United by pain

Creating avenues for recovery and growth in Rohingya camp

Photo: Wasama Doja, Friendship

Laila Begum squats among thousands in line to receive aid, a tiny infant in her arms. The day the baby was born, Myanmar armed forces and local vigilantes had attacked their village, rounded up the women they fancied and opened fire on everybody else. During the carnage, a woman in labour rushed into Laila’s house, gave birth and died.

Laila already had six daughters and a son to look after. She escaped with all of them and the new born — one family of some 655,000 Rohingya who have fled from genocidal violence across the border since August. From their town in Buthidaung it must have taken several days to get through the forests to a boat that would take them to Bangladesh.

Photo: Wasama Doja

Since she arrived in Bangladesh less than two weeks prior, Laila has been able to show the baby to a doctor, who prescribed breast milk fortifiers. Like all the new arrivals, Laila’s family is dependent on aid from various agencies for basic food and amenities necessary for survival, such as blankets and tarpaulin to make a hut.

In a restrictive camp with no access to the outside economy, no job opportunities, and limited education available to her children, Laila faces a bleak future for her eight children. But for now, the tiny infant has a mother, and Laila has another reason to live.

These stories are truly tragic, because there is little doctors can do for them besides keeping them alive.

A reason to live is a vital first step towards hope. Dr. Rafi AH Siddique who oversees operations at Friendship NGO’s eleven clinics in the Rohingya camp, says he often encounters people who have entirely lost this.

“I’ve met a woman who was held captive in a school with six other girls and gang-raped. Their husbands were killed in front of them, and she was forced to submit or see her child be shot.”

The woman fled when her captors had moved on to another woman, while they were plying her by breaking her joints. There was no way for her to save her son from death, but when they saw her fleeing, they made sure she could see them killing him.

“I didn’t see a single tear when this woman was telling the story,” says Dr. Siddique. He wondered whether she was making it up. But the woman who had fled Myanmar with her was there, and said that she had cried for 12–13 hours continuously, after which she never showed any emotion.

Some people are completely numbed by the trauma, says Dr. Siddique. These stories are truly tragic, because there is little doctors can do for them besides keeping them alive.

However, there are those who still have hope, despite suffering severe trauma. “These are the people whom we can counsel. We have to provide psychiatric care for them.

While Friendship and other NGOs, such as IOM, MSF and WHO are providing basic medical services, psychological services are more limited. MSF runs a lone trauma centre in Kutupalong, where Dr. Siddique sometimes refers patients.

While Friendship’s Health sector works to give its medics basic psychiatric training and start a psychiatric service for adults in coming months, Inclusive Citizenship and Education have started six child-friendly social spaces where children can get play, social time, as well as basic English and numerical skills while recovering from the trauma they have faced.

“Teenagers, particularly girls, have nowhere to go, nowhere to socialize,” says Inclusive Citizenship team leader Ahmed Toufiqur Rahman. “Each day is just passing by for these children, without them developing. So, it’s very important for them to have a safe environment to grow.”

Friendship is planning one more social space, and aims to eventually extend the services to ECD children. “Some children are very traumatized, and might require more involved psycho-social services, which we also hope to provide,” says Toufiq.

Laila has not thought much about her family’s long-term future. “I’m just doing what I need to get by each day,” she says. She will walk back to her shack with the infant in one arm and the 40kg load of aid on her head. For many, the walk home from the distribution point through dirt trails up and down the hills takes more than an hour.

“Each day is just passing by for these children, without them developing. So, it’s very important for them to have a safe environment to grow.”

In Rakhine, even wealthy Rohingya are quite used to walking long distances on hilly terrain, says Dr. Siddique. “They have a very strong human nature. I’ve seen women carry two children in their arms with 30–40 kg on their head.” Back Myanmar, even many relatively wealthy families are subsistence farmers, who need to travel a long way to collect food or wood. Women with infants, therefore learn to trek with heavy loads in addition to one or more babies in their arms. And they prefer to walk barefoot.

“They carry their flipflops, which they have received through relief, but they don’t wear them,” says Dr. Siddique. Direct exposure to the mud causes of a lot of skin diseases.

The physical symptoms, however, are relatively easy to treat. And the hard work of survival is something that Laila and her family might be able to weather. But given their isolated and restricted environment, what remains to be seen is how we can create opportunities to build a life greater than survival.

Naushad Ali Husein is a freelance journalist and senior executive at Friendship NGO.

First published in Dhaka Tribune

Support Friendship’ Rohingya response: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/rohingya-crisis-appeal-get-involved/.

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