A report from the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh
ON A BLOODSTAINED MATTRESS in a corner of the packed four-bed ‘Rohingya ward’ of Cox’s Bazar’s General Hospital in southeast Bangladesh lie 41-year-old Dildar Begum and her 12-year-old daughter Noor Kalima. Their heads dressed in bandages, they look about restlessly. The mother stops me as soon as I attempt to talk to her. “Do you have any food? I don’t know what to do. It’s 3 pm and they have not given us lunch yet,” she says, staring at the floor, trying hard to fight the tears. I open my bag and give her two packets of biscuits that I had stored for the long drives to the Rohingya camps scattered across Ukhia upazila, around 40 km away from Cox’s Bazar, a coastal city that serves as the country’s tourism capital. She gives one to her daughter and keeps one for herself. “We are not beggars, you know. We had our own fields back home,” she says. “It’s just that Kalima’s father is dead now. They shot him and now I’m on my own.”
I point towards the bandage that covers most of her head. “What happened?” I ask.
“The military did this,” she replies. “They tried to slaughter me with a knife. It was this long,” she shows me the entire length of her arm. “They tried to kill my daughter as well. Look at her. She has five wounds on her face.” Dildar Begum pauses, taking time to finish a biscuit, and then recounts the day when soldiers raided her village of Tolatoli in Myanmar and destroyed everything.
She was breastfeeding her youngest son when a band of armed men barged into her house and—without warning—hit the baby with a hammer. He died on the spot. Her other son, a four-year-old witness to murder, started screaming. They killed him too, and then shot her husband. Then they went for her, her daughter and six other women, and took them to a house where they were tortured. Next, they were lined up and stabbed one by one. “After every stab,” she says, “they would dip the knife in water and I could see the blood flow.” Her hands shake as she enacts the scene in her head. They set the house on fire after the stabbing, without bothering to check if each of them was dead, perhaps expecting the flames to take the last breath of any life left. That is how Dildar Begum and her daughter survived. Before leaving, the attackers had removed her right earring, but didn’t have enough time for the other. “So they slit my left ear and took the other earring,” she says, displaying an earlobe with a deep cut right through the centre.
Somehow still conscious after all this, she realised that the wooden house would burn to the ground in no time. As soon as the men left, she picked herself up, took her daughter, and ran for the jungle of the hilly terrain extending from Kanjorpara to Whaikhyang. The soldiers would not be able to find them here.
For many days—she doesn’t quite remember how many— they walked through the forest, borrowing food and money from fellow Rohingya, before reaching a safe point along the Naf River that marks Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. To get to the other side, they boarded a fisherman’s boat which took them to Shah Porir Dwip. Once there, they changed boats and reached Teknaf, where they got relief from the locals. Their next mode of transport was a truck, which took them to a refugee camp in Ukhia upazila, nearly 70 km away from Shah Porir Dwip. It was a medical team at the camp that sent them to Cox’s Bazar for emergency treatment.
Over the decades, the Rohingya have been forced to migrate across the border for safety, where there are several relief camps. This time, the influx is so vast that Dhaka has had to set up more camps
The story of the mother and daughter is just one among the thousands one hears in the refugee camps of Ukhia that house more than 400,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar over the past few weeks. In all, government officials estimate more than 700,000 inmates of these camps right now, including those who crossed over during previous crackdowns. The first of these was back in 1978, under the regime of General Ne Win, and there have been several since.
ROHINGYA ARE RESIDENTS of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which was once a kingdom called Arakan. A minority group in a Buddhist-majority country, they are mostly Muslim by faith with a few Hindus among them. Although their presence in the area can be traced back to the 12th century CE, Rohingya are not listed among Myanmar’s eight major ethnic groups recognised by the government in Naypyidaw, which categories them as ‘Bengalis’, suggesting that they belong on the other side of the border. Over a thousand years of domicile counts for little, it seems. Since the military excesses and expulsions of 1978, they have been mass victims of orchestrated violence in 1991, 2012, 2015 and now in 2017.
Over the decades, Rohingya have been forced to migrate across the border for safety in one wave after another. There are several registered relief camps for them in Bangladesh. However, this time, the influx of refugees is so vast that Dhaka has had to set up more. The latest round of brutality aimed at them started after an armed Rohingya group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked installations of Myanmar’s armed forces on August 25th. Prior to that, though, reports from the country suggest that a number of Rohingya had been forcefully locked in their villages and not allowed to come out for work or food. The Myanmar military’s stance is that action is being taken in the interest of national security against ‘terrorists’ and those who support them. However, most refugees in Ukhia’s camps will tell you that they know nothing about ARSA or the politics behind the issue.
