All publications of Pramudith D Rupasinghe . ෙකාළඹ , ශ්රී ලංකාව
Women leaders in fostering community resilience...
Disasters do not discriminate, but unless inclusion rightly mainstreamed humanitarian assistance to affected population may lead to discrimination and result in hampered community resilience, retard recovery and tearing social fabric.
It was towards the end of the second week of November in 2019, Neera was chewing a mouthful of betel leaves, squatting on the doorstep leaning on one of the wooden poles that were holding the tin roof of her wooden house she put up with the support her husband in the previous year. She knew the season is going to break and the tiny land sandwiched between the low rice fields, and the irrigation canal and the river, where her tiny wooden hut was going to be underwater again, and as most of the time, her shelter, livestock and the few utensils she owns would be pitilessly taken away by the raging waters. But this time, she will have to face it alone. Her husband could hardly move. She walked in and began to pray to almighty Allah, and she determined to make sure the next morning she will leave the home to a safe place. But the rains were ruthless and the following morning she woke hearing water under her bed. She waded out and she saw nothing but water till the horizon, and the water was swelling.
Neera Lebber Kolisanvibi came to the land where she had her food children live in semi-permanent shelters in 1968 following her marriage, she was only ten years old girl and his husband was 23 years old. She barely had her “girl life” childhood and mothered four children year after the other. She endeavoured the hardships of not only of a child-marriage but also being a minority Muslim woman. She raised her children, raised the livestock, made sure food on the table when her husband returned from his work, tired and hungry; he worked as a labourer for over 50 years and now laying on the bed with partial paralysis.
Neera’s village is named “five houses” as there are five houses for the whole village: the one of Neera’s where she lives with her husband’s and the houses of her children. And every year, the Northeastern monsoon hit their village hard, oftentimes resulting in complete property and livestock loss. 2019 was no exception in terms on the loss of property and the damage, but the heat of explosions on the day of Easter had affected the social supporting system she used to have; most of the people looked at Muslims with a doubtfulness. She knew, that though she could rebuild in the previous times, this time would be harder.
Even though they were evacuated to relief-centres by the disaster management centre of the government, Neera felt, isolated and helpless: she wanted to talk to someone, to be listened, she wanted to tell her grievances on her goats and chicken, and losses of shelter and household stuff.
A few hours after they were offered a cooked hot meal by the government, the Red Cross Volunteers came to see them. Neera was feeing her husband when a girl in Red Cross jacket approached her.
“She was kind and did not hesitate to sit next to me and ask how are you” Neera melt into hot tears. “She talked to me for sometimes, she listened to all my worries, I felt so relieving. Red Cross provided me with a Kaftan, a sleeping mat and, my husband with a Sarong, since the morning were with the wet cloths. Neera humbly thanked the team.
She returned home with the family after the floods subsided and found her home taken away by the floods, and the livestock was no more there, she sought sheer in her elder daughter’s house, but this time, unlike previous times, there was no hope for rebuilding. One morning Neera began to clean some debris of her broken hut, trying to find some usable things at least kitchen utensils, and then, one girl and two boys in Red Cross jackets appeared before her. They gave her a kitchen Utensils and she nodded and thanked them. They also took her information and the family details and went back. The next day morning they came back and broke a piece of news that Neera could nor resist crying. “You will be getting a cash grant of 30,00 rupees” she fell on her knees and thanked Almighty Allah- Allah is good. Tears of happiness ran along her cheeks, and Neera turned back and leaned on her elder daughters shoulder. “She was worried about her life and my father’s life, and she was thinking day and night about that,” the daughter said. “Thank you, now I know my husband will not starve, and I will not trouble my daughters living under their roof,” Neera said wiping her tears; behind the tearful eyes, there was a determined woman.
When the Red Cross team visited her after the first half of the grant was issued, she had already bought a goat. She was still living in her daughter’s house but more hopeful in putting up a new hut and buy some chicken. “This one will give me babies in three months, I will buy a few hens and a rooster when I get the next portion. I also have a plan to put up a new hut in that high land. And I will not then encounter the same again the next year” Neera added with confident.
After three months when Red Cross teams visited Neera, she was preparing the meals for her husband, the mud-walls of her new hut had raised up to roof level, and there was a coocorokoo fused into the air. Noticing people with Red Cross Jackets, Neera came running to welcome the team. “As-salamu Alaykum” she welcomed the team with a wide smile and invited them inside the house. “One minute, I have something to show you” she hurried into the house like a girl and came back with two goat cubs on her both hands. “She gave me two babies”, Neera proudly said. “grace to the support given by the Red Cross I could rebuild my life, thank you so much for that”. Neera added.
