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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Rohingya refugee camps filled with story after story of misery and desperation

The camps in Bangladesh are home to orphans, widows, the parents of murdered children, the tortured, the raped — all homeless and hungry, with many sick and most having lost family members. Here they have only the most basic of living quarters, some still sleeping in the open air as heavy rains continue

Rohingya refugees line up to get food near the Balukhali refugees camp, close to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, on October 21, 2017. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
Rohingya refugees line up to get food near the Balukhali refugees camp, close to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, on October 21, 2017. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

The Rohingya women queuing patiently for food at the sprawling Kutapalong refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar are entirely confused as they attempt to follow the orders of soldiers and local volunteers overseeing the aid distribution.

“STAND up! Sit down! No. You. Stand up!”

And so they are all standing up and sitting down, then up and down again, as if taking part in some perversion of a children’s party game in which the prize is just enough food to stop their sons and daughters from starving to death.

Where to start in describing the desperation and misery inside these new cities of polythene shelters and mud that stretch as far as they eye can see? The orphans, the widows, the parents of murdered children, the tortured, the raped — all homeless and hungry, with many sick and most having lost family members. Here they have only the most basic of living quarters, some still sleeping in the open air as heavy rains continue.

The graphic accounts of killings and sexual assaults become numbing, incomprehensible in their brutality; one story after another. It is often only in the evenings, away from the camps, going over the day’s conversations, that the depravity of what is being perpetrated against this population fully sinks in to those working to bring aid or report on what is under way.

Most, if not all, new refugees are suffering some kind of trauma.

A Rohingya refugee man lies at his shelter in the Kutapalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on October 20, 2017. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
A Rohingya refugee man lies at his shelter in the Kutapalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on October 20, 2017. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

“Every person I’ve spoken to has lost at least one person,” said a Spanish medical team worker at one of the border crossings where refugees have been arriving.

But it is the smaller realities that choke one’s throat into silence during the days. The confusion and distress of the women as they try to follow orders merely to get food is awful to witness.

The people being ordered about have not committed some terrible crime. They are not in this position because of some natural disaster that has levelled all. They are here because they were born to the wrong group of people at the wrong time and because years of oppression exacted on them for their ethnicity and religion finally culminated this August in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that is still going on.

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It is not safe in the camp. There is disease, desperate living conditions, and constant hunger. But it is so much safer than where the refugees came from.

The scenes at the food queue were miserable, but not violent. Despite the challenges of dealing with such a vast and sudden influx of people, the Bangladeshi military — keeping some kind of order in the camps to which around 600,000 Rohingya have fled in just two months — generally appears to be doing a good job. The soldiers here show far more compassion to the beleaguered new arrivals than the Rohingya ever received in Myanmar.

An impressive new Red Cross tented field hospital that covers the area of two football fields and includes an operating theatre has just opened up. Some safe spaces are being established for women and children, clean water and food is being distributed to as many as possible. From the United Nations to local Bangladeshi mosque groups, people are trying to help. But it is not enough. Not nearly enough.

The shelters and the facilities here are literally held together with string. Everywhere, people are slipping through the cracks. The number of refugees who have arrived in the past two months now exceeds the population of many European capital cities and, even where help is available, many people — who are severely traumatised and coming from remote communities with little or no education — do not understand how to access it.

One young mother who had just arrived said she gave birth in the jungle while fleeing military attacks. She sustained a head injury and dropped her 10-day-old baby after falling while being chased by people from a village she passed through. She was starving and had no milk to feed her baby, so gave him oatmeal and hot water donated by someone in the camp. She was carrying him in an orange plastic stationery tray. He was clearly very sick.

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Wild elephants kill four Rohingya in Bangladesh camp

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There is a small Unicef clinic in the camp, still being erected but open and staffed, just one minute’s walk from where she was speaking. But the woman was fearful and said she could not go without her husband although she had no idea where he is.

It is a reflection of what is unfolding in Myanmar that her's was one of the less-horrific stories told to The National at the camp. Her baby was at least still alive — for now. And there were countless others equally or more vulnerable to the chaos around them, particularly children who arrive alone, or without close relatives to care for them.

A 12-year-old girl sat watching quietly as another young mother was interviewed. Eventually, she came forward to tell how she watched her father be blown up by a landmine as they fled their home about two weeks ago. Her mother died years ago, and now she’s an orphan.

The only person she has to take care of her is the bachelor uncle of her father’s second wife — not even a blood relative. She appeared to still be in shock as she looked imploringly for someone to help make things better.

Save the Children has facilities that offer support to unaccompanied children in the camps. Such services are vital. But the reality is, for this little girl and hundreds of thousands of others, things are unlikely to get much better for a long, long time.