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“There is no other option” – The rationalisation of the local residents of Ukhia and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar

Bayes Ahmed7 December 2020

Written by Dr Md. Touhidul Islam and Tanzina Rahman, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The 2017 Rohingya exodus made Bangladesh a host of more than 850,000 new Rohingyas, becoming the fifth-largest forced displacement in the world.  They were forced to leave their homes at the Rakhine State in Myanmar and were also confronted with crimes against humanity, atrocities, and genocide. The host community in Bangladesh responded with compassion by welcoming and supporting them. The scale of the influx, however, has made a profound impact on the hosting communities, largely in the greater Cox’s Bazar area. The two Upazilas, i.e., sub-districts, of Cox’s Bazar – Ukhia and Teknaf – had to withstand supporting most of the weight of accommodating the Rohingyas. Now, the Rohingyas outnumber the local population in these two areas. So, the humanitarian impulse to help soon turned out to be a life-changing event for many residents living in these communities. The needs of the Rohingyas were officially addressed by the Government in Bangladesh, local and international NGOs, donors, and several UN agencies. However, the spill-over impacts, e.g., environmental degradation, price-hike, decreased wages and strain in the relationship between the host community and the Rohingyas just began to draw attention.

For the host communities in Ukhia and Teknaf, the results of this massive exodus can be described as a change in everyday’s lifestyle at best and a threat to survival at worst. They have dealt with an array of challenges in the economic, environmental, socio-cultural, and institutional spheres of their lives. Concurrently, they have dealt with the alterations in their own ways. They did not only try switching to the next best option available in addressing the changes in their lives but also rationalised their course of actions. What was the logic behind this rationalisation? The need to adjust had come from a mindset of lacking a better alternative.

We went on a field trip in 2019 to collect micro-narratives from the local residents of Ukhia and Teknaf. They vividly described the impacts of the 2017 Rohingya influx on their personal lives and how it affected their whole community. Some of their rationalisations are primarily centred on the notion of not having any other option than just to adjust – human life being equivalent to struggle and adaptation skills being a part of human nature. Having faith in one’s creator and surviving for the sake of one’s loved ones were other patterns of rationalisation that the residents described in their narratives. The notion of not having the availability of a better option and accommodate the situation can be an excruciating challenge for the residents, once their limit reaches the threshold.

Karim (a pseudonymous name), who is a 32-year-old driver and lives in Whykong, Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar, shared his version of life before and after the Rohingya influx. Though there were Rohingyas from the previous inflows, he did not know much about them before 2017 as they made no significant impact on his daily life. Once the unexpected turns of events such as drug dealings, theft, and robbery began to occur, he began feeling insecure. The impacts such as social deterioration (e.g. extramarital affairs and sexual harassment of girls) and cultural change were appalling to him. How did he come to terms with it? Karim says that there is nothing that he could do about it.

“We are a victim of this situation. We had to accept everything because we were under pressure. We have accepted all these as a part of our everyday lives. As long as the Rohingyas will live here, the problems will remain. So, instead of ignoring it, we have decided to deal with it.”

Karim has no real solution for other challenges he faces in every different dimension of life. He complains about the weather changing, and he acknowledges the animals being extinct. In light of all these changes, he sees himself as an ordinary person who is only capable of somehow adjusting to the situation which has been thrown upon them. People like Karim have subjugated to the physical changes in the environment and the socio-economic aspects like the price-hike of essential daily commodities.

A positive thought that he mentioned is co-existence, i.e., the acknowledgment of the host community and the Rohingya community living side by side. But making it a habit to adjust is crucial when there is no better alternative for them. Karim says: 

“Where can we go if we leave our village? We do not have any options to go anywhere. We are bound to accept these problems as long as they are living here. …They will not find a place to live in other districts outside Cox’s Bazar. They have found a place to live in Cox’s Bazar. I do not think there are any other empty places where they can be accommodated. It would not have been a problem if this was an issue for a few days. But, they have been living here for 2-3 years. Many Rohingyas have been living here for 30-40 years. And we have learned to adjust. I think we have to adjust if we live together. So it has become a habit to adjust to things. There is no other option.”