There are hundred thousands of Neera’s in Sri Lanka, in South Asia, and around the world, who are differently affected by indiscriminate disasters because of first being women, then being elderly women, thirdly being women belong to minority groups, fourthly but not finally being a victim of a child-marriage. Today Neera, in the absence of her husband’s active role in the village, leading her community, setting an example of “fostered resilience” in the face of recurrent disasters. “Flood will happen in every season, but we have to live in them, giving us money instead of tends allowed me to decide and prioritise my needs’ and I could jumpstart my life again and do something sustaining” she gathered all wrinkles of her face and wore a smile of power and strength.
Neera’s story shows us “cash as a dignified response intervention” could empower the communities and build solid bridges between “Response” and “early recovery and recovery” and “foster resilience” through the repose activities carried out at the very aftermath of the disasters. In the face of recurrent disasters communities learn to live with the disasters and adapt news ways in which they cope with dynamics of disasters, and “the response” in the context of recurrent disasters of similar scales will significantly contribute to faster recovery and fostering resilience.
Yangon Literature Walk... following the footpaths of Neruda and O'well
A couple of weeks has passed since the Irrawaddy literary festival which attracts writers and publishers around the world to Myanmar, an east Asian nation that has contributed enormously to global literature since its colonial times.
As an author who had spent a few years, hearing the life changing encounters of famous authors such as Pablo Neruda, George O’Weil , reading stories like “Return to Mandalay” of Rossana Lay, while working on my book “Rain of Fire” -the story of a Rohingya who fled Northern Rakhine to Cox in Bangladesh, I was always in an urge to explore the foot-prints of fellow authors in Myanmar, and navigate its ancient roots of global literature. The day I had a book sining event in famous Inwa books and cafe in Yangon, I was approached by a reporter from Myanmar Times- San Lin who is also an author, and simultaneously involved in a great initiative- Yangon Literature Walk. After a brief chat, and a photo with a signed book, he said to me “Lets meet tomorrow at hotel Shangri-La, I will take you on Yangon Literature Walk.
It was a sunny day, in the last week of November 2018 when met San Lin in Shangri-La hotel which is strategically coated on the Sule Pagoda Road in the heart of the downtown of Yangon, still known as Rangoon, the commercial capital of Myanmar formerly known as Burma. San Lin Tun is a freelance Myanmar-English writer of essays, poetry, short stories, and novel. He has published a few books in English including ”Reading A George Orwell Novel in a Myanmar Teashop and Other Essays” and his latest novel is ”An English Writer’’. And I was lucky that I stuck up a casual acquaintance with him shortly after a book launching event in Yangon, and his invitation for the famous, Yangon Literature-walk was undeniable. “So I will see you tomorrow, morning at eight in the lobby of Hotel Shangri-La” he was brief and reassuring.
“I nodded while giving him a signed copy of my latest release; Bayan”.
The following morning, I was awakened before the crake of the bangs of crows that occupies every standing tree in Yangon, and, after grabbing my morning coffee, I went down to the lobby. In his well-knotted lungi and white cotton shirt, green Shan bag on his shoulders, San was already waiting at the lobby.
‘We will cross the road from here, and then there will be a walk around three hours approximately…” San said looking up in the sky; the sun was gradually conquering the blue skies above the city of golden Pagodas: Yangon.
“Coming from a tropical country, and also having lived in Yangon, and several other places in Burma, the harshness of Sun in the dry season was not new to me. Yes, the heat began to grow with every step we made, as we moved across the Bogyoke Market, heading towards the famous 33rd street, the upper block where best publishers and book shops lay and famous Wuthering Height tea shop existed. Turning into the 33rd street, San stopped just in front of a faded beige color building which still held its double-faced outlook; it was a structure, for some unknown reason, would cause a doubt at first sight. “This is a temporary church where American Missionary Adoniram Justin stayed for a while, now its occasionally used as a cinema hall’ San Added facing 33rd street that looked straight through the balconies full of cloth ropes and hanging orchids of old five-floor apartment buildings that were partially consumed by the moss as if to show the stranger the might of the tropical rains falling on this part of earth or the poverty in most of the population; in most of the buildings the paint was almost invisible, and orchids and colourful clothes in balconies, fused with flashy signboards of the shops at the sound floor has added some colorfulness to the fading beauty of the buildings. And hooting taxies, bells of rickshaws and timorous smiles of locals added a unique liveliness to the atmosphere.
