The Long Wait

Originally published in the New Statesman (August 2009), photography by Giles Duley

Rohingya One

There was little to mark the dawn of May 21st as different from any other in the Bangladeshi beach resort of Cox’s Bazar. Rickshaw drivers snoozed in their carriages beneath whispering palms; labourers awoke in half-built hotels and clambered up bamboo scaffolding to brush their teeth over buckets on the roof. On the main beach, a handful of young men from the Bangladeshi Surf Club strapped leashes to their ankles and waded into tumbling surf warm as bathwater, while eager holidaymakers exchanged 10 taka bills for deckchairs and the protection of a steward willing to bat away street kids selling seashell necklaces.

Yet on that muggy Thursday morning, barely an hour’s drive away from the five-star hotels and fancy beach cafés of Bangladesh’s own Dubai-style pleasure palace, a strange excitement gripped the unofficial refugee camp at Kutupalong. Children barely had time to blink away sleep before they were hoisted into cotton trousers and dragged through the biblical squalor of the camp, the smoke from a thousand breakfast fires obscuring a sun already drawing beads of sweat from their brows. At the top of the hill they found the source of the hubbub that since dawn had been building into a chaos of clamouring human voices: a hastily erected bamboo structure resembling a covered market, into which families filed like cattle through a maze of orange netting.

Not all who joined the line knew what it was leading to, though they were encouraged by the presence of white folk in sunhats and stained Médecins Sans Frontières T-shirts, stooping to smile at small children as they patrolled the snaking queue. When they learned that they were waiting for inoculations against diseases that could end their lives, few were surprised; everyone knew that the foreigners had done nothing but good in the three weeks since they’d opened their makeshift clinic at the base of the hill. And for the Rohingya, who had fled a culture of fear and oppression in Burma to find themselves starving and stateless in Bangladesh, the kindness of strangers wasn’t something they were in a position to turn down.


It was following the 1962 coup that installed Burma’s still-reigning military junta that ethnic and religious oppression of the Muslim Rohingya began in northern Rakhine State. Marriages were now subject to costly and time-consuming applications for licenses; similar permissions were required for travel, meaning that many Rohingya never left their villages until the day they left their country; and land rights were revoked, forcing farmers to watch in horror as government officials occupied fields and repossessed livestock. Boys and men were routinely rounded up as forced labourers on government projects from construction to jungle clearing, often leaving mothers, wives and daughters to be raped by soldiers; those who refused to work were imprisoned, where they were regularly beaten or tortured.

All of which lent a painful inevitability to the mass exodus of 1991, when the trickle of Burmese Muslims crossing the Naff River into Bangladesh swelled to tidal proportions, flooding a pencil thin peninsula with over 250,000 refugees. Slapped into action, the Bangladeshi government registered newcomers at twenty camps in the hills surrounding Cox’s Bazar, where they remained while the two nations wrestled over the fine print of a repatriation agreement that saw 236,000 returning home between 1992 and 1997, the vast majority against their will. Of those twenty official camps, the 10,000-strong Kutupalong is one of only two still existence, both operated by the UNHCR; between them, they hold 26,000 Rohingya currently registered as residing in Bangladesh.

Rohingya TwoIn reality, the total number of refugees is far higher thanks to a second generation of border crossings that has reached critical mass in the last two years. It’s hard to put even an approximate figure on the influx: Bangladesh’s refusal to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention leaves it under no legal obligation to guarantee the status or safety of refugees, meaning that no Rohingya has been formally registered since 1992. On top of that, the physical and linguistic similarities between Rohingya and the Chittagonian-speaking natives of Cox’s Bazar makes it hard to tell asylum seekers from citizens.

But numbers are swelling. The original Kutupalong camp is now surrounded by a nebulous shanty of frantic families, their squat homes of mud and thatch making the wicker and galvanised steel houses of the official camp seem like McMansions by comparison. Nor is there any sign of a respite: the couple of hundred new refugees arriving at the camp in 2007 were followed by a couple of thousand in 2008; by March 2009 over 20,000 unofficial settlers were ranged around Kutupalong, and hundreds more are turning up every week.

