Life in pieces: What next for half a million Rohingyas stuck in the refugee camps?

Life in pieces: What next for half a million Rohingyas stuck in the refugee camps?

From free food to a lost-and-found booth, CNA Insider's Lam Shushan discovers how compassionate residents are helping to meet the desperate need, as aid groups struggle to get help to where it’s needed.

"In the end, it was not the scenes of hunger, grief or fatigue I remember most vividly – but the helpless frustration of living a life in limbo." CNA Insider's Lam Shushan's firsthand account of life for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. 

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Parched and dazed, Ms Somira Begum, 23, tries to pacify her wailing baby, while her three screaming toddlers add to the madness around her.

A faint “stop it” is all she can let out for now - she is exhausted from being on the run for nearly a month, giving birth along the way, and now, worrying about not having any milk for her newborn.

“We haven't been able to settle in. There are still so many problems. We don’t have proper food and we can't even get a moment of rest,” she said.

Life in this sprawling slum of bamboo and tarpaulin tents wasn’t the safe haven she’d expected after fleeing the violence in Myanmar, but no one - not even the UNHCR - was prepared for the sudden arrival of half a million people.  

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Somira has not been able to produce any milk for her 12-day old newborn (Photo: Lam Shushan).

Here in either extreme heat or torrential rain, refugees live in squalid conditions, often with multiple families crammed into one tent. 

Even though they managed to escape to Bangladesh alive, the Rohingyas are now faced with hunger and illness, while the logistical complications mean that international aid organisations have been very slow to bring aid into the camps.

And as world leaders continue to talk about big picture politics surrounding this issue, it’s a life in limbo all over again for these stateless Rohingyas - not knowing when the next aid truck will come, when they will get their next meal, or whether their frail babies will live to see another day.

“We just sit here. What else can we do?” said Mr Anwar, Ms Somira’s husband.

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Aid groups are concerned about the spread of contagious illnesses in the cramped and unsanitary camps (Photo: Lam Shushan). 


Elsewhere, men prowl the roads, waiting for aid trucks to pull over before they swarm around them, like fish waiting to be fed. Only the tallest and strongest walk away with a prize.

These aid trucks are managed by individual Bangladeshis, but their good intentions sometimes result in more disaster - people have died in stampedes while fighting for food that is flung off the trucks.

And with just one main road that runs through the camps, these aid trucks end up causing more chaos by congesting it - another reason why it has been difficult for the big NGOs to access the area, according to Mr Chris Lom, a spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

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With the lack of food in the camps, this woman said she was going to grow her own food with these seeds (Photo: Lam Shushan). 

Still, international aid organisations have been criticised for their lack of presence in the makeshift camps, especially since the UN and its humanitarian partners appealed for US$434 million.

“Organised distribution takes time - you need a whole army of people for that, and without proper infrastructure and some form of order, it will be quite difficult to spend that money quickly,” said Mr Lom. 

(READ: Big Singaporean hearts in Cox's Bazar)

The Bangladeshi government has also announced a plot of 2,000 acres that will be set aside to house the refugees - expected to hit 1 million by the end of the year.

“We are going to have one of the world’s largest IDP (internally displaced person) camps, and from a logistical aspect, laying out a site that ensures proper services get to the right people is an even bigger challenge,” said Mr Lom. 

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Spontaneous refugee camps have sprung up all around Cox’s Bazar (Drone photo: Jack Board).


As the refugees wait for this big logistical operation to take shape, most will just have to bear with the reality of their new lives. For many, it means having to silently endure their physical and psychological trauma. 

Setara Begum, 25, was gang raped in her village by the same men who took her husband away. Since arriving in Bangladesh, she has not sought medical help, for she’s too embarrassed to be examined.

She bursts out sobbing before recalling the chain of events. “They said ‘we have killed a thousand women like you, and if you struggle, we will kill you too’.

"Then they cut my vagina with a knife and raped me. There were 10 of them,” she said.

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Once inside her tent, Ms Setara takes off her long-sleeved overgown. Even under the shade, it’s sweltering hot (Photo: Lam Shushan). 