Karim has no other places to go if he leaves his village. He, however, reassures himself by saying the best option is to adjust to whatever living conditions they are being subjected to – a dark cloud of thoughts for the future hovers over him. He acknowledges the fact that the situation is likely to worsen. He narrates his thoughts on the future by saying:

“The current situation makes us think that the future will be very difficult. In the manner the prices of water, fuel, travel fare, and others are increasing this will be likely to continue in the future. We have to spend less on things sometimes, and sometimes we can spend as much as we like. We will have to manage according to what situation Allah puts us in.”

Karim perhaps knows where he stands on adapting to life after the Rohingya influx of 2017. For assisting the Rohingyas, his view is that plenty has been done and now it needs to stop. The dark future that he envisions does not always stay on his mind. He goes about his life, believing the future is unpredictable and anything can happen. Karim narrates his thoughts:

“Let everything go on like it is. We will see what happens later on. We will adjust to it when it happens.”

Karim chooses to adjust because he cannot find an alternative option not to. One may wonder if he will realise the flaws in his survival strategy!

Authors’ Affiliations:

Acknowledgment: 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).

“Home is where the heart is!” – Rohingyas in camps and their idea of ‘Home’

Bayes Ahmed10 November 2020

Written by Dr Niloy Ranjan Biswas, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email: niloy@du.ac.bd

The perilous journey of Rohingya people fleeing their ‘home’ to Bangladesh, escaping persecution and genocide by Myanmar’s security forces, was full of quandary and uncertainty. They endured severe sufferings and pain in this journey to find safety and a new home. The brutal crackdown in 2017 forced more than 700,000 Rohingyas to leave their homes and embark upon a hazardous journey to neighbouring Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch (2017) report, the journey to Bangladesh was met with hunger, exhaustion and death. Crossing rivers, walking up and down steep and slippery hills across dense vegetation during monsoon rains with sore hips and swollen legs made it extremely challenging to survive. Furthermore, the Myanmar soldiers sexually assaulted Rohingya women and on many occasions raped them while they were fleeing to Bangladesh. Many of them had to continue their journey through the jungle with swollen and torn genitals. Many of them even gave birth on the road without medical assistance or proper medications.

Rohingyas’ journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh took up seventeen days. The route included either crossing the Naf River or taking a boat in the Bay of Bengal along the coast from the Myanmar shores. The desperate journey to find safety did not end for Rohingyas once they crossed the border of Bangladesh as they were stranded in the rice fields and marshlands and continued their journey to refugee camps cordoned by the security forces. For Rohingyas, arriving in Bangladesh after leaving behind their homes in Myanmar was just one part of their long journey. Their journey to escape trauma and horror in Myanmar has been juxtaposed with the misery of searching for a new home. What are ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ for Rohingyas? ‘Home’ has multiple interpretations for them.

The author visited the camps in 2019 to conduct extensive fieldwork in order to collect stories of Rohingya men and women. Those micro-narratives identify multivariate patterns of violence and trends of protection experienced by the refugees. It suggests that there is strong evidence of structural violence inherent in the society of Myanmar. Some of these examples are restrictions on movement and no access to health and education in Myanmar. The idea of accountability and justice are completely non-existent in the discourse of Rohingyas in Myanmar, which may need to be highlighted further as an important source of violence.

Hasina (a pseudonymous name), a 25-year old Rohingya woman, lives in a camp, near Thaingkhali, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. She was revisiting memories of her home in Myanmar and sharing her narratives with the author. She remembers her home in childhood as a quiet peaceful place. They could move out and roam around freely. She remembered they lived peacefully with Rakhaines (Buddhist communities) as neighbours. They used to get justice from representatives of local government. Her brother’s friend was a local government chairman from the Rakhine community, whose younger brother stole fruits from Hasina’s backyard and destroyed the field. Hasina’s father protested and complained to the chairman. He warned his own brother and apologised on his behalf. This was her impression of home when she was asked to share her childhood memory. Hasina said, “Home was peaceful, and everyone was living in harmony”. What has changed now?