Conservative estimates now put the total number of Rohingya in Bangladesh back at around 250,000. For most Bangladeshis this is a problem viewed purely in terms of numbers: theirs is the eighth most densely populated country in the world, with social issues making it a more desperate case than the Monacos, Gibraltars and Vatican Cities comprising the first seven. Roughly a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty: even the wealthiest streets of the capital, Dhaka, are lined with makeshift tarpaulin tents beneath which homeless families huddle, and the old town is an arterial maze of Dickensian factories in which children as young as five operate screaming banks of limb-mauling machines, sending back their salaries to support families in the provinces despite earning as little as 400 taka (£3.50) per week.

Bablu, our guide, who spends most summers organising beach holidays for wealthy Bangladeshis, fears a cultural meltdown in the pitstop paradise that has made his fortune. “Something is changing,” he says, cocking a nostalgic glance at the shrimp fisherman drawing in the day’s nets as we trundle down majestic Marine Drive. “Of course we’re sympathetic to the Rohingya – many of us are old enough to remember Liberation (from the military rule of then West Pakistan in 1971), and we know what it’s like to live as oppressed people, without status or security. But where are these refugees hoping to live? Where are they expecting to work? Pressure is building, and eventually it’s going to end in disaster.”

A portent of that disaster comes soon after beginning the 15-minute walk along the baked trails that wind uphill towards the inoculation centre at Kutupalong. The squalor is timeless in its immensity, a seemingly endless sprawl of low-slung mud huts thatched with sticks and dried leaves, their open doors offering glimpses of emaciated old men collapsed corpse-like in corners, or women rocking wailing babies in makeshift hammocks. Shortly after setting out, alerted to our presence by the gaggle of wide-eyed children tailing us at a respectful distance, an elderly man approaches and asks us to wait while he brings his son. The boy he returns with is weeping, eyes downcast with shame; his arm is badly swollen, his lip bloodied, and one eyebrow is opened in an angry cut scattered with grit.

“He was out collecting firewood this morning when a group of men from the village attacked him,” says the father, sounding more exhausted than surprised. “Others just watched.”

We meet Sarah, an effortlessly cheerful MSF worker from Somerset, struggling to conduct the chaos of inoculation day at the medical marquee. On all sides families wait to be seated at tables manned by volunteer doctors armed with drops for polio and injections for measles; children thus treated are handed vaccination cards and have their ears blackened with marker pens, something further contributing to the air of a cattle market. Most then skip to the exit, where entrepreneurial refugees wait with ice-cream bikes rented for the occasion and hand out coloured lollies to those with spare change.

“We are hearing of an increase in violence towards refugees,” says Sarah after we’ve retreated to the shade of a nearby primary school block – the camp’s lone educational facility, and one open to registered refugees only. “It’s not hard to see why: these people are living on government land, creating cultural tensions and draining resources in an already poor community. But they’re also desperately stateless people existing in a complete cultural limbo – rejected by Burma, ignored by Bangladesh – and every time they stand up for themselves they get pushed back down.”

Rohingya SixThe destruction of Rohingya homes by mobs of angry locals has become commonplace in recent months, an injury made all the more insulting by the complete absence of state support for unregistered refugees. The young man attacked by villagers can no more turn to police than he can the local hospital, and so lengthy is the backlog of refugee ailments that the MSF clinic had to temporarily close down the same day it opened amid fears that the seriously ill would be trampled by the crowd. Business has since resumed with a less hysterical aspect, though there are still refugees arriving on a daily basis with shocking disabilities that have gone untreated for years. Eleven-year-old Mahabieh, for example, rarely leaves her father’s hut due to a tumor that has swollen one side of her face to the size of a football; when she does venture out it is under the cover of a dirty rag that she drapes over the disfigurement, hushed mutterings and accusatory eyes following wherever she goes.

Thirty-year-old Fir Ahamad is so incapacitated by a muscle wasting disease that his elder brother Noor carries him slung over his shoulder like a sack. “In Burma I worked as a forced labourer,” he says, “and every time I fell down they beat me. Eventually I couldn’t tell where the pain of the beatings stopped and the disease began.” Noor, with the upper body of a wrestler and a diamond shaped knife wound on his chin, squeezes his younger brother’s hand. “Every night I lay down hoping I may die in my sleep,” says Fir, “so that I may be freed from this pain.”

For Sarah, such problems must take a back seat to the threat of humanitarian disaster that brought MSF back to Kutupalong a year after they left the official camp in a relatively stable state, and which now sees them monitoring food and water sources and conducting infant inoculations in collaboration with UNICEF.

