The Bangladesh Army is noticeable everywhere, yet we have no problem entering the camp. They seem intrigued by our presence, yet don’t even make a comment or ask for our papers. That’s not what we’re used to, and definitely not what we’ve been expecting. We’re entering the largest refugee camp in the world, where new refugees register every single day, yet there is no fence, no gate and a local market serves as an entrance point. We pass by the guards with Kazi, our facilitator from a befriended Mastul foundation. They have been working in Kutupalong and Balukhali camps since the beginning of the Rohingya Muslim influx in autumn 2017. He navigates smoothly between small camp alleys and explains that half a year ago most of this area was inhabited by elephants, not humans. But the situation in neighboring Myanmar has changed not only peoples’ lives but also impacted the natural life in Bangladesh.
It’s poor, extremely poor. People here seem to have almost nothing. The clothes they have on, maybe a pot, a plate, a rug to sleep on donated by humanitarian organizations. According to the World Food Program, at least 80 percent of the overall refugee population here are relying on life-saving assistance. The first glimpse at the camp from atop a hill just overwhelms. Hundreds of thousands of bamboo huts take over the sprawling landscape of the region. Kutupalong camp used to host 50 000 refugees, but in less than six months it has grown to over half a million. And this is not the only camp in the area of Cox’s Bazar. There are 16 of them! Definitely much smaller, but as poorly supplied as Kutupalong. The scale of this crisis is unimaginable. Since the beginning of August 25, 2017 almost 700 000 Rohingya crossed the Naf river to Bangladesh escaping ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Events that have been almost unnoticed by the Western world are now more and more often called a genocide.
We learn how traumatized this community is already just a few minutes after entering the camp. A group of shoeless kids greet us with a happy “How are you?” and follow us to Mastul’s school. One of the boys, points to the left trying to make me understand where his shelter is and adds immediately: – But my parents not here, my parents …. - and he points his two fingers to his head in a gesture of a firing gun. He repeats it twice. His face shows almost no emotions. – You understand? – he asks me. I am stunned, but I understand. He, just like many other kids here, lost his parents during ethnic cleansing in his country. This first interaction with a Rohingya kid leaves me speechless, because what can you tell an orphan who witnessed his parents murder? And what should your response be to cruelty the world hasn’t seen since Rwanda?
We’re reaching Mastul’s school. It is a space made out of bamboo, like almost everything here, but seems more stable than the surrounding shelters. The grand opening is supposed to take place the next day, despite not everything being ready. There is no money to pay the teachers or to buy books for the kids, but Kazi hopes some donations will come soon. He introduces us to a few fathers who brought their kids. Our camera attracts attention. They want to tell us their story hoping everybody in Europe and USA will find out about the violence in Myanmar and take action.
– We saw the smoke and flames coming from the neighboring village. We didn’t wait long. We took only few things and started running. Not everybody run fast enough. The soldiers were shooting, cutting throats and hands. I think you would go mad if you see this violence. Really go mad. They killed my brother. My son still has wounds on his hand – one of the fathers tells us and summons his son to support his story. The scars are noticeable on his entire arm.
- Can we visit other wounded Rohingya to collect their testimonies? Where are they? Surely there must be many here – I bluntly asked Kazi, but his answer reveals my lack of understanding of the situation. – Almost nobody. There are some sick people in the clinics but not wounded. You see, the road from Myanmar to Bangladesh took them several days, sometimes ten, sometimes twelve. There are no doctors among Rohingya. The wounded ones didn’t make it. Just as many old ones. They didn’t have much food or any medicine.
