Rohingya crisis: ‘We have no one, no idea what is going to happen tomorrow’

One million Rohingya live in the world’s largest refugee settlement, in Bangladesh. After fleeing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar, they face the threat of monsoons

One million Rohingya live in the world’s largest refugee settlement in Bangladesh. After fleeing "ethnic cleansing" in Myanmar, they now face the threat of monsoons. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

Last night, says Mayyu Ali, there was panic in the camp. It was shortly before midnight when the storm alarms went off and the refugees – hundreds of thousands of them, in the pitch black – scrambled to secure their shelters with rope or whatever else they had from winds that might flatten them.

A long time later they understood it had been a false alarm, and that they should try to soothe their children, get some rest and let their terror pass until a future occasion when it might be more appropriate and useful.

Words catch a little in Mayyu’s throat as he speaks. It is Ramadan, and no water will pass the lips of those observing the fast until the sun sets at 6.30pm. That is three hours away. Behind Mayyu, in this makeshift cafe in the Balukhali camp, tempers are starting to fray: a dispute has broken out and a customer spends 15 minutes screaming his response to some slight.

The heat and humidity leave plenty of room for argument: a couple of Bangladeshi men talk about it in wonder; some people look likely to pass out.

Around here, the largest refugee settlement in the world, the murderous heat is good news. It means the rains haven’t arrived yet.

Born in 1991, the year that Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Mayyu is a budding poet and writer whose work about the plight of his stateless Rohingya people has appeared on some international news sites, including CNN and Al-Jazeera. But right now he is, first and foremost, a Rohingya refugee.

“Even though this has been happening to us, the Rohingya population, for a decade, every day and every year many people have been killed, many women have been raped, but still there is no hope for a sustainable resolution for this crisis,” he says.

“This really makes me feel very bad. It’s like feeling extremely desperate and lonely. It’s like we have no one. It’s like we have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow.”

The camps

The newest crisis would do nothing to ease that burden. For months, aid agencies in these camps in Bangladesh, about 35km from the golden sands and pretty sunsets of the tourist town of Cox’s Bazar, have been rushing to prepare the Rohingya population of about a million – more than half of them children – for the next disaster likely to befall them: the monsoon rains and cyclone season that may turn large parts of these overwhelmingly crowded and vast camps into rivers of mud.

On a dry day the dangers have a certain subtlety: the well-constructed bamboo-and-tarpaulin huts sitting on steep hills. The unpaved roads that collapse at the sides. The brown clay underfoot that will not hold water.

The camps, in effect one sprawling settlement of 19sq km commonly referred to by the name of its largest part, Kutupalong, snake up in colourful blocks on newly deforested mounds where elephants used to live, divided by low-lying arteries.

The streets and steps outside the baking, windowless huts are thronged with children, many of them naked, some bucking happily on water pumps as though they are see-saws.

Rahima Khatun (30) holding her seven-month-old niece Taslima, whose mother died shortly after giving birth. In the background, her husband Muhammad Ali with one of their five other children, Sayedul Amin. Photograph: Kathleen Harris
Rahima Khatun (30) holding her seven-month-old niece Taslima, whose mother died shortly after giving birth. In the background, her husband Muhammad Ali with one of their five other children, Sayedul Amin. Photograph: Kathleen Harris

The scale of the camps invites a certain lawlessness to which women are most vulnerable, especially after dark. Cases of kidnapping, sexual exploitation and human trafficking are widely acknowledged yet somehow seemingly peripheral in the unceasing focus on survival.

“People are not safe in the camp, especially the children and women,” says Mayyu.

The undulating landscape of Kutupalong hints at but never quite reveals the full extent of the encampment, yet there are occasional glimpses of the mountains that mark out Myanmar – also known as Burma – in the middle distance.

The crackdown

That is where the Muslim-minority Rohingya called home until a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military in Rakhine State last August drove 700,000 across the border. The other 300,000 or so Rohingya who live in the Bangladesh camps were already here, some for many years – victims of previous waves of violence. Only an estimated 100,000-150,000 Rohingya now remain in Rakhine.

You could easily mistake the industrious work taking place at Kutupalong – men hauling bales of bamboo poles on their shoulders; workers hanging from the bare skeleton of an under-construction bridge; trucks loaded with bricks and culverts – as a hopeful sign of progress, the diligence and optimism of a burgeoning community. In fact this work is taking place, quickly and desperately, so that in the weeks and months ahead as few people as possible will die.

Two weeks ago, we watched and were warned that preparing the camps for the monsoon was a race against the clock. Last weekend the clock stopped. On Saturday the skies opened and it rained incessantly for days.

A three-year-old boy died when the mud walls of their house fell on him and his mother while they were sleeping. A man died when he was crushed by an uprooted tree. A woman lost her life in a landslide.

