Horror and Healing: Inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps of Bangladesh

I knew the situation was beyond horrific from everything I’d read and seen online over the last year. I still wasn’t prepared for what we would see.

I knew the situation was beyond horrific from everything I’d read and seen online over the last year. I still wasn’t prepared for what we would see.

I recently visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, as part of a monitoring trip with Penny Appeal. I knew the situation was beyond horrific from everything I’d read and seen online over the last year. I still wasn’t prepared for what we would see.

Stepping foot inside the Rohingya refugee camps

Refugee camps are like a holding place. A temporary location before the group of people move on to a permanent location – whether that’s where they lived before, or somewhere new entirely where they can build a brand new life. The refugee camps in Cox’s bazaar are no different. They’re temporary. On 15,000 acres of hilly land, there are temporary shelters for almost 1 million people. The land used to be home to wild elephants and beautiful wildlife. The land was covered in trees, and was used for farming by the host community. The emergency camps were built on the elephants’ natural habitat and roaming grounds, and eventually, the elephants were removed. The trees and farming land were rapidly replaced by temporary shelters. The elephants are considered to be part of the country’s natural beauty and there is a genuine sense of loss among those living in neighbouring areas.

When you first enter the camps, two things immediately strike you. The first is the sheer magnitude of the crisis. Wherever you are stood in the camps, you can look out and for miles and miles you’ll just see temporary houses built so closely together, almost on top of each other. From certain angles, the shelters look similar to model houses you’d make as primary school projects using matchsticks, lollypop sticks and tin foil, and covered in green and red PVA paint. It was so cramped, I wondered how people were able to walk through the camps, and what awful outcomes there would be should there be a fire. The fire would spread within a few minutes, and the entire base would be reduced to ash. The thought scared me deeply, and I reminded myself that this is just temporary, and sooner or later, these people will be living in better conditions. The second thing that strikes you is the smell. There is a really strange smell, a mixture of earth, human waste, body odour and that strong smell that comes from a dumpsite or when you open the plastic bin outside your house. The smell comes in wafts, sometimes barely noticeable, and at other times so bad that you need to walk away. It gets worse when it rains, and stronger in the more densely populated parts of the camp.

Some of the shelters are made from bamboo, tarpaulin and corrugated metal, and you can see thick rope used to tie together more complex building structures. Typically these shelters have a mat on the floor, and a designated kitchen area. Other shelters are a simple tent, or a very basic bamboo structure covered by a cotton sheet. While sat with a group of women, they told me how when they first came they had just a cotton sheet with a few pieces of very thin wood, and this is what they had used for shelter for several months until Penny Appeal provided them with a more strong shelter. If you look closely at the roof – which is a series of thick bamboo wood made into a complicated structure to stop it from falling apart – you can still see a sheet of cotton, maybe an old bed sheet, or a large scarf that was once draped along with a sari, that was once white, but is now black and covered in dust. They told me the sheet is there as a form of symbolism for themselves; a reminder of the journey they’ve been on, and the way things have improved. It’s a sign of hope that no condition is temporary, and one day everything here too will get better.

The women and widows of Myanmar

There is a very strong feeling among families that they’d miraculously fled such brutal persecution, and that Bangladesh was where they were supposed to end up. I sat with 60-year old Fatima Bibi, who smiled as she saw me scratch my head and rub my hand across my forehead as I thought about the best way to pose my questions. I knew she carried with her years of pain and suffering, and I was so worried about making her feel like nothing but a few notes on my scruffy notepad. But she gently touched my arm, smiled and nodded her head. I knew we were good. She wore a dark green sari, and sat huddled with her knees close to her chest. Her grey hair peeked out of the scarf she’d draped on her head, and I knew the lines on her face and hands would reveal more than her age. Even before I had the chance to ask her anything, she started to sing. Quietly at first, and then she got louder; her voice was gentle and sweet, high-pitched and so pleasant. I didn’t understand what she was saying but she did mention ‘Bangladesh’ a few times. She explained that while she used to wash her clothes or clean the house, she’d sing this song. It was about how life in Myanmar is so difficult, but people in Bangladesh are free. Looking at her small, basic shelter, I wondered if she truly felt free. When I asked her how she feels now she is here, she only uttered words of huge thanks, first to God, and for all the support she’s been given from various NGOs. And the fact that she’s still alive.

