'I left my body there': A displaced Rohingya woman's story

Fatima was gang-raped during attacks on Rohingya Muslims as part of Myanmar's ethnic cleansing campaign. Now, she and her family live in a camp in Bangladesh with few prospects, DW Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl reports.

The rhythmic pitter-patter of the rain on the white tarpaulin roof is the only sound to be heard in the camp: no television, no music, no children laughing. The silence is in stark contrast to the noisy streets of Cox's Bazar, which we passed though on our way here.

The quiet is only interrupted by the sound of the muezzin's voice; his calls to prayer are broadcast over the hills and through the muddy valleys from silver-gray speakers hung from trees.

Camp 7 is located in the northeast section of Kutupalong, the world's largest refugee settlement. Officials estimate that up to 40,000 people live per square kilometer (250 acres). Nobody knows the exact number of Rohingya people stranded in the coastal town on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, an area that was once jungle. Some reports say 1 million people live among the camps, but it could be 1.2 million or even more.

From a hilltop, you can survey the camps. Rows of huts stretch as far as the eye can see. Plastic tarps serve as roofs on structures made from bamboo; very few houses have tin roofs.

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The structures were never meant for long-term residents

Persecuted Muslim minority

Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the 1970s. Within the space of a few months last year, more than 700,000 people from the Muslim minority fled to Bangladesh to escape the intensifying brutality and violence at home. Nobody knows how many people were murdered, but one thing is clear: It is one of the worst genocides in the recent history of South Asia.

Fatima is one of the survivors. She rubs her fingers over her teeth, picking at gums inflamed from chewing tobacco and betel leaves. The habit has helped a little at this particularly traumatic time, but it has also blackened her teeth. On some fingers, her nails are chewed down to the cuticles.

Fatima is 20 years old and has two small boys. Before she fled Myanmar, she was raped 30 to 40 times in a single night. She is unable to recall how exactly how many times or how many men there were.

"I left my body there," she says, speaking with a soft voice, her gaze fixed on the trodden soil.

We sit on a carpet striped turquoise and red in the front room of Fatima's hut. Her husband, Ali, two years older than his wife, sits next to Fatima as she tells her story.

In 2017, Ali, like so many others, was forced to leave his village to avoid being killed when the militias arrived, leaving behind his wife, and their infant sons.

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A few nights later, the militia dragged Fatima and other women — many of whom had huddled together in a shack to hide — into the jungle.

The militia assaulted the women over and over again. Nobody could hear their cries and screams. Their husbands and brothers were either dead or running for their lives.

Somehow, Fatima made it back to her village. Skillful hands tended to her wounds before she could bleed to death. However, it is likely that she will not be able to have a child again.

With her parents-in-law, Fatima fled across the border river to Bangladesh, where international aid organizations assisted her in finding her husband.

Many Rohingya men abandon partners who have been raped, leaving them alone with the children — and the pain. Ali did not.

"For me, it is not an issue to stay with her," Ali said. She didn't choose any of this, he added.

Fatima and Ali live in one of Kutupalong's illegal camps, which were built very quickly last year to accommodate the displaced people arriving in the hundreds of thousands. The structures are basic emergency shelters. They are intended for immediate shelter — not as long-term accommodation.

Fatima and Ali expect that they will have no choice but to remain. Myanmar has not taken measures to issue displaced Rohingya Muslims official papers or to allow them to repatriate. Without valid documents, refugees are officially stateless and at the mercy of Bangladesh's government.

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Safety for women

In the camps, women hardly leave their huts — not even in the blazing heat of the Bengali summer, when the temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (105 F).

Monitored by international organizations, 19 women-only huts are spread across the camps to provide some relief.

Women who spend a few hours in these safer spaces have access to medical advice. If the power is working, there are even fans that provide temporary relief from the heat. There is a proper toilet and a place to bathe children.

