By Dr. Shahaab Uddin
In late September, the Burmese Army, with the help of extremist Buddhists, decided to increase the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyan Muslims from the Rakhine state, located in coastal Myanmar. Violence, rape and genocide was escalated and left over 500,000-900,000 Rohingyans fleeing for their lives to neighboring Bangladesh overnight. Although this genocide has been taking place for several years now, the heightened violence in recent months has created an epic humanitarian catastrophe.
Bangladesh, an infrastructure and resource poor country, decided to allow the Rohingyans to enter. Many of the Rohingyans left their homes with nothing on their backs. Their last memories are of their homes burning, family members being murdered and or raped, while fleeing for safety.
My journey began in Chicago, then I flew to Duha, from there to Dhakka and finally from there to Cox’s Bazar- in total approximately 24 hours. Cox’s bazar is typically known in Bangladesh as a holiday town which boasts the longest continuous beach/shoreline in the world. However, this is the closest city to where many of the refugees have been coming from- the Rakhine state. The nearest refugee camp from Cox’s bazaar is approximately an hour and half from there, the Bhanukhali refugee camp. The Rohingyan people speak Rohingyan which is different from Bengali, but Chittagonian Bengali has many similarities to Roghingyan. I needed a translator while I was there because I was limited to my English and Urdu.
The Bhanukhali refugee camp had become the epicenter of the humanitarian relief efforts in the prior 1-2 weeks before my arrival. Many Non-Profit Organizations were on the ground trying to establish food, shelter, and water supply. Overnight, an influx of close to 800,000 people had created a human tragedy on the ground. Literally, people with no shelter, food or supplies sitting in the jungle of Bangladesh. I was working at a clinic near this camp arranged by the organization MedGlobal. I also took some of the medications I brought with me from the United States to help the people. Many of the disease conditions they had were due to the living conditions. Many of the children were severely malnourished and had active TB with many skin conditions that had erupted due to poor sanitation access to water facilities. Common conditions seen were: iron deficiency anemia, H. Pylori, malnutrition, asthma, eczema, infections, eye infections, hypertension, diarrhea due to bacterial or parasitic infections.
Most of the patients there had just suffered immense psychological calamities and were still trying to push their human spirit forward to survive. You could see it in their faces. Whenever there was an opening to talk about their journey, the pain was only one layer away-many started crying immediately.
A few of the stories I cannot forget, I will mention here.
A 34 year old father brought in his 3-4 year old son in his arms, his legs folded beneath him. The Burmese/Buddhist army entered his home and took his son and threw him on the floor, and trampled on his back with his boots. His son may have suffered a spinal cord injury, but he hasn’t been able to walk since then. A 57 year old woman, Gulzar, started weeping as soon as she saw my face. She kept insisting I looked like her son, because he was tall and had similar facial features. Her house was burnt to the ground and her son fled for his life when they were trying to kill him. He ran away from the house and the army chased him. He eventually drowned to death after being chased, this was told to her by her neighbors. She hasn’t been able to sleep, eat or function since then. She made it to the Bhanukhali camp with her extended family. Another man I met, Bazer Hamed, he was 60 y.o, he witnessed the execution of 12 of his family members in front of his eyes. He says it was his naseeb from God that he managed to survive. He was a well to do businessman before this genocide began, they took all his furniture out of his house and burnt it down. These are a few of the many traumatic stories that I heard.
My medications cannot heal their deepest wounds. My feeling while I was in the camp was that if I could ease the life of even one Rohingyan in any way shape or form than I have done something. They have seen the worst- now let me be a messenger of hope, whether through my smile, my presence or my vibes.
One day I went to see the border between Burma and Bangladesh where the majority of the refugees were crossing. The Naf river is a body of water that separates Bangladesh and Burma- one of the main ports of entry. When the conflict arose, thousands of boats were seen, and local residents from the Bangladeshi side said you could see smoke billowing into the air of the burning homes across the way. During the day, you don’t see many boats or rafts crossing as many cross at night as to not be detected.
They enter the town of Teknaf, where I sat helping distributing goods and items as they entered the country. The process is simple. When they enter, they get fingerprinted, their name is written down and registered, they are put in a lori or a truck, and sent to one of the refugee camps.
The Bangladeshi army is also present to help keep the peace and situation calm. This was one of the most painful places to witness the human condition. For many of these people the trauma that lead them to leave their homelands was fresh and they grabbed whatever they could and fled.
A statement I heard translated to me from Rohingyan to Urdu was, “hamara iman lekhar bhagay”. “We took our faith and ran.” I was there to distribute some cash that people had given me, which did go a long way for the people there as they were entering the country with absolutely nothing.
A few instances from the border that I will share are of a man, unknown name. While he passed the distribution line, he had a log on his back carrying two bags on each side. I could see exhaustion and pain coursing through his eyes and body while his family followed. I walked up to him and hugged him; he immediately broke down and couldn’t let go for minutes while crying. Another woman broke into a PTSD fit and collapsed to the ground when she saw the uniforms of the Bangladeshi military. She was having flashbacks of when she was raped by Burmese military men. The camouflage of his uniform triggered her panic. Finally, she was calmed down and able to continue.
While they were being loaded on to the loris, they kept wanting to fit more people into each one before they sent them, although the limit had seemed to be reached. A boy with a stick would jump in and make everyone be quiet. The women were visibly panicked and crying, the men were frozen in shock not saying a word.
When I stood there, I started to think “Why isn’t anyone else here?”
There were some photographers and news agencies that took pictures and footage in the morning and had left.
But right now in the evening- there was no one-where is humanity?
I was fortunate to give these people water bottles and candy while they were on these lorries. They flee such harsh conditions than get put into a lori like cattle.