Holly Richardson: Stories from Rohingya refugee camps

Mohammed wants the world to know what is happening in Myanmar — the Rohingya are being slaughtered.

In a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, an 85-year old woman so stooped with age that she could no longer stand up straight. Her eyes were cloudy with the milky white look of cataracts. Photo by Holly Richardson

“Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow,” he said, as he mimed strafing with a machine gun. Hussein Basyiry was showing us what happened in his village in Myanmar when the soldiers came. His father was the local leader in his village and they had enjoyed a good life, but none of that mattered when the bullets started flying.

He scooped up two of his young children and ran down the hill towards the river separating Myanmar from Bangladesh, then dashed back for more. All eight of his children and his wife made it safely across to Bangladesh, but Hussein has two bullet wounds to show for it, one in his arm, one in his chest. He also has the memories seared into his mind of seeing neighbors hacked to death with machetes.

Mohammed has a similar story. He saw 10 people executed in front of him and as he fled for his life, his left shoulder was shot out. He received no medical care for his wound and now, five months later, he is permanently disabled and unable to move the arm. He’s one of the lucky ones. He made it to Bangladesh with his wife, their 18-month old son and his two younger sisters. We asked him if he wanted to say anything to people outside of Bangladesh. He said yes. Mohammed wants the world to know what is happening in Myanmar — the Rohingya are being slaughtered.

We hiked in at least a mile to a hilltop “village” of refugee shelters and met an 85-year-old woman so stooped with age that she could no longer stand up straight. Her eyes were cloudy with the milky white look of cataracts. She and her 50-year-old daughter are the only living members of their family. It took them almost two months to make the relatively short crossing from Myanmar to Bangladesh because they had to wait until they could find someone who would carry that sweet woman in a basket, as she simply could not walk or swim any distance at all. Relying on the mercy of strangers, she and her daughter eventually made it. When we met her on Saturday, she had not eaten in two days. We were honored help her get food and the organization we partnered with, AMAL Foundation, built the two of them a new shelter.

On Sunday in Bangladesh, our little group left our hotel in Cox’s Bazar at 5:50 am and drove about an hour to the home of a local man working full-time to better the lives of the refugees. He lives literally on the bank of the river separating Myanmar from Bangladesh. He and his neighbors are so close, they have seen smoke from the fires destroying Rohingya villages and heard the gunfire of genocide.

We went to box up and then distribute meals for more than 1,000 refugees. The cooks had started the night before and cooked all through the night. They began with 120 beheaded chickens that had to be plucked, cut and cooked in a curry sauce with about 100 pounds of potatoes and 350 pounds of dry rice. For each meal, they filled a styrofoam box (a requirement of the Bangladeshi Army) with rice, then added a baggie with meat and sauce. We closed, taped and labeled the boxes. It took us several hours to go through 1,050 boxes and when we were done, they loaded all the boxes into two “tuk-tuks” or motorized bicycles pulling carts.

In a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, children waiting for meals show their government-issued registration cards. Photo by Sarah Franklin

At the designated distribution spot, the army and local leaders helped meal recipients line up, each with their registration cards, carefully marked and collected before the meal boxes got handed out. According to the people on the ground, the Bangledeshi Army has brought order to the chaos of a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people. They are in charge of all of the distribution sites and our food distribution went very smoothly. Not everyone is eligible for a hot meal — they are reserved for pregnant and lactating women, children, adolescents, the elderly, the sick and the infirm.

As we handed out those meals, I could not help but think of a scripture from the New Testament: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat.” — Mathew 25:35. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, is humbled by the gratitude, graciousness and gentleness shown by the Rohingya. Her life will never be the same.

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