Nazir Ahmad was working on his makeshift shelter on the side of a hill at camp 11 in the Kutupalong refugee complex in the Cox’s Bazar district in south-east Bangladesh. Like thousands of others surrounding it, the 40-year-old’s dwelling is constructed of bamboo and tarpaulin.
The Rohingya man agreed to put down his tools and share the story of how he came to be one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in the sprawling camp, which is said to be the largest such complex on the planet.
Ahmad recalled that the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar military – showed up one morning at the village where he lived in Maungdaw district in the nation’s north-western state of Rakhine. And when the troops arrived, they opened fire on the unarmed Rohingya community.
The villagers fled to a nearby riverbank, but, being high tide, they couldn’t cross. As they stood, trapped at the edge, the soldiers moved in. Ahmad made it to the other side, and he remembers looking back over to see women being burnt in houses, and children being tossed into the river.
“The military had come to our village many times before. But, finally, they came and drove us out. I don't know why,” Ahmad explained, as he sat upon the dirt floor. He witnessed 21 members of his family being killed. “Most of my family was killed on that beach,” he said.
Driven out of their homeland
On entering Kutupalong, one is struck by the extent of it. Built by the Bangladeshi military, a network of inlaid brick roads winds through hills dotted with thousands of improvised shelters, many featuring the blue United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) logo printed on white canvas.
More than 600,000 mainly Muslim Rohingyas live within the government-operated camp and the extended Kutupalong – Balukhali site resembles a built-up shanty town on the outskirts of a megacity.
Despite the air of permanency that Kutupalong has, the Bangladeshi authorities and the Rohingya inhabitants are clear that the urban sprawl is temporary. This is not – as some assert – a city of the future.
Kutupalong had been operating in an unauthorised manner since the early 1990s, as Rohingyas periodically fled the worsening situation in Myanmar. The camp didn’t swell to the town it resembles today, until the military began a murderous crackdown throughout Rakhine state in 2017.
Sparked by isolated incidents at police posts in August that year, the disproportionate assault on the Rohingya population included Myanmar forces carrying out “clearance operations”, which involved the mass slaughter of Muslim civilians, the burning of their villages and mass sexual assault.
The destruction wrought in Rakhine late that year led 740,000 Rohingyas to flee. It closely followed the waves of sectarian violence that swept the region in 2012. These involved extreme factions of the state’s majority Rakhine Buddhists attacking Rohingya villages and burning them down.
This unrest forced 140,000 Rohingya people to shelter in internally displaced persons camps along the Bay of Bengal. These people drew international attention in early 2015, when 25,000 of them were stranded at sea in boats, while various nations refused them entry.
A stateless people
My Rohingya guide Ro Yassin Abdumonab bumped into Zurul Tok on a path in a market. Tok was wearing a white skullcap above his stringy grey beard. The pair knew each other from Rakhine’s northern district of Maungdaw.
In a white-tarpaulined tea stall, Tok told me about his two sons, who had been arbitrarily taken away by Myanmar authorities. The 55-year-old explained that when he arrived at Kutupalong he believed his children had been executed, but since that time, he has learned that they are alive and in prison.
Tok fled in 2016, prior to the mass exodus. He said security forces had attacked his village and arrested his sons in relation to an incident at a police station that didn’t involve them. “They were driving us out. They were killing my people,” he said. “There was no other option for me, so I had to leave.”
According to Tok, the Rohingya refugees living at Kutupalong are deeply depressed, as the conditions they have to live under are difficult. For the most part, they are just surviving, as they look towards the day when they can return to their homeland.
“If I had the chance to go – and my rights and safety were granted – I would surely go,” Tok stressed. An estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas were living in Myanmar at the time he left. Despite evidence that they have lived there for centuries, they are still denied citizenship.
In 1982, the then-ruling military junta passed laws that did not recognise the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic minority. The measures denied them citizenship, unless they could prove that they had resided in Rakhine state prior to 1823, which was the year Britain began occupying the region.
“This isn’t our homeland,” Tok made clear. “So, we can't live here like it’s our homeland. All the people here are very upset.”
Safe, but isolated
A stark reminder that Kutupalong is not a regular town is that every so often along the main road a crowd appears, queued up at a distribution point, waiting to be provided with food or a canister of gas for cooking. These points are operated by the numerous NGOs present on the ground.
UNHCR communications officer Louise Donovan told me that “massive improvements have been made in the past two years, in terms of access to protection and basic services”. She pointed to the increased availability of water, sanitation and energy, as well as the new 24-hour health centres.
On whether Kutupalong could morph into a permanent settlement, Donovan stressed that the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2016 stipulates that camps like it should be a “temporary measure”.
It further recommends that it is preferable that refugees be allowed to live amongst host communities. However, for the close to one million Rohingya refugees residing at a number of camps in the south of the country, living amongst the Bangladeshi population is not an option.
The camps are isolated, at a distance from the nearest regional towns. The Rohingya refugees are confined to the camps and not permitted to move beyond the perimeters, without official permission for a specific purpose.
“The desire of the majority of the Rohingya refugee population is to return home,” Donovan continued. “However, not until the conditions are in place for them to return in safety and in dignity.”
With the situation back in Rakhine state still problematic, for now, the refugees are stuck.
‘Our mind is in our country’
Towards the end of the day, Yassin took me to an area of the camp, which is currently being dug out and under construction. He explained that this large section is designed to allow those in flood prone areas to move there and construct new dwellings that won’t be vulnerable to waterlogging.
However, since the flow of refugees coming from Myanmar stopped some time ago, the vast area being cleared and turned into further settlement lends support to assertions that the camp is turning into something more permanent.
My last visit was to the ad hoc dwelling Muhammad Ali shares with nine family members. The 42-year-old told me he had no choice but to flee his home village in Maungdaw, as the military were burning the houses to the ground and shooting the locals.
“The journey to Bangladesh was horrible for us,” Ali explained. “We had to walk for four days. And it was raining heavily. We didn’t have food to eat. And we did not have different clothes to wear. We were just getting wet, with nothing to eat.”
Ali said that even though his family is safe and can sleep soundly at the moment, they are still focused on heading back to their home in Myanmar. He added that the shelter they are forced to stay in at Kutupalong is too small for ten people to share.
“So, if we want to stay here for a long time it’s impossible,” Ali concluded. “We will lose our lives here, because it’s better to die if we have to stay here for longer. We don't want to stay. We just have to go back.”
[Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer for Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]