Little hope for home
In the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh, 13-year-old Yasmin Akhter, whose parents were shot dead, lives on shifting sands with hundreds of thousands of others in the shadow of the looming rain.
By James Massola – 29 July 2018
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“She is a daughter of my country … I will keep her with me until I die.”
Yasmin Akhter is sitting in the corner of a dirt floor shack, talking about the day her parents died. The 13-year-old, who now lives in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, remembers the day in September 2017 in Maungdaw district, Myanmar, like it was yesterday.
“They were killed around midday. They were shot dead in the house and then [attackers] set the house on fire,” Yasmin says. “My sister and I were walking on the streets when we went to the house after hearing gunshots, and we found them dead. We ran to the neighbours, because we could not enter the house, it was on fire. The Burmese were chasing and killing people, so we left.” After linking up with other local people from her village, Yasmin and her sister, 15-year-old Morjina, began the long walk to the Bangladesh border, and safety. Somewhere along the way, though, the pair became separated.
Yasmin hasn’t seen her sister since. She has tried repeatedly to find her using announcements over loud speakers in the camps and by contacting international rescue agencies. Yasmin’s story, of being forced to flee and of being orphaned after the death or disappearance of family members, is depressingly common in these camps.
Luckily for this girl, a man from her village took her in for a few months to live with his family. He then handed her on to the care of his brother Zafar Alam, 65, who now sits with her in this shack.
Alam recalls vividly the day the Myanmar soldiers came, shooting his neighbours and causing villagers to flee to safety in the nearby forest. Helicopters buzzed overhead, gunshots rang out. At the military base near the village, he says, “there were at least 500 dead bodies in a pile”.
His story, of fleeing to the woods and slowly making his way to Bangladesh on foot, is also common. He breaks down and cries when he recalls the day he saw Yasmin at a makeshift market in the camps in Bangladesh. He recognised her from their village.
“After I saw her at the market I forgot about everything else. I was worried about who she was living with, and how her life would be. I knew she was orphaned by the military. I had seen it happen. “She is a daughter of my country, our houses were at walking distance.
“After I saw her that day, I brought her home. I will keep her with me until I die. I have eight children of my own, three daughters and five sons. I live in this house with my wife, two sons, one daughter and Yasmin.”
Fairfax Media spent five days in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, visiting camps like Kutupalong-Balukhali – said to be the largest refugee camp in the world, home to at least 400,000 people – as well as other sites including the Jamtoli camp. In that time, we visited nutrition and early learning centres run by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres that saw around 40 patients a day. And we heard daily testimony from dozens of Rohingya people, expelled from their homes in Myanmar and in many cases forced to witness awful atrocities.
Myanmar has been hostile to its Rohingya population for decades and, over time, the rights and privileges these people once enjoyed have been slowly stripped away. Already, before August 2017, between 200,000 and 300,000 Rohingyas were living in squalid conditions in Bangladesh.
Since then, the number has passed a million. On August 25 last year, a huge exodus of Rohingya began, triggered by a campaign by Myanmar’s military to drive this Muslim minority from their homes. The UN has documented mass gang rape, killings, brutal beatings and the torching of homes and people.
And while Myanmar’s government argues it was responding to violent attacks by militant Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, the United Nations has suggested the military response could constitute genocide.
As the one year anniversary of the most recent murders, rapes and forced expulsion approaches, the memories of those incredible traumas, unsurprisingly, remains fresh in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of people marooned across the border in Bangladesh.
Everywhere you walk in the Cox’s Bazar camp, children gather to welcome you and shout, “Hello, how are you?” The men and women here are an admixture of furrowed brows, desperation, sad eyes and among some at least, determination, as they hoist heavy loads of bamboo and relief supplies on their backs.
Their shacks perch on unstable ground, denuded of the trees that once kept the soil in place. The camp is built on shifting sands, which serves as an apt metaphor for their unstable existence on the edge of hills, in gullies, and low lying land prone to flooding.
The monsoon rains that rip through this part of the world at this time of year have, mercifully, been comparatively light so far. Some 222 millimetres fell on the region between July 5 and 10, and at least another 70mm a week later, on the first day we visit.
But July regularly records upwards of 800mm of water being dumped, and, so far at least, that level of inundation has held off. Once the rains start in earnest, waterborne diseases like acute watery diarrhoea spread rapidly.
According to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, since May 11 there have been 206 landslides, 34 people have been injured and one three-year-old boy was killed when his shack collapsed on top of him.
The dozens of aid agencies working in the camps, such as UNICEF and Medecins Sans Frontieres, fear much worse is to come. So far, 34,032 Rohingya refugees have been moved to new, sturdier shelters but that figure is a tiny fraction of all the people who need to find stable ground.
