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“Orphan Friendly Space” – The Rohingya Children in Refugee Camps

Bayes Ahmed1 November 2020

Written by Professor Amena Mohsin and Mohammad Atique Rahman, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“Alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah), I am in a safe place now, I miss my parents but I have survived” – Mohammad Ismail (pseudonymous), a Rohingya child living in Camp-13, Thangkhali Refugee Camp, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

It is an irony and a point of critical reflection for all of us as part of the so-called global society and humanity, as to why we need to create spaces designated as “orphan-friendly-space”, and children who have been orphaned [1] by state terrorism and genocidal acts in its quest for building a ‘nation’ find safety and security in those spaces and zones. The brutalities of our global and national systems have left little options for them. “Home sweet home,” a proverb that we grow up with, or the concept of “home” is lost for many children. Mohammad Ismail, a child who lives in a Ukhia Refugee Camp, spends most of his time in an orphan friendly space. He is one among the thousands of the ‘orphaned’ Rohingya children, who comes and plays with other orphan children in the Health Management Bangladesh (HMBD)’s, a local humanitarian NGO, “Orphan-Friendly-Space”. He was twelve years old in 2019. According to him, he spends most of his time there with other Rohingya children as he finds it a safe and secure space. 

Fear haunts him as he lost both of his parents during the August 2017 genocide, that was committed against his community in the Rakhine state. More than 712,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar during that period and took shelter in Bangladesh. Over half of them were children [2]. According to a report published by Save the Children, the speed and scale of violence that caused this mass exodus of the Rohingya were unprecedented since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 [3]. The report also mentioned that Rohingya children were the worst victim of this violence as they were targeted for brutal sexual violence, killed and maimed indiscriminately in Myanmar [5].  In the most severe cases, many of them witnessed brutal killings of their own parents.  

Ismail made friends in the orphan friendly space. Plastic toys and footballs scattered around the area that came as part of donations and relief for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. While playing in the area, he narrated his story. He was living with his parents in Udong village. They were five siblings. His father was a farmer. They had a farming land around 10 Kanis (a Bengali measurement of land, 1 Kani = 1,619 square feet). His father and elder brothers were also fishing in the Dariya (Naf river). They raised cattle and chose one to sacrifice on the eve of Eid-ul-Adha. According to Ismail, it was two days before the Eid festival, his family and the villagers were taking preparation for the Eid celebration. At that time, they heard rumours that the neighbouring village got attacked by the local Buddhist Mogh community and the Myanmar military/Tatmadaw. Rohingya villagers started to move in search of safe places. Ismail got scared hearing this conversation among the elders but his father assured him saying that “no worries, you are in a safe place, Ismail, I will protect you”. However, his father could not keep his promise. The Mogh along with the military stormed into his village with firearms and sharp weapons on the day before the Eid. They hurriedly separated elders and young males and took them to the military camp. Ismail’s father was also taken away. Since then, he has not seen him. He is believed to have been killed by the Myanmar military in 2017. On that day, Ismail was terrified. His father was forcibly taken away from their home. As narrated by him:

“The Moghs were dragging my father, they had big red eyes, it seemed like that they were going to chop us all. I was afraid of dying. My mother held me and my younger brother very tightly and said I am here, don’t be scared you will be safe.”

However, his safe place existed only for a half-day as by the evening the villagers realised that their village will be attacked again by the military to take away the women and girls. Ismail’s mother decided to move her family to a safe place and joined the group of villagers with his uncles’ family. They started moving up in the hilly areas as they thought there would be a safer place for them but at night bullets came from the military check post, that fired aimlessly here and there. Ismail’s group members also got bullet wounds on that night. His uncle and mother decided to walk straight up the hill, and reached a “Muslim County” in Bangladesh, he went on saying:   

“We kept walking for three days straight. We joined around 2 to 3 hundred thousand Rohingya who also wanted to reach Bangladesh. When we cooked, the Army could suspect and find us from afar. They came and searched our bags and belongings. They took away the money, the jewellery. And then they went away. When we were on our way, they did not beat us as they normally did. But those who spoke out against them talked back at them – they were beaten. After three days we reached the harbour. My mother and uncle planned to cross the river and reach Bangladesh. On the night of 29 August 2017 when we got into a boat, we heard the sound of firing at night. I barely saw anything but heard the cries of wounded people. Our villagers urged the boatman to help them in crossing the river. My mother got shot on that night and she drowned into the river while she was trying to protect us from the firing. We lost 10 villagers on that night. On the next morning, we stopped at Shyamlapur. We climbed through North Nangkhongchhari (Naikkhongchhari) to reach Bangladesh. We stayed in Shyamlapur for five days under the open sky. Then we moved to Ledamma. There we stayed for 1 month and 5 to 10 days. Our days were even harder in Ledamma. After one month and a half of reaching Bangladesh, we got our space in the camp. In Bangladesh, I started to feel safe, but I had lost my parents in Myanmar. I don’t think there was any Rohingya left in our village in Myanmar.”

