Rohingya refugees

Trapped in a half-life, Rohingya refugees yearning to break free

Three years ago, the Rohingya fled from their homes in Myanmar in the hope of a better future. The Straits Times enters the Bangladeshi refugee camps to get an insight into the ongoing refugee crisis.
A Rohingya teen taking on the role of a barber, cutting the hair of a young boy at the Kutupalong camp. Rohingya men filling bags with bricks at the Kutupalong camp on July 18. Till earlier this year, some camp residents earned some money by helping
Rohingya refugees going about their daily lives (above) and traversing the hilly terrain at the Kutupalong megacamp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district last month. Fleeing the violence in Myanmar for the safety of Bangladesh across the border, about 919,000 Rohingya refugees thought they had escaped the death penalty. Now they find themselves staring at a life sentence - squashed in cell-like units, ill, hungry and stuck with endless time on their hands. About 626,000 people are squeezed into a 12 sq km area, with only 6,000 overflowing latrines for everyone to use. A bunch of smaller camps accommodate the rest of the refugees. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A Rohingya teen taking on the role of a barber, cutting the hair of a young boy at the Kutupalong camp. Rohingya men filling bags with bricks at the Kutupalong camp on July 18. Till earlier this year, some camp residents earned some money by helping
Rohingya refugees going about their daily lives and traversing the hilly terrain (above) at the Kutupalong megacamp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district last month. Fleeing the violence in Myanmar for the safety of Bangladesh across the border, about 919,000 Rohingya refugees thought they had escaped the death penalty. Now they find themselves staring at a life sentence - squashed in cell-like units, ill, hungry and stuck with endless time on their hands. About 626,000 people are squeezed into a 12 sq km area, with only 6,000 overflowing latrines for everyone to use. A bunch of smaller camps accommodate the rest of the refugees. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A Rohingya teen taking on the role of a barber, cutting the hair of a young boy at the Kutupalong camp. Rohingya men filling bags with bricks at the Kutupalong camp on July 18. Till earlier this year, some camp residents earned some money by helping
Rohingya men filling bags with bricks at the Kutupalong camp on July 18. Till earlier this year, some camp residents earned some money by helping to build latrines and bridges in the camp, earning an average of 400 takas each time. Now the army has taken over most of the construction work to speed things up and, ironically, this has cost the Rohingya a source of income.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A Rohingya teen taking on the role of a barber, cutting the hair of a young boy at the Kutupalong camp. Rohingya men filling bags with bricks at the Kutupalong camp on July 18. Till earlier this year, some camp residents earned some money by helping
A refugee with a box of relief items near the Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar. To buy things that they need, camp residents sell the relief material. ''Already the food is not enough for them,'' says Dr Anik Sanjoy at a health centre in Kutupalong. ''When they sell some of it to buy other things, they eat even less.''ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A Rohingya teen taking on the role of a barber, cutting the hair of a young boy at the Kutupalong camp. Rohingya men filling bags with bricks at the Kutupalong camp on July 18. Till earlier this year, some camp residents earned some money by helping
A Rohingya teen taking on the role of a barber, cutting the hair of a young boy at the Kutupalong camp.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

This is the day-to-day existence endured by nearly a million Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh, after fleeing violence in Myanmar that culminated in a massacre by the military a year ago this month. The Sunday Times visited the place to give this first-hand account.

The family's possessions are few and all their clothes are strung across a short nylon line in the flimsy structure of bamboo and tarpaulin that serves as home.

But when Mr Mohd Abdul Hamid starts to speak of life in the Rohingya camps, his wife Salama Khatoon goes to a corner of the hut and fishes out two articles of clothing that she keeps apart from the rest. One is pink, the other blue, and they belonged to the couple's daughter, Unaishya, who died in this camp where the family live with their three remaining children. The couple stare in silence at the only items they can remember their daughter by.

There is no trace, on the other hand, of their oldest child Kamal Sadiq, 10, who died when the family crossed two rivers to flee the violence in Myanmar for the safety of Bangladesh across the border. They abandoned his body in the hills.

Unaishya reached Kutupalong in Cox's Bazar safely. Mr Abdul Hamid, 33, says she was three years old, and pretty.

"We had to sleep in the open while my wife and I assembled this hut. Sometimes there was enough to eat and sometimes there was not. Sometimes it was wet. Unaishya caught pneumonia and we buried her about 2km from here.

"We thanked Allah when we got here because we thought we were safe. But now I have lost one child in Myanmar and one in Bangladesh. The rest of us have nowhere to go."

  • 13,500

    The number of children below the age of five who have already been treated for severe malnutrition. The Kutupalong megacamp is sick, with worms coming out of children's mouths, skin problems breaking out amid poor hygiene and contagious diseases multiplying.

For if he and 919,000 other Rohingya refugees thought they had escaped the death penalty in Myanmar by fleeing from their home state of Rakhine to Bangladesh, they now find themselves staring at a life sentence - squashed in cell-like units, ill, hungry and stuck with endless time on their hands.

Home now is a place called Kutupalong megacamp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district that till last year was known for its hills and forests and 120km of unbroken beach.

