Fieldset
“The enduring human spirit”: My visit to a Rohingya refugee camp

In August 2017, South African HR manager Eben Van Tonder watched the Rohingya refugee crisis unfold on the news. One year on, he found himself in Bangladesh to experience the vastness of this “human tragedy” for himself.

It is 26 August 2017, a lovely day in Stockholm, Sweden. I have just arrived for my pre-departure training before my first assignment with MSF, in Pakistan.

As the day progresses, news reports continue to inform us of the events occurring in Myanmar with the Rohingya people – as hundreds of thousands are forced to flee violence and persecution.

I continue following the news in the days to come with stunned disbelief.

“How can this be happening once again?” I cannot help but wonder.

Are we as human beings not supposed to become better at being human beings? Do we really not learn from the mistakes of the past?

One year later

Fast forward one year to 26 August 2018. Exactly one year to the day from when the Rohingya crisis started and I am standing on the outskirts of the almost incomprehensibly large Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. I am on my second assignment with MSF.

My project is not directly involved with the Rohingya refugees, so today I am just an observer (I will share more on my specific project in my next blog).

I had the opportunity to visit the MSF project in Rubber Garden, where medical teams provide primary healthcare services, vaccinations and also host diphtheria and diarrhoea treatment centres.

Here, I experienced first-hand what the situation on the ground is really like. I also had to the opportunity to witness the selfless work done by my MSF colleagues and the many other international aid organisations working in Cox’s Bazar.

What strikes me the most is the enthusiasm, energy and passion of my colleagues despite the human hardships and tragedy around them on a daily basis.

Much has been written about the political context and current situation the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, find themselves in. To get a better understanding of what is happening, you can read more here and here, however, I want to focus on my immediate experiences and impressions of this day spent in the camps.

As I walked around the MSF diarrhoea treatment centre, I was impressed and amazed by the work done here by my colleagues – especially given the challenging landscape and limited resources. What strikes me the most is the enthusiasm, energy and passion of my colleagues despite the human hardships and tragedy around them on a daily basis.

“As far as the eye can see, and then some”

There are a number of Rohingya volunteers who act as an important link between MSF and the refugee community. I am introduced to two of the eager, well-spoken young Rohingya gentlemen who volunteer with us. They offer to be my guides for a walk through the refugee camp.

As we stand at the edge of the camp next to the road, I look at the horizon. The camp stretches as far as the eye can see, and then some.

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A child walks between makeshift houses in the Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
A child walks between makeshift houses in the Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

The number of people living here is staggering – more than 600,000 people crammed into less than 15km2.

The hilly landscape is uneven and prone to mudslides, while all the shelters basically consist of bamboo and tarpaulin. This area gets a vast amount of rainfall annually which adds yet another challenging element to the precariousness of the structures and dwellings.

Space is a luxury here and privacy is basically non-existent. The shelters are built right next to each other with narrow walkways in between sections.

It is easy to see how this landscape can become very dangerous and unstable during heavy rains. There is no drainage and pools of stagnant water do not create a healthy living environment.

I struggle to comprehend how such a large community managed to live here for a whole year. I can’t help but wonder: when will it end?

A humbling experience

What strikes me immediately as we walk through the camp is the friendliness of the people we meet.

Despite the trauma and the displacement they have suffered, as well as the reality of their current harsh living conditions and an uncertain future, people smile and wave at me as we walk. Children run up to us, wanting to shake my hands and shouting, “Thank you! Thank you!”.

My two guides tell me that it is in gratitude for the work currently done by all the aid agencies. It really is hard to find words to respond to these children.

My initial disappointment in humanity - that has once again created and caused this human tragedy - has been replaced by optimism and admiration.

The incident that literally stopped me in my tracks was when we were approached by an elderly woman who, without any warning, bent down in front of me and touched my feet (actually my muddy boots). It was a humbling experience. I stood there, frozen and very uncomfortable. I was not sure how to react appropriately or what to say to her.

I’m still trying to process this. My two guides tried explaining this incident to me but to be honest I couldn’t really focus on what they were saying. I was utterly overwhelmed. At that point, I politely requested we end the tour.

The enduring human spirit

As I sit here writing this blog (a week after my camp visit), I am heartened by the enduring human spirit and willingness to survive in the harsh and challenging circumstances I witnessed.

My initial disappointment in humanity - that has once again created and caused this human tragedy - has been replaced by optimism and admiration as I continue to witness the outpouring of humanitarian assistance to a community in need.

However, this crisis is far from over. The harsh reality is that there will have to be a political solution to this man-made crisis and it is anybody’s guess how long that will take – if it is ever resolved.

You can certainly do your bit to help: Apply to join MSF. If that is not possible, consider making a donation.

Every little bit helps when the need is this great.