Hasina was submerged under vivid memories—how her homeland, her village and adjacent areas turned into mayhem. She says that she was not able to study in Myanmar and will never get a good job. They will always live like their older generations —uneducated and unemployed.

In my home, we had no rights but we loved our home as we were born in that place.

Home is arguably the house and its surroundings, which is shared by her family and neighbours—both Rohingyas and Rakhaines. Has the ‘country’ ever turned into a ‘homeland’ for Hasina? Rakhaines are the significant ‘others’, and they dishonoured Rohingyas. Hasina says that they had to pay to get what they are entitled to get as citizens of Myanmar. Authorities do not like a Rohingya, who disobeyed their instructions, s/he would have to pay a monetary fine, or get beaten by uniformed security forces, or at least they would take ducks, chickens, cows, and goats. Prayers, Azan, and Madrasa—religious practices were also closed. Those who worked were barred from doing their work and even from leaving the house. According to Hasina, the security forces would go from home to home and torture and oppress women. No one could protest. They gradually began to inflict too much torture. They oppressed them in front of everyone, took their babies, or injure them and even burn them.

Her recent memories are full of bloodshed and loss. In August 2017, Hasina’s cousin (Bilkis) was raped by Myanmar’s security forces. Her parents were tied up and seven people raped Bilkis. “They were laughing and making fun of us as we are not human”—Hasina shared her experience with the author. Later Bilkis was shot dead and her body was fed to dogs. The girl left a child. The attackers set Hasina’s younger brother on fire. Hasina says that although she was not physically tortured, her relatives were severely tortured. She says they came to Bangladesh after suffering a lot.

Home is an existence of hardship and plight for Hasina. They faced violence every day in Myanmar. Her husband primarily worked in agriculture. He was beaten many times by the security forces for no reason. Once they had changed the fence of their house without informing local authorities, the security forces raided their house, beat them and asked for money. They took away their chickens, cows, and goats. “Hundreds of women were tortured by the military, their fathers, brothers, husbands could do nothing and everyone remained silent. No one could protest. “The family members could not save anyone and had to witness this by their own eyes. In Myanmar, the lives of Rohingyas are like the “lives of ants and lives have no value to the state”.

Home is where one can sleep peacefully. Hasina says, now in camps in Ukhia, she can sleep at night without worry or fear. “There is no fear such in Myanmar and I do not experience nightmares here”, she says. They are very safe in the camps of Bangladesh. Her children can go to school and mosques for prayer. “We are no longer slaves in Bangladesh as we were in our homeland”, says Hasina.

Home is where security forces do not scare Hasina every day. In the initial days at the camp, Hasina was scared to see members of security forces. It reminded her of her own country’s security forces and their behaviour. Later she realised that Bangladeshi security forces were actually providing them with safety and security. Camps were more like homes when security providers are not violators of human rights. Hasina repeatedly mentioned that if the military of her homeland behaved well, they would not have to worry about their lives.

Can Hasina return to her ‘home’ in Buthidaung, Maungdaw? She says her heart breaks into pieces when she thinks about her home in Buthidaung. Home is where she can trust people around her. She lacks trusts in her neighbours and local authorities in Myanmar. She rather trusts the people of Bangladesh who have been providing support in refugee camps. Hasina cheerfully acknowledges that she is happy to see her children playing, studying and going to the mosques without risking their lives. Hasina says she feels very good in camp’s plastic house as she knows none is coming after their lives. For her, a home is where she is not afraid of oppression and torture.

Hasina knows Myanmar is her country, nevertheless, she doubts whether or not it has ever been her ‘homeland’. They will eventually return to find their homes in ashes, if and when repatriation takes place. A big question, however, which was reflected in her face—has it ever become a home for her and her family? It seems she has lost her belief in Myanmar—its administration and security forces. Unlike Pliny the Elder suggests “Home is where one is most emotionally attached”, Hasina observes: “I lost faith in my country. I do not know where is my home and what will we do in future?” Her emotions are tormented that she will never have the same ‘home’ back in her ‘homeland’.

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).

“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).