We’ve read United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ report about the first days of the crisis. Endless lines of malnourished refugees waited at the border with Bangladesh asking to be let in. It took some time and international pressure to make it happen. Bangladesh was not prepared for another wave of refugees. They already admitted big numbers in the 70s and 90s when the Myanmar army attacked Rakhine State. This time however, the scale was massive. People were approaching in boats, on foot and waited sometimes in the river when they couldn’t fit on dry land. Exhausted and hungry, with little children they terrified the Bangladeshi government. A country, where people on average earn about $2 a day, would not be able to carry a burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of new refugees. With economic limitations on one side and international pressure on the other, Bangladesh chose the middle way. It allowed everybody to enter the country but didn’t recognize Rohingya as refugees. This means Rohingya have a relatively safe place to stay with poor services, but no right to work or any additional benefits. The authorities don’t want them to learn Bengali curricula either in order to not to give them the impression they will stay permanently. In addition, the government has negotiated a repatriation process with Myanmar. It was supposed to start at the end of January, however was postponed due to logistical reasons. Both governments declared repatriation would only impact voluntary returns.
- We won’t return without our rights. We want the freedom of movement, access to healthcare, education and government jobs. We will not return without them, otherwise the same will be happening to us over and over again – comments one of the residents of Kutupalong. The camp not only lacks refugees willing to return to Myanmar, but also most have no idea a repatriation deal was to go into effect. But why would they want to return to a country that allowed for executions of entire villages and doesn’t admit any wrong doing? It is difficult to find anybody in the camp who wouldn’t have experienced or witnessed an act of extreme violence. We listen to story after story and can’t believe that the world does not react. Testimonies about slashed throats, burned houses and widespread use of rape as a war tactic are most frequently repeated. Some international organizations conducted interviews with the survivors, but almost nobody is allowed inside Rakhine state to witness the scale of destruction.
Safe shelter in Bangladesh comes with a price. Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camp. The local market attached to the camp is the furthest point they can reach. The Army monitors the only two roads going from the camp to the closest towns of Ukhia and Cox’s Bazar. Nobody without a valid ID will be allowed to cross the check points. So Rohingya organize their life within the camp. There are local vendors, tailors, hairdressers, Mosques. However, the thought of not being entitled to the freedom of movement scares me. A whole life spent in one space! A very rudimentary place like this camp!
It’s hard to believe but there is already an entire generation born inside the camps. Their parents arrived in the 90s and their teenage kids were never given a chance to see how life looks like outside this place. Camp is the only reality they know. They didn’t witness the violence in Myanmar, but better educated than their parents and knowing some English, they try to advocate for the Rohingya cause.
On the first glance, Kutupalong doesn't seem to be a very sad place. Despite the cruelty this community has experienced and the overwhelming poverty they endure, it is the children who command the mood in the camp. About 50 percent of the residents of the camp are less than 18 years old and about 30 percent less than five. Children run around usually shoeless and naked or covered in dirty t-shirts. They play with everything available. Big plastic bottles serve as sleighs, a garbage bag is perfect material for a kite flyer. They are loud and jolly.
I share this remark with Irfan, who has been working in Thangkhali camp, just an additional 20 minute ride from Kutupalong. He admits that children are the center of attention of almost every humanitarian organization working in Bangladesh. Many of them are still malnourished and others are outside even the basic education system the camps have to offer.
- Did you however notice anything odd about the structure of the age children and youth in the camp? – he asks. - They all are very young – I replied not knowing if that’s what he was referring to. - They are, and there are almost no teenage boys among them – he clarified knowing that further explanations are in order. - They didn’t make it to Bangladesh. Genocide in Myanmar was structural. The army targeted boys between 14 and 20 years old - the generation old enough to remember the cruelty and at the same time young enough to return and revenge civilians who died during the ethnic cleansing.
It’s unfair, very unfair, but I can’t resist the comparison of Rohingya situation to the one of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and others coming to Europe. Wherever I worked till now- Serbia, Greece, Spain, I could always envision some solutions to improve the situation. Here however, in the south of Bangladesh where one million refugees face a lifetime in the camps without any rights or freedom of movement, where economy and politics will not allow for a change of their situation, I do not dare to comment. Only one thought crosses my mind: refugees in European camps are lucky. Again, a very unfair conclusion.