By Shahid Sangani
The smoke still billows above a burning village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, across the border. I sit in the Refugee Camp of Balukhali, a small Bangladeshi town on the Myanmar border and witness hell on both sides. The fires of the netherworld and the shades of purgatory, paint a grim canvas for “the most persecuted minority in the World” – the Rohingya.
UN officials have described Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing and the recent spate of violence and mass killings fuel fears of an unfolding genocide.
Extreme atrocities against women and children, wiping out of entire villages by Myanmar forces have triggered the mass exodus of villagers to Bangladesh. Over half a million have crossed the border in just a couple of months. The surge of refugees, many wounded or ailing, has strained the resources of aid agencies and communities that are already helping hundreds of thousands displaced by previous waves of violence in Myanmar. Many have no shelter and aid agencies are racing against time to provide clean water, sanitation and food.
World Memon Organisation stands firm, shoulder to shoulder with the Rohingya community during these uncertain times.
I am assessing the situation on the ground with the WMO Far East Chapter team so that funds collected by the organisation can be spent to make a viable difference to the refugees, enduring subhuman and uninhabitable conditions at the camps. We are surrounded by slopes of hills covered with blue tarpaulin sheets as hundreds of makeshift shelters have mushroomed at the camp. Spread over 2000 acres of land housing more than a hundred thousand migrants. Plastic sheets wrapped around bamboo sticks with a tarpaulin roof are the new homes to most of the Rohingya refugees, some more skilled, have used mud and clay while others continue to sleep under the open skies. At least 6 to 8 adults are stacked together in each shack accompanied with their children. The rains continue to play havoc as pools of mud float around the shanties. The afternoons bring the scorching heat and the only sight of relief is a rainbow that sometimes appears on the horizon when the wet spells follow the afternoon sun.
There are hardly any toilets and the occasional breeze often carries the stench of human faeces, unwashed skin, stale food and death. Many refugees have succumbed to the hardships and the shrouds keep piling up. There is an impending epidemic looming as the conditions worsen due to lack of sanitation, as the rapid influx of refugees from Myanmar refuses to cede.
Food is scarce as is clean drinking water. Malnourished kids with vacant eyes queue up for food, in serpentine lines that stretch the length of two football fields. Many have horrific tales to tell of the persecution they faced in Myanmar and the arduous journey they embarked on to reach the camp. Crossing mile wide, raging rivers in wobbly wooden containers that kept them afloat, walking days on end in knee deep mud, across paddy fields to escape rape, torture and slaughter. Every child has lost at least one or several members of their family.
I was soon surrounded by a group of children, baked in mud as they crossed the scattered ponds to reach me. I was distributing a few goodies that I had carried in my pocket since Chittagong. The motley group were pleased as punch; they had just won a prize. The odd games that people invent in difficult situations to weather the storm. As the tiny tots offered to share their prize with me, a morsel of cooked rice, my eyes brimmed with tears. I thought about my kids, as a father I wanted my children to have the best in education, fulfil their ambitions, pursue their passions in life, be it sports or a hobby. And here I was with children, possibly orphaned whose only aim was to survive the night. As they firmly held onto their prize, a fistful of rice that would enable them to achieve their tall ambition of living, through yet another day of their eventful life.