By Tuesday, officials were assessing the consequences: flash floods, 1,500 huts damaged or destroyed, latrines wrecked. An already perilous situation made worse.

If this week’s rains marked something of a beginning, they are certainly not an end – the monsoon and cyclone seasons continue in this flood-prone corner of this storm-prone country until October.

You do not have to live in a refugee camp to have a precarious existence in Bangladesh. A decade ago, Cyclone Sidr swept in and left up to 10,000 dead in the country. A catastrophic storm in 1991 killed more than 100,000. It would take far less to devastate the Rohingya and impose on them a new array of traumas.

Despite recent efforts to reinforce or relocate the most at-risk housing, of the 720,000 or so people living at Kutupalong (there are additional camps further south), up to 200,000 are considered vulnerable to floods, landslides and disease: diptheria, acute watery diarrhoea and cholera.

In the worst of the weather the remainder will merely suffer. Funding remains an additional pressure point: an aid response plan developed by the UN and NGOs, an appeal for almost $1 billion, is just 21 per cent funded so far.

Birth attendant Noor Jahan (60) walking through Jamtoli camp, one of 20 Rohingya refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of southern Bangladesh. Photograph: Kathleen Harris
Birth attendant Noor Jahan (60) walking through Jamtoli camp, one of 20 Rohingya refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of southern Bangladesh. Photograph: Kathleen Harris

“With the amount of rain that falls we are expecting a huge amount of mud, which then causes mudslides and will wipe out some of the houses – it’s very worrying because of the sheer numbers,” says Gillian Boyle, a logistics co-ordinator for Concern, the Irish NGO which runs nutrition centres for malnourished children in the camps.

Like other aid agencies, Concern is reinforcing the more vulnerable of its eight clinics, and setting up mobile tents to sustain its services for those who will be unable to negotiate storm-hit roads.

Boyle, who has flown in to help deal with this emergency, has worked in refugee camps in Africa and Haiti, but Kutupalong is a unique spectacle and challenge. “Today was my first day in the camps,” she says, “and I could not believe the sight that was in front of me.”

Ethnic cleansing

The savagery reported in last year’s military response to attacks by Muslim militant group Arsa on police outposts in Rakhine, described by the UN as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, weighs heavily on Kutupalong. Human rights groups and media have registered a vast array of atrocities, including gang rapes, murders and groups of men slaughtered in cold blood.

There are multiple accounts and amateur videos of fleeing men being shot in the back and living or dying with their terrible injuries. The worst stories carry an unfathomable cruelty: soldiers snatching babies from their mothers and throwing them on fires.

There are no official figures for those killed – Myanmar has dismissed the reports as a fabrication – but surveys by Médecins Sans Frontières put the number at more than 6,700, including at least 730 children, in the first month of the crackdown.

In perhaps the starkest illustration of what took place, the Reuters news agency mapped hundreds of villages burnt down between August 25th and November 25th in an area stretching 110km from the green hills of Rakhine’s northern tip to beaches near the state’s southern capital, Sittwe.

Burmese authorities said these villages were burnt down either by Rohingya militants or by the villagers themselves before they left.

Rahima Khatun, a 30-year-old mother of five, does not recall events unfolding that way in Siddhar Para, her village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district. The family had heard news of neighbouring villages being attacked by the army, but Siddhar Para was safe for a time.

“Then one day we were at home and suddenly we heard a crowd screaming outside and we found our home was burning,” she says.

Rahima and her husband Mohammad Ali took their children and joined neighbours on the road to Bangladesh, walking for 12 days to reach the Naf river, foraging to stay alive. When they finally got to the border they spent a night with a local family before moving on.

“Then we reached this camp area but at that time we didn’t have shelter. I was carrying a polythene sheet – my children were tired so I spread the polythene sheet on the road and we slept there.”

I had a small library – Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. I also had Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi’s book, written by herself

Seven-month-old Taslima – severely malnourished, with blotches all over her tiny body – grabs at Rahima’s breast as she speaks. Taslima was her only sister Hasina’s child, but Hasina died of excessive bleeding three days after the birth, at the age of 20. Rahima’s parents are elderly and unable to look after Taslima, so Rahima and Mohammad adopted her even though they are already struggling to feed their own.

“I can’t breastfeed her because I’m not getting milk,” says Rahima. “I can’t give her a proper meal every day.”

Dehumanisation

Noor Jahan, a 60-year-old “birth attendant” – a traditional midwife – also from Siddhar Para, displays the stoicism and good humour required of a woman who has assisted in up to 250 births over 40 years.

She recalls the randomness of the shootings that took place in the village that August day: one of her grandchildren was shot dead and her son suffered a shrapnel wound to his knee. That day was a tipping point but, Noor says, the people “were being tortured and oppressed for a long time”.