Like so many others, Fatima Bibi has an extremely tragic story. Fatima explained how in Myanmar, she had no freedom to enjoy her life, that she often did not have enough food to eat and that she always lived in fear. She managed to escape Myanmar with her 8 year old grandson. She began to run the day her village was attacked, and her husband and her son were shot dead right in front of her. Her neighbours and friends helped her escape, and after a boat ride to what is known as ‘Point Zero’, she walked for 5 days continually to reach the camps at Cox’s Bazaar. She wept as she spoke lovingly of her husband, and how he used to buy her gifts and insist she adorned herself with pretty saris and jewellery – all of which she had to leave behind as she fled for her life. I found myself fiddling with my wedding ring as she spoke, and my mind filled with sweet thoughts of my own husband. In that moment my heart was filled with great comfort and peace knowing that he’d be waiting for me at home in the UK. She spoke of how we never know what life is going to throw at us, and how she wishes she had spent more time showing her husband how grateful she was for all he did for her. I felt a strong urge to pick up my phone and call my husband, just to tell him how much he means to me. Figures suggest that Fatima is one of approximately 30,000 widows living in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Penny Appeal has constructed a set of shelters in the form of a village, where widowed women can live together with their children, building a sense of community among them. Fatima is living in a shelter in our widows’ village, which has bigger rooms and more amenities. Not only is her home more robust now, but there are individual male and female toilets, a tube well and a designated kitchen space. She feels she has enough space for herself and her grandson, and is surrounded by other supportive women. Fatima says that everyone has been through so much, and these women can all understand each other’s pain and suffering. The love and sisterhood is helping her heal and look forward to moving on with her life.

Building safe spaces for women

The situation for women living in the camps is horrifying. Almost everyone has a tale of abuse, torture, loss, murder or sacrifice to tell, and thousands of women were raped. A lot of women have internalised guilt and shame from being raped and attacked in Myanmar. Many women who became pregnant as a result of rape at the hands of the forces in Burma hid their pregnancies out of shame, or desperately tried to abort the baby themselves. Not only has this put a huge physical and medical burden on them, but it has meant they have been carrying a massive emotional and psychological burden.

Penny Appeal is working to establish women-friendly spaces. These are confidential spaces within the camps where no man is allowed to enter. It provides women with somewhere to go to relax, talk to others and get help and support. The centres offer women a non-judgemental service with trained counsellors and medical paramedics, where they are able to discuss their coping strategies and to make plans for their future. In some centres, women are even provided vocational training, so they can learn a skill they are able to use to generate an income. This includes sewing and embroidery. Even while living in the camps, this skill helps women make clothes for their children or provide a tailoring service to others. More importantly, it gives them a skill they will be able to use in the future to rebuild their lives.

There were a number of sewing machines in one of the Women Friendly Spaces we visited, and that’s where I met 45-year old Hanifa. Wearing complete black, she quickly covered her face and shied away as she saw my big camera. I hastened to put it away, and as I did so, she touched my hand and removed her veil from her face. Hanifa has been using the centre as a place to meet other women, relax and rest. When she first arrived, she was so overwhelmed by everything, and often needed advice from a doctor. She said the centre gave her access to a trained paramedic, as well as a counsellor. She told me she used to have nightmares of the day they escaped, and so did her children. She was able to talk to a counsellor about what she’s experienced, which helped her to process and work through her trauma. Hanifa enrolled in a programme where she learnt sewing and embroidery. She showed me some samples of beautiful embroidery – pink and red flowers with bright green leaves in the design. She told me how she is able to do stitching for her neighbours and this gives her a small income. It means that her children can enjoy something special, like sweets or fresh fruit, although she is trying to save as much money as she can. She told me she is sure everything will work out in the end, and they won’t be staying in this place forever.

Saving young lives

We visited a number of Penny Appeal projects in the camps where the impact of our interventions, around health and nutrition in particular, are making a huge difference to the lives of refugees.

