Rohingyas reach paradise with stories of tragedy

September 29, 2017
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

Just a few miles from the idyllic shores of the world’s longest unbroken beach and the region’s top holiday resort, an epic human tragedy is unfolding. Concern’s Kieran McConville reports.

Reaching paradise

It is beyond hot in the bamboo and plastic shelter that clings to a muddy hillside near the entrance to Hakim Para camp. The roof is a sheet of black plastic, which under the heat of the sun raises the temperature to around 110 degrees. A small cooking fire smolders in the corner and the sound of rainfall is steady and loud.

Tents on a hillside in Bangladesh

Moynardhona refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Kieran McConville

These are definitely not ideal living conditions, but for Shaju* it’s paradise. “Here I have peace,” she says.

Their home country is just a few short miles away and, until a few days ago, smoke from their burning villages could be seen on the horizon.

Shaju is one of well over half a million Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Myanmar, the vast majority of them coming in the past month. They are crowded into a number of temporary settlements along a coastal peninsula on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal, in Bangladesh. Their home country is just a few short miles away and, until a few days ago, smoke from their burning villages could be seen on the horizon.

One tragedy after another

Almost everyone I meet has a harrowing story — many of them truly horrific.

Douyoub Rohingya refugee

Amir* is a recent arrival at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. He says he was in his home in Myanmar when soldiers attacked the village. Amir escaped after being shot in the leg. Photo: Kieran McConville

“All of our homes were burned,” according to Rama*, who came here with her extended family of 18 people.

24-year-old Amir* walks up to us, limping slowly, his right calf wrapped in a dirty bandage. “I was inside my home when they came,” he says, referring to soldiers. “They killed my young son and daughter. I was shot.” He speaks in a quiet and matter-of-fact tone. Like so many here, he is obviously traumatized. It emerges that his parents are also dead and he has been unable to locate his wife.

The authorities and agencies tasked with responding to this enormous refugee crisis appear to have managed well so far — but the task is huge. There is only one narrow, traffic-clogged main road accessing the camps, the side lanes clogged with mud and thronged with people. Basic food distributions are under way, simple tube wells have been sunk, and clean water is being trucked in.

A watchful eye on the vulnerable

“We know from experience that the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe is very real,” according to Concern’s Head of Emergency Operations, Ros O’Sullivan. “With this many people in such confined conditions, the threat of disease is high. And the cyclone season is approaching rapidly, leaving these makeshift shelters extremely vulnerable.”

“A handful of rice a day is just not enough for a young child — they need nutrients.”

Nutrition Advisor Asfia Azim says there’s a less obvious but almost greater threat. “Twenty percent of the refugees are under the age of five, and we’re already seeing really high rates of malnutrition in some of the camps. A handful of rice a day is just not enough for a young child — they need nutrients.” Concern has established an outpatient therapeutic program — basically a set of emergency nutrition centers where children can be screened and parents supplied with sachets of peanut paste to feed them.

Baby and grandmother in Bangladesh

Newly orphaned one-year-old Shofika*, in the arms of her grandmother. Photo: Kieran McConville

Picking up the pieces

Sadly, many young children here no longer have parents. One-year-old Shofika* wriggles in her “Dadi’s” arms, the grandmother somber and stricken. “My son and daughter-in-law were murdered.” She is now Shofika’s new mom. Stories of orphaned children abound.

Back up the hill, Shaju nurses baby Noor under her headscarf and stares out the doorway to the distant hills of Myanmar. The little girl was born right here, yesterday. “I have nothing to go back to — everything was burned,” she says.

*names changed for security

Our response

Concern Worldwide has worked in Bangladesh since 1972. In recent weeks, we have mobilized an emergency team to work with the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. They will be concentrating on nutrition, distribution of food and household items, and water and sanitation.

Help us reach Rohingya families in Bangladesh: