Arrival at the camp in Bangladesh - Tents as far as the eye can see

After working for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in South Sudan and the Mediterranean, German nurse Heidi Anguria is now in Bangladesh. From inside Kutupalong refugee camp, home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, she shares this blog on meeting new people, unique experiences and great challenges…

It is Friday, which is our Sunday here, and time for a first report.

There is so much to tell, but first some background on my new home for this assignment: Bangladesh.

Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh has been independent since 1971. The neighbouring states are India and Myanmar, and the country is located on the Gulf of Bengal. The Bengal Delta, covering the south of Bangladesh, is home to the world's largest river delta as well as the world's largest mangrove forest.

But, it is not all superlatives: With about 165 million inhabitants, it is one of the most populous countries in the world.  Nineteen million people live in the capital Dhaka, alone.

Bangladesh is a country with an up-and-coming economy. Textile exports are huge. The country is the third largest exporter of clothing to Europe.

Arrival in Dhaka: big, loud, colourful!

Rickshaws and tuk tuk shape the cityscape.

So far so good? Then let‘s start: On the Tuesday after Easter, I went from Hamburg to Amsterdam. There, the handover by my predecessor took place, because unfortunately, she was unable to wait for me in Bangladesh.

Three days later, I travelled via Dubai to Dhaka. My first impression: a big, loud city.

On Saturday morning, we bought clothes that followed the local dress code. The women wear trousers and a long top, which reaches halfway down of the lower leg and covers three-quarters of the arms. On top, a long scarf.

I liked it immediately. It is very comfortable and there are great colours and patterns. At 36 degrees, however, the scarf is warm of course.

Me, in my new local clothes.

In the afternoon, I flew South to Cox's Bazar and MSF’s emergency coordination office. After attending a first vaccination meeting there, I finally went to my site, the small town of Ukhiya.

The road led us right along the sea, the Bay of Bengal. After all the dry years I spent in South Sudan, it is so green everywhere: there are palm trees, mango trees, bamboo, rice fields and more.

The traffic is very chaotic everywhere. The most common means of transportation are either cycle rickshaws or tuk-tuks powered by batteries or petrol. There seem to be millions of them.

I live in the smaller of the two houses MSF has here. I like it a lot, there are 16 of us and we have a big garden. We live quite comfortable here. However, we have to share the rooms and I am missing a bit of privacy.

800,000 people have sought refuge here

Now about our project: in August 2017, a mass exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh began. I can see the mountainous border region in the distance, it is only about six kilometres from here.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Myanmar. They were born there, but never recognised as citizens. As a result, they have no full rights. That affects the access to education, to the labour market and to medical care.

Now, in Bangladesh, they have no opportunity to work. They live in a camp in precarious informal settlements without proper lighting, roads or sanitation. However, they do receive medical care from MSF and other organizations.

There are about 800,000 people in the camp. No one knows when they will be able to return to Myanmar.

Tents as far as the eye can see in the camps Balukhali and Kutupalong.

Where warmth makes you forget noise and dust

The two camps in Balukhali and Kutupalong, which have merged into one mega-camp, seem like a huge city. Tents as far as the eye can see and even further. It is very hilly and sometimes there are very steep climbs.

When people arrive in Bangladesh, they stay in a transit camp for about a week. There they are registered and receive an initial supply consisting of water cans, soap, pots and blankets. After having been allocated to a place in the camp, they also get material and tools to build their accommodations. It consists mainly of bamboo, plastic sheets and clay.

It is so difficult to describe how cramped everything is, how poorly and densely they all live together. The noise, the dust, the bustle, and the very few things the people came with. And yet they are all very friendly. I can say the same about Bangladeshis, all our staff are nice and motivated.

We work neutrally! 

Adjoining each camp, MSF runs a hospital that is open not only for Rohingya but also for Bangladeshis. Neutrality is an important policy of our work. That means that we help all people in need irrespective of political, ethnic or religious affiliations. In total, we run five clinics, three health centres and 15 health posts where we treat common diseases.

And what is my job now? I am responsible for vaccinations.

This includes four main areas: firstly, vaccinating all newly arrived people in the transit camp. Secondly, implementing the regular vaccination calendar. Thirdly, identifying people who have had contact with diphtheria cases, as there was a diphtheria outbreak at the beginning of the year. And fourthly, supporting vaccination campaigns, such as the cholera vaccine of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Caption: Improvised accommodation in the hilly camps.

I am still struggling to understand everything, but I have only been here for five days.

So far, I've been trying to get my first impressions of everything and have walked a lot. As a result, I have blisters and open spots on both feet. Of course, that restricts me and will hopefully be over soon.

Fortunately we have today free – your Friday, my Sunday – and I can spare my feet. 

I will tell you more about my work next time...