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World’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh is filthy death trap for residents who escaped genocide


As the monsoon rains clatter on flimsy canvas roofs, the clay walkways of the world’s biggest refugee camp turn into a quagmire.

Stood underneath a sagging ­makeshift shelter, I look on as jagged bolts of lightning streak the black sky and the wind whips up.

This temporary city, cobbled together in less than a year with bamboo poles, scraps of tarpaulin and twine, looks like it will be knocked down any instant.

For the 700,000 Rohingya refugees here in Bangladesh – who have escaped the worst genocide of this century in neighbouring Myanmar – the storms I witness are just the beginning of a three-month nightmare.

Rohingya refugee camp provides temporary homes for those who have fled genocide

Young children and mothers make up the bulk of the people at Rohingya

Their temporary homes are directly in the path of the cyclones that plague this vulnerable region from now until September.

After being tortured and raped – and seeing their relatives murdered by soldiers in Myanmar who torched their villages – they are now prey to landslides, floods and waterborne diseases.

Scores of people have died in recent days, including a two-year-old boy after a mud wall collapsed on him.

At a Red Cross field hospital on the edge of the seemingly never-ending Kutupalong camp is nine-month-old Mohammad Ayas.

Babies and infants are particularly vulnerable

Children are involved in the unending project to build and repair housing

The camps offer little protection from the elements

The helpless little boy broke his thigh bone when he fell from one of the treacherous slopes between the shelters.

Icelandic nurse Hildur Sveinsdottir – here for a one-month secondment from her normal A&E job – tells me such accidents are soon expected to occur daily.

“Fractures are very regular for us,” Hildur says.

“It’s unimaginable what it will be like in a few weeks. The number of people getting injured or being killed will rise a lot if they get a really bad cyclone. Their shelters will not stand up.”

Children are left to fend for themselves in mud and dirty water

Victims of one of the worst genocides in Asian history are in the camp

The housing structures are held up with bamboo

Experts say more than 200,000 people are at high risk from landslides and floods in the coming monsoon months.

More than 1,000 shelters have already been destroyed as rivers of brown water surge through the narrow alleys of the camp, an hour from Cox’s Bazar city, on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.

Assisted by aid workers, the Rohingya are digging drainage ditches and reinforcing their shelters.

The Rohingya are digging drainage ditches and reinforcing their temporary homes

Constant bouts of rain plague the camp and destabilise the housing

The building effort comes from the refugees and aid workers

Despite the extraordinary hardship they have endured, everyone I come across is determined to make the best of an appalling situation.

Trucks bearing stacks of bamboo arrive at temporary depots all day long.

Many of those collecting the only building materials on offer are boys, straining to carry their heavy load. In many cases, their fathers were murdered in Myanmar.

Their mothers guard their precious scrap of land and look after younger siblings.

These experiences will make up some of the earliest memories of these childrens’ lives

Sodden and shoeless, the Rohingya face a daily battle to stay alive and well

More than half of the people here are women and at least 60% are under 18.

Many of them will be trapped once the paths become impassable.

Speaking next to a stagnant pool of fetid brown water, mum Moriom Katu, 35, tells me her eight-month-old son died from dysentery and diarrhoea a few weeks before.

“This is our fate,” she says. “We were shot at, burned and tortured as we tried to get away, and now we are here in this terrible location.

“Everything is so dirty. The water is full of diseases. People are getting sick all the time.”

Two boys support each other near a pool of murky water

Red Cross medics are working hard on the site

Now she is concerned that her surviving children, a girl aged seven and a boy aged four, will be struck down by the same illness.

There is never a quiet moment for the dedicated Red Cross medics.

Hildur says: “We have respiratory problems, malnutrition cases, dehydration and infections that turn to abscesses because the water they have to clean cuts with is dirty.

“There has been measles and TB. They want to wash and they want to take care of themselves, but the hygiene is so bad.”

The fighting spirit of the refugees has not been dimmed by the dire circumstances or living conditions

A general view of one side of the camp

On the 15-bed paediatric ward is a premature baby so tiny that I inhale sharply when I first see her. Unbelievably, Umme Kulsul is two months old.

Her arms and legs are the width of an adult finger, but she has grown.

Hildur tells me she was just ten centimetres long when she was born by emergency caesarean when her mother, Annuar Begum, 30, was only seven months pregnant. This was due to serious health problems, ­exacerbated by the escape from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Scores of people have died at the camp due to disease or accidents

The Red Cross hospital is always crammed with patients

Since then, Umme has needed 24-hour medical care, yet I am told that in just over a week she will have to go back to the family’s shelter in the squalid camp down the road.

It is difficult to imagine how her tiny body will withstand the elements.

Equally at risk is Abdullah, 22, whose left leg is encased in bandages.

He was shot while trying to flee the military’s reign of terror in Myanmar.

“They surrounded my village,” Abdullah tells me. “While some soldiers torched the straw roof of our house, others lay in wait to fire at us.

Around 700,000 people are living in the camp

“We were all screaming but they kept shooting. I was shot in the leg.

“The bullet pierced right through my thigh and came out the other side of my leg. My aunt and uncle were killed in the crossfire.”

Abdullah’s wound became badly infected because of the unsanitary conditions in the camp, and Red Cross nurses are doing their best to save his leg from amputation.

Yet when he returns to his shelter, his wound will be exposed again.

The genocide came after the Rohingya were denied citizenship in their own country

Meanwhile, it is predicted that up to 16,000 babies could be born during cyclone season, to women who were raped by Burmese soldiers as they ran from their burning villages last year.

Pleading for their lives as they fled, exiled from their homes for ever, these desperate people now face fresh hell at the mercy of the elements.

  • The Disasters Emergency Committee brings together 13 leading aid charities, including the Red Cross and Oxfam. To make a donation, head here or call 0370 60 60 610.

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