams concluded.
Bentley is now working to support local non-governmental organisations dealing with thousands of refugees pouring over the Burmese border into northern Thailand. "That's a priority," she says, her eyes set on next week's Burmese general election and the repression she and other aid workers expect to be unleashed on the civilian population.
What continues to inspire her work, though, in the face of such odds?
"I became a Christian about 15 or 16," she says. "It was about the same time as the whole Bob Geldof [Live Aid music] movement and the Ethiopian famine was happening. I wanted to dedicate my life to human rights."
These days, Bentley does not need an outside mentor to continue her work.
"I go wherever there are marginalised and oppressed people. That motivates me to do something. For the outsider, the person on the edge. When you know you can bring certain change, that's what I do."
Updated: October 30, 2010 04:00 AM