“Shwe Yin Aye Moant Lat Saung” the first time a human voice loud enough to be called a scream, I head right behind me. Its Shwe Yin Aye, a sweet, street food mostly consumed during Tyanjan, water festival, san cleared my doubts. “Shwe Yin Aye is the name of the food, which is considered as a snack often given as a gift. Walking passing old publishing houses, listening to descriptive explanations of San, I was forced to think that the publishing industry in Myanmar is already deceased; once-prestigious printed book tradition is fading away. ‘We can’t blame the smartphones, tablets and the kindle reading…, the world is changing, but…” yes I picked what he swallowed. “the pleasure of reading a paperback…?’ That is what you meant?”
‘Yes”. Sharing certain personal preferences, and how the dynamics of the world impose new conditions one individuals, some sort of pensiveness was provoked in us. Here we have to turn right, San had noticed I was kind of lost in looking at a back alley of an apartment building that was used as a dumping site by its residents.
“Before the military time, we would use the back alley for literature talks, but now, we no longer use it”. Said San while turning into the main road next to an intersection and an over the road pedestrian cross. Once you are on the bridge, you can see the epicentre of old literary circle and, Sule Pagoda at your right shinning with its golden glow, you are facing the Armenian district before the world war II. During the colonial time, segregation was a part of the city plan, each ethnicity has their quarter, Hindus, Muslims, Burmese, Armenians, etc. Lost in a multitude of thoughts on the centuries-long social impact of colonialism in Burma-such as Arakan Rohingya crisis, my eyes were transfixed at the skyscrapers along the main street, while some thoughts about the lost scenic beauty of simple colonial structures were glooming together in my mind. “Down there, is the place Orwell used to visit whenever he came to Yangon, he was based outstation and he frequented his Burmese wife here”, that was much more than what I had heard about him. Retracing the steps of Orwell, going on a psychic journey on The Burmese Days, and trying to see the colonial policeman, not the writer who fused into Burmese society during his stay; San, as a contemporary writer, showed a keen interest in the literature of be-gone days, and his profound knowledge on little yet interesting things that may easily slip from an ordinary guide was an added value to my experience. Looking at the building where the tea shop that was frequented by Orwell was, we had an interest discussion on Burmese days, and then, I remembered by collage author Rosanna Lay who wrote ‘Return to Mandalay. ‘This is a land that spellbinds the authors” I said.
“You are also spell-bound,” San said leafing through my draft manuscript of Ran of Fire, Odyssey of an Exodus, written on the Rohingya crisis.
“There are many more who wrote on this land of golden pagodas, and beautiful women”
“That was a wink of an eighteen years old, not a father of three children, a man of fifty”
San did not reply, instead, he broke into a peal of laughter, and diverted the conversation to another famous author. Pablo Neruda, a well-celebrated Chilean poet and Nobel laureate for literature in 1971, lived in Rangoon, long before he became world-famous for his poetry, Neruda served as Chile’s honorary consul in colonial Yangon from 1927 to 1928, before he headed to Colombo, Sri Lanka where he served in the Chilean consulate till 1930 from 1929.
’“According to his writing, Neruda, who spent most of his time in Yangon living on what was then Dalhousie Street —today, Mahabandoola Road, was appalled by the British colonial occupiers who he later described as “monotonous and even ignorant.” This view was shared by many Myanmar at the time, large numbers of whom were actively resisting colonialism with strikes and protests, all of which were put down with brutal force.
The combination of his Latin American origins and his radical politics meant that Neruda was far from the typical westerner living in colonial Myanmar. His distaste for the British Empire was on full display in his poem “Rangoon 1927,” which describes both the city and the famous Strand Hotel, a popular gathering place for the colonial elites, in stark terms”’ San continues standing next to the balcony of a refurbished old building, that was facing today’s department of state administrative affairs of the government of Myanmar; during the colonial era, it has served as heart of British rule in Burma.
The sun had mounted on the top of the sky, and the tar on the road had become sticky, and we were lucky that it is a Sunday, there were no many vehicles on the road and city remained dormant and the noisy hooting and flying clouds of dust that would be added to the atmosphere in the busy downtown had been thinned. San gave me a piece of paper, and said: “read this, and discover how Neruda felt about the places where we walked across”.
‘“The street became my religion. The Burmese street, the Chinese quarter with its open-air theatres and paper dragons and splendid lanterns. The Hindu street, the humblest of them, with its temples operated as a business by one caste, and the poor people prostrate in the mud outside. Markets where the betel leaves rose in green pyramids like mountains of malachite. The stalls and pens where they sold wild animals and birds. The winding streets where supple Burmese women walked with long cheroots in their mouths. All this engrossed me and drew me gradually under the spell of real-life”’.
