'We go to sleep around 9pm as we have nothing to do. You cannot compare life here to life back in Rakhine. Here we have just a tent with no electricity. It is indescribable but we are getting used to it'
Over a million Rohingya now inhabit the cramped, squalid camps of Cox’s Bazar in deplorable conditions. As monsoon ominously looms over the horizon, with forebodings of great peril, there is nothing to even hint that things are going to get better.
Nine months after they were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar due to the state-sponsored military crackdown, the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh see little scope for optimism as foreign aid dwindles and monsoon threatens with landslides and flood that could potentially destroy whatever stability they have managed to achieve in the refugee camps.
The camps are a settlement of tents with zero basic urban facilities. Men and machinery daily cut down hills to make room for the ever-growing population of the Rohingya as 60 children are born every day to mothers who have been traumatized by violence, displacement and in many cases, rape.
The camps span 6,340 acres of land and have been divided into 15 makeshift refugee settlements. Although the second official influx is very nearly over, many still trickle in.
A day in the life of the displaced
A family, one of hundreds of thousands who arrived in the Balukhali camp among the second wave of fleeing Rohingyas, opened their doors and bared their hearts to the Dhaka Tribune.
Kamal, a 33-year-old man in the prime of his life, spends his days in a two-room shanty made from strands of woven bamboo panels and tarpaulin with his family of seven in Balukhali refugee camp. Five of them sleep on the floor in a small space — a room stacked with clothes, containers, and boxes.
They lack a kitchen, and have adapted to a makeshift stove which uses wood as fuel. There is no source of drinking water, bathroom and proper sanitation system for his family.
“Our day starts at dawn with the calls for the Fajr prayer. The first problem we face is getting water as many of the tube wells are out of order. We have to search for the nearest water source to get a supply for washing. Anything we want here requires a line, and people start quarrelling when they are waiting around for hours,” he said.
Although they get foods like rice, pulse, and oil provided by the Bangladesh government, KamaI is still responsible for the family. His wife Hasina Begum looks after the house and the children while Kamal collect foods and other necessities.
“My wife prepares breakfast and feeds our children. The breakfast is usually rice, bread, and pulse. The children often refuse to eat because it is monotonous. They complain and want to eat anything else,” Kamal continued.
“I take the children to a nearby mosque where they study and memorize verses from the Quran. I often go to hills nearby for firewood.
“The children go play after returning from the mosque. Sometimes, they do household chores. After the Johr prayer, we shower and have lunch.”
According to Kamal and his wife, the refugees are idle most of the time. Like caged birds they are confined to the camps. Back in their homeland in Myanmar, they worked in the fields, but here in Bangladesh, they have nothing to do, no purpose to drive them, with only hopes of returning someday to sustain them.
Kamal said: “We look looking for ways to make money inside the camp. Those who managed to bring money with them opened up small businesses inside the camp. There are even some with their own rickshaws or auto-rickshaws now working inside the camp.
The camp is a complex entity. With monsoon beckoning, the rains turn the camp grounds into marsh festering with diseases. Yet when it does not, the camp is a barren, dust-ridden land.
Since living is difficult in makeshift houses in the hilly region – with the perennial danger of landslide - many refugee families are being transferred to more secured areas in the camp.
A number of international NGOs like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are involved in securing the camps. Their works have generated some job opportunities, but not sufficient enough to placate the restless Rohingya of working age.
Kamal said: “Some NGOs are hiring Rohingya men to work in their projects in the camps. have applied at IOM but they have not given me any positive response yet.”
“Often I earn money by building or repairing someone else’s shanties. Sometimes I sell firewood in the market. At the camp, there are small shops selling cloths, toys and foods. Whenever I can make some money, I buy nice things and food for my family,” he said.
Kamal’s wife Hasina said: “Sometimes in the afternoon, relatives who are also living nearby, come to visit us. My uncle lives in the same camp. We also visit our neighbours sometimes. It is an opportunity for the children to be happy because they can play with kids their age. But for the adults, we drink tea and eat snacks while talking about things, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes hoping.”
Maladies spreading in squalid conditions
People in the camp frequently fall sick as the environment is severely unhygienic. There is also a scarcity of clean drinking water. Although there are toilets for both men and women, many children, and even adults, often defecate in open space due to inadequate toilets and long lines for the toilets that function.
The open sewerage drains are clogged with garbage. The drainage system is staggeringly inadequate.
“Diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, skin infections and respiratory ailments are very common in the refugee camp. Children are the main victim while adults also suffer frequently. However, we do get necessary medical facilities here in the refugee camp,” Hasina said.
She continued: “As the rainy season has already started, it is becoming difficult to cook in the bad weather. We have dinner by 8pm with our usual meal - rice and pulse. Sometimes we can afford meat and fish. I do the dishes before going to bed.”
Her husband picked up: “We go to sleep around 9pm as we have nothing to do. You cannot compare life here to life back in Rakhine. Here we have just a tent with no electricity. It is indescribable, but we are getting used to it.”