Along a small strip of land on Bangladesh’s south-east coast lie the Rohingya refugee camps.
Military check points prevent the Rohingya people from dispersing further across the country.
Despite the efforts of those working in the camps, conditions are appalling and likely to worsen still. Over 860,000 Rohingya live on rugged land covering 15km by 12km. Over 620,000 people have arrived since last August alone, overwhelming the already existing camps and those trying to help.
Most people who arrive are in very poor health, having made long and dangerous journeys to reach the camps. Malnutrition and diseases such as cholera are widespread.
Trócaire is responding through Caritas Bangladesh and is providing thousands of refugees with food, clean water, shelter, pots, pans, blankets and sleeping mats.
A child plays with plastic bags in a refugee camp in Bangladesh where Trócaire is assisting people who have fled violence. (Photo: Simon Murphy)
Razia and her sister, Majioa, are waiting with their families to be processed by the authorities before they settle in the Kutupalong refugee camp.
Like many Rohingya, Razia is deeply traumatised by her recent experiences in northern Rakhine State and does not know what the future holds neither in Bangladesh nor in Myanmar.
She witnessed her uncle burned alive when her village was attacked. She hid in a nearby pond for a day until it was safe. With her family and neighbours she then spent days trying to leave the country and cross the river into Bangladesh.
“We felt we were about to die so we fled,” she says. “I was hungry – I didn’t eat for days.”
Eventually, Razia, Majioa and their children managed to get a boat across the water that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh.
“Now we feel safe,” says Razia. “I am sitting here in the mud but I feel peace and safe. I am hungry here but I am safe.”
Ravia Khatum, one of hundreds of thousands of people to have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh. (Photo: Simon Murphy)
Others feel equally reluctant to return. Muhamed Ali and his family are staying in a shack made of plastic and bamboo next to his cousin and his family. They had also witnessed their village set on fire and neighbours murdered.
“In Myanmar life was good,” he says. “We had full stomachs. We had meat and milk. I had a farm with vegetables, rice, chicken and we ate fish. Now we have nothing. We couldn’t take a single thing. They took everything.”
Muhamed Ali and his family is one of 40,000 families to have received rice, lentils, sugar and oil, as well as plates, saucepans, glasses and cooking utensils from Trócaire and Caritas Bangladesh.
Shawkat Ava receiving supplies from Trócaire's partners in Bangladesh. (Photo: Simon Murphy)
Shawkat Ava is 37 years old and five months pregnant. For the last three and a half months, the Kutupalong refugee camp has been home for her and her husband.
“They attacked us in the night,” she says. “We saw what they did with our own eyes. Our village was burning. They asked boys who were around 10 and 11 years old to stand in a line. Then they chased them with machetes and chopped them in two. One old neighbor of ours was shot. Then they chopped him with a machete and then they burned him alive. He was just an old man.
“Everybody just ran. The children were most affected as they can’t run. It was raining and we were always wet. I was shivering all the time. It made me sick. My hand was broken when I crawled in the jungle. We were hungry for many days when we first escaped. We hid in the bush for 15 days.
“We got some help when escaping. There are some good people in Myanmar. Some gave us food, shelter and helped us. In Bangladesh, they have helped us a lot.
“I brought nothing from home. When I first came here I had to sell my nose stud to buy food. Then the community here helped us. I have received food and cooking utensils from Caritas Bangladesh.”
Trócaire is working closely with Caritas Bangladesh to help some of the most vulnerable refugees.
Caritas have provided rice, lentils, sugar and oil, as well as plates, saucepans, glasses and cooking utensils to over 40,000 families. We’re also just about to distribute blankets and sleeping mats to 14,600 families so they can keep warm at night.
While very basic, these items have given many Rohingya families the help they need to get by day to day, and a little space to grieve their loss of family, friends and home.
Children gather water in the refugee camp where Trócaire is helping to provide aid to people who have fled violence. (Photo: Simon Murphy)
“These things are very useful,” Shawkat Ava added. “These things are helping us more than anything. My parents died on the journey here when they crossed the river from Myanmar. So now I always try to help the old people around us in the camp by giving them food.”