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Unimaginable horrors

13 December 2017, Emergencies

Life for children in Cox's Bazar.

Save the Children Media Manager, Lily Partland, spent the past few weeks at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh with displaced Rohingya people fleeing unimaginable horrors. She shares some of her insights into the sprawling refugee camp and the amazing spirit of its inhabitants.

An idyllic, hour-long drive takes you from the beach resort town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to the sprawling and constantly expanding refugee camps filled with displaced Rohingya.

On one side of the road, a beautiful ribbon of white sand – proudly proclaimed as the longest beach in the world at about 140km – separates tropical tree plantations from the sparkling blue ocean.

On the other, Bangladeshis work the expansive paddy fields, or take a break with the occasional cricket match, attracting the attention of those nearby.

We pass by local villages, bustling and dirty, and full of life and action. The road is filled with tiny tomtoms (Bangladeshi tuk-tuks) bravely battling with massive trucks for space.

Turning down a narrow road, we reach the entrance to what has become a mega camp. More than 620,000 people have arrived here and at other nearby camps since August 25, fleeing unimaginable horror and violence. More than half of those are children. Some of them saw their parents killed and their homes set alight. Others were brutally gang raped.

Yet as you wander through the dirt streets of this chaotic mini-city – complete with shops selling fruit and vegetables, medicine and clothing – there is an atmosphere of productivity. You get a taste of the incredible resilience shown as people do what they need to survive. There is even some hope.

The children all grin as you pass and practice their very limited English. Usually they try out lines such as “bye-bye” or “how are you? I am fine”. They are beautiful little souls and it is heartbreaking to think about what they’ve seen and been through.

My colleagues who have been here since the start of the crisis say the transformation in attitude and vibe in the camps is incredible. When the Rohingya first arrived, nobody smiled and the shock of what they’d endured was written all over their blank faces and tired bodies.

Now the rainy season has ended the weather is fine and sunny, and life and logistics in the camp are a lot easier. But as the evenings cool down, some children tell me they don’t have enough clothing or blankets to keep them warm at night, having left their country without even basic possessions.

The fragility of the basic wooden structures covered in tarpaulins they call home for now, covering the hillsides which have been completely stripped of all trees and vegetation in a matter of weeks, is deeply concerning. I hate to think what will happen to these rickety huts and the desperate people inside when the rainy season resumes or, even worse, a cyclone hits in a few months’ time.

One of the biggest issues and risks right now is the spread of disease that the very poor sanitation and hygiene conditions, as well as overcrowding, is exacerbating. There are not nearly enough toilets for the growing population. Poor quality and improperly installed water pumps mean the groundwater is at extreme risk of contamination as people defecate in the open.

Just this week an outbreak of the rare, highly contagious and often fatal disease diphtheria has been announced. Meanwhile, measles is also steadily spreading through the most vulnerable populations. So is acute watery diarrhea. One in four children aged between six months and five years old is malnourished. They are the most at risk of catching and succumbing to these illnesses because their immune systems are weakened by starvation.

In our health clinics Save the Children is working to vaccinate people against measles, treat those who have caught it and manage malnutrition among the most vulnerable. We are building hundreds of new toilets – with women separated from men to ensure they feel safe using them. And we’re doing our best, alongside other agencies, to ensure everybody has access to clean drinking water and to promote better hygiene practices.

Our shelter team is constructing homes for some of the most vulnerable people in a newer part of the camp, including child-headed households, single mothers and those with disabilities. They’re trying to prepare for the worst possible outcomes with the impending cyclone season as well.

Although the flow of people across the border has slowed, there were still 2000 new arrivals in the past week. People still fear for their lives enough to leave behind all they know and many have abandoned the idea of returning to Myanmar in the foreseeable future – as per a deal struck between the two national governments. For many of the persecuted Rohingya, going home is incomprehensible.

Until their safety in Rakhine State is guaranteed and there are clear plans in place to help them rebuild their lives and ensure justice and accountability of those responsible for the serious the human rights violations that drove them to Bangladesh, refugees cannot return.

I meet one teenage girl who was brutally gang raped and who has lost her entire family. She tells me she doesn’t even want to hear the word ‘Burma’ uttered.

As we head home after a long day in the field – the sun setting into the sea on my left and the moon rising above the hills and paddy fields to my right - I am heartened by all we are doing to help the Rohingya and the amazing spirit shown by the people I’ve met. I know we owe it to them to maintain our attention and support. We cannot abandon them when they need the assistance of the global community most.

Header image: Noor* with her son Hussain*, two and a half years-old. They fled Myanmar when their village was attacked and are now living in a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazaar district, Bangladesh. Photo: GMB Akash/Panos Pictures/Save the Children

*Names have been changed. 

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