The Pope won’t say the name ‘Rohingya’, Myanmar’s persecuted ethnic minority. Recently returned from Bangladesh, World Vision’s Laura Bond cannot forget the names of the Rohingya refugees she met.
Content warning: Contains details of physical and sexual violence
“The soldiers clubbed Rajuma in the face, tore her screaming child out of her arms and hurled him into a fire. She was then dragged into a house and gang-raped.” New York Times, October 11, 2017.
A few days before I left for Bangladesh, I read Rajuma’s horrific account of fleeing Rakhine state in Myanmar. My glary screen did nothing to buffer the impact of her tale; it shook me to my core and I wept. How would I cope sitting face to face with men, women and children and hearing their stories first-hand? I spoke with a counsellor to devise coping strategies so I felt as prepared as I could be.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the size and scale of this crisis and what 621,000 displaced people could look like.
It looks like is a sea of muddy clay awash with tarpaulin and trauma. This corner of picturesque Bangladeshi countryside, once verdant and lush, has been swamped by a tidal wave of people stretching over 3,500 acres. Every last twig has been cleared, every animal displaced and rice paddy field flattened. Any remnants of this sleepy rural life have been buried under a carpet of thick mud on which families tussle for space. It’s a frenzied fight for survival with no end in sight.
And yet people continue to flood across the border to this relative sanctuary. While I was there, six died as a boatload of desperate refugees capsized in the Naf River. An eight-year-old boy surfaced unrecognisable, his face crushed by the boat’s hull. Further up the river, I visited 3,000 new arrivals marooned on a mud bank, waiting desperately to be admitted into Bangladesh. It was hot and humid and there was limited food and water for those trapped on the border, desperately appealing to the mercy of their international neighbour. They slept two nights under the stars, and despite their need, the Bangladesh Border Guard was instructed to hold them there: there was no capacity to process or find room for them within the overflowing settlements.
The next morning, I saw some of the group being frogmarched from the border through to a registration centre – children and belongings in their arms. They looked terrified, confused and tired; suddenly they were in an entirely new country, with a different language and different way of doing things.
Once inside the settlements, their horror continued. Families were given tarp and ropes to furnish a shelter on a muddy hillside. If they were lucky they got a blanket and sleeping mat from agencies like World Vision. They waited for hours in the heat for their family’s 25kg monthly rice ration. World Vision is providing additional lentils, oil, rice, sugar and salt, and although we’ve reached 105,000 people so far, the need is still massive.
The noise emanating from this open-air prison is unrelenting. There is no peace, no privacy and no dignity. Most families are sharing a toilet with 20 other family groups. God pity the poor souls living close to these facilities because the toilets aren’t going to stay put when the monsoon rain comes. There are queues for water hand pumped from the ground, queues for food, queues for medical help and queues to shuffle along the muddy clay trails. It’s particularly tough for newly-widowed mothers, the elderly and immobile.
I visited an orphanage with hundreds of kids in it (just some of the estimated 4,200 unaccompanied minors who have arrived in Bangladesh) and met many more as we moved around the settlement. Children make up 60% of those who crossed the border. Most wander aimlessly, the rest are put to work fetching firewood or water. Between the dark hours of 5.15pm and 6am, women and children are unable to leave their shelters to use the bathroom as they fear for their safety. Martial law rules the area, but there are predators ready to take advantage of the most vulnerable. Reports of trafficking are rife.
The thousands of children affected by this all have names and stories, and Rana is one of them. A 12-year-old boy in an eight-year-old’s body, he told me he used to love going to school, playing soccer and hanging out with his brothers and sisters. Now he has no one to call Mum, no one to call Dad, and he only eats when someone takes pity on him. What used to be a white collared short-sleeve shirt is now a mess of brown. I wiped his small face with a clean tissue but there’s nothing I could ever do to wipe away what’s he seen and experienced.
Mitali’s life has also been torn apart. Her husband was rounded up alongside his brothers and 200-300 men from their community and shot. As Mitali watched, her female friends were rounded up too. Their breasts were sliced off and held aloft like trophies, the crowd celebrating around the women’s desecrated bodies that were writhing on the ground. And then the gang rapes began.
At this point of our conversation, my interpreter breaks down. He turns to my Bengali-speaking colleague to help him find the English words to describe the horror. I still haven’t regained my composure enough to repeat everything that was said inside that stifling tent. At this point, it feels gratuitous. There is enough in the public domain to paint a picture of events in Myanmar from late August on: enough to make the world cry out for justice, as Mitali and 620,999 others are.
The men who made it to safety are struggling too, unable to support their families. I spoke to farmers, shopkeepers and café owners. They want to provide for their families and are anxious for their children’s futures. They all dream of seeing their children get an education.
Younus’ story particularly touched my heart. His 5-year-old daughter, Amira, was shot through the stomach as they fled their home in the middle of the night. They made it to the border, with his three other daughters and wife, only to be ruthlessly cheated and attacked by boatmen halfway between Myanmar and Bangladesh. They held a knife to his throat and beat him while threatening to throw him and his family overboard. All the while, little Amira lay unconscious and bleeding next to him. Finally, the boatman had mercy and his family made it to shore.
Back in my Auckland office and reflecting on these stories, I’m grappling with how distant this can feel. Yet through our interconnectedness, we become tied to the Rajumas, Ranas, and Mitalis of this world.
Searching for signs of light, I’ve reflected on the hospitality and kindness of the Bangladeshi people. Many families from Myanmar told me that they were welcomed into people’s homes when they arrived here, given water, bananas, and a place to rest their heads.
The local community is totally overwhelmed by this crisis and their lives have been irrevocably altered too. Bangladesh, with 163 million people jammed into an area the size of the South Island, has its own problems to solve, yet has welcomed every last person. The new population is one and a half times the size of Wellington and entirely reliant on humanitarian aid and the local community for survival. Yet I saw local men, bearing biscuits and clean water, wading into waist-deep water to assist incoming families, sharing what little they have.
Now we need the rest of the world to show the same type of humanity; to join with Bangladesh and shine a light of hope into this darkness, and in doing so, bring justice to the people whose names we read each night on our screens.
World Vision is in Bangladesh providing the basics like food, water shelter, blankets those who need it most. You can donate to World Vision’s work at www.worldvision.org.nz
The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university, we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.