In Bangladesh, the local people supported them and gave them clothes, food and shelter. They had no belongings when they came to the camp in Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). According to Ismail, Mizan Sir, the HMBD programme coordinator, looked after them very well. They did not know anything about this new place, but the HMBD kept in touch with them and provided them with some medicines. Ismail added:

We had nothing to do the whole day in the beginning. I had no books, no toys and no friends. So I went to HMBD’s place to see what was happening there. There they gave me some toys to play with other children. I was so happy to find some friends. I also feel safe with my friends. The driver uncle (HMBD ambulance driver) gives us chocolate every day. I know some of my friends also lost their parents on the other side of the Dariya (Naf river). Here in this place, we play and also attend the class. Our teacher Solim who has also come with us from Myanmar is so kind to us. Arif Sir and Mizan Sir from HMBD, they were so kind. They built fences around this playground. I feel safe now.”

Similar to Ismail, many other children in the orphan-friendly-space built by HMBD in Ukhia lost either their parents or their family members. But somehow, they seemed to have accepted their reality though it is cruel and full of uncertainties. They feel safe about their lives, but there is constant uncertainty, fear and confusion. They fear to be sent back to Myanmar though they want to go back to their homes. They used to go to the local Maktab, a religious school, and play with their friends. In the camp area, they live in cramped rooms. It is difficult to stay together in a small makeshift shelter in the camp so Ismail and other children come to the HMBD place every day in search of open space. According to them, the camp area is very hot. There is hardly any ventilation.

Most of the camp’s shelter houses are built on the slopes of hills by clearing forests and trees. There is hardly any tree shed in the camp where one can take rest during the hot summer days. So, these children look forward to coming to the open space where they can rest, play, study and pass their time together. This space is open from 8 am to 4 pm. Fatima (pseudonymous name), another Rohingya child, mentioned that she eagerly waits for the next morning to come to this place and be with her friends for a day. She does not want to stay in the camp, but then she needs to help her aunt with whom she lives now in cooking and fetching drinking water.  She has been orphaned in the genocide. Ismail also desires to get a new bag, books and a pair of sandals as the ones provided to him in 2017 are getting old. 

Mr Mizan, the programme officer of HMBD, said that they were the first NGO to arrive in this camp to provide medical treatment to the Rohingya community. They were able to set up their office in the early stage, they had some open space after establishing their medical camps. They thought that this open space could be converted into a children playground who were already in a distressed state. Therefore, Mizan and his team, when they visited door-to-door shelters of the camp, asked the families to send their children to their playground. In the mid-2018, HMBD decided to build a small shed for these children where they could sit and read books. By December 2018, it appointed Mr Solim, a Rohingya teacher, to teach the children. He teaches them Math, English and Religion in Rohingya language. HMBD managed to obtain free books with contents developed in Rohingya language. Currently, it hosts around ninety Rohingya children. 

However, more initiatives to be undertaken to create spaces for children for their mental and physical wellness. It is notable that among the Rohingya refugees, 55% are children and 4% of the household are child-headed. Children who eagerly wait for their time in the orphan-friendly-space have fractured lives. They lost their parents and homes in Myanmar. The big red eyes that Ismail was talking about will perhaps haunt him all his life. One may wonder if the eyes were actually red, or Ismail imagined them to be so out of his fearful state. He also remembers that the Rohingyas wanted to reach the Muslim country, a sense of belonging or kinship or affinity was sought in the Muslimness or religious affinity. Ismail’s assertion that the Buddhist Moghs were with the military attacked their village also speaks volumes of religion being played out in Myanmar politics, and it is penetrating into young minds.

One can only hope that the world will stop creating refugees and orphans, where the space of orphan-friendly-space will become their most cherished space and perhaps in the mental domain the most treasured memory to hold on. This is one of the cruellest fate that a child deserves. Let us strive to move beyond this politics of power and dream of a world where a child will have a home, a sweet home!

Authors Affiliations

References

[1] According to the latest study from UNICEF (done by the end of 2018) [retrieved from UNICEF’s April 2020’s report],  there exists a total number of 13 million child refugees, approximately one million asylum-seeking children and an estimated 17 million IDP children displaced within their own country by violence and conflict, United Nations Children’s Fund, Child displacement, April 2020, https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-migration-and-displacement/displacement/, accessed 19 October 2020.

[2]  A total of 36,673 orphaned children are now living in the 12 Rohingya camps under Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas of Cox’s Bazar, according to a government survey, Tarek Mahmud, “36,673 orphaned children living in Rohingya camps”, Dhaka Tribune, 9 November 2017, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2017/11/09/36673-orphaned-children-living-rohingya-camps, accessed 19 October 2020.

[3] The Daily Star. Exodus greater than Rwanda genocide. https://www.thedailystar.net/backpage/news/exodus-greater-rwanda-genocide-1702837; accessed 31 October 2020.

[4] One out of two Rohingya children who fled to Bangladesh without their parents were orphaned by brutal violence. There are currently more than 6,000 unaccompanied and separated Rohingya children living in Cox’s Bazar. (As per August 2018 data), Save the Children, Alarming Number of Rohingya Children Orphaned by Brutal Violence – Save the Children Study, https://www.savethechildren.org/us/about-us/media-and-news/2018-press-releases/alarming-number-rohingya-children-orphaned-brutal-violence, accessed 19 October 2020.

Acknowledgement: This work was funded by the British Academy as part of the project, “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (Award Reference: SDP2\100094), supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).