In the past one and a half years, as a communicator and storyteller for World Vision, I have been deployed to emergencies, including floods, cyclones, and landslides. I have met many affected by natural hazards. But this was my first experience in a protracted crisis, something new and different. When I was intimated about my deployment to the Myanmar-Bangladesh refugee crisis, my mind burst with multiple thoughts. My family was concerned, but respected my decision to go. My office handpicked me for this mission. And the mission meant sharing with the world stories of those who left everything behind, their homes, and possessions and fled their homeland to save their lives. It was a responsibility I desired to shoulder.
Early on 17 September, we travelled 430km from Dhaka to the refugee camps. Upon arriving at Kutupalong Camp in Cox’s Bazar District, as I glanced outside my window, I saw people of different ages walking, in the hopes of finding a habitable refugee camp. Some were visibly exhausted, others resting on the roadside. Each one seemed tense, afraid and clueless, but amidst these challenges I experienced, first hand, the warmth and care of refugees from Myanmar.
My first glimpse of their plight came knocking on my door when 7-year-old Osman took me into his makeshift tent and, like any friendly child, introduced with his parents. They barely had anything; no food, water and struggling with poor sanitation.
While I took notes and moved to other parts of the camp, I had to cross a big drain, overflowing with rainwater to get to the other side. As I was about to wade through the speedy currents, an arm stretched out. It was a refugee who was heading to the camp, grappling with waters infiltrating his only refuge. He offered me support, despite the fact that he himself was struggling to provide a shelter for his family. I saw the spirit of humanity preserved in his grip. Exiting the murky waters, all I could do to reciprocate was to direct them to the campsite.
As I engaged with more and more people, the weight of their ordeal was no longer a distant news headline that could easily be ignored. It was real; it was heart breaking. From Sahara’s retelling her husband’s death during violence that erupted in late August to Rayhana’s adjustment, living in a small cramped space with her family of six, the 617,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar from Myanmar were no longer a number or impersonal collective to me , as they took on, slowly, personal identities.
Sahara trusted me enough to share her grief of losing her spouse with me. “My husband named our first baby ‘Siddika’ [a woman for truthfulness]. Only one month after her birth, I lost my husband, who was killed during violence that erupted in Myanmar." Her home was targeted by arsons, and was still smouldering in fire when she escaped.
Nothing that I could have done before my visit would have mentally prepared me to experience the pain of those who survived. Thousands displaced, with no place to go and no future to envision. Their escape pushed them to focus only on the now on an auto-pilot survival mode. The newest arrivals, including more than 225,000 children, are living in over crowded camps or makeshift shelters with cramped space, and inadequate food, water and sanitation systems. Everywhere we walked, another child was falling sick due to poor hygiene, intermittent rains that flooded camps, threadbare tents, empty stomachs or still-undiagnosed reasons due to lack of health care.
Tackling my mission to capture the stories through visuals, I encountered another woman eager to share her experience and that of her community members. "Come please, I will show you a child whose father has been killed. " she said, pulling on my arm.
“Many people were killed in our village. Around 400 to 500 may have died. They told us to leave the country. So we fled from there. It has been ten days since we reached Bangladesh. We walked for miles without food. We drank water from the rivers. We had to cross hills and rivers to escape the violence. With each step, we were afraid because we feared bullets could hit us anytime, from anywhere.
“We carried my 5-month-old grandchild, *Shab. It was raining as we took our chances on slippery, muddy roads. Several times my daughter, *Rohina, fell down on the ground. Luckily *Shab survived. My son in-law, *Asif, could have helped us if he only were alive. But he was killed in the violence. So my daughter and I took turns carrying my grandchild. Sleeping in the jungle was the most scary, dangerous experience with the roaming wild animals.. But we had no choice - we had to take rest there,” said *Rosa sBegum, who now shelters in a refugee camp with her 20-year-old daughter, *Rohina, and grandchild *Shab.
My whole body shivered as she narrated her story. All I could do was lend a listening ear. But Rohina seemed unusually calm. I wondered how she would have processed her grief? Perhaps because her children are safe now and away from the violence that took her husband’s life? But I was wrong to have made that assumption. Her mother whispered to me that her daughter had been forced to watch her husband’s massacre. Only then did I realize a sad truth: One person’s calm is another’s muted shock and grief.
The infant in her lap was one month old. My capacity to reason, as to why such an atrocity should befall a human, failed me that instant. I left them giving them my assurance that I would tell their story.
Each day I meet new people in the refugee camps. There are tens of thousands of life stories that will go untold. The few I can cover, I try to do justice to the weight of their testimony, their memories. From Rayhana’s dead of night visits to a tube-well to bathe (there was no other bathing area or privacy) to the inconsolable shrieks of hunger from her 20-day old baby, to Rayhana’s feeling of guilt when her breast milk dried from her own malnutrition, the stories became increasingly more intense.
While adults worried about meeting daily basic needs, the children revealed a different side of longing. There was 11-year old Somsida who missed swimming in her village pond over the border. She missed spending time with her friends in her homeland. She missed dishes back home.
As she shared childlike flash backs to a time of laughter and safety, I shared my own childhood memories. We traded laughter and the smile on her face stirred hope in my heart. What truly is the essence of humanity? Is it extending a hand in time of need? Lending a listening ear to those who have lost their loved ones? Sharing light moments with an 11-year old child about times gone by?
I leave the refugee camp feeling an almost unbearable lightness.
World Vision Bangladesh distributes relief aid among Myanmar refugees after completing a needs assessment of families in Jamtoli camp, and careful targeting to reach the camp’s most vulnerable. As part of the Myanmar-Bangladesh Relief Response, World Vision, in its first distribution, provided 1300 refugee families with food relief kits that contained 34 kg rice, 4.5 kg lentils, 2 litres of edible oil, 500g of salt and 1 kg sugar. World Vision aims to support 3,050 families (some 15,000 people) with dry food relief kits, in the first phase of our relief response.
Written by Himaloy Joseph Mree/World Vision Bangladesh Communications Staff