Penny Appeal is working with Concern Worldwide on an Outpatient Therapeutic Programme (OTP). The Centre receives hundreds of patients each day, including children suffering from malnutrition, and lactating mothers who need further support. When patients arrive at the clinic, they undergo a series of tests to determine whether they can be treated in the clinic, or whether they require referral to a hospital or other specialist health service.

When children are brought into the clinic, they undergo a series of assessment tests. Almost every child is suffering from some form of malnutrition. The assessments check their weight, height, arm circumference, and the thickness of feet to determine water retention and their posture. This is compared to what the average a child their age should be, and is thus determined whether they are suffering from acute or severe malnutrition. The child is then assessed through a series of interview questions with the mother and a trained paramedic to determine the child’s diet, wellbeing, and living environment. The child is always put on a course of antibiotics to ensure they fight off any infections they are dealing with. The child is either then immediately started on a course of medication and supplements to treat the malnutrition, or is referred to a hospital for more specialised support.

I met one year old Imaan in the centre. Imaan had the loveliest smile, and she giggled sweetly as she was placed in a weighing machine, which was much like a red plastic tub, swinging from the roof. She wore a dark grey vest that looked like it wouldn’t do much to keep her warm. It was made from a thin material, and looked like it would tear very easily. She cried as the staff tried to measure her height, and her mother gently picked her up to comfort her. She instantly soothed and stared directly at me. I wondered how much horror her big, brown eyes had already seen. She was 40 days old when her home village in Myanmar was attacked and her family had to escape to find safety. Their village was being burnt, people were being kidnapped, tortured and killed. Imaan’s mother managed to escape with Imaan’s father and a few of their family members. Imaan is living in a temporary shelter with her mother and father. Imaan has developed Severe Acute Malnutrition, and has been receiving treatment for the past three days at our Outpatient Therapeutic Programme centre. She has made remarkable progress, and is gaining strength each day. She is now growing and developing in the same way a child her age should. Imaan’s mother is also receiving support where she is being taught about breastfeeding, health and nutrition.

Growing up too soon

While I was speaking to people in the centre, a girl who must have been no older than 10 years of age, walked in. She was very slim, and I suspected that maybe she too wasn’t receiving as much food as a growing girl of her age needed. She had short, black hair which she had attempted to tie back, but the hair clip was slowly falling out. She brushed her hair away from her eyes several times. She wore a scruffy looking black dress with grey cotton trousers.  She had brought in her younger sister with her, who was about 18 months old. She carried the child on her hip as if she weighed no more than a feather, and she sat down and waited patiently to be seen by a paramedic. The baby had no hair, and I thought maybe she had caught nits and it was the easiest way to deal with the problem. I watched them both for a few moments, wondering if her mother was also going to come in. My colleague turned to me and said: “She’ll be married soon.”

I thought I’d misheard her, as I couldn’t even fathom that this small girl would soon be married. The ladies began to explain to me that this is what happens among the refugee families for the benefit of the girls. Women live in fear of the future, unaware of what to expect. Families worry they may be victims of abuse again. As a form of protection, women get their daughters married at a young age, in hope that they will get pregnant. They believe that a woman who is married, especially if she is pregnant or with a small child, is less likely to be abused and raped. In cases where there are large families, girls and boys are married at a young age so that they may become an independent household and thereby be entitled to more food or aid supplies. This does not come out of greed, but the sheer shortage of food and supplies.

Each evening as we left the camps and travelled two and a half hours back to the hotel we were staying in, it felt surreal. We’d drive through beautiful Bangladeshi landscapes, by the sea and the beach and past miles and miles of green farmland. The further we drove, the more shops, hotels, restaurants and people we’d see. The further away we got, the more “normal” things seemed. It was almost as if what we had visited in the camps wasn’t reality… because it is so shocking and horrific, can we actually accept it as real? The visit left me shaken to my core, and I have continued to monitor the situation eagerly to see how and when these people will be offered the opportunity to rebuild their lives, and live happily as people – all people – should be free to do.

You can support Penny Appeal’s efforts to help the Rohingya here.

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