Guljar talks to ShelterBox – a Rohingya family’s dramatic story

Guljar talks to ShelterBox – a Rohingya family’s scramble over mountains and rivers to reach a small plot of safety. Bamboo and black plastic, extreme heat and rain. ‘A ticking time bomb for disease.’

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Jimmy Griffith, a ShelterBox response volunteer from New Zealand, talks through a translator to Guljar and her family about the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar. It has been an arduous journey, carrying a baby, and just boiled rice for food. They have fled violence, but are far from secure. 

Guljar is forty years old. A widow for five years, she is bringing up her two daughters aged 15 & 12, and her son aged 9, alone. Her 15 year old daughter has a baby, just 18 months old.

In Myanmar they had a home and a small farm with a few animals. Life was good for them. Until they became increasingly concerned for their own safety, and felt they should leave.

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Guljar is talking to ShelterBox’s Jimmy Griffith, in the overcramped mud bowl that is now her family’s sanctuary in Bangladesh. She and her family are among half a million Rohingya who have fled in fear across the border to Bangladesh. ShelterBox,  experts in emergency shelter and international disaster relief, are working to help what has been described as a ‘monumental’ influx of desperate and exhausted people.

Guljar tells Jimmy, ‘We decided to leave. At midnight we cooked up all the rice we had along with some pickle. We left in the early hours of the morning under the cover of darkness.’

‘We headed for the mountains. We couldn’t take the roads as we knew this could lead to trouble.’ Guljar explained that travelling in large groups of 20,000 to 30,000 gave them safety in numbers. ‘If you were in a small group you would probably be attacked.’

It took them three days of trudging, carrying a small child, for this family of five to scale the mountain. This is open wild country, and there were no tracks to follow. Guljar notes the kindness of strangers. ‘As we were running out of food, other people supported us if they could, and as we passed houses some of these people would help as well. We found a place in the river where we could cross that wasn’t too deep.’

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After spending days and nights out in the open they arrived at one of the Bangladesh camps that have sprung up in the Cox’s Bazar region. Guljar, her girls, son and grand-daughter were given a small 3m by 5m plot of land by the Bangladesh government. They were also given flimsy black plastic sheeting, bamboo poles and rope so they could make a shelter.

‘We are so grateful for everything we are given. Unfortunately there are no trees around which makes it very hot under the black plastic (it can be 33-36 degrees in the sun). Also when it rains they leak.’

Most of these plots are on terraces above rice paddy fields. When it rains the ground turns to ankle-deep mud, so families stay inside their shelters, cramped and very hot. Everyone is worried because the cyclone season is coming soon, which threatens both the flimsy shelters and the terraces they are pitched on.

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ShelterBox is working with a cluster of other non-governmental organisations on a co-ordinated aid programme, but the numbers needing help are challenging, and at times overwhelming. We have an experienced team in Cox’s Bazar working hard with local Rotary contacts and partners to help as many vulnerable families as possible. These families left their homes with nothing and we know that they desperately need shelter, lighting, and water.

Tarpaulins and ropes will help shelter families from the heavy rain and harsh sun, blankets will bring comfort and warmth at night, solar lights will help families feel a little safer in the dark, and water carriers will help keep water clean. ShelterBox has just signed its first agreement to import sufficient of these to support 4,000 Rohingya households.

Jimmy Griffith says, ‘Our tarpaulins and fixings are heavy-duty, and have been used in the worst weather conditions in all climates. But our resources and manpower are stretched, with ShelterBox responses continuing elsewhere in Bangladesh after vast floods, in the Caribbean after the hurricanes, and in Africa, Syria and Iraq with continuing conflict. So I’m grateful to all our generous supporters worldwide.’

‘As I look around and I see thousands of shelters everywhere – just imagine, if I was to take my home town of Nelson in New Zealand, just 60,000 people, and times it by ten, and just put everybody together in a small space with no toilets or running water. Also add in extreme heat and rain which causes more hardship. Now you have a ticking time bomb for disease. Now you can imagine some of the challenges we face in the Rohingya camps.’

