COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH: From a distance, it appears to be a hill in flames. As one draws closer, it emerges that shacks on the hillside are covered in orange plastic sheets that look like flames. These are Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, not far from its border with Myanmar.
Balukhali, Chanjkhali and Gundum – camp after camp and more coming up as we pass by.
Traffic on the road to the camps is terrible, clogged with relief vehicles, auto rickshaws, buses and people. Women line the roadside with babies in their arms. “When did you come?” we ask. They say today.
After crossing over from Myanmar to Bangladesh, they have a long way to go but they have no idea. The Rohingya camps in Bangladesh are mostly on the Arakam road connecting Kutupalong to Teknaf.
Kutupalong is 50 km from Cox’s Bazar, the closest town. On the left of Arakam road is the border with Myanmar and that’s where they are coming in from.
A day after Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, spoke to the world and wondered why the ethnic Muslims are leaving her country, hordes of Rohingyas are crossing over.
Among them is 40-year-old Begum Sanchita, whose oldest child is about 10. Through the slit of her hijab, her eyes are dazed. She fled her home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar four days ago after seeing her husband shot dead.
Next to her is Anwara Begum, a gaunt 30-year-old with a nine-month-old baby in her arm. Little Mohammad Harun’s father was dead too.
Mohammad Kasim, 40, witnessed his daughter’s gang-rape and killing.
When he tried to stop the attackers – he alleges they were from the Burmese military – they scorched his thigh with a hot knife. He doesn’t know where his wife and other children are. He used to have a home in Rakhine and also a car. All gone.
There is no way to corroborate these horror stories. Is Kasim in shock and overstating facts? But when asked about his daughter being gang-raped, his answer remains the same.
All along the way from the Kutupalong to Teknaf, at every refugee camp, there are huge banners with images of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman – the father of the nation. “We are with humanity,” they proclaim.
Since August 25, five to 10 lakh people have entered Bangladesh. More are coming in. Bangladeshis say they are reminded of 1971 when they had fled to India. “If India had not sheltered us then, then our fate would be like the Rohingyas: homeless, stateless. The world should help them,” said Hizbul Alam, a shopkeeper in Cox’s Bazar.
More than four lakh Rohingya Muslims, more than half of them children, have crossed into neighbouring Bangladesh since deadly attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine state, provoking a fierce crackdown by the Myanmar military.