KUALA LUMPUR: HORRENDOUS and pathetic.
This is how General (Rtd) Tan Sri Mohd Azumi Mohd described the makeshift settlements teeming with Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh.
“I have never seen a human cost (of displacement) so immense, and the enormity and requirement of human relief assistance of this magnitude.
“I have been to many refugee camps, but never have I seen one that is as dreadful as that in Cox’s Bazar,” said Azumi, who has been to a displaced persons camp in Iraq and refugee camps at the Iraq-Kuwait border and in Jordan.
The former army chief, who was recently appointed adviser in humanitarian relief assistance deployment for Italian-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), shared with the New Straits Times his sobering experience visiting four camps in Bangladesh — Shamlapur, Kutupalong, Balukhali and Unchiprang.
He described the sordid living conditions of the Rohingya, who were cramped in camps made from tarpaulin sheets and bamboo sticks.
“When it rains, it gets muddy. They live in rickety huts, sleeping with their pots and pans. At night, when they need to use latrines, they have to grope around in the dark.
“These camps are compact and stretch as far as the eyes can see. Every open space has been taken up. Two camps, Balukhali and Kutupalong, have merged following the recent surge in arrivals.”
Most refugees live along the Teknaf-Cox’s Bazar highway, parallel to the Naf River, which is the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Azumi was told that when the exodus began, crossings through the Naf River were frequent, with many refugees wading through waters during low tide, even at night.
“It is really tragic. It is a calamity and desperate journey undertaken by the Rohingya.
“Some of them have been reduced to begging for food by the roadside along the highway.
“No one deserves to suffer, starve or die like the Rohingya now in the 21st century.”
As of Oct 15, 582,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh since the Aug 25 violence upsurge in Rakhine State, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Azumi, who visited camps with MOAS to conduct a survey for a possible expansion of field hospitals, said he once saw a young man arriving at a hospital with a gunshot wound to the right ankle.
“I also saw a 12- or 13-year-old boy carrying his younger brother with a severe wound on his left ankle.”
These injuries, Azumi said, gave him a glimpse of the perils these refugees went through as they traversed the hilly jungles to reach Bangladesh.
He was told that a woman and three children died in the forest after being trampled by an elephant.
“I am a former soldier, and when I look at the mountains from the Unchiprang camp, it reminds me of my days (working) along the Thai-Malaysian border. It is not easy to survive in the dense jungle.”
At the camps, international relief agency CARE told Azumi that it recorded about 24,000 diarrhoea cases, mostly children.
“There is still a need to upgrade basic healthcare and provide clean water as they wash their clothes and bathe from the same stream. This makes them vulnerable to an outbreak of communicable diseases like cholera and typhoid.
“Some of the parents told me that their children were having nightmares, which are a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” he said.
Despite the adversity, Azumi said, their perseverance to survive and spirituality shone through.
“They have makeshift surau and the azan (Muslim call to prayer) is sounded five times a day without fail. It moved me when I saw them taking the ablution as it shows how devoted they are as Muslims.
“I was told that they also gave dignified burials to the dead. Despite their desperate situation, they care for each other.”
He said humanitarian work at the camps taught him that solidarity, brotherhood and mercy were borderless.
“Deputy Prime Minister (Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi) recently went to Cox’s Bazar as well, and he announced that Malaysia was prepared to build a field hospital.
“This (healthcare) is one of the dire needs and MOAS is prepared to collaborate with the government as well as other NGOs if need be,” he said, adding that he would return to Cox’s Bazar with MOAS next month.
MOAS was established in 2014 following the migrant situation
in the Mediterranean to aid refugees and displaced people. It has rescued 40,000 migrants fleeing Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as 15,000 Bangladeshis.
“MOAS decided to shift its operations to Southeast Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, to respond to the humanitarian crisis following the refugee exodus from Myanmar.
“It felt that with the current situation there, they could not remain indifferent to the suffering of the Rohingya, who are being denied the chance to have a decent and safe life,” Azumi said.
He said MOAS had a 40m-long support ship,Phoenix, for search-and-rescue efforts, and it was also equipped with a facility for surgery.
“It took three weeks for the ship to sail from the Mediterranean to Chittagong, Bangladesh, and it is now at the Langkawi port to refuel and prepare to transport food supplies to the Rohingya.”
This ship will sail to Chittagong again on Saturday and Malaysian NGOs that want to send provisions to the refugees can do so through MOAS.
Send an e-mail to Azumi at [email protected] for more details.