Lives ablaze

Muhammad Ibrahim Ibne Towhid spends a day in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf to witness the sufferings and stories of the Rohingyas fleeing the killings and torture in their homeland of Myanmar

Photos by Abdullah Apu

IMG_3199

The day did not start with a brilliant dawn. Just as the sun began to give away its rays in the sky, we headed towards Teknaf from Cox’s Bazar on September 13th. The beautiful hour long marine drive could not be enjoyed by us as Cox’s Bazar seemed to be wearing a sad air mixed with fear and horror. Rohingyas were sitting or standing beside the roads to ask for help from any vehicle that passed by. This was just a trailer of what was about to come next.

Upon entering Teknaf, one could only find Rohingyas wherever the sight goes. The hapless people were walking or travelling towards camps in groups with fear in their faces and tears in their eyes. Just as we reached the Bhanga ghatt, thousands more, who arrived the previous night, were waiting to enter into Bangladesh’s mainland.

Teknaf has a road connection with Shah Porir Island. But this was in a dilapidated condition due to the rough season. So, we had to travel by a speed boat for 20 minutes to reach the island from where these fleeing people were coming.

Men carried their aged parents on their backs while some carried much older ones on baskets which were being carried by two people.  Women had their laps full with newborn babies and little ones, who could walk, held hands of much younger ones or even carried them on their laps.

Shah Porir Island is rather big and from the jedi ghatt we had to drive for 40 minutes on a CNG-run auto rickshaw in order to reach the furthest border guard post on the other corner of the island from where Myanmar is just a mile away, across the Naf river.

IMG_2405

Just as we reached the other side of the island, we could see hundreds of people walk towards Bangladesh for safety, just crossing the river by boats and trawlers. We went closer and suddenly saw that the distant sky across the border was filled with smoke. Walking for about an hour to reach near the Bay of Bengal, we found fresh fires gutting a village on the other side.

Just then a boat was seen coming towards us. We were ready to meet these people, first hand. The boat could not row ashore due to the strong tide. Four families struggled to get down on the water from the boat and walk or swim the remaining distance to the shore.

Seeing us, they began to scurry off in any direction they could. They were afraid, did not know anyone and were insecure. They just wanted to find some shelter. As the last family was about to get down from the boat, we sensed a crisis. A woman aged 35, later we learnt her name to be Sokhina from Lambaguna village of Myanmar, had just fainted.

IMG_2421

A trawler ride for 40 minutes over the Naf river is not at all pleasant. It was terrifying even to see the boats dancing vigorously in the waves, giving rise to a dangerous feeling as if they will capsize at any second. Anyone without a fisherman’s experience is bound to throw away or even lose control and fall into the water.

Sokhina was somehow dragged by two others to the shore. We went forward to help and made some room in the crowd to assist with a hand fan and water. Regardless of a doctor present in our team, we were helpless. The woman slobbered and then breathed her last right in front of us.

None of the fleeing people had any time to mourn her death because every single individual was uncertain of what would happen to them next. Her body was taken to the nearby majhi para village for burial and to make attempts at trying to contact the rest of her family, if found somehow.

Meanwhile another trawler had come to shore. We went near it. A father, Md Alam who had walked for eight days after escaping Shohagpara village of Rasidong, carried his two year old boy Md Abbas on his lap. He said that the rest of his family members were all dead, burnt alive by fire, lit by the Myanmar army.

He showed us the still wounded burnt marks on different parts of his son’s body. We asked him to rush to the nearby village and then briefed him about how he can reach the camp.

IMG_4247

A total of 19 trawlers landed nearby and a total of 37 boats carrying hundreds of fleeing Rohingyas arrived on 17 different points of the island as we explored other parts of the island.

Hundreds of dead cows were lying on the shore with crows and insects eating the dead carcasses. It was learnt that these were all the animals of Rohingyas who had tried to bring these with them. Some of the refugees were seen holding on to jugs, water pots and solar panels. Farmers brought their animals many of which crossed the river when there was an ebb or on trawlers.

Walking on the line of the shore, we saw uncountable villages of Myanmar on fire. As we went to the nearby Majhipara village we saw a family in tears. An old lady was sitting helplessly with her son and daughter. The family had somehow escaped their burning village Badurmohan which was a four day walk from the border.

They claimed to see about 250 people burnt and killed with their own eyes. As they boarded a trawler with many others, Abdur Rahim lost his wounded wife Nutua Begum and his three-year old child during the rush. As they came to the island, hours later, his infant’s dead body came to the shore floating while her wife’s body was still at large. We found the infant’s body just beside them, wrapped in white cloth, ready for burial.

IMG_4065

It was almost dark and we could not bear to see the sorrow and sufferings anymore. We came all the way back to Teknaf and started the next journey towards the camp. It was more than 40 kilometres away and thousands of fleeing people were going towards the camps in auto rickshaws, vans, trucks and buses. The Ukhia camp was set up years earlier while Balukhali was the new camp. However, as more than 420,000 Rohingyas have already crossed the border and more coming in every day, most of these people need more space. As a result, temporary camps can be found on more than 10 kilometres on both sides of the main road at Thaingkhali and Palongkhali area.

The situation in the camps was much worse. There were cries everywhere from wounds, diseases and hunger. More than few lakh Rohingyas did not have any water to drink and were looking forward to aid reaching them till September 13th. Many were wounded and were waiting for medical help. Children half naked were begging for food and hundreds of pregnant women were giving birth to children in the temporary camps.

We could only just rush between the camps. It was dark and on this side of the border, there were thousands of Rohingya family trying to battle their pains, fears, insecurity, hunger and uncertain future. On the other side of the border, we could see the fire and smoke rise to the sky. It could not get any worse. The whole area of the temporary camp had a stench, with no sanitation facilities and proper settlement.

IMG_2802

Rohingyas continue to flee over the border into Bangladesh. International and national help is coming in, but not without mismanagement in distributing the aid like food, water, medicines etc. As governments, countries and states fight battles to settle the issue; each moment leaves behind hundreds of stories, one sadder than the other.