Episode 5: Refugees in Bangladesh

This week we report exclusively from inside refugee camps in Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been forced to live after fleeing Myanmar.

We’ll hear harrowing stories from refugees about their struggles, losses, horrific hardships and the bleak outlook they face in what is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Links to the English version are below. 



Episode 5 script

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Oliver Slow: Hello, welcome to Doh Athan, a new weekly podcast from Frontier Myanmar, I am Oliver Slow. 

Our pioneering audio programme, the first of its kind in Myanmar, helps shine a spotlight on the many human rights issues that affect people across this beautiful country. 

This week we report exclusively from inside refugee camps in Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been forced to live after fleeing Myanmar.

We’ll hear harrowing stories from refugees about their struggles, losses, horrific hardships and the bleak outlook they face in what is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.  

There are two things that strike you immediately when you arrive at the camps housing mainly Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh.

The first is the sheer scale of people.

For as far as you can see, makeshift huts – most are nothing more than a piece of tarpaulin held up by bamboo poles – are packed into every available space.

The narrow main road that runs through the heart of the camps is filled with thousands of people. Many are carrying supplies back to their new homes.

The second thing you notice is the desperation.

When food trucks hurtle along the road, dozens of people, mainly children, chase after them.

There are scores of food distribution points dotted around the camps. Every one we saw was filled with thousands of people, waiting for even the smallest parcel of food.

Some were well-ordered and those receiving the food waited patiently in queues. Others were more chaotic. We saw food just being thrown up into the air and this caused fights to break out.

In late September, at the Kutupalong camp, the largest in southern Bangladesh, we met Ferjul Mohammed. He was in a queue of several thousand people waiting for food to be handed out.

He had arrived in Bangladesh from northern Rakhine State a week before.

Ferjul Mohammed: “After the military attacked our village, we left and it took us three days to make it to Bangladesh. I feel better here. It is different like sky and soil, because there is no violence for us here.”

Oliver Slow: I asked him if he ever wanted to return to Myanmar.

Ferjul Mohammed: “It would be better if you killed me here, because I saw so many people being killed.”

Rohingya have been leaving northern Rakhine for Bangladesh for several decades, but the recent exodus is unprecedented. 

More than 600,000 have crossed the border since late August, when fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 30 police outposts and an army camp, killing about a dozen security personnel.

The violence has also displaced nearly 30,000 non-Muslims – including Rakhine, Mro, Daingnet and Hindus – mainly to government-controlled areas, although the governments says most have since returned.

Those coming to Bangladesh have arrived with harrowing tales of abuse. They point the finger at the military and ethnic Rakhine militias.

In the dozens of interviews we conducted over a one-week period in late September, every person we spoke to said they had lost at least one family member in the violence.

Rohingya refugees told us numerous accounts of soldiers, often accompanied by Rakhine vigilantes, setting fire to Muslim villages, raping women, and killing indiscriminately.

The military has denied the accusations.

On November 13, the Tatmadaw’s True New Information Team released a statement saying it had found no evidence of wrongdoing by its personnel.

The report said that security forces did not QUOTE commit shooting at innocent villagers and sexual violence and rape cases against women. They did not arrest, beat and kill the villagers. They did not totally destroy, rob and take property, gold and silver wares, vehicles and animals of villagers from the villages and displaced villages. They did not set fire to the mosques in Bengali villages. They allow the Bengali villagers to perform their faiths in freedom without banning them to attend the mosques and join prayers.”

The military’s response to the ARSA attacks has been condemned internationally. But inside Myanmar it has received widespread public support.

In recent months, there have been protests across the country in support of the Tatmadaw. Many people now label the Rohingya not just illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but also terrorists or terrorist sympathisers.

Back in the camps, one of the most powerful testimonies we heard came from a young man called Mohammed Younis. We met him while visiting a camp in an area known as No Man’s Land, on the border between the two countries.

During an interview with another villager, I had noticed him off to the side. He was staring blankly into the distance, and there was something striking about his demeanour.

I asked our translator to find out if he would be willing to tell us his story, and he agreed.

Mohammed Younis: “I remember it was a Monday when the incident took place. On that day I had gone to visit my aunty in another village to bring some money. I got back to the house at about 1am, and when I arrived I found that my whole family was killed.

My three children, my wife, my parents, as well my sister and uncle. When I reached the house, I switched on the solar lamp, and the first body I saw my wife, then I saw my children’s. They all had been stabbed.

Oliver Slow: But the violence has sparked a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border.

Inside northern Rakhine, an estimated half a million people are in need of food assistance. As of November 6, the Red Cross said it had reached 72,000 people, with its teams sometimes walking hours to reach Muslim villages only to find them deserted.

The World Food Programme has recently been allowed to resume operations in northern Rakhine, and is targeting food delivery to 36,000 people in November.

There’s a risk that food shortages in northern Rakhine – coupled with tensions between communities and a lack of job opportunities – will prompt more people to cross into Bangladesh in the weeks and months ahead.

But there are shortages in Bangladesh, too, where humanitarian groups are struggling to help more than 600,000 people.

Many of refugees have arrived at Shah Pohrir, an island at Bangladesh’s southern tip, and a 30-minute boat ride from the town of Teknaf.

Most who turn up here spend a night before crossing onto the mainland. Then they make their way towards the camps a few hours further north.

On Shah Pohrir, several centres have been established to help those arriving.

Jashin Uddin, a Bangladeshi, oversees humanitarian work at the Boraw madrasa on Shah Pohrir. It has housed an estimated 40,000 people since late August.

Jashin Uddin: “Most of those who arrive, they stay here for one night and then they move on. We provide some biscuits some cakes and some medical supplies if people need it.”

Oliver Slow: Inside the mosque, we met Nur Aisha, who was huddling on the floor with her four daughters.

Nur Aisha: “After our village was burned, my husband was killed and I came here with my daughters. We were running away from our village when the military started shooting at us; that’s when my husband was killed.

“We are staying with someone family friends nearby. After this, we will go with my daughter’s husband wherever he takes us.”

Oliver Slow: Back across the water in Teknaf were hundreds of people waiting on the ferry. Many were sat patiently, waiting for transport to take them further north to the camps.

Among those waiting at Teknaf was Shajeda Begum, with her two daughters. Two days earlier she had crossed into Bangladesh by boat. She was still exhausted from the journey.

“About a month ago our village was burned, so we moved to another village to stay with relatives. But we were worried that people would be arrested, that’s why we came here.

We have just arrived here and are waiting for a bus to go to Nayapara camp, where some of my relatives are staying. I’m happy to be here. I feel safer.”

We hope you enjoyed this edition of Doh Athan.  

This programme was put together this week by Zar Ni and AHtet. 

Please stay tuned for next Wednesdays’ episode and visit the Doh Athan Facebook page.

The project to support human rights reporting is a partnership between Frontier Myanmar and Fondation Hirondelle, funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Myanmar. 

Thanks for listening.

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