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Lack of support

Bangladesh's own history is one of exodus and expulsion. In the beginning, there was empathy and understanding for the refugees. That is slowly changing. Many Bangladeshis have the feeling that their country has already done more than enough to assist the foreigners.

Resources are scarce in Bangladesh, which is regularly hit by natural disasters. Cartels smuggle drugs and weapons, leading to increased violence.

There is also a growing fear that young Muslims could be radicalized. People in despair are thought to be particularly vulnerable to recruitment tactics — young people living in the camps are favored targets of religious extremists seeking new militants. Officially, Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camps or even to work, and the children receive only rudimentary school education.

Fatima wants to return to Myanmar. Maybe her will isn't strong enough anymore to make a new life in a foreign country.

The rain continues to patter on the white plastic tarpaulin roof; the sound has become the rhythm of waiting.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Dusty, hot and crowded – and almost as big as Cologne

Rohingya began fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh decades ago, resulting in the Kutupalong refugee camp near the southeastern city, Cox’s Bazar. But the camp population has increased dramatically since August 2017 and additional camps have been set up. Almost a million people now live in Kutupalong – a city almost the size of Cologne, but lacking the infrastructure.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Soccer fever in the refugee camp

International flags were flying at the entrance to the Kutupalong refugee camp during the World Cup. Among the many Brazilian and Argentinian flags were also occasional German ones. Soccer fever was alive in other parts of the camp and in surrounding villages as well. The young community journalists were there to cover it, adding a touch of joy even in a time of crisis.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Monsoon floods and landslides

Coping with extreme weather conditions is one of the hardest challenges. Cyclones threaten the camp in the spring, torrential rains take over during the monsoon season. Community reporters of the “Palonger Hotha” program offer listeners vital information for survival. This includes where to find bamboo sticks to reinforce shelters, and areas that need to be evacuated due to potential mudslides.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

No one stays dry

Another goal of the radio program is to strengthen the way people see themselves, by taking their daily lives seriously. The reporter team, made up of young Rohingyas and local Bangladeshis, asks families, for example, how their lives are affected when they have to huddle together for hours, due to the weather conditions.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Collecting constructive ideas

The reporters look for constructive ideas that can inspire the listeners. One reporter, Sajeda, reported on “hanging vegetable gardens”, where beans are planted as a way to increase the food supply despite limited space. The reporters also look at household remedies for curing illnesses that, due to hygiene issues, spread during the rainy season.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Education instead of a “lost generation”

How can children learn to remember their way home? What can they do to not get lost in the refugee camp? And what are the challenges facing the camp’s Learning Centers? Education for the refugee children is of special concern to the reporter, Iqbal. There are so far no real schools for the children.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

New for Rohingya: Elefant alarms

The refugee camp lies along the migration route for the Asian elephants. Several camp residents, however, were killed in early 2018 when they tried to chase the elephants away. In response, the United Nations held a seminar showing how people should act when elephants approach. “Palonger Hotha” reporters covered this for their program.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Locals can give advice

Unlike the new refugees, locals know from experience how to react if approached by an elephant: stay calm, don’t move, and the elephant will walk away on its own. DW Akademie trainer Andrea Marshall and translator Romana Akther Shanta learned this in July, on their way to the production of the 12th radio show.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Logging green hills

Some local Bangladeshis have found work connected to the refugee camp, but also complain that food prices have risen in the region since the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Green hills have since been logged because the refugees need space and firewood. This is why it is so important that the community radio program also covers the views of locals.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Conflict-sensitive approach

Working together with local trainer Mainul Khan, the “Palonger Hotha” team learns how to deal carefully with potentially sensitive topics. The program does not cover politics. On the other hand, the UNHCR’s “Smart Card”, that is supposed to facilitate the (voluntary) return to Myanmar but which many Rohingya find suspicious, is well reported on.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Overcoming trauma

Traumatic experiences also mark the first anniversary of the mass exodus that began August 25. But at the same time, many people say they are starting to face their trauma – slowly, step by step.

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