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Life on the edge – ShelterBox team reports from Bangladesh’s Rohingya border camps

Over half a million Rohingya people face new perils in the makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh as the coming cyclone season threatens to wash away the flimsy plastic shelters. 

Imagine the entire population of a city the size of the Gold Coast crammed into a little over three square miles. This is the result of over half a million Rohingya people – more than half of them children, thousands separated from their parents – arriving in Bangladesh by foot or by river crossing from Myanmar.

More than 500,000 Rohingya are now settling in makeshift and spontaneous camps in the Cox’s Bazar area. Poignantly, from these vantage points many of them are now able to see their former home villages burning in the distance across the border.

ShelterBox response volunteer from Gloucestershire UK, Liz Odell, says, Conditions are dire, with most people living in small shelters made of flimsy black plastic sheeting and bamboo poles. There is little space between the shelters, and the paths between them are a congealing soup of oozing mud. Most of the inhabitants have no possessions and only the clothes that they were wearing when they fled from their villages in Rakhine state. Many are traumatised by their experiences and the loss of loved ones.

Liz also worries that the sites they are using, on terraces high above rice paddy fields, will be prone to collapse as the cyclone season fast approaches. Liz says, Much of the area around the camps is rice paddies – they are under water so the Rohingyas are forced to build their shelters on the precipitous slopes of the surrounding hills. Once the cyclone season arrives, these terraces are likely to collapse.’

ShelterBox, an international disaster relief agency specialising in emergency shelter for families displaced by conflict and natural disasters, is making arrangements to bring in aid including portable solar lighting, which has helped reduce gender-based violence in refugee camps worldwide. Tools and tarps will help with waterproof shelter construction, and to bring basic comfort to families without any possessions ShelterBox is also aiming to bring in blankets. ShelterBox teams had arrived in Bangladesh in response to the worst flooding for decades, but now find themselves responding to a human flood as well.

Liz and her colleague Jimmy Griffith from Nelson, New Zealand have visited the two largest camps, Kutupalong and Balukhali. Here teams of aid workers are working round the clock to install water tanks, wells, latrines, medical facilities (including a 95-bed field hospital) and child friendly spaces.

But Liz says it is a race against time. ‘The influx has been so monumental and so fast that the facilities become overwhelmed as fast as they are built. One water and sanitation health worker told us that as fast as they dig latrines, they are overflowing and they don’t yet have a system for disposing of the faecal sludge. Imagine the smell. On a positive note, the weather has been dry the last few days and the knee-deep mud is beginning to dry up. The World Health Organisation are in a race against time to administer 300,000 cholera vaccinations before the inevitable outbreak of the disease.’

Mohammed, Hannah and Nurusaffa’s story

Liz and Jimmy visited a camp at Unchiprang, a spontaneous settlement which houses a relatively few 28,000 people, yet the sea of black plastic shelters still stretches as far as the eye can see. Liz says ‘We met some of the survivors who settled here a couple of weeks ago, and asked them to tell us a little about themselves.’

Shakier Mohammed and his wife Hanna are sharing a small shelter with his sister, Nurusaffa, and her two sons aged 8 and 12 years. Hanna is 5 months pregnant. Nurusaffa’s husband was killed, and their house was set on fire before she managed to flee with her two sons. It took them three hours on foot to reach the border in temperatures of 36 degrees centigrade, and then another 2½ hours by boat to cross the River Naf which forms the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. I asked her what possessions she brought with her and she said ‘nothing’. I asked what she needed and she said ‘food, blankets, water carrier.’

Most of the Rohingya want to return home but at this time, that seems a remote possibility.’

‘There was a bright spot in the middle of the sea of mud and black plastic: a child friendly space. This was an airy, open-sided shelter with colourful floor mats, balloons and decorations. There was space for up to 200 children with a toy corner, an art corner, a library and areas for music and adolescents. The children have dedicated latrines, and are fed water and biscuits while they are there. The children were sat in a square, singing songs. It was gut wrenchingly poignant – the children’s ability to have fun despite all they have been through, given the right support and surroundings.’

‘ShelterBox can’t help everyone. We are a small cog in a large wheel here, but we can make a difference to the lives of at least 4,000 families.’

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