One of the most difficult issues that aid agencies are grappling with is malnutrition.Close to 40 per cent of kids aged six months to five years in the camps are suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the UN’s children’s agency, which runs nutrition centres and early learning centres throughout the camps.
When we visit, Nutrition Action Week is in full swing. At a nutrition centre, kids line up with their parents out the door to receive vitamins. In fact, the agency had aimed to deliver 134,000 doses of Vitamin A in this single week, as well as 85,000 de-worming tablets. The numbers sound huge, but with around 400,000 kids living in the camps, it’s only around a quarter of the total population.
One of the most successful programs has seen women like local Bangladeshi girl Amina Akhter, 17, employed by UNICEF’s local partner agency to work as a community liaison officer.
Amina’s job is to head deep into the camps each day and find new cases, new kids under five in desperate need of the aid the agency can provide. “If we find children within that age limit, we bring them to the centre, examine them and measure their body weight and height,” she says.
“Every day we visit around 15 to 20 houses, but on rainy days, we only get to visit 10, 15 houses. At the beginning, we found more sick children than we find now. I get very attached to the children and it feels great to see them recover during and after the treatment.”
Amina brings us with her when she makes a visit to Fatema, who is 30 years old and has six children, including twin baby girls who are just seven months old. The girls lie on the floor of the shack, on a thin matting, sharing one muslin cloth. The tell-tale signs of diarrhoea are apparent on their nappy-less bottoms and older brothers and sisters hover as we talk to Fatema.
Fatema and her family arrived in December 2016, before the largest recent wave of expulsions, from Kuanai Prong, a village in Myanmar. Amina, she says, helped save her twins because the girls were born “too small and not healthy. I was worried and scared if they would survive”.
“They examined them and gave us the nutrition packs, and after I started to feed it to them, they recovered and gradually got healthier. I am very happy and grateful for that.” Fatema says life in the camp is hard and that “the heat is nearly killing us, but we are at peace because nobody is killing us, slaughtering us, or burning our houses”. “We still do not want to go back to Burma. They will kill us if we return.”
In another part of this sprawling camp, we meet an Australian midwife named Kate Edmonds working for MSF. She’s from regional South Australia, likes helping people and at 64, she has promised MSF three years of her time. This is her second posting with the organisation, after six months in Pakistan.
Edmonds speaks with the directness common to nurses and midwives the world over. We share a few cigarettes at the straw-roofed huts that are home to the MSF “office” – in fact, the worst insulated buildings, and the only ones without air conditioning – and talk about what she does, and what she’s seen.
After 10 or 15 minutes I ask her, “What is the hardest thing you have had to do?” A look passes across her face and she asks me to stop the tape.“I don’t know if I should say … you can’t print it.” Tape stopped, she unburdens herself. When she’s finished, both of us have tears in our eyes.
Tape back on, she tells Fairfax Media that “poverty is one of the hardest things to deal with. Women living in poverty who haven’t got enough clothes, who are clearly under fed. Women are fed last, the men and children are fed first,” she says.
Another issue for medical staff at the hospital, which sees about 40 new patients a day, is winning the trust of the local population. “We had a set of twins come in, one had delivered two days before and the other was still on board,” Edmond says. “The sad thing is they expect their children to die, and it’s Allah who says that’s OK.”
The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the United Nations, have announced repatriation agreements and bilateral deals to begin sending the Rohingya back to their homeland. The reality on the ground is rather different.
Few, if any, people Fairfax Media spoke to actually expect the Rohingya will be allowed to return. Among the dozens of aid officials operating in the camps, no one is willing to put their name to this sentiment publicly, but the reality is staring you in the face, everywhere you walk and stand.
How do you convince a million people to return home, where there is no guarantee of safety or return of their rights? As our week in the camps wrapped up, we paid a visit to Mohammad Anis. Eight months earlier, former Fairfax Media foreign correspondent Lindsay Murdoch and photographer Kate Geraghty met Mohammad in the camps.
A 54-year-old English teacher and father of five, he told Murdoch the Rohingya had basic demands, such as being treated with respect and acceptance. “The Burmese planned to drive us away. How? By killing us and prohibiting us from marrying and having children. It is genocide,” he said at the time.
Today he still wants justice for his people. And the wounds are as raw as ever. “In our country, they killed all the Rohingyas by shooting and slaughtering. They raped our women,” he says. “We are still hopeful that we can return in a month or two months. That Burma will accept us along with all the conditions. If they do not, we want the world to give us justice and make it possible for us to go back. “The fact that we had to flee, we want justice for that. We ask for justice from the leaders of the entire world.”
UNICEF contributed to the cost of Fairfax Media’s flights to Cox’s Bazar.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions.