‘We have nothing’: Refugee campfire ravages Rohingya once again | Human rights news

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – The last time Farida Begum saw her house turned into a smoldering ruin was about three and a half years ago.

That night, soldiers arrived in the swampy Maungdaw district of Rakhine State in Myanmar, killed her husband and set their house on fire.

Begum, along with her son, managed to flee the Burmese army’s crackdown on the Rohingya at the end of August 2017, which UN investigators found to have been executed with “genocidal intent.”

For days, mother and son traveled through the monsoon-soaked jungles and rice paddies of western Myanmar, before crossing into neighboring Bangladesh to take refuge in Cox’s Bazar. Over 700,000 other members of the predominantly Muslim minority have followed suit, settling in an area that now hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.

Begum said his life was turned upside down when the fire raged in the refugee camp [Faisal Mahmud/Al Jazeera]

Begum, now 45, believed the worst was behind her – until this week.

Monday afternoon, a huge fire bursts in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, killing at least 15 people, injuring hundreds and again leaving tens of thousands of Rohingya homeless.

“I don’t know how long God will continue to test us. I have nothing now, ”said Begum, whose belongings were all turned to ashes when his bamboo and tarp shelter was engulfed in flames.

Worse yet, her 19-year-old son Shafi Ullah has been burned over 30% of his body and is now fighting for life in hospital.

“I don’t know if my son will live or not,” Begum told Al Jazeera.

‘We have to start all over again’

Fueled by strong winds and hundreds of exploding cooking gas cylinders, the massive fire quickly spread through the densely populated camp.

It was the latest tragedy for its Rohingya residents, who lived in squalid slums bordering sewage-infested runoff streams.

Abdul Jabbar was having a cup of tea at a stall when he suddenly saw thick columns of smoke billowing from the part of the camp housing his shelter. Inside were his wife and two children.

Jabbar and his family are now in temporary shelter [Faisal Mahmud/Al Jazeera]

“It was one of the worst times of my life,” the 51-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I fled with other people from the tea shop and tried to reach a safe place.” Fortunately, Jabbar said, his family escaped unharmed – but the devastation brought back the trauma of 2017 when the Burmese military burned down his house and killed his eldest son.

“We have lost everything,” he said. “We don’t even have a glass or a plate to have water or food. We have to start all over again. “

Jabbar and his family took temporary refuge in one of the 800 tents erected so far by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS) with the assistance of the office of the Commissioner for Refugees, Relief and Repatriation of the Government of Bangladesh.

BDRCS told Al Jazeera it is also providing dry food to a total of 1,500 families, while the World Food Program said it has delivered cooked meals to nearly 60,000 directly and indirectly affected families. by fire.

Sheila Grudem, WFP’s senior emergency coordinator, said the agency’s engineering teams have helped “clean up debris, build temporary structures for aid distribution and mobilize thousands of volunteers to support efforts”.

On Friday, in part of Camp-9 in Balukhali, Rohingya men were trying to rebuild their ruined homes using tarpaulins and bamboo provided by BDRCS and the International Organization for Migration. The two agencies say they have distributed a total of 22,000 of these materials so far.

Kamal said the fires were not unexpected given the precarious conditions in which the refugees live [Faisal Mahmud/Al Jazeera]

For Abul Kalam, such a reconstruction is nothing new.

In May of last year alone, another fire in Kutupalong refugee camp destroyed his home along with some 400 others.

A total of nine small and large-scale fires have broken out in Rohingya refugee camps over the past year, residents and officials told Al Jazeera.

Residents said the risk of fire was high in overcrowded settlements whose slums are built from highly combustible materials. Temporary power lines crisscrossing the camps and the use of LPG cylinders for cooking increase the danger.

Kalam also lashed out at the barbed wire fences installed around the main parts of the camp. “We are caged like animals,” said the 34-year-old. “This fence also slowed the arrival of aid on time.”

Brad Adams, Asia director of US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said refugees have “gruesome tales of being trapped inside barbed wire fences as fires swept through the fields. camps ”.

“The Bangladeshi authorities are failing in their obligation to protect the lives of refugees by locking them dangerously inside the camps,” Adams said. “The authorities should work with humanitarian agencies and remove fences, and respect the freedom of movement of refugees.”

But Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Bangladesh’s interior minister who visited the camp on Wednesday, told reporters that the fence “does not create any obstacle to the rescue operation.”

“These fences were erected to control the deterioration of the law and order situation in the camps,” he said.

Bangladesh Refugee Commissioner Shah Rezwan Hayat also defended barbed wire, saying that the fences are located only on the outer perimeter and could not have served as barriers between the blocks of barracks.

“Hundreds of rescuers, firefighters, dozens of vehicles entered the camp within 20 minutes of the fire,” Hayat told Al Jazeera. “If the fences had acted as a barrier, how could they have done this?”

Authorities launched an investigation to determine the cause of the blaze, but some traders close to the camp argued that the blaze could have started due to an internal feud between rival Rohingya groups implicated in criminal activity.

“They [these gangs] want to establish a dominant position in the camp, ”Mubinul Haque, who has a grocery store near the Balukhali camp, told Al Jazeera. “They are also fighting with each other. Most Rohingya refugees are afraid of them and don’t want to talk about it.

Gazi Salahuddin, inspector of the Ukhia police station, said the authorities were “not ruling out” any possibility, while Kamal, the minister, hinted that a “subversive plan” behind the blaze had failed. been canceled.

“We formed two investigation committees to identify the causes of the fire; they’re working on it, ”he said. “If someone is found involved, they will have to book.”

Abdul Aziz of Cox’s Bazar contributed to the report

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