Over half a million Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh after fleeing violence in Myanmar since late August. Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Caritas
The town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is a tourist destination with luxury five star hotels and 120 km of sandy beaches. In the last month it has become famous for a different reason, with the arrival of over half a million forcibly displaced Rohingya from Myanmar. They are now encamped an hour south of the town in what is fast becoming the world’s biggest refugee camp.
In this vast city of poverty, those who can afford it huddle in makeshift tents made of flimsy bamboo poles and cheap plastic tarpaulins. The rest just live out in the ceaseless rain. It is monsoon season.
Inside one of these tents, in Kutupalong, Ukhia district, I meet Omar Hamad* and his family. His wife Basita gives a shriek of joy as she opens up a Caritas sack with household utensils and carefully places each item on a raffia mat on the floor.
“Cups, plates, spoons, oh and especially these big pots,” she said. “Do you know how useful this is for us? Up to now we only had one very small pot, so we had to cook rice three times in a row to prepare food for everyone. Now this is a bit of normal life again.”
Donation packages given out by Caritas contain 1 rice cooker, 1 curry dish, 1 rice spoon, 2 glasses, 2 plates, 4kg lentils, 2ltr oil, 1kg sugar, 500g salt. Caritas aid last week reached 70,000 individuals. Photo by Lauren DeCicca / Caritas
Their life has been anything but normal for the last six weeks. The Hamads have suffered much to reach this point. “My eldest son got shot when we had to flee from Mongudaw, our village in Myanmar,” Omar tells me. “My wife, my four daughters, and my three sons left, and succeeded in escaping. Four weeks ago we finally reached Bangladesh, after 18 exhausting days on the run through the jungle.”
We sit together on two small mats placed on the mud floor in a plastic tent of 3 x 6 metres, the combined living and sleeping space for nine people. In their village, Omar’s wife Basita recounts, they lived in a wooden house, with a kitchen, bedrooms, a living room. They had cattle and rice fields.
Not that life in Myanmar was easy. As we talk and the family gradually open up, they say that as Rohingya they have always suffered discrimination. “We had no rights,” remembers Omar’s 19-year-old daughter Leila. They were “kept like animals” in their village, they explain, and never allowed to travel outside. The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar live in an apartheid-like system, denied citizenship, schooling and many other rights. It wasn’t until the day the army came and burned the village down that Omar and his family finally fled.
In spite of everything, Leila says she would like to go back. “After all, it’s my home country.” Her father sees things differently. “I would also go back,” he says, “but only if we are finally accepted and treated as human beings.”
“What is your understanding of being treated as a human being?” I ask. Omar’s reply leaves me struggling for words.
“To be treated like I am treated today,” he says. “You came into my shabby hut and I offered you something a bit more comfortable to sit on. But you insisted on sitting on the floor with me and my family. You insisted to be on one level with us. You listened and you took us seriously. You showed us respect.”
“This is normal,” I finally manage to say. “This is something we are not used to”, replies Basita.
A Caritas staff member assists a Rohingya woman and her child at a food distribution station at the TV Tower refugee camp on 12 October. Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Caritas
For the last four days, the Caritas Bangladesh team and their many volunteer helpers have been distributing food and cookware to a total of 70,000 people. The food – oil, salt, sugar, lentils and other pulses, enough for two weeks – is a vital supplement to the rice the refugees receive from the World Food Programme. The utensils – a rice cooking dish, a curry dish, spoons, plates and glasses – are a lifeline for people who have fled with no possessions.
A Rohingya woman reaches for the cooking pots she has received from Caritas. Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Caritas
I point at the Caritas logo printed on the sack in Basita’s hand. “All people are equal,” I say. “This is one of the key principles of Caritas: to help everybody in need whatever their ethnicity, religion, race, sex or status. Caritas is the Latin word for charitable love.”
Now it’s Omar’s turn to be speechless. I get the feeling he has never heard anything like this before. After a while he says: “You know, there is at least one good thing about our life here in Bangladesh. In Myanmar we were so afraid every time a stranger entered our house. When you entered I was not worried. Here we can live in peace and sleep peacefully. That means a lot.”