Mostafa Kamal Majumder
A tiny tot, playing near a hand-pump beside shanties covered with polythene-sheet roofs was visibly worried as he saw a handful of visitors getting closer to him, and at one stage he ran away into one such make-do shelter of Rohingya refugees, the worst persecuted ethnic minority in the world, from Myanmar. Before him a young lady had disappeared into the slum house as fast as she could. The Kutupalong Refugee Camp, in Ukhia Upazila of Cox’s Bazar has given them shelter, but they are yet to overcome the trauma of murder and torture of family members, and torching of their homes from where they were driven out.The hand pumps, a plenty of those sunk all over the Kutupalong Rohingya Rufugee Camp, have given a sort of universal coverage of safe drinking water to the hapless Rohingyas. Not all the pumps have, however, been suitably sited, some of those producing stinking water seeping from wells of water-sealed latrines that are not at safe distances of at least 10 meters or more.
Shanties continue to be made to house newly arrived refugees who are entirely dependent on humanitarian relief extended by donor governments and international agencies through the Bangladesh government; as well as local and international NGOs through their appointed representatives. Clearly, the capacity of aid-providers has been overstretched to deal with the fastest going concentration of refugees since the end of August this year, and in four months their number has crossed 700,000 out of 1090,000 North Raphine State Rohingyas who were not counted during the 1914 UNFPA-supported supported census in Burma. The Ukhia Upazila has little infrastructure to handle the sheltering of such a huge number of uprooted people.
From deep inside the camp one can see only temporary slum houses all around – atop hillocks and at all stages down their bases. Police and Army check-posts keep vigil on the Myanmar citizens who, according to local people, are making frantic bids to work for money and buy food for themselves and their family members. Giving succor to such a large number of refugees on a regular basis is a Herculean task, and supply and distribution gaps are the natural outcomes.
Shopkeeper inside the camp, Abdul Malek who is also a resident of Ukhia, told this writer that at least a half of the Rohingya refugees do not have enough to eat. Cards for relief distribution have been issued to Rohingya families at the rate of one card for five persons. There are families which are yet to get such cards. Relief materials – 25 kilograms of rice four kg pulses and four liters of edible oil – supplied against each card are inadequate for a month, judged by any standard. The food scarcity problem is, however, more serious for families which comprise seven or eight members but have got only one card each.
Abdul Malek introduced to newsmen one Abdul Quadir head of a Rohingya family which is yet to get a relief card. The bearded man, who still bears in his face agonies of leaving behind his devastated home in Myanmar, managed to earn Taka 400 to buy food on the day before by working as a labourer with an NGO which is erecting new temporary shelters for refugees with bamboo poles, tin roofs and polythene fences. Ordinarily Rohingya people are not allowed to work. Over the last four months the enthusiasm to support Rohingya refugees with food supplies by the Bangladesh community in Cox’s Bazar and the rest of the country has also come down to near zero.
Against this backdrop plentiful supply of winter vegetable has come as a great relief. Although the vegetable items cost double the normal prices in the area, they still are cheap for the camp dwellers. Per kilo prices of brinjal, potato, bean, tomato, cabbage and reddish at the wayside shops inside the Kutupalong Camp are Taka 35, 20, 20, 15, 20 and 10 respectively.
Influx of Rohingyas, victims of systematic ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military, is not new to Bangladesh’s southeast district of Cox’s Bazar. Denied of citizenship rights in their centuries old homeland in the Rakhine State, Rohingyas had been driven out en masse a number of times since 1977-78. But this time murder, rape, torture and burning down of homes – has taken the form of ethnic cleansing – and the Burmese military has made open declaration to force them move terming them as migrants from Bangladesh.
Way back in 1977 about 200,000 Rohingyas were intimidated to leave Rakkhine. After years of protracted negotiations, about 180,000 of them returned by 1979. Another large scale influx of 250,000 Rohingyas took place in 1991 because of a similar type of persecution. Of them an estimated 230,000 were repatriated by 1997 through mediation of UNHCR. Sporadic violence led to the influx of another 200,000 in the next decade and 30,000 of them remained officially recorded and housed at the Kutupalong camp before the start of the present crisis.
For about six months before the start of the present devastating phase of Rohingya cleansing in August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) had been reporting on the systematic persecution of the Rohingyas by analyzing satellite imageries along with information inputs from the field. Bangladesh has always tried to remain at good terms with her only second neighboring country and pushed back refugees for years. But ultimately the government could not remain silent to humanitarian call when the problem took the present gigantic proportion. Despite all provocations Bangladesh has kept the diplomatic channel open and is trying to find a path for a negotiated settlement.
At the Kutupalong Refugee Camp refugees are suffering from untold miseries as the local administration is yet to take the rapidly evolved situation to its full grip. Apart from of denudation of the nearby hillocks by the refugees themselves to collect cooking fuel, there has developed brisk business in fuel wood and shops have sprung all along the narrow path that leads deep inside the camp to meet the demand of the sheltered families. Abdul Malek said Rohingya families which are yet to come under the relief distribution network buy the cheaper vegetable reddish to feed themselves with or without rice.
Clashes between resident Bangladeshis and refugees in and around the Kutupalong camp are common as the refugees are desperate to meet their demand for essentials and often intrude into crop fields or cut down trees. In one such incident a Bangladeshi was killed as he tried to stop a refugee from felling tree from his hillock for use as fuel wood. Some desperate Rohingyas who have managed to get out of the camp have taken work of domestic help in Chittagong City. Rita Rani, a retired government employee who lives in the Nasirabad area of Chittagong said, she came to know of a young Rohingya girl working at her neighbor’s home just for food. She won’t respond to any quarry for fear of being identified because the Rohingya dialect is different from that of Chittagonians, and prefers to confine herself to a fresh-room when guests go to that house. At the camp refugees, especially girls and children, remain under the fear of being misled by frauds and members of human trafficking gangs.
(First Published in The Asian Age, Dhaka on 28 December 2017 under the headline When will the saga of Rohingyas end