My week with the Rohingya
Last week returned from a trip with most of the UK Restless Beings team in visiting the Rohingya camps in Cox Bazar. Before taking the trip I surely was unsure in what way to prepare myself, or if I would be able to at all.
As we met early in the morning, there was a certain aura amongst the team about what we were about to embark on, for some, myself included, this would be our first time. Having never travelled to Asia before I knew it wasn't just visiting the Rohingya camps, but also the culture I would have to experience all at once.
It took us a total of 22 hours to reach Cox Bazar where we were greeted by not only the warm weather but the warmth of the Cox Bazar Restless Beings team greeting us with flowers and big smiles. The first night was getting to know them, eating food and settling in.
The next morning we were to visit the camps for the first time, although there were a few official bits to do, this was mostly to orientate the team and lets us see and absorb the camp. We first visited the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, there is a small camp next to the river near no man's land. There was military presence from both sides and we were aware of a Myanmar military helicopter in the area and Along the hills just beyond the camp were no less than 5 Myanmar military observation points, it is understood that each night in the early hours the Myanmar military would fire warning shots, with the aim to deter the Rohingya to return. After talking to the Bangladesh military we were able to meet a representative from the camp who crossed a newly developed bridge, after a brief chat where he expressed his great gratitude to Restless Beings we went to move little more towards the camp to get a better view. This caused some commotion and we were advised to leave the area with haste. This was my first view that tension on both sides is paramount.
The next stop was hugely impacting, we drove for a good 5-10 minutes into the camp before stopping, along the way the main route through was lined with bazar like stalls which is something I didn't expect to see, at least in the quantity. I learned that the Rohingya were able to establish supplies from Bangladesh citizens for them to sell, this helps provide a small extra for their family. It was when we stopped I was able to stand and observe the pure scale of the camp, it didn't matter what direction I looked, the camp expanded for as far as I could see. It was a big shock, I knew the camps were big, but to see with my own eyes, that was something else. We walked into the camp and met some of the people who live in the camp, I saw children using empty jerry bottles as space hoppers, carrier bags as kites and paper as visor caps. Their creativity to create entertainment from next to nothing. Us being there soon created a small crowd and it wasn’t long before we started to hear the stories of some of the residents. Not knowing their language I was relying on translators and other team members to relay, but I was quickly apparent their emotional pain. It was then time for my first interview, a boy, 16 years old who has been living there for 1 year. While leaving Burma his father and cousin were shot, his father survived, he saw his brother getting violently beaten and his mother saw woman and girls being raped. He lives with 5 other people in a single room which is no more than 4x4 metres. It took a while for all this to process, it all suddenly became very real.
We moved on to visit a camp which is home to our Women and Children friendly space, this certainly lifted the spirits. We met many of the children and they sang us a couple of songs. There was one boy who caught my eye, Abdul, he had down syndrome, his beaming smile was an instant attraction. Next to him was a young girl, who when they were asked to show some writing she instantly helped him out before opening her own book, it was beautiful. It occurred to me that in my naivety that disabilities like downs occur anywhere, not just in the western world. I thought about how difficult it must have been for his family, I didn't get a chance to hear their story but I am sure that there are many children and even adults who have extra challenges like downs, autism or ADHD, who has to flee Myanmar. I find this hard to comprehend.
The last part of the first visit was taking part in a Restless Beings aid distribution. We had 300 bags of food to distribute. We have zero control who gets the aid, this is decided by the Bangladesh military. They have the challenge to try to ensure that aid is distributed fairly. What surprised me was the people who were to receive aid were queued in what could only be described as a cattle shed. At one point we had to pause as the situation got a little heated, once calmed we were able to continue. The scope of the people collecting the aid was astounding and at times caused me great concern, I had to be reassured by other team members. The aid wasn’t always being collected by fit able people, it was being collected by children who could fit in the bag if they tried, elderly who looked frail and used walking sticks, I felt that giving them the aid bags could physically do them harm as they were not light. There was one guy in a striped t-shirt to came back multiple times. He was a Rohingya who had volunteered to collect aid for those who would have otherwise struggled. There was one point I will not forget where we had just 3 bags left, I was holding one but we had a group of really desperate people surrounding me for the bag, this was a difficult moment and the military just stayed back. We just had to give the aid to the 3 people nearest who had tokens. I just wish I was able to give one to everyone. It took me a few minutes of silence to gather my thoughts afterwards.