Today, a stretch of hills has been hacked down for the megacamp

 

complex. About 626,000 people are squeezed into a 12 sq km area, with 6,000 overflowing latrines, the smoke from firewood and that morning's rain creating a warm, wet stink. The remaining Rohingya - whom everyone calls refugees while speaking, but never in writing - are placed in similarly squalid smaller camps.

For a people who worked on farms and fished in rivers, it is the feeling of being boxed in that galls the most. The huts touch each other in an unending labyrinth. "I can hear my neighbours fight. I can hear their children throw up. And I can't leave the camp because I am not allowed to," says Mr Abdul Rahim, 61.

LIKE PRISON

There is no future here. My children cannot study. The camp is like prison and I cannot leave it or find work. My wife has no rice to cook. Maybe the world will make it possible for us to go back. Otherwise, I will just spend every day like this and die here.

MR NURUL AMIN (above, with his family), who says he wants to return to Myanmar, even though it is where he dodged death.

Someone his age is rare in the camps where only 3.3 per cent of the people are above 60.

NO PERMANENT HOMES, NO WORK, NO CASH

The Bangladesh authorities laid down the camp rules early: the Rohingya would not be given cash or allowed to work, except for odd-jobs in camps; they could be given relief only in kind; they could not put up any permanent structures in the camps.

"They are afraid that if we are allowed to build proper homes, we will settle here and never go back," says Mr Mohibullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights - a grouping that has become the main voice of the displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh.

But as time passes, these rules are taking their toll.

At 11.30am in the Balukhali camp, no one in Mr Nurul Amin's family of seven has had a bite to eat, except his daughter Nur Fatimah, eight, who was given a biscuit at a learning centre she attends.

"They give us rations of rice, lentils and oil every fortnight," says Mr Amin, 32. "By the 12th day, we start running out of food."

It has been 11 months since he ate meat or vegetables. That was at his village in Myanmar the day before the army came gunning for them on Aug 25. He has not had a cup of tea since then, nor a slice of bread. Every meal is rice and lentil cooked on a clay stove with brackish water over damp firewood by his wife Anwar Jahan, until the rations run out.

In theory, they could buy stale vegetables or cigarettes from Myanmar from one of the little stalls that have sprung up at the mouth of the camps.

Till earlier this year, camp residents used to earn some money by helping build latrines and bridges in the camp. Mr Amin found work for a total of six days over 11 months, earning 400 takas each time, or a total of S$40.

Now the army has taken over most of the construction work to speed things up and, ironically, this has cost the Rohingya a source of income. Mr Amin has found no work since June. "I have exactly zero takas with me," he says.

Mr Mohammed Abdus Salam, head of the Humanitarian Crisis Management Programme of BRAC, a key non-governmental organisation (NGO) offering relief agency, says this policy - which assumed the Rohingya would be in Bangladesh for only a short time - must change.

"We have to give them cash for work. How else do you expect them to survive in the long run?" he says.

His organisation is helping to build shelters, provide water and teach children. NGOs as a whole are fighting heroically to help, but they, too, are starved for funds and have raised only US$260 million (S$355 million) of the US$950 million that they need.

Meanwhile, people need cash to get by. Some are encashing their food vouchers while others are selling the relief material that they get to buy things they need from the stalls. "Already the food is not enough for them," says Dr Anik Sanjoy at a Kutupalong health centre. "When they sell some of it to buy other things, they eat even less."

Almost 13,500 children below the age of five have already been treated for severe malnutrition. The camp is sick, with worms coming out of children's mouths, skin problems breaking out amid poor hygiene and contagious diseases multiplying.

"When 12 people sleep in a room, they pass the germs to each other," says Dr Sanjoy. Hunger among adults is growing fast, he adds. "When there is a shortage of food, the parents go hungry so that their children can eat."

It is normal for Mr Amin and his wife to get by on a single meal a day.

He wakes up at what he guesses is around 5.30am in time for the first namaaz (prayer). After that, it is a question of wondering how to spend the day. "When it gets too muggy inside, I go out. When it rains outside, I come in. Sometimes I take a walk to look for firewood, but today there is nothing to cook. Then I lie down inside for many hours, but sleep doesn't come."

Having taken them in, Bangladesh cannot very well send them back to their deaths, but it refuses to treat them as refugees with rights.

With mounting evidence that the Myanmar army plotted the events of Aug 25, 2017, precisely to eject the Rohingya Muslim minority from the country - it treats them as stateless-it is not reopening its doors to them.

Mr Mohd Eliyas, a rare Rohingya graduate, says the overwhelming feeling in the camps is of mounting depression and helplessness.

"We have mouths but cannot speak," he says. "We have legs but cannot walk. No mouth power, no money power. Only eye power and ear power." Less eloquently, but more wearily, Mr Amin says he wants to return to Myanmar, even though it is where he dodged death.

He and his family cannot continue to live like this, he says. "There is no future here. My children cannot study. The camp is like prison and I cannot leave it or find work. My wife has no rice to cook. Maybe the world will make it possible for us to go back. Otherwise, I will just spend every day like this and die here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 12, 2018, with the headline 'Trapped in a half-life, yearning to break free'. Print Edition | Subscribe