As a World Vision communicator, Himaloy Joseph Mree has been deployed to various emergencies and met many affected by natural hazards. He recently visited refugee camps in Bangladesh to cover the Myanmar-Bangladesh refugee crisis. Here is an account of what he has seen.
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 me to 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.
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 arson, 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 overcrowded 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 10 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, 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 to 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 realise 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.
I leave the refugee camp feeling an almost unbearable lightness.
A single father poses with his two sons in front of their makeshift shelter. His wife was killed earlier in the conflict.
Children receive relief goods for their families at the World Vision relief distribution centre.
This family is happy to receive relief materials at the World Vision relief distribution centre.
World Vision distributed relief aid to 2,000 households in early October at Balukhali Makeshift Settlement, Kutupalong Makeshift Settlement and Kutupalong Refugee Camp. Since World Vision began its Myanmar-Bangladesh Refugee Crisis Response in September, over 5,000 households have received food assistance from World Vision. World Vision Bangladesh is now partnering with World Food Programme to reach an additional 8,000 households with a two-week food package.
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