Rohingya refugees use bamboo poles and rope to construct bridges and fortify shelters during monsoon season. Photograph: Kathleen Harris
Rohingya refugees use bamboo poles and rope to construct bridges and fortify shelters during monsoon season. Photograph: Kathleen Harris

“I remember one incident that scared me in our village, with one of our religious leaders. The Myanmar army attacked his home, so he fled and went into hiding.

“His wife was alone with a younger child so one of the Myanmar army entered the house and raped the woman, and then several others entered the house and raped her too. Now that woman is totally traumatised – she has completely lost her mind. She couldn’t come from Myanmar.”

Mayyu Ali’s family home in Maungdaw was burnt down on August 28th, turning his belongings, including books, to ash. “I had a small library – Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. I also had Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi’s book, written by herself,” he says bitterly.

Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy and the country’s state counsellor, or prime minister, has condemned human rights violations in Myanmar in general, but pointedly not blamed the military. A report last month by Amnesty International showed that Rohingya militant group Arsa also massacred up to 99 Hindu men, women and children in Rakhine late last August, at the time when the military’s campaign began.

Mayyu cites 2012 as the year when everything changed in Rakhine. That June, deadly violence finally broke the tensions that had long been simmering between the majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities.

Buddhist mobs went on the rampage after rumours spread about the rape and murder of a young woman by Muslims. More than 200 were killed and 150,000 left homeless in the clashes, the majority of them Rohingya. The underlying damage was catastrophic.

When I look back to my childhood I had some good Buddhist friends in school. We sat on the same bench, on the same table. We played in the same playground in school

In a bitter irony cited in Francis Wade’s book on the crisis, Myanmar’s Enemy Within, political reforms taking place in the country had freed up the media and also left it more vulnerable to hateful content. Ultranationalist Buddhists, including influential monks, further disseminated hate speech through social media.

The events of 2012 meant that the dehumanisation of the Rohingya, who were denied citizenship by the Burmese government in a landmark 1982 law on the country’s ethnic groups, was almost complete. In the years that followed, restrictions already in place on marriage, employment, healthcare and education, and even freedom of movement, tightened further.

Mayyu was told he could not complete his final year in English at Sittwe university, a disappointment that sits heavily on him still. “When I look back to my childhood I had some good Buddhist friends in school. We sat on the same bench, on the same table. We played in the same playground in school. Before 2012 everything was the same. We ate together, we played together, we studied and learned together . . . but after 2012 we were not the same.”

Return

It is difficult to envisage a return to that pre-2012 world, or to see a path for the Rohingya to escape Kutupalong and return to their homeland. A repatriation deal between the Burmese and Bangladeshi authorities earlier this year never got off the ground.

A fortnight ago, Myanmar and UN agencies signed an outline deal on refugee returns, but the agreement falls short of offering the Rohingya citizenship – the one condition that most people at Kutupalong appear to insist upon.

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi authorities are loath to create conditions for the Rohingya that would imply their stay in the country is a permanent one. In a slightly sinister development, the government has developed camps in an isolated and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, Bhasan Char, where it says it plans to voluntarily resettle 100,000 refugees.

Aminul Lah (35), his wife Sanjida Begum (28) and their three children, Sohelabibi (4), Ahmed (7) and Muhammed (18 months), recently arrived from Buthidaung township, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Photograph: Kathleen Harris
Aminul Lah (35), his wife Sanjida Begum (28) and their three children, Sohelabibi (4), Ahmed (7) and Muhammed (18 months), recently arrived from Buthidaung township, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Photograph: Kathleen Harris

Rohingya families are still arriving at Kutupalong, though at a trickle. Aminul Lah, his wife Sanjida Begum and their three children made the arduous journey from Buthidaung township just 15 days ago after the madrassa where Aminul taught was shut down by the government.

If the situation in Myanmar doesn’t improve and if Bangladesh will not keep us, we don’t have any other way other than dying

“I am basically a poor person . . . we thought it would be better to come and live here as it would be cheaper,” he says.

Few here seem able to look beyond the here and now. Mayyu Ali says the international community needs to work harder to raise awareness of what the Rohingya are going through, and take practical steps to save the camp’s “lost generation” of young people from a hopeless future.

“In the camp there are many matriculation Rohingya students – but they can’t find a way to get their higher education training here. The Bangladeshi government, or some countries, some university can support them for their higher education. When they can finish their higher education they can have a future, and they can learn how to build their community.”

Rahima Khatun, the mother of five, draws a matter-of-fact conclusion about the future born of hard experience: “If the situation in Myanmar doesn’t improve and if Bangladesh will not keep us, we don’t have any other way other than dying.”

David McKechnie and Kathleen Harris travelled to Cox’s Bazar with Concern Worldwide

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