Myanmar refugees: Warning – this story will make you cry

A single crumpled photograph of their mother is all the family have as a keepsake...

Hamida and her family are from Chinggripara in Myanmar. Aged 15, she is the oldest of seven siblings. We met her when she brought her one-year-old sister Bushra to a health clinic supported by CARE at Unchiprang refugee camp.

As Bushra was being treated for diarrhoea and malnutrition, Hamida told us what happened when their village in Myanmar was attacked and their home set on fire.

Hamida holding baby sister Bushra at health clinic
Hamida holding her baby sister Bushra at the health clinic

How she has the courage and strength to carry on – after all that she and her family have been through – is just incredible. This is what she told us.

My mother was disabled, so she could not leave the house when it was was set on fire. She was burned alive.

“I tried to grab her and carry her, but she was too heavy. And then a burning beam started to fall, and the flames fell onto my mother and she was on fire. I had to run to save myself, and I fled...

“I was separated from my family, and I ran to the lake where many people from the village had gathered. We sat and waited there. From there we could hear the shooting going on and on, and could see smoke rising from the villages. Finally, my father found me, and then we left for Bangladesh.

“I have five sisters and one brother. We arrived here about 10 or 12 days ago.”

It took us a week to walk here from the village, walking through mud and up hills and in the torrential rain. It was very difficult.

“We have a card now, so we are able to get food from the aid agencies. They give us rice and oil and pulses. But the baby has very bad diarrhoea. She is so thin, she needs nourishment or I am scared she will die.”

I am the eldest, and now my mother is gone I am taking on many responsibilities. I am cooking food for us all, and washing the babies.

Hamida feeding baby sister Bushra a nutritional supplement
Hamida feeding Bushra a nutritional supplement at the health clinic which is funded by UNICEF

Like Hamida, their father, Shumsu Alom, has also shown amazing strength to lead his children to safety in Bangladesh. Here is what he told us:

“Their mother had an accident about four or five years ago, she slipped and fell and she was paralysed. A few months back she also contracted typhoid. She has really suffered.

“Armed men had organised a meeting three days before we were attacked. At the meeting we were told that if we were not violent, they would not be violent to us. They asked us not to run away. They promised they wouldn’t harm us. Because of that meeting, we stayed in the village. But then they started killing us.”

If we had not trusted them and believed their promises, the villagers would all have left sooner. We would have fled and all of us would have been saved. My wife might still be alive.

“[On that day] I was at home doing handicrafts, making baskets for carrying vegetables. It was a hot day, and I was sat inside in the shade. Then I heard the sounds of gunfire. I jumped up, and looked outside.”

I saw houses burning, and people running in every direction, screaming and crying. It was chaos, a war zone. Everyone had lost their minds...

“Then our house was hit, and it started to burn. My wife had been feeding the baby, so I took her from her arms. Hamida ran carrying one of her younger sisters too. Then I ran back and grabbed Tahera, who was sat on the floor. I shouted at the other children to run, and they left.”

Hamida came back and stayed with her mother, she was trying to help lift her. My wife was frozen in fear. Flames were falling down onto us.

“I told Hamida again to get out, and I ran with Tahera and there was a crash and the house began to crumble behind me.”

I heard my wife scream, I will never forget that scream. And then I saw Hamida running away, and I was filled with relief and horror, as I knew that Hamida had made it out of the house, but my wife was trapped and she was burning alive. I could hear her agonised cries. I still hear them now...

“She was weak, she had been so ill. She didn’t have the strength to make it out. I should have helped her. But in the panic, my mind was blank, I just grabbed the babies. I didn’t think clearly...”

It felt like the end of the world. No-one knew where to turn nor where to run.

“Hamida had disappeared, she ran to the centre. I just had to hope that she would be looked after by others in the village.

“With my mother, we went into the forest to hide and escape. I didn’t sleep for two days. I left my children with my mother and I went to look for Hamida. Everywhere there were crowds of people hiding and waiting, hoping the danger would pass. I went from group to group looking for her.”

When I finally saw Hamida, I cannot express how I felt in that moment. My heart went heavy and exploded, and I just held her and cried.

“We went back to reunite with my mother, and then we all set out for Bangladesh. It took five days. We had very little to eat, but when we passed villages that had been deserted we were able to use their things and could eat the rice they had left behind.

“We would walk until we came to a big group of people, and then we would stop and rest with them. It was safer if we stayed as a group overnight. But it was impossible to sleep, it was noisy and uncomfortable, and we were anxious.”

The children had seen so much horror, and the youngest ones were crying for their mother. They were hungry and confused. We were all in shock.

Hamida and Bushra outside the shelter
Hamida and Bushra outside the shelter that their father Shumsu has built

“When we arrived here, I spent the small amount of money I had on the tarpaulin and some bamboo. They both cost 500 taka. I knew it was overpriced, but I had no choice. Then I built this shelter. We all just sleep here.”

We have this one photo of the children’s mother. I carry this on my person, so it is faded. But this is our only memory keepsake of her.

Shumsu holding the family photo

Will you help families like Shumsu and Hamida’s? CARE and other DEC members are already on the ground in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, providing what help we can. But there are more than half a million people living in the crowded and unsanitary refugee camps. More than one in six of the children brought to the health clinic at Unchiprang refugee camp are found to be acutely malnourished. Please donate now to help us bring desperately needed food, safe water, shelter and medical care to families fleeing from Myanmar.

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Photos and interviews by Kathleen Prior.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.