Rohingya children (left to right) — Shamima, 10, Reaz, 7 and Yeasmin, 14 — at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. The siblings lost their parents when erupted in Myanmar's Rakhine State. They now reside with a Rohingya family in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. (ucanews.com photo)
Hundreds of children roam the narrow, muddy paths dividing scores of damp and steaming tents at Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp. They stop and stare at any newcomer or outsider as the rain tumbles down, their eyes pleading for mercy and generosity.
Among them are three sisters and a brother — Yeasmin, Shamima, Rahima and Reaz — aged from seven to fourteen.
Their clothes are ragged, hanging on rake-thin bodies. They share common characteristics with other kids in the camp appearing hungry, frightened, boisterous and depressed. All are suffering from malnutrition.
However, unlike most of the kids in dozens of refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar, they have no one to call "mom" and "dad".
They became orphans when the Myanmar military unleashed a deadly "clearance operation” in Rakhine State in late August which forced more than 500,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
A week after violence rocked northern Rakhine, the military and extremist Buddhist vigilantes arrived at the children's village in Maungdaw town. Their farmer parents were among dozens of Muslim villagers slaughtered in what the United Nations dubbed a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" of minority Rohingya.
"They encircled our house," Yeasmin said in a low voice. "Our parents started to flee with us and they started firing. My father collapsed but didn’t die. One man came forward with a machete and then slaughtered him. We got separated from our mother and we don’t know whether she is dead or alive."
Shocked and frightened, the siblings joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in their perilous trek on foot to neighboring Bangladesh.
For days they moved with the waves of people, often hiding to avoid security patrols and surviving on food given to them. But eventually they couldn’t bear anymore. They sat down on a road at Kearipara village in Maungdaw, and started crying together. Soon a Rohingya family spotted them.
"We found them crying while people were fleeing without noticing them," Muhammad Salam, 35, head of a five-member Rohingya family told ucanews.com. "We felt sad and decided to take them with us to Bangladesh."
"We are struggling to feed our own children as aid is scarce, but if we eat they too will eat. I don’t know how long we will be able look after them, but we will treat them as our own children as long as they are with us,” he added.
Hindu Rohingya girl Nilu Bala says her parents were murdered in front of her eyes and their bodies dumped into a mass grave. (ucanews.com photo)
Nilu Bala, 10, a Rohingya Hindu girl, has been living with 500 Hindu Rohingya in a predominantly Hindu village in Kutupalong for over a month.
She said her parents were killed when masked men armed with guns and machetes raided Hindu villages in Maungdaw and murdered men, women and children. The bodies were dumped into mass graves.
"They encircled our house one night and tied up my parents. They slaughtered them in front of my eyes," Nilu said, sobbing and trembling.
She and her relatives trekked 10 days to reach Bangladesh.
Sadhan Pal, 70, an uncle of Nilu, claimed Rohingya Muslims killed the Hindus. "I know them. Some of them are residing in Bangladesh camps," he alleged, but his claims couldn’t be verified.
Children at risk
UNICEF, estimates about 60 percent of the 800,000 refugees in Bangladesh camps are children aged under 18, and 85 percent are suffering physical and psychological problems. There were an estimated 300,000 already in the camps before the latest waves arrived.
At least 200 children have died in a month, local media reported, due to a lack of medical treatment, malnutrition or drowning in the Naf River after boats carrying refugees capsized. Aid groups have warned that outbreak of diseases due to unsanitary conditions in the overcrowded camps would be "catastrophic."
About 1,100 Rohingya children arrived in Bangladesh separated from their parents, UNICEF said.
"Children are traumatized. They need protection and psychological support immediately," UNICEF spokesman Jean Lieby said.
The Bangladesh government and UNICEF are planning to set up "child-friendly centers” for hundreds of orphaned and distressed Rohingya children, to offer them physical, physiological and educational assistance.
UNICEF has also collected pictures from Rohingya children who witnessed violence and drew horrific scenes while in Bangladesh.
An official registering orphaned children in Kutupalong on behalf of the Bangladesh government and UNICEF said without special support the children were vulnerable to psychological disorders.
"These children have seen how their parents or relatives were killed, so they are psychologically distressed," the official who wished to remain anonymous said. "In the absence of counseling, they might grow up with cruelty and revenge inside them, and in future they might become involved in anti-social or criminal activities."
"The government wants them to slowly erase their horrific past and help them grow up as good people. Our primary target is to register up to 6,000 children and provide them with shelters and the necessary amenities."
The listing system has not yet reached the four Muslim siblings and Hindu Nilu Bala, as they live faraway from main campsite in Kutupalong.
Many children like them live in makeshift settlements dotted on both sides of the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf highway across from the Naf River that separates Bangladesh and Rakhine State.
Fears abound that the future of these children, without parents, a guardian or proof of identity, remains murky even if they are allowed back into Myanmar.