MY WhatsApp has been pinging.
“I am at Balukhali camp in Ukhia, the situation is far, far worse than what I have seen on the media, I just talked to a woman who is 9 months pregnant, no idea where her husband is, had not one thing to eat today. There's no food, water and no sanitation facilities so people are openly defecating. Thousands of tiny infants, thousands of young girls that may just be trafficked, sold off to dalals in Cox's Bazar.
Miles and miles of desperate people, tiny infants, are standing on the road side waiting for somebody to drop some food.
If someone gets raped, no one will even know.”
“They get assaulted twice. Once in Myanmar and once when they cross the border.” Galiba adds.
“I feel so small here. It will take decades to help.”
Rima echoes the bitter taste of guilt that comes with privilege and settles on my tongue, ever so often. She recently started working with an international NGO and one that is working with Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar.
The next evening, my phone pings again and a picture of a woman comes up.
Eyes glazed. Shoulders slumped. Mouth grim.
“See this lady. Two of her sons were killed by the army as they tried to escape, she had a miscarriage simultaneously, and after coming to the refugee camp, her other son has disappeared 10 days ago.”
“Kudos to you for having it together,” we said.
“I don't have it together at all,” she replied.
These are my friends. Humanitarians, Empaths. People who are too quick to feel and respond to the pain of others, often times, at the risk of their own sanity.
We serve as support systems for each other when it feels like the sky is collapsing and we are the ones responsible for seeing that the earth does not crumble beneath its weight. When things happen, we are overridden by guilt at having it better than others. My friends are working at organisations with decades of experience in relief work. And some of us have years of experience in working in crisis. But we still struggle.
Rima and her colleagues have been going deep inside the camps where no one has been able to get food properly. The food distribution is being done so haphazardly that people by the roadside are grabbing whatever is being thrown out of trucks. Women aren't physically strong enough to push through the crowds, which makes women-headed households worse off. With so many men killed, there are plenty of women-headed households. Every house has three to eight kids who may well die of common diseases like cold.
The camps are makeshift housing with no toilets, medical support and very basic supplies. The medical camps that are there close at 5 pm. The language barrier between Bengalis and Rohingyas, barring those who speak Chittagonian, is deterring communication and further complicating matters.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) hosts the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), which publishes a daily report summarising the emergency response in sectors including shelter and essential non-food items; water, sanitation and hygiene; health; safety, dignity and human rights; education; and nutrition.
According to the ISCG, in June, there were already over 100,000 people hosted in the three major makeshift settlements: Kutupalong and Balukhali in Ukhia and Leda in Teknaf, and around 50,000 Undocumented Myanmar Nationals (UMNs) are residing in host communities of Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox's Bazar district. There have been successive waves of displacement of the Rohingya population from Rakhine state, Myanmar to Bangladesh since the 1990s. As of August 2017, there were an estimated 190,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, concentrated in two upazilas in Cox's Bazar.
On 25 August, violence once again broke out in Rakhine state, triggering a massive influx of approximately 400,000 people across the border. As a result, as of 16 September, there are now almost 600,000 Rohingya in Cox's Bazar.
Were we prepared for this?
This is one of those times when I am rightfully proud of my nation. It is one of those times when, once again, my people are outdoing each other in their effort to stand by the Rohingya community. People are taking time out from their jobs, and their own families to stand by those who have been pushed out of their country. This is one of those times when it feels good to be on the right side of the history that is being made, when an overpopulated, under-resourced nation did not shrink away from the responsibility of caring for what is often referred to as the most persecuted community in the world.
It is also an emotional time. So, much like our nature, our passionate hearts are unable to control the surge of emotion and we rush to offer whatever help we can.
But we have to recognise that this is a crisis that is far beyond our understanding. It has security and geopolitical implications that we have yet to wrap our heads around. The humanitarian crisis is so deep it is hard to know where to begin. We don't even know what people on the ground need. So those of us who are empaths, well-meaning, kind-hearted individuals who want to do something to help, let us start by finding out what is needed.
Going to the refugee camps to help is only adding to the confusion. Donating old clothes will further add to waste. According to those working on the ground, immediate needs include mobile latrines, water purification tablets and food. Also what they need are flashlights and dignity kits for women who have to go to the toilet and take a shower at night so men don't see them. With over two lakh children in the camps, they could also use food for infants. Experts from the IOM and other NGOs are doing a needs-assessment and should be coordinated with before you take relief to the camps. The ISCG is coordinating efforts between the UN, the government, and NGOs. Most INGOs are operating through local NGOs like Coast or Pulse but there are hundreds of others.
Over the last few weeks, when crisis after crisis has taken over our lives, we choose to display over and over again what we are really made of. Strength, resilience and hope. And hearts big enough to hold the world. But this is a time when we must balance passion with reason, a time when before we jump at our heart's calling, we must let our minds reason with it.
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.