All photos: Munem Wasif/ VU/ ICRC. Reporting by Farzana Hossen and Lynette Nyman.

A feature by Red Cross Red Crescent magazine

Amid the hills and valleys not far from the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar, a series of sprawling camps now contain a population similar to that of a small city. (Comparable cities include Geneva, Switzerland; Washington D.C.; Kigali, Rwanda, and Kingston, Jamaica).  Some 680,000 people now live in desperate conditions, inside hastily erected tents and shacks set up after violence in Myanmar forced them across the border into Bangladesh. The physical and emotional suffering these people have endured  — most of them women and children — has been enormous. And the nightmare is far from over. Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif spoke with three families , asking them to talk about their daily struggles, their lingering grief and long-term worries.

Hasina Begum

With her one-and-half-year-old daughter in her arms, and a five-year-old stepson at her side, Hasina Begum walked five days to reach Bangladesh. They left the same day her husband, Abudul Jalil, disappeared. It was the day before Eid in 2017 and Abudul had gone to market looking for work. Hearing that her husband had been killed, the 25-year-old widow had only enough time to pack a change of clothes for her children before heading for the border.

“It took us 5 days to come here, and we had a lot of trials on the way: In the middle of a storm, with little children among us,” her fragile voice trembling as she mustered the strength to tell her story. “No rice to eat, no water to drink, no chance to sleep. We had to lie on the road. Some lay on hay.

“We were outside so I couldn’t breastfeed my child. I couldn’t bathe my children, or give them milk. I myself couldn’t eat. Since we couldn’t feed our children on time, when we could feed them, they drank too much and then would start vomiting.

The baby became almost like a corpse. When we arrived here, they took us to the hospital and gave us medicine. After water, injections and medicine we felt better.”

‘I can’t tell anyone’

For Hasina, everyday brings worries: about the vulnerability of her home to storms, about how to find clean water and about her five-year-old stepson who has to venture out to find firewood at the outskirts of the camp, where children have reportedly been hurt or disappeared.

“I am a mother, how could I let him go there? But when people we know from around go to get firewood, then I would let him go. Because there was no firewood left I told him: ‘If you can go and bring some, then go.’

But I can’t look at the children, my heart aches. I can’t tell anyone how much it hurts.”  

Nur Mohammad

‘What can I do other than worry?’

When Nur Mohammad’s entire family of twelve (wife, children, grandchildren) fled violence in the northern areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, they left behind a two-story home, a small plantation of 100 betel nut trees and bamboo bushes, as well as numerous cattle, sheep and chickens.

But this is not the family’s greatest sadness. Two of the couple’s daughters — 22-year-old Zaka Ullah and 18-year-old Setara Bibi — are missing and presumed dead. The older son, Rashidullah was shot in the abdomen while fleeing and Nur himself injured his leg.  “After we reached here I saw my leg was swollen, there was pus coming out,” he says. “Sometimes blood comes out too.”

Building a new home at the camp took almost four days. “All the children had to dig,” he says. “They dug and made the ground level. My wife, my daughters all worked. I couldn’t do anything because of my leg. My son was shot in his waist, so he couldn’t do anything either.

“In the front room, my wife and I and our son live. In the back room, my daughters live. Our feet touch each other’s heads.”

Now he worries that his flimsy home will not withstand monsoon season. “The rain is coming, the wind can blow the roof off, water will get inside and the house will fall down. These things worry me. But what can I do other than worry?”

Restless days

For Nur Mohammad, life in the camp is monotonous. But he tries to make the most of it. He trims his beard before Friday prayers, then later, plays with his grandchild outside his makeshift home. Without a job, land or animals to tend, he says there are not enough things to keep him busy and take his mind off his worries.

His worries intensified recently after hearing news that people in the camps might be sent back to Myanmar.  “How did we fall into such a terrible situation? These thoughts trouble me.”

‘Nothing to give’

One of Nur’s greatest worries is the future of his daughters, one of whom is shown here with a friend looking out over Hakimpara Camp. One of the only options for young women here is the prospect of marriage, which are usually arranged along with a customary dowry from the father of the girl being wed.

