Rohingya refugees brace for uncertain life in Bangladesh

'Our life is miserable here but at least we thank Allah that we are still alive'
Rohingya refugees brace for uncertain life in Bangladesh

Many Rohingyas families like Fatema Khatun's live in an unregistered camp in Leda, Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh. This camp has more than 30,000 residents. ( photo) 

Fatema Khatun, 40, fought back tears when asked why she fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

"Everybody loves their home. When they leave you know they had their backs pressed against wall," the Rohingya Muslim and mother of five says.  

Fatema lived with her family in Kearipara village, in western Myanmar's Rakhine State. Their relatively peaceful life was upended during a military crackdown on Nov 15.

The military campaign, which has left over 100 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya, was a response to coordinated attacks by suspected Islamic militants in October that killed nine border police.

Although Bangladeshi security forces are refusing entry to Rohingya refugees, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates 27,000 Rohingya have entered the country since October.  

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In Kearipara village, soldiers rounded up villagers before razing the village to the ground. 

"The soldiers shouted at us and ordered us to line up in an open space. They singled out young boys and girls and took them away into a nearby jungle. They ordered us to leave then set our houses on fire," Fatema told

Her two sons, Amanullah, 23, and Salimullah, 23, were detained. Soldiers also kidnapped her daughter, Dildar Begum, 19, along with dozens of other girls.

The remaining family took shelter in neighboring villages. After unsuccessful attempts to cross into Bangladesh, the family paid 5,000 taka (US$63) per person to a boatman to smuggle them across the river in early December.

"We don't know what we did wrong. We have been forced to leave our home and become refugees. We don't know what happened to my sons and daughter — maybe they have been abused and killed," she said.

Fatema now lives in Leda, a refugee camp in Bangladesh that has grown from the 1990s to house more than 20,000 residents, living together in 2,000 small, dark and dilapidated shacks.

In 2012 the Bangladeshi government banned three international aid groups — Muslim Aid, Action against Hunger and Doctors without Borders — from the camp. They were accused of 'tarnishing the country's image' by attracting Rohingya and supporting a Rohingya insurgency.

In 2013, the government gave the International Organization for Migration (IOM) access to the camp. The IOM provides sporadic food aid and runs a 10-bed clinic for treatment of common diseases and maternal health.

"Our life is miserable here but at least we thank Allah that we are still alive. We don't want to stay here forever but go back home. We will only return if there is peace and we are guaranteed that we won't be killed," Fatema says.


Ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have left everything behind to survive and become penniless refugees in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar. ( photo)


'We expect nothing but want to live in peace'

Muhammad Oson, 60, a father of six, used to be a wealthy farmer in Poakhali village in Rakhine State.

After the military crackdown, he now lives with 14 other family members and another refugee family in Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Ukhiya in Bangladesh.

For several days, the Myanmar army raided his village, burning down houses, arresting and killing young men and raping women, he says.

He joined other villagers in fleeing, passing mutilated corpses with bullet and stab wounds.

"We fled to another village and hid there for several days and nights. We didn't eat for days and eagerly waited to reach the border," Oson says.

His two young sons, Faisal Amin, 25 and Nurul Amin, 18, were not lucky enough to escape.

"They were detained by the army and taken away. We don't know about their whereabouts — whether they are dead or alive," he says.

Oson managed to flee to Bangladesh in early December by paying 25,000 Myanmar kyats (US$19) to a boatman to smuggle his family across into Bangladesh. His two married daughters, Resham Banu, 35, and Begum Bahar, 25, remained in Rakhine State.

"Altogether there were 50 people on the boat and we waited until nightfall, so we could evade the border patrol and reach Bangladesh," Oson said.

Bangladesh has so far refused to open its borders to Rohingya refugees. In the first week of December Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament, "We cannot open the gate for an influx on a large scale."

She said that her government has already given all kinds of material support, including food, shelter and medical facilities, to Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.

On the frontline of enforcing this policy is Lieutenant Colonel Abujar Al-Zahid, commanding officer of the Bangladesh Border Guard in Teknaf. Despite being sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya, he says they cannot all be let into Bangladesh. 

"I don't like the word 'push back' because we don't do it. Rohingya try to cross the Naf River into Bangladesh and we tell them to go back," he told

"If we find them hungry, we offer them food and water. But there are brokers on both sides of the border who try to exploit these people for money and so far we have arrested 23 of them," he says.

For Oson, who made it into Bangladesh, the prospects are still bleak. There is no work in the camp so people sneak out to work as fishermen, rickshaw pullers or day laborers. Food is in short supply and the open sewers make people sick.

Oson doesn't see good things for his family here. "I know that nothing has changed for the people living here for decades. Like them, we expect nothing but want to live in peace."

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