Longing for home: 5th anniversary of Rohingya influx
For Shamsul Ahmed, life in the Rohingya refugee camp is now much better than it was five years ago, but his heart longs for home.
The man from Maungdaw of Myanmar, now in his mid-60s, ran for his life with his family of 13 when deadly violence erupted there. They travelled through the hills for three days and then, one evening in August 2017, crossed the Naf river into Bangladesh.
Landing in Ukhia upazila's Kutupalong area of Cox's Bazar, they found relative safety, but life on the green and hilly terrain in Bangladesh's southern tip was still precarious.
"Although we escaped the jaws of death, it was all too uncertain here in the forest. We [along with many other refugees] cleared the jungle to make our shack inside the overcrowded camp, which lacked adequate sanitation. We used to sleep on the floor without any mattress," said Ahmed, father of six sons and five daughters.
Five years down the line, the bamboo-and-tarpaulin shacks of Ahmed and thousands of others have given way to better huts, most with concrete floors. The hillsides, which had looked barren without trees or foliage, are marked by a number of buildings and brick roads. The greenery has been restored to a large extent.
"We are better off now as we have been provided with many facilities in the camp. But no matter how much quality of live improves here, my mind cries for home. I want to go back to Burma [Myanmar] as soon as possible," said Ahmed, now in his early 70s.
Life in the Rohingya camps has progressed since the early days of the largest influx, with better roads and more latrines and limited drinking water points.
Solar panels installed in front yards and on roofs, and the shops and small stores inside the camps are some of the signs showing the improvement of living standards in the world's largest refugee camp.
Tomorrow will mark five years since the largest exodus from Rakhine State was seen and refugees started arriving on these shores. The initiatives of the refugees themselves, the government and NGOs has brought about improvements in living conditions, but the feeling of statelessness remains.
Bangladesh is currently hosting more than 1.2 million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.
Refugees in August 2017 joined around 3,00,000 of their compatriots, who were already here during previous waves of displacement, causing significant economic and strategic challenges for the country.
Since 2020, the government has relocated about 30,000 Rohingyas from the camps to Noakhali's Bhasan Char island in six phases.
'THINGS ARE IMPROVING'
Visiting various camps in Kutupalong and Balukhali areas, these correspondentsfound healthcare and learning centres, mosques, madrasas and other facilities there. Some fields for children have also been established at some points -- a group of youngsters were seen playing volleyball in a small playground in one of the camps yesterday.
Some Rohingyas, however, are still living in bamboo huts with tarpaulin roofs that they built when they first arrived.
Down an alley of camp 4, Noor Mohammad runs a grocery shop that caters only to the camp residents. He buys essentials from a market run by locals near Kutupalong.
He said the demand for grocery items is on the rise and his sales go up to as much as Tk 40,000 a day.
"Things are improving gradually here. In the initial days, we were frustrated about what to do. Now, many of us have found a way of living and earning," said Mohmmad, who came here in 2017 with his wife and four daughters.
Some work for the NGOs while some toil as day labourers in the camp and some are trying to do business like running small shops, he said.
Forty-year-old Rashida Khatun spoke about how her family is earning a living by selling vegetables.
"When we came here with no money, we used to eat dry foods. As food assistance was given, we started consuming rice and lentils only. Now, we grow vegetables and can earn some money selling those and some rations [from government and NGOs]. With the money, we can even manage fish and meat," she said.
Khatun also said the scarcity of latrines has reduced significantly than during the initial days as separate latrines and showers were built in the camps.
In one camp, Tahoora Bibi, 60, was found putting the finishing touches on a traditional kantha. She said she sells these stitched kanthas to camp residents for Tk 400 each.
Despite the improvements, Rohingyas are touched by fear as many violent incidents have taken place in the camps, with the murder of Rohingya rights leader Mohib Ullah inside a camp in September last year still fresh in the minds of residents.
'FATE HANGS IN BALANCE'
Although the refugees said things improved significantly in the camps, the feeling of being trapped away from home is breeding frustration.
"We don't know when we will go back. Our fate is just hanging in the balance. We are stateless and every day, children are born stateless. It should be stopped. We want to return home," said Md Zubayer, a resident of Kutupalong.
Karim Mia, a resident of a camp in Balukhali, said, "In Myanmar, the situation made us feel that we were imprisoned. Here in Bangladesh we feel far better. But I still want to live as a citizen of Myanmar and not as a stateless person."