Nestled between green mountains and sandy beaches, Cox's Bazar teems with life and the promise of an unforgettable luxury and hospitality. Dotted with glitzy, gleaming 5-star hotels and restaurants offering the most delicious of meals, the town is a retreat full of excesses, the proverbial jewel in the crown of Bangladesh's tourist industry.
For residents, it is the perfect paradise on a plate full of delectable flavours. But this paradise, where we go to escape from the city, is now home to escapees of an entirely different nature. They come not seeking comfort but flee a brutality unimagined; they come seeking freedom they have never had.
In the district's Ukhia, hidden from the gaze of the tourists, is the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp, lightly called the “capital of Rohingyas”. It is one of the largest Rohingya refugee camps and over here, one can be forgiven for forgetting that they were still in the famed Cox's Bazar setting.
Here, in Kutupalong, one does not find the expansive sandy beaches or the glamorous hotels. There are no restaurants serving the freshest seafood or locals peddling jewellery handmade from seashells. The excesses end once you cross Marine drive. This is not the place to laze about. This place does not offer a dream only the harshest of truths.
Feruza Khatun, a 70 year old woman, lies on a stack of bamboos, her hand shading her eyes from the blazing sun. If you dare ask her why she is alone, she will tell you. She will tell you because you asked and once you hear her answer, you may never be the same. “I once had two daughters but they are now lost at the sea,” she says, before instantly breaking down.
Feruza came to Bangladesh to escape the relentless persecution back home in Myanmar. Now she wishes she hadn't. In fact, she'd rather have died with her children than to be have lost them forever and found herself in a land she had never known, amidst a people who had never known her. She will still hold your hand if you offer it to her. She will hold it and silently cry because no one has as of yet invented a language that could fully describe her pain.
Move a bit deeper inside the camp and you will find Azar Hussain, a man with the skin of his right hand entirely burnt. He is another victim of Myanmar's military crackdown. His crime was the way he looked. He had dared to look different under a regime that could not allow such an insult.
“They were shooting at us. I had to run and then they began to throw bombs on us,” he recounts. One such bomb exploded too close to him, burning the skin right off.
While speaking, Azar sees a cow nearby and a smile touches the corners of his lips. It is not a happy smile but rather a melancholic one. “Back in Myanmar, we weren't even allowed to own cows. We had cows, but they always belonged to the military. If they died, we would be fined. If we slaughtered them, we would have to part with most of the meat,” he remembers.
Azar now lives with his relatives in the refugee camp.
Calling him lucky for it would be quite an exaggeration but if you ask Minara, another refugee, she too would have used that world. Minara does not have any relatives here. In fact, like Feruza, she too has absolutely no one here, except for her five young kids that she doesn't know how to take care of.
“They killed my husband. Please don't just give me bamboo. Help me build a home,” she says. Others come up to her and tell her not to lie, claiming she is saying all of this for money. “I am not lying,” she protests, her eyes welling up. You will believe her. Not because you will find sincerity in her tone, but because her devastation is plainly etched across her face.
Every word she speaks is punctuated with a grimace she can no longer control.
But the strangest emotion you will ever experience in Kutupalong is the hollowness that envelopes the very fabric of your soul when you see the children smiling. Why are they smiling? Have they not lost it all? They have, but perhaps they do not know yet. All they want to do is play. Some want to go back home because despite all the horror, it was still the only home they ever knew.
Magical realism was once described by Luis Leal as, “The principal thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances. In magical realism key events have no logical or psychological explanation.”
Here, in Kutupalong, a dark form of magical realism is present in every nook and corner, in the smile of every child and the silence of every adult. Almost everything is inexplicable. Every bond formed incomprehensible. The brutality makes no sense. What can be understood though is that none of them are here for a hand out. They are not here out of choice. They are here because where else could they be?
On our way back to the hotel, the broken roads on the way to Ukhia are being quickly repaired. A three-wheeler carries a man speaking through a megaphone, inviting all the villagers to visit Ukhia tomorrow if they wish to see the Prime Minister. Indeed she is coming and with her comes solutions to all the problems.
As the announcement ends, another load of bricks is hastily thrown over a pothole. Papers over cracks. Much like the hotels in the beach town that paper over the cracks in our development.
That is perhaps the only truth we can be sure of. That and learn to savour the freedom we take so much for granted because like the truth, freedom is to be relished, because we never know how long it will last no matter the promises made.