Rohingya leaders help lead the way in Bangladesh refugee camps

Mazi community leaders offer a vital link between the community, government and aid groups
Rohingya leaders help lead the way in Bangladesh refugee camps

Nur Hossain, 61, in the doorway of his shelter at Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, on Sept. 2. Nur, a Rohingya Muslim, fled to Bangladesh from his Tombru home in Myanmar's  Rakhine State in October last year. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

Hamid Hossain had a happy and peaceful life at Rathedaung Township in Myanmar's Rakhine State before the military launched its ferocious crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in August last year.

Hamid, 36, had worked for three years for the Japanese charity Bridge Asia Japan (BAJ) before switching to the French charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

He earned 120,000 Myanmar kyats (US$77) a month from the BAJ before his pay increased to 282,000 kyats (US$181) with MSF.

"We lived happily. Our daughters went to school and we had some land besides our home. All are gone now," Hamid, a father of two daughters, told ucanews.com at his shelter in Kutupalong refugee camp at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

Their lives were turned upside down when the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown on ethnic-minority Rohingya Muslims in response to militant attacks on security forces on Aug. 25, 2017.

The atrocities, dubbed a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations, saw hundreds of villages set alight and thousands of Rohingya tortured, murdered and raped. The violence triggered an exodus of more than 723,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh since August last year, according to U.N. Refugee Agency.

Hamid's family joined the perilous exodus along with 886 other families. For nearly a month, they waited at the border before the Bangladesh government allowed them in on humanitarian grounds.

"Most Rohingya like me had never seen Bangladesh before, except for occasional glances from the bank of the Naf River. It was an unknown place to us and we never thought of ending up as refugees in this foreign land," Hamid recalled.

 

The Mazi

The Bangladesh military moved in to offer vital support to thousands of Rohingya stuck in the "no man's land." Military officials launched an emergency aid mission to help Rohingya, delivering food, clothes and medicine. To tackle the overwhelming needs of the refugees, military officials selected several hundred voluntary "block leaders", or Mazis, to help with the distribution of aid.

Hamid was appointed a Mazi and started helping the military with relief operations.

"Our duty was to enlist all people of a particular block and ensure they all get relief material. We also located missing persons and reached out to them with aid," he said.

Hamid Hossain, 36, a Rohingya Mazi, or community volunteer, with his family in front of his shelter at Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar on Sept. 2. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

 

Most of the Rohingya were relocated to Kutupalong camp, one of the world's largest refugee camps with more than 400,000 residents.

The Bangladesh government decided to keep the Mazi system to assist in the co-ordination of aid distribution, management and development of the refugee settlements.

 

Filling in gaps

In Rohingya camps, a Mazi is tasked to oversee 120-180 refugee families. About 10-15 Mazis form a council which is led by a head Mazi.

They work under the supervision of the government-appointed camp in-charges (CICs) overseeing 30 refugee settlements at Cox's Bazar.

They also work with international and local aid agencies to help identify and address the needs and problems of refugees in their blocks.      

Like Hamid, Mazis in Rohingya camps can read and write Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh.

"There are 162 families in my block and I have a close connection to them. I try to solve any problem they face with the help of the government and NGOs," Hamid said.

Mazis don't get remuneration for their services, but they receive double rations of food every month.

"We don't get money, although some people think so. When the government and NGOs organize training for Mazis, we get some allowances. That's all we get for our services," Hamid said. 

Government officials say they don't have the exact number of Mazis in the camps.

"There are about 200,000 Rohingya families in the camps and a Mazi looks after the needs of a block with 120-180 families," Muhammad Nikruzzaman, chief government officer at Ukhiya told ucanews.com.

"They work closely with head Mazis and CICs, so it is difficult to spell out the exact number of Mazi volunteers active in all the camps."

He said Mazis play an important role in reaching out to their communities, to find solutions to the problems they face. "They are happy to serve their own community, and they do so freely without any payment," he said.

Aid workers say Mazis play a vital role, but they don't make any decision for the community.

Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar district of southeastern Bangladesh.  (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

 

"They keep a link between the community and support groups, but their assessment and decision are not final. When they report on a need, we send our staff to investigate and to report. Our report tells us what must be done," Abu Taher, an engineer and zonal coordinator of Catholic charity Caritas told ucanews.com.

"Mazis lead us to people who need help with shelter, food, medical, and roads. We select the families and take measures accordingly," he added. 

Refugees see the Mazis as their link to the government and aid agencies.

"Our life could be difficult without the assistance of the Mazis. They are like our brothers and guardians," Nur Hossain, 61, who fled to Bangladesh with his nine-member family in October 2017 from Tombru in Rakhine said.

 

Fiasco over repatriation?

Bangladesh signed a deal with Myanmar for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya within two years, which remains in limbo.

Following the signing of the deal, hundreds of Rohingya staged protests in the camps, over what they said was a failure to provide a concrete promise on basic rights, most notably Myanmar citizenship.

Local media reported the Mazis were split over repatriation with some supporting it and others preferring to stay put.

Abul Kalam, commissioner of the state-run refugee relief and repatriation office, said: "We have no idea if Mazis are involved in leading the protests, as far as we know all Rohingya want to go back. If Mazis are involved in instigating protests, the communities get confused."

Nur Hossain says he is eager to go back home one day.

"My body is here but my heart cries out for home. I was born and raised there, and I have lost everything — money, belongings and the house. Yet, I call it my homeland and I want to go back there when I get the chance," he said, sobbing.

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