Crossing the curved wooden bridge over a small river, I reached the Kutupalong Refugee camp. The temporary tarp and bamboo dwellings of the refugees stretched endlessly over the deforested undulating hills. The morning humidity settled, a cloak of haze, making breathing heavy and labored. Smoke from outdoor cooking curved and lingered in the air.
Swarms of children quickly surrounded me, holding my hands, skipping alongside me. My guide and I climbed up the dirt steps carved into the slopes. In the monsoon rain, these would all be washed away. It had already left its legacy; deep cavernous grooves furrowed the fragile slopes.
It had been a year since the exodus of the Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic violence and religious persecution in Myanmar. The make-shift clinic saw the initial waves of refugees with fresh wounds and physical ailments. Enough time had passed for them to settle down to the daily grind of survival; shelter, food, water, and healthcare and to realize that there was something else amiss, something that they could not quite pinpoint what it was that troubled them. Often, they clung onto tangible physical complaints to explain the feeling of loss; loss of loved ones, homes, and the familiar. These frequently morphed into symptoms like the loss of appetite, insomnia, nightmares, and in small children, bed-wetting.
The intricately woven bambooed walls of the clinic loomed ahead. Nur Akter, the social worker welcomed me, as though I was a God-send sunbeam of hope for all the troubles she had been confronting, glad to see a mental health volunteer.
Eagerly she handed me sheets of paper with at least twenty names on each of them. Each name was followed by a brief description of the person and his or her problems. I scanned them quickly. One of them stood out for me because of her age.
Jannatul Ara: 15 years old, oldest of a household of two children, at camp 9 for a year. Not talking too much, depression? PTSD?
Nur had been going around the camp seeing the vulnerable refugees, those who were underaged and with no grown-ups in the household. Jannatul was one of them.
She said it was a matter of urgency for me to see her.
We walked the winding dusty dirt path in the blinding sun to Jannatul’s bamboo and plastic tarp hut looking for her. A string of chattering children snaked behind us. Her house was empty. Her ten-year-old sister Minara, made the cut for the religious school in the community center. Nur told me Jannatul was too old. Fifteen years old and already deemed to be too old for school. For a few hours, Minara and other children her own age, took turns at the learning center, while Jannatul’s three-year-old brother, Munir played outside with the other non-school-aged children. Using twigs and grass, they sat on the sand, building miniature huts.
There was no Jannatul.
The interior of her hut was dark. Mats on the dirt floor, pieces of clothing hanging from a line. Pots, pans, and metal plates were stashed in a corner, next to ashes from old cooking fires.
Down the denuded slope, several outhouses made of the same bamboo matting as the houses stood out like some obscene structures needing to be hidden. A water pump with a line of refugees, mainly women and children with cans, waiting for their turns fat the pumps sprouting out from the sodden ground.
The sun beat down on the men and boys, weighed down by heavy sacks of rice on their backs, they stepped aside for us to pass on the narrow paths and dirt steps. Beaded sweats gathered on their foreheads, some wiped their faces with the ends of their lungi.
“Munir, where is Jannatul?”
“At the food distribution center.”
Ah yes, Nur then remembered it was food distribution day. She was sure Jannatul was there waiting for her sack of rice. We were not likely to see her that day. The food distribution center was in Block 1 and Jannatul’s house was located in Block 53, a distance away. Every two weeks, she had to carry a thirty-kilogram bag of rice up and down the hills, taking her a good two hours. She had no porters or older relatives to help her.
We turned around and walked up the hill back to the clinic.
Nur showed me a picture of Jannatul with her brother, Munir leaning against her, he spotting a T-shirt, EAT SLEEP DREAM. She did not look straight at the camera. Wearing a hijab, only her eyes showed, eyes looking into the distance, seemingly taking measures of her siblings’ and her own kismet. She looked older than fifteen, more like in her twenties, perhaps the burden that she had been made to carry for this past year had aged her.
Nur filled me in on Jannatul.
Her name meant heaven but her life had been anything but.
Nur spent time with her eking out her story bit by bit. At first, Jannatul was unwilling to tell her anything, then slowly she told her that the day the military came to her village, she, Minara, and Munir were out in the field digging cassava, they heard gunfire and shouting. Red tongues of flames burst into the distant sky with plumes of smoke.
Her first instinct was to run home to safety, the gunfire which came closer frightened Munir. She picked him up and led Minara toward home. As they neared their home, many houses were burning, and her parents, along with many of their neighbors were herded to a field. She stopped dead in her track. Something told her she and her siblings were about to witness unspeakable atrocities.
She screamed at Minara to turn around and run. Shielding Munir’s eyes as she too turned to run. At the last minute, she forced herself to look back and that was when she saw her mother and father’s bodies slump to the ground, shot by the military. She almost dropped Munir but her survival instinct kicked in, she gripped him hard and ran as fast as she could, over the embankment, wading into the rice paddies. The more distance she could separate herself from the soldiers, the safer they would be. They soon joined an endless line of refugees fleeing their homeland, wading through streams, sleeping in the wild, eating whatever food they could get from other villagers.
It would take them fourteen days to reach the refugee camp, at times walking in the soaking rain.
At the camp, a kind man helped her build her hut, she had no grown-ups to help her. Slowly she and her siblings assimilated to their new surroundings without their parents. Munir stuck close to her.
Nur said Jannatul’s nights were plagued with nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat, unable to sleep. Images of her parents slumping to the ground played over and over in her mind; she could not stop them and was not sure how to get rid of them.
Nur was hoping I could help her, she had faith in modern medicines that would stop Jannatul from having the recurring nightmares. Minara had school to distract her and Munir was too young although he often asked Jannatul when his papa and mama would come to camp.
For the next few days, Nur and I tried to track Jannatul down. I had yet to set my eyes on her.
One day on her way to the clinic, Nur ran into Jannatul returning from the hillside gathering twigs for her cooking. She said she was too tied up with chores to be able to make time to come to the clinic. Besides, the man who helped her build her shelter offered to take care of her, Minara, and Munir. His son needed a wife, he needed a daughter-in-law to cook for him. With another household registered, they would get a bigger food ration, they would not go hungry, a survival strategy in a time of displacement.
Excitement loomed in the air. There was going to be a mass wedding at the camp in the coming weekend, many children would be married off. Young men and women were joined in marriage to stave off hunger and food insecurity, to find comfort in one another in this vast camp of humanity-created misery.
Nur was afraid that Jannatul could be pressed into child marriage, coerced into an early union with no grown-ups to guide her. She had heard that Mahjees, unelected refugee leaders could prepare marriage contracts in the camp easily. But I did not see how I, as a transient and a foreigner, could interfere with century-old tradition.
I climbed to the highest point of the camp, the endless swath of humanity of physical and mental needs. My humble offer to aid and provide respite in the mental health of the refugees was a mere drop in the vast sea of unquenchable thirst.
In a few days, Jannatul would be a wife, no longer considered vulnerable, there would be a man as the head of her household. Her husband would relieve her the burden of carrying a heavy sack of rice up and down the slopes.
Was I too late in preventing one child marriage? What about Minara? What about all the underaged female children?
I was overwhelmed.
I was helpless even to save one child, Jannatul, too old for school but old enough to be married.
Author Note: This short story was inspired by my meeting with a young refugee, she was the head of a household of three while I was volunteering in the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh right after the Rohingya genocide of 2017. She lost her parents.
Image Wikimedia commons – public domain. Photo of Kutapalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Author Maaz Hussain