Though the pain she experiences is like “delivering a child” every time she goes to the toilet, the memories of her last moments with her husband are what hurt her most.     

He just said one thing - please pray for me before I die. Take care of yourself my dear, you will never see me again.

“It’s like I am just floating in the river. I feel so helpless,” she said. 

Thankfully, Ms Setara found a vacant tent in the makeshift camps soon after she arrived, and with the help of other refugees who have been there for longer, she has managed to form a network of support.

“I had no pots to cook, I had no rice. Nothing. Then the neighbours said, ‘Please use my pot. Use my tools to clean your home. If you are hungry, come to my home to eat, don’t starve’.

“That's how we became friends, and we love each other now,” said Ms Setara.

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“The others are deprived like me too, but they help me a lot. That's how we have built our friendship, and we love each other,” said Ms Setara (left).


This community spirit extends to the older camps set up by the UNHCR, where Rohingya refugees have been living for decades.  

Surprisingly, even with the chaos that the latest wave of Rohingya refugees has brought, the older refugees who were previously living here in peace were the first ones who stepped in to help.  

Nazir Ahmed, 27, has lived in the Kutupalong camp since the early 1990s when his parents fled Myanmar after a similar attack took place in their village.

He started a lost and found booth when he noticed that children were getting separated from their parents everyday.

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Mr Nazir picks up about a dozen lost children each day, but only a few get reunited with their parents by the end of the day (Photo: Lam Shushan). 

Just as he makes an announcement on the loudhailer, a woman comes crashing onto the floor in front of him, distraught that her two grandchildren disappeared the moment she turned away from them.

In these overcrowded camps, lost children and single women become vulnerable to human traffickers. 

(READ: Displaced Rohingyas at great risk of human trafficking in overwhelmed camps)

 “When the parents started losing their children, it saddened me to see them crying. So I thought it would be good to set up this booth. It gives me immense pleasure when I return the kids to their parents and they cry tears of happiness,” said Mr Nazir.

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Announcements are made throughout the day on the loud hailer until their parents come to pick them up (Photo: Lam Shushan).

Mr Saidul Amin, 24, was born in the Kutupalong camp. Only half of his family made it across to Myanmar in the 1990s, so he empathises with the newcomers. He said:

Why should we be annoyed? They could very well be my family that I never met.

Using the little money he had and funds raised by other older refugees, he set up a stall distributing various kinds of snacks like samosas and dough fritters.

“I give it away to most people for free, unless they have money to pay for it. It doesn't matter if I make a loss - people are hungry and children are crying,” he said.

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Mr Saidul prepares food like samosas, beans and puffed rice every morning (Photo: Lam Shushan).

“Others are helping too - they are raising funds to cook big pots of rice for people. They are scraping the bottom of the pots to feed them,” said Mr Saidul.

Bangladeshis who live in Cox’s Bazar have also had a big part to play in providing humanitarian assistance. Local boatmen have been ferrying Rohingyas to safety, villagers have opened up their houses, and no reports of major clashes between the two communities have emerged yet. 


But in Bangladesh, a poor country itself, this kindness has its limits, and the refugees know that. 

“We are getting help from the locals now, but it won’t last forever,” said Ms Setara. 

The Bangladeshi government has said they will continue to provide assistance to the Rohingyas on humanitarian grounds, but maintains that Myanmar must take them back eventually.

For the refugees who have spent their lives here, returning to Myanmar and being given a citizenship would be a dream come true. “I have never seen Burma with my own eyes. But I will go back if the land we used to own are given back to us, and if the country is at peace,” said Mr Saidul. 

WATCH: CNA Insider's Lam Shushan's week in Cox's Bazar (7:50) 

“I will be able to move anywhere I want, get a proper job. People with a citizenship can do that, but we can’t. We can’t even open a bank account,” he said. 

But for those who have just arrived, returning to where the nightmare began is far from their minds. “The situation here may not be ideal, but at least we still have our lives. That is why we are here,” said Ms Setara.