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Just under two years ago, an increase in violence forced over 700,000 Rohingya people to flee their homes in Myanmar. They escaped burning villages and horrific bloodshed, and many saw family members killed in front of them. Now, having sought safety in what has become the largest refugee camp in the world - Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh - they face a different danger: hunger.
We meet some of the faces behind the statistics and listen to their stories: stories of suffering, but also of survival.
Almost a million Rohingya people live in Cox’s Bazar – more than half of whom are children. Already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, it is unsurprising that the camp is severely overcrowded.
Tahira* is 9 months old. She lives in Cox’s Bazar with her aunt, Reshma*, who adopted her after her sister died during childbirth. Cradling Tahira on the mud floor of the family’s shelter, Reshma tells the heart-breaking story of how the family escaped Myanmar.
She explains how one day all the houses in her village were burned, and her own home destroyed.
Reshma and about 500 others from her community fled. They walked for twelve treacherous days to reach the camp, sharing the scarce food they had out among themselves until it ran out two days before they made it to safety.
Along the way, Reshma met her sister, who was heavily pregnant with Tahira. And although they survived the journey and reached the camp, Reshma’s sister tragically died shortly after giving birth to Tahira.
Reshma adopted Tahira as a newborn, and has since done all she can to keep her safe, even building a makeshift cot suspended from the ceiling of her temporary shelter to rock Tahira to sleep. However, she couldn’t breastfeed her, and powdered milk is hard to come by in the camp, which meant Tahira became malnourished. Reshma took her to one of Concern’s nutrition centres where she was given a rich peanut paste, which meant she has since put on almost a kilo and a half, and her health has improved.
Concern currently provides nutrition services to women and children in nine camps. However, one in six Rohingya children under the age of five in the camps are malnourished, which means around 32,000** children are still in need of urgent support and care.
Menara* and her family fled Myanmar after seeing her neighbours’ houses burned to the ground. Back home, her husband used to work as a farmer and two of her children went to school. They were happy before the conflict took everything away from them.
They fled with not much more than the clothes on their backs, and Menara says all they wanted was to stay alive and reach the safety of Bangladesh.
Menara, her husband and eight children walked for 16 days through the jungle, because the roads were too dangerous. They slept under polythene papers at night. On the way they collected rice from other abandoned houses and cooked in a small stove which they made on the roadside.
Many people didn’t survive the journey. Menara and her family were lucky.
Once Menara and her family reached the border they had yet more hurdles to jump – the boatmen would only take them across if they paid. Thankfully, they had some money.
Eventually they arrived in the camp, but they had nothing, and were in desperate need of shelter and the most basic items in order to live. Concern gave them mats to sleep on, blankets to keep them warm at night, soap so they could wash themselves, and a container to collect water. Simple items which have made a huge difference.
Menara says that they the children are less traumatised than when they first arrived, and can play football nearby.
However, all the family really want is to go home.
Lukia* had just got married one week before the conflict started. She lived with her family in Myanmar, where her father was a fisherman. Her father’s income meant they were able to eat rice, dry fish, vegetables and daal. However, with no land or cattle, they still struggled economically. But at least they lived peacefully.
When their house was destroyed, Lukia lost her parents, brother and husband. She only survived because she was outside at the time. She was shocked to see everything in the village was on fire, but despite being traumatised, fearing for her own life, she knew she had to leave.
Lukia walked for two days with her neighbours, and eventually reached Dhonkhali near the Naf River. However, her journey wasn’t yet over.
She didn’t have money to give the boatmen to cross the river, and so she stayed for 12 days in a tent with others who were also fleeing. Eventually she managed to send word to her elder sister who had managed to reach Cox’s Bazar. Her sister in law and nephew went to the border and took her with them by boat.
All the time she was worried whether she would even survive the boat ride, or whether she would be killed on the way.
When she arrived in the camp, Lukia was given mats, a blanket, soap and a water container from Concern.
The mats and blanket help Lukia to keep out the cold at night. And she and her family can collect water with the new container.
Although Lukia says she feels safe now, she is still worried about her future. She would like to get married again and start a new life. But most of all she wants to go back home.
You can help, by supporting Concern’s work with the Rohingya people in Bangladesh
* Name changed for security purposes
** Based on Smart Survey May 2019