‘We have nothing’: Refugee camp fire devastates Rohingya, again

Refugees recount ordeal after deadly blaze leaves tens of thousands without a shelter, reawakens trauma of Myanmar army’s 2017 crackdown.

At least 15 people were killed in Monday's fire and hundreds injured [Faisal Mahmud/Al Jazeera]

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

On that night, soldiers had arrived in the swampy Maungdaw district of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, killed her husband and torched their house.

Begum, along with her son, managed to flee the Myanmar military’s crackdown against the Rohingya in late August 2017, which United Nations investigators found to have been executed with “genocidal intent”.

For days, the mother and son slogged through the monsoon-drenched jungles and paddy fields of western Myanmar, before crossing into neighbouring Bangladesh to take refuge in Cox’s Bazar. More than 700,000 other members of the mostly Muslim minority did the same, settling in an area that now hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.

Begum said her life was turned upside down when the blaze raged across the refugee camp [Faisal Mahmud/Al Jazeera]

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

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

“I don’t know for how long God will keep testing us. I have nothing now,” said Begum, whose belongings were all turned into ashes when her shelter out of bamboo and tarpaulin was swallowed by the flames.

Worse, her 19-year-old son Shafi Ullah suffered burns on more than 30 percent of his body and is now fighting for life in hospital.

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

‘We have to start all over again’

Fuelled by strong winds and hundreds of cooking gas cylinders that exploded, the massive blaze spread rapidly across the densely populated camp.

It was the latest tragedy for its Rohingya residents, who have been residing in squalid shanties abutting streams of sewage-infested runoff water.

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 a temporary shelter [Faisal Mahmud/Al Jazeera]

“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” the 51-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I fled along with others from the tea shop and tried to reach a safe place.” Thankfully, Jabbar said, his family escaped unscathed – but the devastation brought back the trauma of 2017 when the Myanmar army set his house on fire and killed his elder son.

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

Jabbar and his family have temporarily taken refuge in one of the 800 tents erected so far by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS) with the help of the office of the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner of the Bangladesh government.

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

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

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

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

For Abul Kalam, such rebuilding is nothing new.

Just in May last year, another fire in Kutupalong refugee camp destroyed his house along with some 400 others.

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

Residents said the risk of fire was high in the crowded settlements whose shanties are built from highly combustible materials. The temporary electricity lines crisscrossing the camps and the usage of LPG cylinders for cooking increase the danger.

Kalam also lambasted the barbed-wire fencing put up around the camp’s main parts. “We are caged like animals,” said the 34-year-old. “This fence also slowed down help from arriving in time.”

Brad Adams, Asia director of US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said refugees have “horrifying accounts of being trapped inside barbed-wire fencing as the fire swept through the camps”.

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

But Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Bangladesh’s home affairs minister who visited the camp on Wednesday, told reporters the fence did not “create any hindrance against the rescue operation”.

“Those fences were erected to check the worsening situation of law and order in the camps,” he said.

Bangladesh’s Refugee Commissioner Shah Rezwan Hayat also defended the barbed wire, saying the fences are only located at the outer perimeter and could not have acted as barriers between blocks of shanties.

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

Authorities have launched an investigation to determine the cause of the fire, but some shop owners near the camp argued that the fire might have started due to an internal feud between rival Rohingya groups involved with criminal activities.

“They [these gangs] want to establish dominance in the camp,” Mubinul Haque, who has a grocery store near Balukhali camp, told Al Jazeera. “They also fight among themselves. Most of the Rohingya refugees are scared of them and don’t want to talk about them.”

Gazi Salahuddin, inspector of Ukhia police station, said authorities are “not ruling out” any possibilities, while Kamal, the minister, hinted that a “subversive plan” behind the fire was not written off.

“We formed two investigation committees to identify the causes behind the fire; they are working on it,” he said. “If anyone is found involved, they will be brought to book.”

Abdul Aziz from Cox’s Bazar contributed to the report

Source: Al Jazeera