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Life at disaster’s edge: What it means to start over – again and again

‘It feels like the calamity never ends. We live through one crisis after another.’

Ellie Foreman-Peck/TNH

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We Rohingya have grown all too accustomed to starting over with nothing – through catastrophic fires and monsoon floods, or after fleeing our homeland in terror.

Abdu Rohim and his family are living proof. They were among at least 48,000 people whose homes were burnt to the ground in March when an uncontrollable fire spread through parts of Bangladesh’s refugee camps. 

They lost everything. Abdu’s family, including three young children and his elderly parents, are rebuilding their lives over the ashes of their former home.

“My heart breaks when I see them trembling in the cool evening wind,” he told me. 

Many families still have nothing more than three pieces of bamboo and a tarpaulin sheet.

The entire community is terrified: There have been dozens of smaller fires this year aside from the March blaze. Many Rohingya suspect that someone is purposely igniting them. Bangladeshi authorities say they are investigating, but we haven’t been given any answers. 

Like Abdu, I am a Rohingya refugee. We are survivors of genocide, but it feels like the calamity never ends. We live through one crisis after another.

Security forces drove us from our homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017. We came to Bangladesh after walking for days and nights, crossing rivers and treading through muddy paddy fields.

We’re always worried about disasters, living in a hilly landscape that was never meant to host the nearly 900,000 Rohingya who now call these camps home. 

The monsoon season brings heavy rains and landslides that wash away our bamboo tents. Our homes are dangerously exposed. May, the peak cyclone season, is here. A few weeks ago, a strong early storm damaged many of the fire victims’ temporary tents. 

Our children play on dangerously busy camp roads, where they risk being run over because there are no proper playgrounds and no formal schools where they can learn. This has happened many times. 

Children have also been kidnapped by traffickers. Many women have been sexually abused due to a lack of strong security in the camps. We don’t feel safe at night.

There are no proper channels for our voices to be heard about these problems. When I think about all these terrible things, I lose my very breath.

The refugee population here lives trapped within a barbed-wire fence meant to keep us inside; entering and exiting is intentionally made difficult. 

These fences made it even harder to survive the March fire. Abdu and his family had to crawl through a hole, torn through the wires, in order to escape. “We would not have such great losses of lives and property if there were not these fences, and if there was an entry point available for fire services,” he told me. 

We suffered in Arakan – what we call our homeland in Myanmar. We found shelter in Bangladesh, but we are still not safe. 

There are no proper channels for our voices to be heard about these problems. When I think about all these terrible things, I lose my very breath.

Where do we go from here? Many Rohingya believe we would be better off going back to Myanmar – if we could somehow return safely. I know that’s not possible right now after the 1 February military coup, which has destabilised the entire country.

It has been nearly four years since I was forced to flee my home. At the time, I hoped we might be able to return in five or six months. 

I remember leaving, in 2017, after we heard the army announce they would shoot everyone. A few hours into our trek toward the border, I turned around to see what we had left behind.

Thick smoke rose across the sky. The entire village was in flames. I thought to myself: “We lost our homeland.”

I don’t know how or when we’ll be able to go back. But if we are to find justice, we need help to return safely one day. 

We appeal to the Government of Bangladesh; to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR; and to the entire international community: We can’t stay forever in these temporary refugee camps – where fires and disasters keep us on edge, dreading the next crisis.

It’s better to help us get back to the shores of Arakan, where we will restart our lives from nothing, once again.

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