I've Visited Many Terrible Refugee Camps but Cox's Bazar Felt Like the Gates of Hell
By Tim Costello, Chief Advocate
In a wretched makeshift refugee camp at Cox's Bazar, near the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar, I am sitting on the ground, sweltering under a 'shelter' of black plastic talking with three small orphans, aged eight, six and four -- whose lives have been suddenly and violently reshaped.
Both of their parents were killed recently in Rakhine State, Myanmar, in a military action in which hundreds died and that caused hundreds of thousands to flee across the border into Bangladesh. The children survived and are now being cared for by their mother's twin sister.
The eldest of the children, 'Kayes'*, tells their story:
"My mother and father were killed. We saw the military shoot them. We were afraid and ran from there. I miss father and mother a lot. My youngest sister cries whenever she is reminded of my mother. I sometimes have bad dreams. I dream that father is catching fish and he is bathing in the river and then the military come and shoot him."
I turn to their aunt, 'Latifa', who is now raising these three, as well as her own three children.
"They are my sister's children," she says. "If I don't take care of them, who will?"
Outside, the camp is strangely quiet for a place so crowded with people. On a hill overlooking the camp, a clutch of small graves are covered over with bamboo, children who made it this far only to die, or who died along the way -- their bodies carried by their parents until they could be buried.
In this camp, there are conspicuously few teenage girls. When I remark on this, Latifa replies:
"All the houses in our village and in the nearby villages were burned. Girls were raped. Many were taken to the military camp. They came into the village firing guns. They killed men and tortured girls and took the girls with them. Many died there."
More than 600,000 people have fled Rakhine State into the squalid and overcrowded camps of Cox's Bazar since the outbreak of violence on August 25, bringing the total number of Rohingyas in Bangladesh to more than a million refugees.
Their stories of the violence they fled are horrific. More than half of them are children and about 20 percent of those children under the age of five are now suffering from malnutrition. Living conditions are appalling. Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities have been overwhelmed and without water and sanitation there is a high risk of disease outbreaks. The United Nations has described it as the worst refugee crisis in decades.
And once again, it is a purely man-made disaster, the consequence of a people deprived of rights who have lived in the borderlands of Myanmar and Bangladesh while belonging to neither; a people who describe themselves as Rohingya while the government of Myanmar calls them 'Bengalis' or outsiders; who have either lived in Myanmar for centuries, or else flooded into Myanmar during the British rule of Burma as 'Mahomedan' labourers. They have lived on a frontier between Buddhism and Islam that in August suddenly, shockingly exploded in fire and blood.
These stateless people have now been made homeless, an invisible people who have no sense of belonging and who are now clinging to life in drenching heat and mud-slick camps. Bangladesh has opened its borders to them, but Bangladesh is a desperately poor and overcrowded country itself.
I have been to many terrible refugee camps, but this felt like the gates of hell to me.
Aid agencies are doing what they can, working with the Government of Bangladesh to distribute emergency food and water and shelter, treating the visible and invisible wounds, creating safe places for children and giving hope as best we can.
In the days ahead, it is likely that Australia's major agencies will come together in a joint appeal, an indication of the scale of the humanitarian disaster we are facing. I can only ask that you help if you can.
Picture: For these three orphans, aged 8, 6 and 4, life changed in an instant.
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