My reminiscences of Cox’s Bazar are deeply rooted in my childhood during family vacations taken with my parents and three siblings – horse rides on the beach, sunsets against the widest horizon, charcoal barbecues by nightfall, and copious amounts of seafood throughout our stays. My recent trip to Cox’s Bazar, some 20 odd years later, however, was starkly contrasting in that the circumstance was dire, one which continues to sit steep in my mind.
Rohingya may have become a very familiar term to us recently, as international media outlets continue to pour into the small coastal town of Teknaf, in hopes to unfold the horrific stories behind the exodus of the minority Muslim population from Myanmar into Bangladesh. However, this term seemingly remains unacknowledged there, while being substituted first with its more-inferior term “Kala”, to an inaccurate term currently, “Bengali”. This in turn insinuates that the Rohingya are also unacknowledged as individuals belonging to Myanmar where, regardless of their original migration, they settled for generations.
Now, Bangladesh is not a rich country. Yes, we have one of the longest, uninterrupted sea beach, the largest mangrove forest, fertile land, lush vegetation, vast tea gardens, and ranked amongst the top 10 happiest nations of the world (Happy Planet Index 2016, NEF) – in that sense, we are very rich. But as a nation, we remain as one of the poorest and most populous of the world. Still, our doors have remained open to an influx of at least 507,000 Rohingya refugees and counting. We are not prepared for this influx, and many may say, nor are we responsible. But as the nation and the world have witnessed thus far, our Premier is not one to take up arguments regarding human lives.
At least 507,000 Rohingya have escaped the recent violence from Rakhine State in Myanmar since August (as per UNHCR and ISCG statistics), and continue to flee to Bangladesh in the dark hours of the night on a daily basis. Out of this number, approximately 24,000 are expecting and lactating mothers (according to a recent UNFPA report), 210 have given birth here (as per Bangladesh government statistics) and UNICEF has stated that out of those 507,000 – 240,000 are children, while others remain undocumented. Reading these numbers on our smartphones, newspapers and websites still leave room for us to become desensitized to such horror as we move onto the next bit of information thrown at us by the oversaturation of media. But having visited the small fishing village of Shah Porir Dwip, the first point of civilization the Rohingya come across after trekking for days from Myanmar border, across the Naf river and into Bangladesh – I have seen hundreds tirelessly fleeing, heard the tremble in their voice and felt the palpable uncertainty in their hearts, just having come in a few hours fresh off the boat.
Speaking of media, that’s exactly what got me to Cox’s Bazar in the first place. For several weeks prior, I had been irked by much on my Facebook newsfeed, as we all are from time to time. Be it that one friend who decides to make everyone privy to an uncalled for Game of Thrones spoiler, or the friend who overshares every little detail of their life. Except, this one post, or twelve (yes I counted), hit me right where it hurts. As these ethnocentric posts came flooding in every day, not only mudding Bangladesh as a nation but also declaring that the “Rohingya” (without accepting the term) are terrorists, I stood in more and more astonishment every time. This friend of mine, sharing such posts on his page, had undergone the same education as me, seemed to have the same mindset all the years we had studied together, and we even had the same circle of friends. So how could he think so differently than me? It seemed as though all the years we joked about being neighbors, seeing as he is from Burma and I am from Bangladesh, while also adding to it that we lived in the same building in Vancouver – the only thing separating us now was not our origin, but our ethos.
Next thing I know, I find myself in Shah Porir Dwip, crossing a bamboo makeshift bridge, drenched in my kameez and runners in heavy coastal rain. After a 3-hour journey consisting of a car ride through Ukhia into Teknaf, a 30-minute walk, and a boat ride – I stood astounded as I watched mostly women and children, struggling to carry very little of their lives that they had brought along. Mothers clenching the tiny hands of their children, elderly struggling not to slip through the muddy terrains, men hauling the remains of their household belongings, and children carrying screaming babies.
As I walked into the vicinity at early dawn, where Rohingya refugees had sought shelter after fleeing in the early hours of the night, I saw more women and children. Having traveled for days and only entering Bangladesh a few hours ago, their stories from the other side lay fresh in their minds. Almost all women I interacted with had young children, many of whom had already lost family members and some even waiting in hopes of their husbands to join them soon. I met Khadiza Begum, seven months pregnant and a mother of two, who was waiting to reach the camps with her mother. Her husband was still stranded in Myanmar, waiting to reunite with her. She could not help but remain optimistic when asked when she could see him again.
Khadiza along with others were all headed to various camps that have sprung up over the past several weeks – Kutupalong, Palongkhali, Thengkhali to name a few. It is obvious that the camps have reached its full capacity and was on overdrive, with more incoming Rohingya increasing by the day. Our path of return was the same as Khadiza’s, as we nestled together on a trawler amongst 30 other Rohingya being transported to the refugee camps. At this exact moment, having put away all of our camera equipment – I felt an absolute sense of calmness. A mother held her baby behind me just as my mother did me, a young boy held up an umbrella for his elderly relative beside me just as we do for ours, everyone helped one another onto the boat just as the world should. There was no difference between us except the pseudo barriers of class, race and religion created by man himself, and this sheer feeling of epiphany in itself made me realize the foolishness in man not being able to comprehend the simplest of theories – that we are one human race.
The distress of displacement is something which we cannot imagine, even if we stepped into their shoes for a day. The mass exodus is of grave concern, as the Rohingya, upon being asked whether they would return back to Myanmar if given the chance, remain conflicted with their answer. As the debate on whether Bangladesh should make space for the Rohingya rages on, it is clear that we are their only hope in terms of providing shelter.
For more details, watch this video.