Field visit in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Newsletter 31st October 2017

by Marc Elvinger, Chairman Friendship Luxembourg

From 26 to 28 October, 3 days in the field to try to better understand the situation of the Rohigya population who have been driven out of Myanmar since August 26th of this year: more than 600,000 new arrivals in two months — that’s more than the entire population of Luxembourg!! They join some 300,000 refugees who had arrived earlier in successive waves since 1978, i.e. over the last 40 years, in addition to those who found temporary refuge in Bangladesh before continuing on their way to other countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. With well more than a million people out of their country, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities all over the world, as stated by the UN back in 2013.

The camps! I have never experienced anything like this! Crushed between two powerful jaws — on the one side the sheer enormity of the catastrophe — on the other, the individual human tragedies all around.

A disaster of immeasurable scale

For the full 360° circle as far as the eye can see, hills that were previously covered in forest are now under a motley carpet of shanties made of bamboo and plastic. They are dotted with stains of bright red and orange: latrines erected in haste, many of which are already useless because they were not dug deep enough and are now overflowing.

Except for the stifling heat which engulfs these makeshift dwellings in the middle of the day, the weather over the three days of our visit was clement; except for a few drops that fell in the morning of October 28th, it did not rain. But it’s easy to imagine how these hills of red earth, now stripped of all vegetation, will be transformed in the space of only a few hours into a massive morass of mud under the feet of hundreds of thousands of people. Not to mention the risk of landslides. In fact, this is a misuse of the word “risk” — it would really take a miracle for mudslides not to occur and for there to be no victims. As the monsoon season draws to a close, it will soon be the cold that will become the scourge of the camps. During our visit, fever and respiratory infections were already the most frequently diagnosed illnesses in the primary health care centres established by Friendship. Winter is coming, and this problem can only get worse.

And inevitably, next season, the rains will return. For this is the other dimension of this (in)human catastrophe — there seems to be no end to it. A cyclone, a flood — they strike and then pass on. None of that here, and no prospect of an end to it all. Despite its many protests — and even when it sometimes permits itself to call a spade a spade (“ethnic cleansing” in this case) — the so-called international community has shown itself incapable of obtaining anything other than double-talk from the Lady of Rangoon who has long since seen her Nobel Peace Prize go up in the flames and smoke of the Rohingya villages torched by her army. On October 29th, Myanmar began the harvest of the crops abandoned by the Rohingyas. Beyond the sheer cynicism of this action, the message is clear: your rice is no longer your rice and your lands are no longer your lands; don’t bother coming back here!

For sure, this is a crisis that will be with us for the long term — and with it all the individual human tragedies that it engenders.

Unspeakable human tragedies

These human tragedies are embodied, for me, in the image of the old woman, bent and frail, waiting to climb into a lorry to be driven from the registration point for new arrivals at Teknaf to one of the newly-opened camps of Kutipalong and Balukhali in the district of Cox’s Bazar.

She weighed certainly no more than 35 Kg and had just spent more than 20 days fleeing on the journey to get there. Most striking was the patience with which she was waiting in line to be loaded into the lorry that everybody had to take to travel those extra 20 kilometres: no complaints, not a word; her face, if not expressionless, at least stoic. I was incapable of interpreting her state of mind: courage, despair… or mere exhaustion?

There are tens of thousands of human dramas such as this in this disaster situation that take place every day …yesterday, today, tomorrow …..

Don’t remain paralysed

There is of course a risk of remaining paralysed in the face of this double pressure; the task is too big; the human suffering is too profound, too absurd and too scandalous. With the intention of trying to do everything the way one would like, there is a temptation to give up and do nothing at all.

But as much as emotion may lead to the risk of paralysis, it can also bring stimulus and hope.

The image of children, many of whom will never cease to play and enjoy themselves as soon as they have the opportunity, is striking in an otherwise unbearable environment.

As is the story of the old man, who had fled for more than a week from soldiers who had attacked his village, firing rockets from a helicopter; he thought he had lost all the members of his family, but then in one of the primary healthcare centres that Friendship operates in the Balukhali camp, came face to face with his sister. Their tears were tears of joy, shed in a place of such unhappiness.

And so, whereas it is important to start by becoming familiar with the environment of these camps and the experiences of those who have found refuge there, it is equally important at a certain point to take some distance and to move into action mode. That is exactly what Friendship has done, starting in the first week of October by operating 4 primary healthcare centres and an ambulance serving as a mobile medical analysis unit. Each of the healthcare centres is about to be flanked by a play and welcome area for children as well as a listening space for the use of those who are traumatised by the extreme violence that they have experienced: murder, systematic rape, unspeakable cruelty … A birthing centre and a field maternity unit are being set up to become operational within one and two months respectively. Access to clean water and water purification are particularly critical to minimise the large-scale outbreak of infectious diseases across such dense concentrations of people. From this week onwards, Friendship will establish a significant number of deep tube wells, bathing spaces and latrines.

In order to ease communication in the camps, Friendship has built a significant number of bamboo bridges; also, in order to increase security, particularly of women, lightening solutions are being worked on. You can find more information here.

All this calls for enormous resources, and of course, we are not the only participants. But we can play our part to contribute towards lightening the burden that the Rohingyas, once again, are forced to carry. While we have been able to mobilise significant resources through development and humanitarian aid agencies (such as the Cooperation agencies of France, Luxembourg and Sweden, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)) private donations are crucially important both for the flexibility with which they can very often be allocated and for the credibility they bring in support of efforts to mobilise additional public funding.

In this way, any support you can offer will be particularly important.

I would nevertheless like to emphasise that in parallel with this “extraordinary” work that Friendship is undertaking in support of the Rohingya community — as well as the unusually extensive rehabilitation work that is still being undertaken in the aftermath of the exceptional floods that hit the North of Bangladesh in August and September of this year — we must take care to minimise the impact of these emergencies on our ongoing programmes. This is true of how we allocate the human resources at our disposal to ensure both that our work is carried out as planned and that quality is assured. It applies equally to raising the necessary finances to allow us to sustain our programmes.

Therefore, all support for our current operations in the fields of Health, Education, Food Security and Good Governance will also be greatly appreciated. We shall continue to respect scrupulously your choice of allocation. For your donations, please click here.

Thank you, as always, for your support.

For more information about Friendship please visit www.friendship.ngo.

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