Children, it is evident, have suffered the most. Aid agencies have found more than 1,000 children who have no idea where their parents are. There are teenagers who were shot and babies who were burnt
Abul Hasan, now at a camp at Kutupalang in this border district, is among those who cannot understand the suffering they have been put to. His wife, Asmida, gave birth to a baby boy in the camp last week. While he is relieved that his wife—who had to climb hills and walk for days in heavy pregnancy to flee their burning villages for refuge—and the baby are both healthy, he is worried about their future. “We have no relations with ARSA,” he says, “We don’t know them. We don’t know what they do. We don’t know anything. But they keep shooting us. The shot at our home, threw bombs at it and destroyed it. It was raining bullets.”
Abul Hasan remembers the residents of his village being called out for an ‘emergency meeting’. It was there that his fellow villagers were rounded up and killed. “When they called for the meeting, I hid with my family,” he says, “I knew this wasn’t a good sign. From the place we hid in, we saw military officials putting their [feet] on the foreheads of people and slaughtering them.”
LIKE DILDAR BEGUM, Abul Hasan too ran into the jungle towards the hills and kept walking till he and his wife reached the border and eventually got to Bangladesh. “My wife suffered a lot. She was pregnant and her legs would often swell up,” he says. Does he think the situation in Myanmar will ever get resolved? He points towards the sky and says, “Only Allah can answer that.”
Maulana Mohammad Nasim, who used to work at a madrassa in his village back in Myanmar, offers an explanation for their travails. “The only reason why the army is killing us is because we are Muslims. The ARSA apparently killed two officials of their government. But what did we do? The army keeps telling us that we are Bangladeshis and we should run away,” he says, “The situation back home is horrible. There was so much destruction in our village that I don’t think even an ant has survived. They are not just killing people, they are butchering them. I saw many bodies which were tied up but their heads were somewhere else. Around 100 imams and children studying in madrassas were butchered without any sympathy.”
It took the Maulana 15 days to reach Bangladesh. On the way, he found a baby girl with her dead mother next to her, and got the child along. He and his wife have now taken responsibility of the girl. Perhaps hundreds have been orphaned. Aid agencies have found more than 1,000 children in the camps who have no idea where their parents are. Children, it is evident, have suffered the most. You see it when you visit hospitals and clinics across Ukhia and Cox’s Bazar. Medical facilities are filled with teenagers who were shot and babies who were burnt, apart from children stricken by a variety of illnesses.
A significant proportion of refugees in Bangladeshi camps want to continue living in this country and never return
Eleven-year-old Gora Mia struggles to recover from an infection caused by a bullet that scraped his wrist while he was running away. “I am one of the lucky ones. Two of my friends died after bombs were thrown at them by the army,” says Mia, who is currently undergoing treatment at the Cox’s Bazar Sadar Hospital. “When they shot me, I fell on the ground and I remember rolling. My father picked me and continued running until we reached the jungle. I remember seeing a lot of blood before I passed out,” he says. When asked if he would ever go back to Myanmar, 12-year-old Abdul Rakib, lying on a bed next to Mia, laughs. “Why will he go back? Why will any of us go back? Our own military wants us dead.”
Abdul Rakib was shot in his right leg while trying to escape a barrage of firing aimed at his village. He has been in the hospital for 20 days now and has no idea when his leg’s cast would be taken off. “I fell down when the military shot me. Luckily, some people picked me up and took me to a hiding place in the jungle. They came there and looked for me for some time. Thankfully, they couldn’t find me and left,” he says.
According to Ahmed Rahmatullah, whose 10-year-old son has a bullet wound in his thigh, Myanmar’s armed forces want to wipe out the entire quam (ethnicity) for good and that’s why they see no difference between Rohingya, be it a child or an elderly person. “They didn’t leave anyone. Five-year-old children or 70-year-olds, they shot everyone they could find,” he says, waiting for a doctor to attend to his son. All three children were brought to Bangladesh on temporary carriers made of bamboo sticks and clothes. Relatives carried them for at least 11 days before they made it to safe territory.
Ever since Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government decided to welcome the refugees, the cause has had popular support in the country. “If we can feed 160 million people, then we can feed seven lakh Rohingya refugees,” was the highlight of Hasina’s press conference held after she visited the camps earlier this month. Since then, the volume of relief material pouring in from volunteers has risen substantially. The highway from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf that leads to the camps has rarely witnessed such traffic in the past. The past two weeks have seen a surge in the number of aid trucks trundling in for the Rohingya refugees settled there. An area that used to be dotted with trees and never saw much commercial activity is now a transformed sight with all the activity. The relief goods, however, are being distributed in a woefully haphazard manner. This is not a surprise, considering the magnitude of the crisis.
