Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – The camps are overwhelming. Makeshift shelters made out of tarpaulin and bamboo sticks stretch as far as the eye can see, closely bunched together with little room for breathing space.
The clay ground they are built on is not solid either, with at least 200,000 Rohingya at a direct risk from landslides in the event of heavy rains, which could kill them and sweep away the flimsy structures.
Yet recently built infrastructure, ranging from brick inlaid roads and bridges over open sewage and small streams coloured red and green by human filth, are anything but temporary. My fixer pointed to the concrete drainage system built on either side of a brick road and grumbled that even some of the surrounding local villages don’t have that kind of groundwork.
Each camp has health clinics, learning centres, women friendly spaces and markets – complete with stalls selling vegetables, live chickens, clothes, mobile phone chargers, and barbershops.
The camps are here to stay. It’s something I inherently knew, as a third-generation Palestinian refugee, when I first set eyes on the thousands upon thousands of coloured tarps. I knew they would evolve into lasting structures, transforming the camp area into a shanty-town or ghetto.
I had seen it before, in pictures of the Gaza refugee camp my grandparents found themselves in, living in a tent stamped with a UNHCR logo. Nine children later, the tent became a mud-dried one-roomed block, kitchen, living and sleeping area all in the same space.
As the children grew up and married, more rooms were added.
One year since Myanmar army crackdown, Rohingya seek justice
The block was knocked down in the late 1990s and a three-storied building took its place, each flat belonging to an uncle and his family.
With the arrival of more than 700,000 Rohingya since last August, there are now more than one million refugees in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, living in 32 camps over the two sub-districts, or upazilas of Ukhiya and Teknaf.
The Rohingya now live in new communities, forced to live in close proximity by the bleak circumstances as neighbours in the camps. Villagers separated from each other now live next to former residents of villages and hamlets from different townships, where dialects, food and local traditions differ.
As we passed by the long queues of people waiting to receive food provisions, holding their UN cards which detailed how many kilos of rice, lentils and flour they received, I was again reminded forcibly of my grandparents who had undergone through the same experience 70 years earlier in Khan Younis refugee camp, their dignity stripped away after being ethnically cleansed from their village, made reliant on aid agencies.
Considering that more than half of the Rohingya refugee population are children, one cannot but help wonder when these shelters will take on a more permanent form. Those who had arrived in earlier waves of displacement had already swapped out the tarpaulin out for mud-dried walls.
The repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar doesn’t even include these earlier refugees. And how can it be viable, with Myanmar refusing to create the suitable, secure conditions required for the Rohingya?
Furthermore, the United Nations has once again demonstrated its incompetence in the face of its two permanent Security Council members, China and Russia, who staunchly veto every resolution in favour of the Rohingya. Palestinians know the feeling, albeit with different players on the UN stage, all too well.
More than half of the 1.1 million Rohingya population living in refugee camps are children, a frightening statistic considering the wretched conditions they live in.
They are everywhere, and eager to use the few choice words of English no doubt picked up from the thousands of NGO workers operating in the 32 camps and the overcrowded, inadequate learning centres set up.
“Hello, fine, how-are-you?” they said enthusiastically to any foreigner, following them around. Even two-year-olds knew these words and would parrot them to us.
The children are everywhere: babies riding on the hips of five year olds, toddlers standing outside of their shelters, older kids ferrying firewood into the camps from the nearby forests, their skinny frames buckling under the weight.
They play marbles, digging small holes for the balls to roll into, or kicking a football about, barefoot and splashing in the open sewage water, or engaged in made up games that evoked more memories of how my cousins and I would spend our summer days in Khan Younis refugee camp.
Sometimes we’d fill a plastic bottle with sand and empty it out only to fill it up again, an absent-minded Sisyphean skill we’d perfected. Other times we would dig holes in the sand outside my grandparents’ house until our fingers touched water, a reminder of the sea that lay a few hundred metres away but was blocked off by a massive Israeli military barracks.
In Kutupalong camp, the largest and most overcrowded refugee camp in the world with a population of 620,000 people, a group of children, all under the age of 10, were standing together on a slightly higher ground than us, bathing under one of the outdoor spigots, shrieking with laughter.
They screamed their hellos and “how-are-you’s” and waved energetically, shouting with glee whenever we responded. This went on for a few minutes, repeated greetings and responses and merriment. Then they shouted, still in unison, a phrase I hadn’t heard from the rest of the children we had encountered.
“I’ll kill you!” they screeched, before doubling down in laughter. “I’ll kill you!” they screamed again, their expressions of mirth and innocence at odds with the demonic words, resulting in a disorienting reality for the outsider.
“I’ll kill you” rang in my ears long after we left the camp, their beaming faces burned into my eyes, thinking about the space where trauma and relief, innocence and witnessing of evil, disconcert and liveliness exist in the harmonious form of children, the first blameless victims of every genocide, every forced displacement, every war waged on one population.