Inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps of Southern Bangladesh
The world’s newest refugee crisis continues to drag on and, with it, shattered lives, fading hopes and broken promises.
The roadside bazar was buzzing with the usual mix of noise and people, bartering and trading, spitting and shouting.
I quizzed Aman, my fixer from The Beach Way Hotel in Cox’s Bazar, for the third time.
“Are they Rohingya?”
”No, no, no. Bangla, Bangla, Bangla! All Bangla!”
We were on the road to Koutopalong Refugee Camp (Google Maps gives it a 4.1 rating and, apparently, it’s open 24 hours a day) and had just passed the nearby town of Ukhia so I was half-expecting apocalyptic throngs of filthy, fly-covered, starved children waiting around every moonscaped corner. Cursing my ignorance and the disgusting thought of rubbernecking one of the most tragic human episodes of ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’ in modern times, I attempted to put things into perspective and assess some sobering statistics.
Since August 2017, an estimated 600,00 to 1,000,000 people have been displaced with the majority under the age of 18
Allegations of widespread human rights abuses by the Burmese military and ultra-nationalist Buddhists incited by radical monks include the killing and raping of women and children, summary executions and torture along with a scorched-earth policy that has set ablaze at least 12,000 villages, killed livestock and destroyed crops rendering their return almost inconceivable if not impossible.
Ethnically, the Rohingya look like the local Bangladeshi. But they speak Burmese. And they live, or did live, in Burma (now Myanmar). The Rohingya have a long history in the region particularly in Burma’s western Rakhine State which was the original Arakan Kingdom, a mix of Indian, Burmese and Arabic peoples.
The persecution of the Rohingya is a modern phenomena though, culminating in the devastation I witnessed. Predominantly Muslim, an early insurgency in 1978 was brutally crushed by the Burmese military and over 200,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Act which quashed freedom of movement and educational rights, the longstanding name ‘Rohingya’ was replaced by the term ‘Bengali’ by the Burmese government.
The Burmese military have implemented a scorched-earth policy, setting ablaze at least 12,000 villages, killing all livestock, destroying every crop
The current disproportionate use of force and eviction was once again brought on by insurgency when Rohingya nationalists attacked security posts killing a number of military personnel. The backlash was swift and brutal.
CONTAINMENT - AND NO WAY OUT
As our driver Alam weaved his motorised three-wheeling deathtrap through ever-growing traffic, it became apparent that I’d arrived in a different place, traces of light, colour and shadow twisting and contorting the rational and normal. A world out of kilter with itself.
On the small denuded hills, rudimentary bamboo and plastic structures became common, the rice paddies giving way to field hospitals and NGO signage, enormous stacks of bamboo and increasing crowds of people.
It became apparent that I’d arrived in a different place, traces of light, colour and shadow twisting and contorting the rational and normal
”All Rohingya, all Rohingya. Many-many’” my fixer Aman happily opined. Everyone looked the same to me. I’d expected the downtrodden but I got the dignified instead.
We drove on further towards the most recent camp, Tangkhali, which provides sanctuary for around 300,000 people. Two things immediately struck me. It was another world apart, completely devoid of trees and birds, scorched by drastic human intervention. And it seemed organised, like a functioning ghetto. A place that was now home for so many.
As I moved through the camp in an almost dream-like state, through hewn roads carved from once tree-filled hills, there was a noticeable abundance of very young children. Many families have been ripped apart by the conflict, parents lost or murdered, leaving in place trauma and destitution for the most vulnerable.
It’s a testament to the indefatigable human spirit that things continued as normal - men carry bamboo to build shelter, women and children go about their daily chores as small shops sell simple provisions, haircuts are dispensed, meals cooked and children play.
But the reality is very different.
The Rohinga are trapped. Contained within camps set up by the remarkable largesse and humanity of the Bangladesh government and it’s people and with countless worldwide NGOs in support, they are quite literally caught between a rock and a hard place. Military and police checks are everywhere - no doubt a traumatic experience in itself - and no Rohingya can stray far without being returned back (the Bangladesh government has also banned local people from marrying Rohingya). Worse still, with their entire livelihoods in ruin back home and the continued failure of the Burmese government to honour the recent reparation agreement with Bangladesh, there is nowhere else to go.
With no tree cover, I was beginning to bake in the morning heat. We headed north towards the Balukhali Camp, stopping off at Aman’s friend’s and having rice coffee with his lovely mother and sister. Life went on as normal outside the camps.
We set off for the final camp, Koutopalong, the very first to shelter the Rohingya back in August 2017. It was a woeful place. There was a sense of institutionalism, of time standing still, pervasive hopelessness. It’s hard to describe the conditions but it looked like trench warfare and carried more malice than the others. It’s little wonder there’s pent-up frustration. Nothing is moving forward. But life still went on. It has to.
A small white shroud, another victim in this deadly human conflict
As we walked through the narrow, stinking alleyways, a funeral procession passed by, the small white shroud another victim in this deadly human conflict brought on by ethnic and religious hatred and a regime hell bent on vengeance at any price. I shook my head as the mourners passed, and felt that it wasn’t my place to be here.
It was never my intention to visit the Rohingya. I’d made my way to the south of Bangladesh to see the world’s longest beach, to be near the sea and to wait for my permits to travel inland and explore further this undiscovered gem of a country. But something compelled me to go, to take the time to see what I could only imagine in my worst nightmares.
A place of sun, sea and suffering, of ruined lives and hopeless futures.