“We’ve been lucky so far with the weather,” she says, pulling closed the classroom window to block out the hordes of smiling children peering in, “but it’s only a matter of time before the monsoon hits, and when it does the situation will change rapidly.”

Bangladesh is a nation so flat and low-lying that up to two-thirds of its surface can be lost to floodwater in a bad year, yet space at Kutupalong is now in such high demand that newcomers are being forced to erect flimsy shacks on what is essentially floodplain. Even more worrying is the water supply, with unofficial refugees drinking from 12 hand-drawn bucket wells, the water milky with stagnation and ranging in the bacterial turbidity scale from 35 to 350 (anything over 20 is deemed unfit for drinking). And that is before the first rainfalls begin to wash human waste down the hill.

“Right now the clinic is dealing mainly with malnutrition, skin diseases and respiratory infections,” says Sarah, “but once the water supplies are contaminated by the monsoon – and we’re expecting that in the next week or so – we’re likely to see a huge surge in sickness and mortality that we’re going to struggle to cope with.”

As though alleviating suffering on such a grand scale wasn’t difficult enough, the Bangladeshi government is constantly monitoring those working to help the Rohingya, determined to prevent too rosy a picture of refugee life being presented lest it encourage others to cross the border. Yet nothing, it seems, can stifle the sense of manifest destiny inherent in what has become a mass migration of the Rohingya, most of whom cross the River Naff despite being well aware that life on the other side is anything but easy. Many see Bangladesh as a stepping stone to other countries – mostly Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – but are entirely reliant on the extortionate fares of Bangladeshi boatmen, who charge up to 35,000 taka for a journey so treacherous that many die en route. Nor do the dangers end on the shore: the largely overlooked plight of the Rohingya raised a brief international outcry earlier this year when footage surfaced of Thai policemen towing a boatload of emaciated border hoppers back into the Andaman Sea and leaving them to drift, engineless, to their deaths.

Yet death is a risk many are willing to take to escape a life in Burma that most consider unliveable. Media restrictions inside the country have been tighter than ever during the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic National League For Democracy leader arrested in May for breaking the terms of her house arrest, but the stories of the Rohingya are testament to the slings and arrows of a culture in which suffering is the common denominator.

Sixty-year-old Mohammad Zaker’s cheeks are hollow, his skeletal frame lost in a stripy collared shirt that hangs off him like a burial shroud. His piercing eyes fill with tears as he describes how soldiers came to his home while he was at work and raped his daughter with such brutality that she was told she would never bear children; she recently married a rickshaw driver who knows nothing of the trauma they underwent, and is still unaware that he will never hold his own children.

Rohingya FiveFifty-year-old Juhura Begum, elegant in a white sari and orange patterned dress, displays the death-numbed blankness of a trench soldier as she describes the rape and murder of her sister, after which she fled with her husband and three daughters, one of whom was herself raped by Nasaka, the Burmese border police; her husband died a few days after they arrived of what Juhura calls “a broken heart”.

“In Burma we were less than animals,” she says. “We were like ghosts, living lives that had already ended. At least here we can act like human beings and go about our business with a small measure of freedom.”

Juhura’s sentiments are echoed by many in the camp, who see the squalor, the cultural isolation and the constant threat of malnutrition as a small price to pay for a life in something so closely resembling a real community. Thirty-five-year-old Kamal Hussein is forced to hobble around on a wooden crutch, one leg shattered in a beating by Nasaka and trailing uselessly in the dust, but says that life here is a “paradise” thanks to his new-found freedom to pray with impunity at a handful of improvised mosques, something that he says gives him strength to endure any suffering.

Hossein Hag, an educated, English-speaking entrepreneur who watched his business collapse due to travel restrictions inside Burma, puts his arms around his two young sons and smiles broadly. “I used to dream of escaping poverty by making a success of my business. Now I know there are worse things than poverty, and more important things than financial success. In Burma we lived constantly in the shadow of death. Bangladesh feels like a place where life can begin again.”

Such dreams rest largely on the actions of a government that for years has chosen to ignore the Rohingya in the hope that they would eventually disappear. The current soar in immigration levels seems finally to have nailed closed the coffin of such self-deception. In May, the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni travelled to Burma to begin rewording a repatriation deal proposed by the military government in late 2008, but failed to secure formal assurances that those resettled would be treated any better than in previous decades. Until such guarantees are in place, there can be little hope of the Rohingya returning to a life that was – and for many still is – the stuff of nightmares.