With no better way to go about the task, a large number of volunteers have simply been throwing relief goods off trucks for Rohingya waiting by the roadside. This approach is problematic. For one, there are different groups of refugees—those who have been living in registered camps since 2012 or even before that, and those who have just arrived. It’s obvious that the new arrivals need far more help, but it’s hard for volunteers to distinguish between the two. For another, such provisions tend to reach those who are in better health, mostly men or children who can run. The elderly and women, in this scenario, lose out on food and other essentials. The composition of aid packages could also do with some planning. The roads leading to the camps are strewn with clothes donated by do-gooders that Rohingya reckon they could do without.
The scale of the migration can be seen at Shah Porir Dwip. Spend half an hour here and you witness refugees arriving by one boat-load after another with all they could manage to grab before fleeing
THE SITUATION, THOUGH, is gradually improving. More and more people are directly contacting government officers of the region for information on official distribution points. Even before the burst of donations from Bangladeshi citizens, relief from countries such as Turkey and India and organisations such as the United Nations and sundry NGOs had started coming in.
Issues other than immediate sustenance need attention too. The living conditions of refugees, for example, are appalling. Large numbers of Rohingya settlers had made themselves makeshift shelters out of bamboo sticks and plastic covers, many of which broke down under the heavy rains that lashed the region last week. Entrances to many of the camps get flooded with every downpour, inviting waterborne diseases. Sanitation projects have only just begun in a few camps, the food distribution system is below par, and local healthcare facilities need plenty of improvement.
In a recent statement, Save the Children has warned that refugees here could die due to lack of food, shelter, water and basic hygiene support. Add to this the internal problems of camp life. Last week, a refugee was beaten to death by eight others near the Kutupalang settlement on suspicion of being a kidnapper. A number of families are reported to have lost their children. Chaos, it seems, is here to stay for now and it may be a while before calm prevails.
A significant proportion of refugees in Bangladeshi camps want to continue living in this country and never return. Forty- five -year-old Khurshida’s family arrived last week. It took them two days to build a makeshift tent that could barely fit her children, nephews and nieces. Back home, she was one of the better off Rohingya, with more land than the others. There was nothing to worry about. Now, Khurshida can’t imagine going back to that life. “The army attacked our village in three steps. They first put the village on fire. After we started running, they threw bombs at us, and then finally started shooting us. I lost my son. He was guiding all of us out through a safe way and got shot,” she says, tears running down her face. “It’s better to sink in the Naf river and die than go back to Myanmar.”
Birula, a middle-aged woman in the next tent overhears our conversation and joins in. “We won’t go back,” she is emphatic, “Give us poison here instead. But we won’t go back.” Minutes later, she ruffles through a sack and shows me a photograph. It’s a picture of a group of her relatives standing with nameplates in their hands. “This photo cost me 5,000 Tk (Burmese). The military made us take this three times a year. People who don’t spend money and get this photo taken are sent to jail. This is like an ID for us,” she says. The photo is no longer of any value. “They shot us regardless. All the money that we spent on this is wasted,” she says.
While the Bangladesh government has accepted the influx of Rohingya, it has also made it clear that it is working on a deal with Myanmar’s authorities for the return of refugees. In the interim, efforts have been mounted to keep them interned in their camps. To ensure that they don’t find their way into Bangladeshi urban centres, a number of law enforcers have been stationed in the area. There have been several cases of Rohingya being turned away from Cox’s Bazar and sent back to their camps. What will make the job of law enforcers more difficult is the swelling numbers. Refugees are still crossing over and many more are expected.
Most villages at the edge of Myanmar have been burnt to cinders and there are thousands of Rohingya still waiting on the banks of the Naf to make their getaway. The scale of it can be seen at Shah Porir Dwip. Spend half an hour here and you witness refugees arriving by one boat-load after another with all the belongings they managed to grab before fleeing: money, clothes, even cattle. There are traumatised children carrying heavy sacks and panting their way through a muddy jetty. There are old women wearied by the long walk through the treacherous terrain of the jungle. Others seem down to their last reserves of energy. The aid workers at the border provide the new arrivals with rice and money. Mohammad Abdul, who carried his 95-year-old mother throughout the journey, seems delighted upon getting such relief right away. He takes the cash, goes up to his mother, and tries to cheer her up. “Look, we got something here,” he tells her, “Things will be easier now.” The mother doesn’t say a word. She just holds his hand, too tired to speak or even sit down. Abdul tells me that she is one of the rare elderly women to have survived the long walk through the hills. “Many old people died trying to make their way here. But my mother has been very strong,” he says, his eyes misty in part admiration, part sadness.
In the distance, a few more boats pull up at the shore, and hundreds of Rohingya jump off, their landing rough and footing unsure. This is their home now. At least for now.