Emirates flight EK508 from Dubai descends to about 10,000 feet and begins the final approach towards Mumbai’s Chhatrapati International Airport. I am relieved, since I’ll soon be asleep in a comfortable bed at the Leela Hotel, after almost 24-hours on an aircraft from Orlando. Alas, not so fast. The plane lurches, turns course and heads up, up, up sharply, pumping up my blood pressure and making my heart palpitate like the effects from a drunken tabla player. The elderly guy next to me, an Australian, perhaps in his late seventies, utters a nasty profanity and quips to nobody in particular that he has wet his undies. He then laughs wildly, relieved that we’ll still live. The pilot sheepishly announces, after the aircraft steadies, like my heart, that he saw a plane on the runway he was trying to land on, something the air-control tower should have known and warned him. Nevertheless, we are on the ground safely in the next thirty minutes, and I am in bed within an hour of arrival. I need all my strength for my travels to visit with the suffering Burmese Rohingya on the Bangladesh side, in Cox’s Bazar.
To reach Cox’s Bazar, I have to fly to Dhaka, a 3-hour hop from Mumbai. Since there are limited flights to Cox’s Bazar from Dhaka, I have to stay in Dhaka overnight. Not such a bad deal, since I can convince Mrs. Hussein, CEO of the Bangladesh Women’s Welfare Association, CAI’s legal working partner in the country, to come visit me at my hotel so we can plan and strategize the intended aid for the Rohingya. This is not so easy, since the lady is a diehard ritualist for Muharram lectures and it is the 7th night of this sacred month. She relents after I convince her that Imam Hussein (a) would be happier with what we were planning to do. The flight to Cox’s Bazar is a non-event, except I can tell there are some aid workers, like me, who are headed there as well.
The Seyeman Hotel on the beach of Cox’s Bazar is like a fish market, with a steady stream of people wanting a room rendered disappointed. All the hotels in this city are full, thanks to the influx of aid workers and the UN expanding operations. The receptionist regards me warily and raises heavy kohl-laden eyes to the sky when she can’t locate my reservation. I can only stare at her ears that have been punctured and adorned with at least six bling-blings on each lobe; what a whacko, no? My American passport works wonders, however, for she is quite impressed with it and labors to locate my reservation through the number and eventually finds it. Allah bless the good old US of A; I love ya!
The Kutupalong refugee camp is 30 miles from Cox’s Bazar, close to the Myanmar border. The army is omnipotent as we near and eventually get stopped. There is a quick and fiery exchange of words and eventual money with my chaperone. Since I understand Bengali very little, I think it goes thus: Where are you going and what is your business here? Huh, I am a Bengali and going about my business. Very funny, you cannot go, this is a restricted area. But I live in Cox’s Bazar, and I do have business further up. The guy stares at me hard; I stare back. Who is the foreigner with you? He’s not Bengali…I tense, since I have not brought along my passport and have no other ID on me. The soldier orders me out but a fast-as-a-flash exchange of some takas (the local currency) softens the guy’s heart, and he waves us through.
I have no shame in admitting that I cry at the camp; I cry like a baby. There is not an inch of firm ground to put my foot; it is all squalor. I can feel the germs and disease in the air; it’s all palpable. I walk on shit and wreck my shoes in an instant; I discard them on my return to the hotel. The smell of raw sewage is relentless, and I retch all the time. Everybody hawks and spits incessantly, perhaps trying to rid the rot that settles on the tongue and throat, infuriating me in the process. Although the skies above are pregnant with rain, Allah makes them wait to relieve their burden. For me, I’d like to think; else I don’t know what I’d do if starts raining now.
The place is packed with young mothers carrying children who rattle coughs and sport thick runny noses. It’s the mother’s eyes; they look at me intently, expectantly, as if I’ll make their despondency disappear; I can only offer a sympathetic and kind smile. The children’s eyes, they pierce through my heart, rending it asunder. They are vacant, with no emotion in them, as if the horror of what they’ve been through have robbed them of emotions. When I try to call or touch their cheeks, they emote nothing.
There is an urgent need for toilets and fresh water to drink and bathe; the refugees are absolutely filthy and nauseatingly smelly. A raggedy girl, twelve perhaps, squats right in front of my eyes and does her business; I frantically avert my face and take deep breaths, calming the barf that threatens to overflow. I look to the sky and cry again. Ya Allah, what have these people done to deserve this inhumanity? Oh, my Allah, the most Merciful, please, please help them. You are their Maker; You are their Creator; You and only You can change their plight…please!
The local Bangladeshis are excellent, sharing whatever little they have with the uninvited guests. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the steely faced wily Prime Minister who is initially adamant about not allowing the refugees in her country, has now changed her stance; there are future electoral gains in this perhaps. So posters proclaiming her as ‘Leader Of Total Humanity’ abound everywhere; well, bless her. There are several aid agencies already here; the Turks, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Canadians, even the Russians, all dolling out packs of raw food. But there is no place to cook! There is no dry ground, only filthy stinking squalor mud. Each tarpaulin shanty is maxed out with at least 15 individuals crammed in. The majority, about 65% of these new refugees are women and children, either complete orphans or with a single parent.
I talk to a lot of the mothers, and the stories they relate to me are unimaginably repulsive. I will describe the following two less violate ones, as some of these stories must be told.
Shahida Begum is only 32 but looks much older. She lives with other farmers in Nainshong village, about 18 miles away, in proper Burma, where her home is surrounded by the Burmese army and farmer husband, 35, is shot dead for no apparent reason at all. She manages to walk to Cox’s Bazar with her three children - daughter Tasleema 7, sons Shahid 4 and Subaid 3 - walking for a week and surviving on grass and appetite-numbing beetle nuts. Now, in the camp, she survives on handouts from aid agencies. Her future is very bleak, at best. I can only beg for some more time before CAI will be able to take care of their health, a warm cup of porridge and some primary education in survival and hygiene.
Kashir is a seven-year-old boy whose leg is hit by a shrapnel detonated from a toy planted by the Burmese army; it is slowly healing but will leave an ugly scar on the leg and years of emotional trauma. His grandmother, in her eighties, is grabbed by her hair as she protests the ravaging Burmese and decapitated, in front of Kashir. That wound will never heal.
I hear so many other tales, even more gory and ghastly, I want to scream for them to stop. My senses and emotional health cannot fathom all they are saying, it will crash, and I’ll end up a nervous wreck. They must be making it all up; a fellow human cannot be worse than beasts. Surely it is their imagination going wild? But this cannot be fiction, collaborated by so many others, in the same detail and fashion. I finally get beat and want to escape to sanity and urge my guardians to take me out of this hell. It takes a while to return to the main road and locate our vehicle. We take off just as the skies open up to torrential rain. My tears start their business again.
Action plan by CAI donors:
> Immediate construction of as many toilets and water wells as we can get funds for. A privacy affording toilet costs US$120 and a hand-held water pump about US$270. Two toilets – male/female - and a well for every 15 shanties.
> Complete medical attention and immunization to at least 100 orphans or children with a single parent. Including a hygiene pack gear with disinfectants and a dental care kit.
> A large hot cup of highly nutritious porridge every morning for #2 above.
> A makeshift school for #2 above imparting language classes, basic hygiene lessons, survival skills and Quraan. More importantly, a sense of belonging and purpose.
> #1 above will be executed immediately; the others in about a week, the time it’ll take for our local partners to get a signoff from the authorities. Insha’Allah.
You can view some of the photographs of my visit here. CAI Trustees will be on the ground again October 18 – 23 to inspect and oversee above aid.