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Standing on a muddy hilltop in the world’s largest refugee camp is an overwhelming experience. A vast and sprawling mosaic of blue, green and orange tarpaulin roofs stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance, the hills of Rakhine State are visible. An ever-present reminder, on the one hand, of a cherished homeland and, on the other, a place of suffering.
It was from there in Myanmar that almost three-quarters of a million Rohingya people have fled since August 2017. Confronted with unspeakable violence, those who survived ran for their lives. They hid in forests and walked only at nightfall, many of them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to face the final obstacle to freedom - the Naf River. Old and young, pregnant and ill – made their way across to safety in Bangladesh.
Descending from the hilltop to one of scores of similar hand-built family shelters - an intricate structure of bamboo and canvas - we crouch low under the doorway and are welcomed inside. The room is dark and silent - it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust. Then it becomes clear. The scale of loss and pain inside this home is as overwhelming as it is outside. And not just in this one place, few lives have been left untouched.
Mohamed Zakir* and Fowzia* and their three children are just one of the million Rohingya people living in this giant camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. We sit together on a mat on the floor of their home and listen to their stories of sadness. Mohamed and Fowzia lost three of their young children - two sons and a daughter - when they were fired upon as they fled across the river in a fishing boat. The vessel capsized and sank. Only one of their children’s bodies was recovered.
Mohamed Zakir is a broken man, his troubled eyes remain glazed as he speaks. He admits in his own words that he feels “numb and empty.” And to compound their loss, the five of them who survived are now “left with nothing”.
“We have no food - only what we are given,” he admits. “I have no money and no hope. Now, we depend on others for help.”
The struggles of people like Mohamed Zahir and Fowzia who call this place home are countless. They live side by side with strangers, share washing and latrine facilities, and rely on fortnightly food aid distributions. They have few belongings, no land of their own, and have limited means to earn a living.
It is a precarious existence. One young mum tearfully confides in us that she sells a portion of her food rations - rice, lentils and oil - to buy fuel to enable her to cook what remains. Her survival depends on impossible choices that no one should ever be forced to make.
Humanitarian relief agencies like Concern Worldwide also face many challenges. The infrastructure is basic. Access by road to distant camps is difficult, and houses built on steep hillsides are only reachable by foot across makeshift bridges and up hand-dug steps reinforced with bamboo and sand bags.
Buildings are also vulnerable to the wind and rain. After our heartbreaking family visit, we walk downhill to one of Concern’s eight nutrition outpatient centres which is being rebuilt a few metres away from the original because of flooding. Standards are important to Concern so it is vital that our buildings are safe and secure if our work to screen and treat malnourished children is to continue. The roofs of other nutrition centres on higher ground have to be routinely tied down with rope to withstand damaging monsoon storms.
In this challenging environment, the local government and agencies are providing the essentials - shelter, food and nutrition support, clean water, sanitation and hygiene, protection and health care. But more than that, they are also helping to ‘normalise’ life for those displaced.
Concern has set up safe spaces for women to breastfeed their babies, and other agencies have provided places for the elderly, and play areas for children. Everyday life must continue as best it can.
The camp is alive and buzzing like any sprawling city - for that is what it has become. Elderly men are having their hair cut, older teenage boys are welding iron frames, children are carrying buckets of water on their heads, and women are buying vegetables from the market. We stop to let a group of men balancing a wardrobe on a motorbike pass us on a narrow bridge.
That sense of ‘normality’ is also glimpsed inside people’s homes. We visit a house where the walls inside are decorated with intricate mehndi-type designs, proudly painted by 12-year-old Bushra*. In another, we are shown a handcrafted baby’s cradle suspended from the ceiling - used to rock nine-month-old baby Tahira* to sleep.
Resilience and adaptability shine through even in the worst of circumstances for these broken and displaced Rohingya people.
*names changed for security reasons