Bangladesh and the Rohingya

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
11 October 2017

A Rohingya family in the doorway to their makeshift living quarters with walls made of plastic sheets.

With the ongoing violence in Arakan State spilling over into a refugee crisis in Bangladesh, the Free Burma Rangers sent a small team into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to see first-hand the state of newly constructed refugee camps and hear first-hand accounts of the increasing crimes against humanity committed by the Burma Army against the Rohingya people. Below are the reflections on the trip from one of the Rangers, Dave S.

I must start with an apology. I believe that any media coverage, report, or this piece of writing should begin with an apology to the Rohingya people. There are no words within my grasp that will do justice to your story and plight. No media coverage can show enough images to convey what it feels like to sleep with your face in the dirt and the nightmares you’ve lived replaying in your head. So I must start with an apology. I am sorry that this report and story will not do justice to your situation. I wish I could do better, but there aren’t words.

Speaking of doing justice: I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t my job to try to figure this conflict out. I have interviewed and spoken with many people from western Burma and many Rohingya people, and it seems like the more information I gather, the less I know. I like to figure stuff out, to have a good guy and a bad guy – I like justice. But the more time that I spend collecting stories and information, the more I realize that it is not my job to figure this out. People are starving to death – our job is to feed them. People are sleeping on the side of the road – our job is to give them shelter. People are dying from thirst and disease – our job is to put in wells and toilets. I would be happy to share with you all the information about the conflict and background that I know, but that is not what is important right now. Right now what is important is being able to give rice to one more person.

Myself and a small team flew to the town of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh on September 22, 2017. Cox’s Bazar is named after Captain Hermin Cox of the British East Asia Trading Company. He died in 1799 in the midst of a large project he was overseeing to resettle refugees. Fast-forward 200 years and there is a refugee crisis larger than Captain Cox could likely have imagined. Every day new refugees arrive. Many have walked for days through the jungle. Many have taken dangerous midnight boats across the river that separates Burma and Bangladesh. Many have lost loved ones and left everything behind. They show up in Bangladesh starving, broken, and afraid.

After the first day in the camps we drove back to Cox’s Bazar in silence. I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we saw. The mass of humanity moving was incredible. At one point in the day we stood atop a hill and as far as you could see in every direction were people and shelters. I had never seen anything like it, on such a large scale. My feelings of hopelessness and grief were only comparable to one other place I had ever visited: Auschwitz concentration camps in Poland.

One of the many camps outside of Cox's Bazar that stretches into the horizon.
One of the many camps outside of Cox’s Bazar that stretches into the horizon.

When I toured Auschwitz, we moved from building to building through the camp, each time hearing a horrible story of human suffering, each time thinking that surely it couldn’t get any worse – but each time being confronted with a story that was worse. I left Auschwitz feeling totally emotionally and physically exhausted. It was the same feeling as we drove back to Cox’s Bazar after our first day at the Rohingya camps.

We wanted to interview people, so our translator would literally just grab someone walking by and say, “Tell them your story.” When they were done, he would grab the next person walking by and again say, “Tell them your story.” Every one had a story of violence, suffering, and evil inflicted against them: stories of children being beheaded or having their arms and legs cut off and then left for dead, women being raped, and people being burned alive.

We helped Partners Relief and Development with a food distribution one day, providing 400 families with enough food to last them for a few weeks. A local contact had gone the day before into the village, found the most needy families, and given them a little yellow card. He told them if they came to a certain spot the next day, they’d get food. The card is for discipline, he explained to me. And it didn’t take long to see why. As the truck pulled up two scuffles broke out among the villagers – people desperate for food.

As I stood watching the distribution I was surrounded by people who didn’t have a yellow card, but were still starving to death, reaching their hands out in desperation, begging for food. It was heart-breaking. In that moment, I thought of Jesus – he, too, had been pressed in on by great crowds (see Luke 14:25, Mark 5:24, and Luke 5:1 for some examples). I imagine they were similar, this crowd and those crowds pressing in on Jesus, reaching out to him, with desperation in their eyes, begging for the food and water he could offer them. I imagine Jesus is heartbroken also.

Rohingya women waiting in line inside the refugee camps.

In reflecting on my feelings leading up to the camp visits, the primary emotion I had was fear. I didn’t know the Rohingya people, but had heard a lot about them – not all good. As we did that first food distribution, and the crowds of people came pressing in on me I had a sweeping moment of fear; all the things I had heard about Islam, the way it’s portrayed in the media, and the stories of the Rohingya came rattling around in my head.

The reality was that they were the ones protecting us – and given the sensitive situation, things wouldn’t go well for them if we got into trouble. I realized this one afternoon when we went into one of the larger camps for interviews. Our local contacts had secured access and set a strict time limit on how long we could remain in one place to avoid encountering security forces. Once inside they ushered us into a small compound to conduct the interviews while anyone who didn’t need to be there was ushered out. They brought us water and chairs. Despite the uncertainty of the situation, in that moment I felt totally safe, totally secure, and I knew that if the Bengali security forces or secret police started to come after us, these people would literally stand between us, hide us, and get us to safety. I knew the risks they were taking being with us, translating and interviewing, and I also knew, despite everything they had suffered, they still had good hearts. My fear was replaced with love.

Rohingya children run through a clear patch between sections of a refugee camp.