The next day was much lighter in the way of emotions, we spent the day at our larger most established children's centre. The UK team ran workshops for the children which involved dancing, acting, performing and imagination. We started in a big circle and everyone introduced themselves before some dancing and being silly to help them feel comfortable with is. We split into groups with my group being ‘Team Awesome!’ Each group had to mimic an animal, my team had a snake, which as hilarious and involved wiggling about on the floor and chasing each other around a little. My team was a mixture of children who were really keen to engage, to really shy ones. But by the end, everyone was involved. We got up and performed our animal for the rest of the group and everyone got that we were snakes! WIN!
I then got my first time to freely walk about the camp with Rubell one of our Cox Bazar team members. We walked around the camp for about 30 minutes, it was incredible to just walk and see more of the camp. It beautiful, but also saddening, this was a rainforest only 18 months ago, but the people were so super friendly. We went up to a top of a hill and the views were breathtaking, I saw cows walking about, children playing, people bathing their children at the wells and people carrying aid to their homes. It was the camp just ‘living’.
We finished the day with a football match, which got a huge crowd, no one really kept track of the scores, but the consensus was the other team won. This was a really lovely moment just chilling with the children from our centre having relaxed fun.
The next day was a full workday, we were walking around the camp capturing video footage which we will use in future campaigns. While walking around getting the footage I was really inspired by their excitement to be involved in the footage. This day was tough but has some of my best memories for the trip with the people I met.
The last 2 days on the camp were extremely emotionally fuelled, slitting ourselves around the camps we were interviewing many people with the aim to get a real deep understanding of the wider story from individuals. Over the 2 days, we interviewed around 100 people and met many many more. One guy that stood out for me was a 24-year-old who spoke really good English, he was the first Rohingya I was able to communicate and hold a conversation with directly which was big for me. We met so many people with such harrowing stories, some lost family members and friends and some who literally had a really wealthy lifestyle in Myanmar and now have nothing. The team also came across a heart surgeon who is now living in the camp with no job. We met children who saw people getting beaten, burned and killed, woman tied up and raped. These are all things which I cannot even make sense of in my head, these experiences will haunt their lives forever. The belief that people living in refugee camps uneducated, poor and are beyond help is so far from the truth is unbelievable. One of the translators said to me “I think their biggest punishment was being born”, as horrid as it may sound, I can’t help but feel that this view has sustenance. They were born into a land which didn’t want them, then forced to flee to an alien country. All of this at no fault of their own. Since returning I have heard complaints about having to go to school, had worries about running out of tea bags and frustrations at running out of hot water, yet all the children want on the camp is education, the worries are about their next meal and having hot water is a thing that's just not available.
On one of the interview days, we took a small moment to visit the newly constructed women's centre. The centre was not operational yet but will be in the very near future. This centre truly blew me away. It’s a big open area with nice outside space, room for classes, counselling, prayer and just socialising. Having spoken to many women, this centre will go down really well. I cannot wait to visit again when the centre is up and running and see how it is helping the woman feel safe and get an education.
On our last day in Bangladesh, we had a day off, we spent it on the beach a team, before we went I was feeling that all I wanted to do was spend that last extra day on the camp's meeting and talking to people I have met during the week. But after a great day relaxing I think this time was needed, the whole team had heard so much, cried so much and got lost in thought even more. The beach we were on was just a few miles from the camps, yet was peaceful and beautiful. With miles of tranquil beach full of red crabs and people parasailing, it was hard to fathom that so near 1 million people are lost.
I returned back to the UK having experienced something beyond words, I met many people I will never forget, saw things I will never forget and felt things that will live with me forever. It took days for me to mentally accept that I was home. Already I have discussed with family a return trip in 2019.
The Rohingya situation is so desperate, even when safe repatriation is arranged, it will take a generation for everyone to return. So much work is still needed.