Living on the edge, the Rohingya cling to muddy ground

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Nurullah works on reinforcing the rear of his family’s shelter on the edge of a cliff.

Twenty-year-old Nurullah was perched on the edge of a cliff, piling up sandbags to save his shack, when the rains came.

He’s a survivor. He has already fled Myanmar’s murderous military, which expelled close to a million Rohingya Muslims across the border to Bangladesh and for now, he’s avoided the worst of the myriad diseases that regularly rip through the overfull Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.

As the oldest male in his household – his father died three months ago, seven months after the family arrived in the camps –Nurullah is now responsible for his mother and four sisters.

The next threat the family faces will come from the sky – Bangladesh’s capricious monsoon rains and the arrival of the cyclone season.

Trucks, rickshaws and people negotiate their way through the mud after a monsoon downpour in Kutupalong Camp this week.

KATE GERAGHTY/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Trucks, rickshaws and people negotiate their way through the mud after a monsoon downpour in Kutupalong Camp this week.

When Fairfax Media visited Nurullah, 18 hours of rain on Monday and Tuesday had dumped about 70mm of water on the camp, turning the sandy ground into a thick bog and making difficult conditions harder still.

It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. UNICEF Emergency Field Coordinator Peta Barns says the average July rainfall is 900mm and thankfully, that hasn’t arrived yet, giving aid agencies and people like Nurullah extra time to prepare for much bigger dumps.

Much heavier rain is forecast for later in the week, potentially shutting down the local airport and cutting off access to sections of the camp, which would slow the supply of food and emergency aid.

Nurullah’s family of seven lives in half a shack, just a few square metres of dirt and bamboo, covered by thick tarpaulins. The other half is occupied by 50-year-old Gul Faraz and at least three members of her family.

Both families sleep on the ground, in the dirt.

They are just two of the hundreds of families who live in these precarious shelters, on the edge of the rolling sand-dune cliffs.

Hakimpara is comparatively tiny, holding about 33,000 people. Just north of here is the huge Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, which holds at least 400,000 people and is the largest refugee camp in the world, according to UNICEF.

Space is at a premium and while aid agencies such as UNICEF and the International Organisation for Migration have started moving the most at risk to safer ground, not everyone wants to go.

“We were asked to, but we do not want to relocate to a new place. We have got to know the neighbours here. We hope the sand bags will protect the cliff,” Nurullah says, though he is willing to concede “if this does not work out, we will have to shift into another house”.

When you’ve been chased out of your country and have lost close to everything, even a small patch of dirt can be hard to let go of.

There is little scope to earn money as the only work available is unloading food distribution vans, he says. His family was forced to flee Myanmar because “our village was set on fire.

“We escaped from Buchidong [one of countless villages attacked by Myanmar’s army] to save our lives.”

A group of men work in the rain to create drainage on the side of a cliff in preparation for overdue monsoon rains.

KATE GERAGHTY/FAIRFAX MEDIA

A group of men work in the rain to create drainage on the side of a cliff in preparation for overdue monsoon rains.

Nurullah says he wants to return to his home in the future, and for “the world to try and make sure that we are taken back to Myanmar, given citizenship and the rights”.

In the next shack, Asmida Khatun, 30, home with her 18-month-old daughter Romida, is attempting to concrete her floor in preparation for the rains and the cyclones.

But when the rains come, loosening the sands, there is every chance the ground – whether concreted or sand-bagged – will give way and the structures will tumble 50 metres down the cliff face.

That’s why Nurullah is piling over-stuffed sandbags on the cliffside. It’s a small, man-made effort to forestall disaster – and an appropriate metaphor for this whole camp.

There is little prospect of the Rohingyas of Rakhine state being allowed to return home, at least for now, by Myanmar’s government.

Barns says that, a year ago “none of this camp was here, so we don’t really know what the impact of the monsoon will be, because it used to be forest. We are trying to build drains, put in extra tarpaulins, identify what areas are at risk”.

“The monsoon should have started weeks ago. And now we are in the cyclone season as well, so we are trying to reinforce shelters.”

Though local Bangladeshis have cyclone shelters, there are none for the Rohingya.

The early learning centres, schools and first aid clinics built by UNICEF and other agencies are the best bet. They offer a sturdier concrete floor, bamboo walls and a roof made of bamboo and tarpaulins. But the protection they offer isn’t much better.

“The worst case scenario is a cyclone comes through the camp and then we are dealing with an humanitarian disaster that would be unprecedented in terms of the number of people here,” Barns says.

“We are doing as much as we can to reinforce everything but we just don’t have cyclone proof shelters.”

Already, this year, there have been 206 landslides since May 11. They are caused by erosion, because in a desperate quest for firewood, the Rohingya people have denuded the landscape of the trees that have held dunes together.

Some 34 people have been injured and one three-year-old boy was killed when his shack collapsed on him and his mother during heavy rain in June.

And when the rains and the cyclones hit, the risk of diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera only rises too.

source- Stuff World news

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