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For us Rohingya, fire is just the latest danger. Stop ignoring us

‘The heat was so strong it felt as though my skin were burning and the smoke agitated my eyes.’

Wide shot photo shows dark plumes of smoke coming from a fire that burns houses in Balukhali Camp in Bangladesh. Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Reuters
The 5 March 2023 fire at the Balukhali camp near Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh destroyed or damaged some 2,800 shelters, initially displacing more than 12,000 Rohingya refugees.

On the afternoon of 5 March, I was working in my office when I heard a commotion outside and cries of “fire”. I ran out and asked where the blaze was, only to discover it was in Balukhali’s Camp 11, where I have lived since fleeing Myanmar in 2017.


I was so terrified I began trembling, thinking of my nephew and two young nieces, and wondering whether my sister-in-law would manage to save them and escape with them. With so many people desperate to reach family members, the mobile networks were down and I had no way to contact them.


The sprawling Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh house more than 630,000 people. Taxis, cars, and other ordinary means of transport are banned by the authorities, who say they are too dangerous inside the crowded camps.


I had no choice but to begin making my way home on foot, running almost two miles to see whether my family was okay and if our home had survived the blaze.


Only when I neared the fire and saw it was far from my house could I begin to calm down a little. But the feeling didn’t last. All around me women, children, and the elderly were shouting and crying, while young men tried desperately to put out the fire. The heat was so strong it felt as though my skin was burning and the smoke agitated my eyes. I couldn’t see the road through my tears. I was desperate for water, but there was none to be had.


I continued down the road, more slowly now, and found my family safe. We packed up the children and evacuated them to a community centre. Then I ran back to the fire to see if I could help. It was still growing – due to the narrow paths and inadequate roads carving through the camp, there was virtually no way for a fire truck to arrive. Instead, a small group of trained Rohingya firemen used handheld extinguishers to battle the blaze. Miraculously, they managed to put it out in this way – but not before some 2,800 homes were damaged, and most of them completely destroyed.


“I had no choice but to begin making my way home on foot, running almost two miles to see whether my family was okay and if our home had survived the blaze.”


More than one million Rohingya live in Bangladesh, the vast majority of whom fled military violence in 2017. In the nearly six years since, conditions in the camps have only worsened. 


Basic services like healthcare, food, and water remain extremely scarce. Unfortunately, these challenges are rarely covered by the news media, and the international community does not take them seriously. While efforts have been made to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, there has been little done to ensure our ongoing safety and security. Instead, we have seen our life, livelihoods, and stability stripped further away.


More than 40 people were killed by armed groups last year, though the real number is doubtless higher. This month, citing inadequate funds, the World Food Programme has cut food assistance down from $12 a month to $10. And last week, officials from the same military regime that drove us from our homes arrived to pressure a group to return home as part of a “pilot programme”.


With Rohingya continuing to flee the ongoing violence in Myanmar, and with no promise of citizenship, it is clear that these camps represent our only home. 


But now, thousands of my neighbours don’t even have those homes.


For them, the fire represents just the latest devastating pain: a tragic and unexpected incident that highlights the fragility of life in a refugee camp.


For the international community, I hope it can represent a reason for us to no longer be ignored. We desperately need support to help rebuild our lives. We need food, educational services, the right to move freely, and security to keep us safe from warring factions. 


The fire may have subsided, but the Rohingya people remain in dire need of help. We are begging you not to look away.


A probe by the Bangladeshi authorities found that the 5 March 2023 blaze was an act of “planned sabotage”, possibly by one of several gangs within the camps attempting to obtain superiority. More than 5,000 Rohingya refugees remain displaced because of the fire.


Edited by Abby Seiff.

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