The following article is made possible by a grant from the Fondation Alcea as part of Global Geneva’s ‘Youth Writes’ (Young Journalists & Writers Programme). This seeks to promote young writers among high school students, but also to highlight awareness of critical global issues, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and challenges facing young people.
“We are alive. We are safe in Bangladesh. We are happy that our children can learn here,” calmly reflects Mohammed, a father of three, as we escape the intense midday heat in a covered tea shop. A well-presented and educated man, he was formerly employed by Care International in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and now volunteers with the Danish Refugee Council in the camps. He adds: “Of course, we want to go back to Myanmar, our home, but only if we are safe and given citizenship rights.”
Fleeing with his family and not much else, he left behind a home, a shop, and 22 acres of farm land. In order to reach safety, he had to pay the extortionate $60 per person (borrowed from a friend) for the ferry across the Naf river, the natural land border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. He shakes his head. “Refugee life is not good,” he says. “But we are not powerful people. It is up to the UN and other international organizations.”
A brutal genocide
More than a year and a half have passed since the Rohingya, a mainly Muslim – and stateless – ethnic group (a minority are Hindu) came here in their droves, fleeing their homes in Burma, as a barbaric ethnic cleansing arrived in their villages, burning houses, raping, and butchering colossal numbers. Over 750,000 survivors of this genocide now live in Bangladesh, in dense sprawling refugee camps in a region called Cox’s Bazar, just across the Burmese border.
While many observers are reluctant to refer to mass killings of ethnic groups as ‘genocide’, a September 2018 United Nations fact-finding report clearly stipulated that top Myanmar military officials should be “investigated and prosecuted” for genocide and human rights atrocities against the Rohingya and other minority groups in Myanmar. On the basis of a 2018 legal assessment made by the Public International Law and Policy Group, the U.S. State Department similarly maintains that the killings and persecution represent genocide. This is strenuously denied by the military-backed Myanmar government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate now supporting the Rangoon regime.
Hopes of repatriation to their homes in Rakhine state are fading. So is the goodwill and hospitality in Bangladesh, an already over-populated and under-resourced nation. The sprawling camps have spread across a protected and once densely forested area inland from the scenic coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, a favourite tourist spot, famed for its 120km of unbroken beach. The local community, one of the most economically stressed in the country, has been enveloped into the crisis, either benefiting from new sources of income, or discomforted and angered by the consequences of a sudden swelling of population. Conflicts between the local and refugee populations are increasing pressure on the Dhaka government to seek a solution to this dire situation.
Recently based in the nearby Indian state of Assam, I made a month-long overland trip through Bangladesh, including a week in Cox’s Bazar. Having spent three years managing an international NGO in Malawi focused on youth development, I particularly wanted to explore the situation among young refugees. I was able to visit the camps three times, gaining a glimpse into the arduous five-hour commute there and back that both local and foreign aid workers experience each day. Hampered by clogged roads, the route now utilizes the beach at low-tide as a highway to bypass the collapsed main road exiting the town.
Rohingya refugees: Barely enough to survive
I only scratched the surface of the vast expanse of this ramshackle bamboo-built refugee city, guided on foot along a maze of paths by asylum seekers wearing T-shirts emblazoning their status as NGO volunteers. I’m met with a mix of excitement, warmth, indifference, and occasionally suspicion. The scale of the camps, housing nearly a million Rohingya, is difficult to comprehend, and more so, the density. It’s dusty and hot with few trees remaining to offer desperately-needed shade. Sturdy bamboo bridges and crafted steps draw the eye, with concrete drains and sloping-bank reinforcements revealing the considerable efforts to prepare for the coming monsoon season in June.
It is a mass of vegetable markets, barbers, tea shops, restaurants, basket weavers, electronic accessory stores, and tuk-tuk (motor scooter rickshaws) drivers. “Businesses sprung up as soon as we arrived,” a young driver recalls. Wearing skinny jeans and a stylish black-and-white patterned shirt, he lies casually reclined in the back seat of his tuk-tuk, slightly suspicious of my interest in him and his taxi business. Three weeks as a driver, renting the vehicle from a Bangladeshi businessman, was earning him roughly $3-4 profit daily, barely enough to support his teenage sister and father.
The camps are their own bustling entrepreneurial economy, with formal employment not permitted for refugees, and the basic food rations only just enough to survive on. Some with means have managed to escape to the towns, notably Dhaka. This includes enterprising Rohingya dealers in cahoots with the Bangladeshi drug mafia, mostly trafficking in highly debilitating cheap methamphetamine pills known as yaba.
The same priorities drive families here as they would anywhere in the world, chiefly education and good nourishment of their children. As with Syrian or Iraqi refugees living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, they will spend their last taka (the Bangladesh currency) on paying for books, schooling or extra food. Some find low-paid work with NGOs, whilst many rely on money sent from the international Rohingya diaspora. A repeated story is that of community support, where those in need are given food by those who have enough.
