KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh – In a corner of a room in a sprawling expanse of squalid shanties and tents, Zahida Begum holds in her arms the tiny boy she gave birth to just hours ago. Her eyes are blank.
The 25-year-old ethnic Rohingya Muslim crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar on Sept. 1 with her two young sons, husband and mother, fleeing shootings and arson attacks by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist monks, her family says.
Having spent all their money on smugglers who helped them cross the Naf river to safety, she now sits afraid and unsure of what will come next.
The massive Kutupalong refugee camp of tiny mud houses covered with plastic sheets, with its overpowering stench of rotting food and feces, is now her home.
She gave birth alone, in the toilet outside the room, says her mother, Dildar Begum. The baby has not been fed since his birth 10 hours ago. She’s feverish and shivers so much that her mother lit a small, smoky fire to warm her up. She is still bleeding from the birth.
No doctor is in sight in the camp, set up in the early 1990s to accommodate earlier waves of Muslim Rohingya refugees escaping from convulsions of violence and persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. There are no clinics or pharmacies or even basic first aid centers.
New arrivals like Begum and her family survive on the kindness of older refugees and on food handouts from local volunteers and aid groups: rice and curry once a day if they are lucky.
“She’s been crying from hunger,” her mother said of her weak and ailing daughter. Begum simply stares.
Myanmar’s government refuses to recognize Rohingya as a minority group and denies them citizenship, even though about 1 million were living there until two weeks ago and many families had been there for generations.
The exodus of Rohingya like Begum into neighboring Bangladesh is massive in scale. The United Nations says 270,000 have crossed over since Aug. 25. But it’s really impossible to accurately count how many have come.
Every single day thousands upon thousands enter Bangladesh. They cross the Naf river that runs between Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety wooden boats. The journey is especially dangerous now because the river is swollen from months of monsoon rains. Others cross the land border between the two countries, walking for days through forests to escape detection.
In Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most crowded countries, these people say they finally feel safe. But hunger and illness are a constant presence.
With the influx pushing existing Rohingya refugee camps like this one to the brink, Bangladesh has pledged to build at least one more. But it’s unclear when that will happen.
“Our teams are seeing streams of people arriving destitute and extremely traumatized,” including many in need of urgent medical care for violence-related injuries, the aid group Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, said in a statement.
The International Organization for Migration has pleaded for $18 million in donations to help feed and shelter tens of thousands now packed into makeshift settlements or stranded in a no-man’s land between the two countries’ borders.
In the Kutupalong camp, reporters saw several newly arrived children burning with high fevers. At the Cox’s Bazar district government hospital, four Rohingya men with gunshot wounds described Myanmar soldiers entering their villages and randomly opening fire. The hospital said it was treating 31 other men with gunshot wounds.
Myanmar’s government has denied any abuses by its troops and instead says it is fighting terrorists. It says a group of Rohingya insurgents and villagers themselves set fire to their own homes in Rakhine state.
It offers no explanation of why an already miserable and impoverished group of people would destroy their own homes and exhaust their meagre savings to take treacherous journeys to an unknown land for a life of extreme uncertainty.
In the camps it’s often hard to separate the anguish of the new arrivals from the suffering of those who have been here for years or decades.
Outside Begum’s room a young Rohingya man stands, holding back tears.
Kutupalong camp is the only home 22-year-old Farid has ever known. He was born here to parents who were part of the first wave of refugees to flee Myanmar.
He says life in the wretched place makes him doubt his faith in God.
He did not want to give his last name or be photographed because he has enrolled in a local school using fake Bangladeshi documents. As a refugee he is only given education up to the fifth grade.
“There is nothing, nothing here … no doctors, clean water, education,” he said, rage and helplessness coursing through his skinny body.
He wants to be a doctor. He wants to break out of the cycle of misery his people have been trapped in for decades.
He flits between hope and despair, sometimes in the same sentence.
What of the tens of thousands of new refugees who are putting incredible pressure on the already teeming camp?
“These are my people. I’m also a Rohingya,” he said. “I want to help them, but I cannot.”
On Friday afternoon, two infants were interred in the cemetery that has grown on the edge of the camp.
A 6-day-old baby, born on the road as his family escaped, was buried next to a 2-day-old child born to a long-time resident.
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