Myanmar refugees: The women in the shadows, slowly dying

Shabnam Amini
Watch this short video of the climb to the top of the ridge - and the view of the refugee camp stretching to the horizon

I’m climbing up a hillside at the edge of the sprawling refugee settlements that have sprung up near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and are now home to hundreds of thousands of people who have fled from violence in Myanmar.

I’m climbing, climbing past flimsy shelters made of bamboo, plastic sheeting and pieces of string. These ‘houses’ are placed on the side of hills, hills that used to be covered in trees, beautiful greenery with animals roaming freely. Now everything is in muddy shades of beige, apart from the occasional orange tarpaulin that drapes a few wonky structures.

A screengrab of a girl beside the path in the refugee camp

My heart is racing as it’s a steep climb, it’s humid and it’s slippery, so I concentrate hard on my feet. I’m trying to avoid stepping in the streams of brown water that are seeping from each of the shelters, bringing with them sandy mud from the ground. The stench is strong. I try to cover my face and then realise how rude this must look. So I start to breathe through my mouth only.

I climb a little further and see a girl, no more than 4 years old, with a small spade, trying to make a channel beneath her shelter for the brown sludge and water to escape down. I wonder how many times a day she does this.

Walking up the path at the refugee camp in Bangladesh

As I arrive at the top, I stand at a tree-lined ridge. Ahead of me I can see countless shelters perched precariously across the next hill and beyond – infinite more structures.

I’m overwhelmed, breathless due to the climb and breathless due to the sight. How can we help them all? Who isn’t being reached? And how are they surviving?

Shoe-free children appear from everywhere; each thin alley-way I look down they play amongst the brown pools of water. Making games from anything they can find. Children, children everywhere, and from time to time a woman’s eye peeps out from behind a door. I might be the most interesting sight to have passed her today.

70% of the refugees are women and children.

Many women stay inside the shelters, never emerging; their extremely conservative culture does not allow them to show themselves to others. They have no washing or toilet facilities, so they have created their own inside the shelters. I’m conscious of their privacy so I can’t ask to go inside to see what this looks like or how it might work – and then I remember the girl making the channel outside her shelter.

It’s surely a matter of when, rather than if, cholera will break out. With these tightly packed shelters and a lack of toilets and safe water, disease will spread rapidly, and this frightening thought is what keeps our teams awake at night.

Mahbubur Rahman, the CARE international team leader for the crisis, tells me that when our team arrived to work in Cox’s Bazar there was total chaos, no order to the shelters, no registration of individuals, and limitations on where they could work. Health facilities and distribution centres are all concentrated at the edges of the camp – with no way yet of reaching into the middle of the camp.

View from the ridge over the refugee camp in Bangladesh

He is new to this role and has been assigned to work here for a year, and he looks stressed. There are so many families who have seen the horrors of human nature, and simply not enough staff or funds to do what they are here to do – to keep families alive and healthy. And the risk of cholera...

Cholera. He keeps saying it.

There are wells available in the camp, installed in August 2017 at the beginning of the crisis by well-meaning locals, but they are fairly shallow at 100ft. Some are coloured red at the spout, others green. Red indicates danger – over 60% are contaminated.

People came here to be safe, to protect their children, to not live in fear of burning to death or being shot at or raped. A rapid assessment carried out in September 2017 by a CARE International gender advisor indicated that 70% of women here have been raped or have witnessed some kind of sexual violence.

How do they sleep at night behind those unlocked doors? I feel sick. I feel outrage that humans can do this to each other.

What about the women in the shadows? Imprisoned amongst their own waste, hiding. How can we make their lives more dignified?

I’m taken to a different site where there are two men digging a ditch and another drilling a small hole in the ground, and beyond that the edge of a ridge. There is a crowd gathered around watching the men. They may not yet understand what’s happening here – but this is going to keep them safe.

Two men digging a trench at the refugee camp in Bangladesh

The British public donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), and their generosity has made its way to the edge of this ridge, to this muddy spot amongst the brown hills, and in a couple of days there will be a well dug to 700 feet, safe toilets, hand-washing facilities and washrooms designed specifically for women.

Over 12,000 people will soon be safe from the threat of cholera.

But this barely touches the sides of this humanitarian crisis. 800,000 people – the population of Sheffield.

I have mixed feelings – happy that this is happening, and fearful that we can’t reach everyone.

But as I look at the people around me, I am struck by their sense of calm, by a lack of sadness – people even look happy. The people outside shelters are active, all with a sense of purpose.

Boy running with kite at refugee camp in Bangladesh

A boy races past me, glancing back to take a look at my face, with a kite made of a plastic sheet and some branches. Running down the hill and into the valley, he disappears for a time and a minute later I see the kite in the distance, but not the boy. I follow it before it disappears behind another hill. It reminds me of when my own father took me to fly a kite for the first time.

“Just run!” I remember him yelling at me as I dragged the kite behind me with no luck.

Perhaps the people here are just relieved to have escaped the violence that swept over their villages back in Myanmar. Perhaps they don’t yet realise the dangers ahead – that they have run from one danger and into another.

They are our fellow humans, made the same way as us. They are not the ‘others’ but ‘us’. They happen to have been born in a different land to us, one that some claim does not belong to them, but which they were born to, which they survived on, and which was once just one land, with no borders.

We need to help ‘us’. We can’t stand by and let women, girls, boys and men die.

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Shabnam Amini's picture

Shabnam Amini is Fundraising, Partnerships and Communications Director for CARE International UK.