“Some people have asked us about it, but we said that we can’t give them anything. We don’t have any money, or any gold jewelry, how will we give anything? We are barely living.”

Back in Myanmar, Nur had land, animals and income from a small farm.. Today, Nur’s own family does not have enough to eat and his daughters must scrounge in the hills outside the Hakimpara camp to find firewood for cooking. “If anyone wants to marry without wanting anything, then I would agree.”

Finding some peace

Nur Mohammad does physical exercise with other men at a community center run by the Danish Red Cross in coordination with the IFRC and the Bangladesh Red Crescent. Here, men are able to discuss their worries and daily challenges with volunteers and staff trained in psychosocial support.

“They try to motivate us, to have us do things. We make nets, mats, and a couple of other things,” Nur says. “They ask us about our problems. They ask us about how we live, how we are and they can work for us. They ask us about our sufferings — that’s why it feels good.

“When we go to the group we talk and hug each other and feel good for a while. Otherwise it just feels restless. I go to the group, because it makes me feel at peace.”

Helping people feel better is closely linked to alleviating some of the causes of stress and anguish — be they concerns about health care, shelter, education, or safety. Counseling sessions, therefore, can provide important links to assistance or services.

In times of crisis, the greatest anxietyis often caused when people lose touch with loved ones. Here in the camps, Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers (with support from the ICRC)facilitate phone calls for people arriving from Rakhine State and exchange short written messages between displaced people and relatives in Myanmar. Those who don’t know the fate or whereabouts of family members can also ask the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to search for missing loved ones.

Setara Khatun

Terrible memories

In a one-room, makeshift tent, Setara Khatun lives with her 70-year-old maternal aunt Sanapru and her three children. One of her sons, 12-year-old Nejamuddin, went missing while looking for firewood on the outskirts of the camps. Like many women in the camps, Setara is the sole head of household, her husband having been killed when he went back to their village to collect some belongings.

One of the most traumatic events on the way here came when Setara and her four children had to wait on an island for 15 days before crossing the river to Bangladesh on a small, overcrowded boat.

“I cried a lot, I was wailing. There were a lot of people there. You could only see heads and more heads. Some were crossing, some were staying. Some were cooking and eating, some were starving.

My children were in a lot of pain. I was in a lot of pain. Where is rice?! Where is water?! Some people gave us rice and water, a few snacks. I gave those to the children and drank water myself.

We were scared. It was raining, there was a storm and there was wind blowing. The children were scared, they thought the boat would sink. The memories of this pain make me restless. Sometimes I think that maybe it would have been better to have been shot dead.”

The house will break

“In Myanmar we had our own house, we built it very nicely,” says Setara. “My husband was a day laborer. Sometimes he sold vegetables. We had a lot of options for income.”

Now Setara says her family is entirely dependent on aid agencies for food and they never have enough. On top of that, she worries her flimsy tent won’t withstand the coming storms. “The rainy season is coming and it worries me. Part of the house will break as soon as a heavy wind blows. There is no man at home so I don’t know how I will rebuild. I fall asleep thinking about these things.”

‘I forget my worries’

In the community center in the Tasnimarkhola Camp, Setara finds some comfort at the “women friendly space” offered by the Danish Red Cross in coordination with IFRC and Bangladesh Red Crescent. The centre offers a place for women share their problems, socialize and temporarily forget their worries while engaging in small, money-making projects.

“There are a lot of women there so I feel at peace. Some have lost their children, some husbands, some parents. But when we go [to the centre] we can laugh. Here, I forget my worries. When I go back home I will hear that there is no firewood, no kerosene, no vegetables, and the children will cry for a shirt. These things make me restless again.”

Coming to the centre has inspired Setara to become a volunteer herself. “I go to people’s houses and teach them how to take care of children, how to stay clean so that no one falls ill, how to take care of sick people,” she says.

Red Cross Red Crescent is the magazine of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It is a joint production of the IFRC and the ICRC.