A collective trauma of psychological scars and grief
Their stories strike deep and varied emotional chords, from violence and sexual violations, to tales of inspiring generosity and kinship, and the daily strain and hopelessness of their current situation. A collective trauma leaves this vast sea of human souls with psychological scars and complex grief to process, or hide their pain from witnessing atrocities. It could take another lifetime to unpack.
I sat down with Nazir, a smiling, well-built 31-year-old man, in one of the many tea shops that strive for business amongst the numerous alleyways and main thoroughfares in the camps. “I carried my grandmother, of 90 years, for four days to reach Bangladesh,” he explains as we shared slices of refreshing watermelon. “We travelled across mountains, and through thick jungles, in groups of many thousands. It was rainy season, so the ground was very muddy, making it difficult to walk.’
Nazir pauses, shrugging his shoulders slightly, almost apologetically. “There were militants looking for us. Many Rohingya were killed when they reached the Naf river.” Then, almost matter-of-factly, he continued, ‘My grandmother thought she would be left to die. She is still alive now, and in good health. We have a special bond because I carried her.”
For an outsider, such stories are overwhelming. Since then, I have spoken to my own grandmother, herself 95 and only slightly older than Nazir’s, and found myself telling her of Nazir’s awe-inspiring ability to survive coupled with his dedication to carry his relative to safety. Close to him in age, I could not help but wonder whether I would have the same strengths were life to deal me a similar hand.
Over the days, I moved between makeshift classrooms, adult discussion forums, and tea shops to listen and talk to people. Many do not want their names used. The conversational breeze was always heavily laden with fearful if not graphic stories of human trafficking, for organs, sexual exploitation or forced labour in the camps. “Two bodies of children were found. One with the chest and the other with the stomach cut open,” one young man grimly revealed. Bangladesh has been an organ trafficking hub for more than twenty years, despite major counter-efforts; the Rohingya now represent the latest vulnerable targets.
Trafficking and rape: I don’t dare leave the house at night
It is difficult to verify exact numbers, particularly sexual abuse. Many cases go unreported for fear of social stigma. Very few young women are willing to shout out or say that they have been violated. Any young woman who has been ‘touched’ is – by convention – no longer considered desirable for marriage. So they remain quiet. And the abuses continue. ‘I don’t leave the house at night because I’m scared,” admits one 10-year-old girl, who speaks up with confidence during a UNICEF school session. “Every night I think a kidnapper is going to tear a hole where I sleep and take me.”
Those with a clearer vision of the current situation maintain that human trafficking was far worse when they first arrived. UN and NGO efforts to spread awareness and advice have been making a significant positive impact. The flip side to this, however, is the increased fear that most, whether young and old, live with each day, and night. They are too scared to go to the toilet after dark, their eyes and ears tuned to strange faces and noises.
One can only imagine the fear of the 10-year old’s, or any child for that matter, fearful of these shadowy kidnappers, and sounds in the night. And yet, they have no choice but to live in these unpoliced camps haunted by real stories circulating amidst their worst nightmares – from both before and after their exile – and the constant fears of their parents.
One 18-year-old girl remembers what happened as I talk with her at a learning centre run by BRAC, an international NGO: “They threw kids thrown into pits of fire. They stabbed them in the stomach. My auntie was raped. I heard and saw other young girls being raped. When I crossed the river, I saw dead children’s faces float past me.”
How does one convey such experiences and emotions, particularly during a conversation requiring two interpreters to channel questions and answers. I study her light-brown eyes, as much as is appropriate without being rude. They stare back, regardless of the de-humanizing savagery they have witnessed, unflinching and barely suggestive of the complex tempest of feelings that must lie within.
When I ask how she copes, she replies: “Learning and being productive make me feel good. I like coming to this BRAC centre to learn about health and hygiene.” The child-friendly space where she speaks has been open for the past two months. “Before I came here, I would spend my days at home, mostly thinking about what had happened.” Her friend, a girl of 15, who also spoke with the confidence of someone many years older, told me: “I want to be educated, and learn to use a computer, so I can learn about the Myanmar situation. I want to know how to solve the problem. I want the violence to stop.”
I suspect that I will never again meet such a pair of eyes, or exchange words with one so clear and justified in her life focus. At the same time, there are probably thousands like her. The determination to survive among so many young people is striking. Both girls wanted to tell their truths, generously, and without a hint of needing sympathy.
As I leave, I try to explain the realistic – and above all, probably limited – reach of any words I would pen on their behalf. One wonders what impact such reporting will have. And yet, they stand undaunted in the doorway. They both appear to acknowledge – and appreciate – my honesty as an outsider. As a British citizen, it is highly unlikely that I will become a refugee in my lifetime, or experience what they have. But were this to happen, I wonder who would house me, or speak out for me. Nevertheless, the eldest smiles: “We just want people to know what happened to us.”
Louis Parkinson is a former Country Director of Chance For Change in Malawi. He is now more than two years into writing and travelling the world (sometimes on a bicycle).