The narration was picturesque, I imagined what San was explaining to me showing different quarters; the literature walk gave me nearly every tiny bit of ingredients which could complete my visualisation. Thanks to San I had, in my mind, exactly what Pablo Neruda witnessed in this city that holds a lot of untold stories about eminent authors who lived or visited this city.
“Authors, they love to chat, right?” San wanted approval.
“Yes,” it was me.
“The tea shops were the places where they used to meet their friends, readers and other authors, its a part of Burmese literary cycle and those foreign authors who lived-in Burma also enjoyed the tea shop culture” San described slowing down, and then he stopped near a tea shop.
“Let’s have a cup of tea”. He invited me to have a cup of chai, and the next one hour we sat and had a literary talk flowing the long-lived Burmese tradition of literary talks. “The publishing industry in Myanmar had gone downhill after the military coup, and new authors face a lot of challenges in getting their work published, It always ends with frustration and, most of them do not try the second work” As a place where a lot of internationally renowned authors have left their traces and wrote about, Burma, as much as it does with the colonial history of Great Britain, has contributed to English literature. And, in Burma, literature, and Culture, irrespective of its cultural and ethnic diversity do remain embedded, and there is also a culture of ‘reading’. And a good number of skilled local authors have emerged from this eastern Asian nation, though most of their work remains limited to Burmese language, and there is a new generation of authors and translations who try to think beyond the horizon but their limit remains within the barriers remain within the frontiers of Myanmar; a limited number of them have reached Thailand and a few neighboring countries. Besides lack of supportive policies, foreign sanctions that prevent Myanmar nationals being able to publish using online platforms like Amazon, or Lulu, and working with foreign publishing companies. “its a stock of literary resources but there is no hope at the horizon…” San said sipping his chai. I felt that Burma is an ancient library; its walls are gradually being covered by moss, making once firm cement losing apart, and invading Kaka-bodhi trees that grew in the widening cracks, and racks are halfway covered by the termites mounds and the books under the thick layer of grim and dusk are being covered by the cobwebs of time; only rats and the silverfish make use of them. With those gloomy thoughts in my mind, we delightfully finished our tea-shop chatter and walked towards 37th street where there are bookshops. “Bagan bookshop, this is one of the most famous ones here”, San greeted the man in the shop “Minglabar”. Bagan bookshop is a place to visit, and it reminded me of a second-hand bookshop in the old city of Colombo, Kharkiv or Pune; the bookshop seemed remaining in the fixed three decades back.
Walking around the downtown, across vibrant markets, the streets that Pablo Neruda felt’ my religion’, meeting warm and simple people with radiant smiles, accompanied by one of the famous contemporary writers of Burma, I winded up Literature walk in Yangon with a positive thought of coming to Burma every year for Irrawaddy Literary Festival, country’s topmost literary event.
I thanked San for showing me the unknown from the city where I lived for over 2 years. Yangon-literature walk was a unique experience that unveiled the colonial heritage of the country, bringing life to Rangoon of the 1920s, revealing the rich history and well-known sites in the heart of the city and most importantly the foot prints of the fellow authors, and the enormous and invaluable contribution that Burma has given to the global literature.
Communicating with Communities (CWC): facilitating sustainable behaviour change in the times of COVID19
Response to public health emergencies requires changes in regular behavioural patterns. Encouraging these changes requires coordination and an understanding of the culture and communities affected.
During my seventeen-year humanitarian career, I have been involved in several responses to major worldwide disease outbreaks: Ebola, Lassa fever, Dengue, and now COVID-19. Having to lead a national-level response to this pandemic has proven to be an intense experience. It was necessary to strategise a timely, technically tested, and culturally appropriate response.
Nowadays, when countries are more interconnected than during the time of Spanish flu a century ago, disease outbreaks can spread much faster. However, knowledge transfer has also become easier and faster. But when a disease outbreak hits a country, region, or evolves to pandemic levels, we still seem to start from the very beginning and undergo a cycle of trial and error, ignoring our past lessons. I have witnessed this in Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response, and elsewhere in the world.
While working for the West African Ebola crisis response, I learnt some useful lessons for the management of COVID-19, especially in relation to assisting behaviour change in the culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse contexts of the developing world. In these areas, there is a grossly inadequate level of infrastructural support for adhering to desired behaviours, and myths, cultural practices, and local leadership remain barriers, rather than the impetus, for change. Extremely important cultural practices like the burial rituals of washing bodies, or practices of secret societies that had remained embedded within local cultures for centuries were labelled as risk behaviours and were stopped as prevention and containment measures took priority. The “Liberian snap-handshake,” arising from the Americo-Liberians’ arrival, was the first gesture to be stopped – just like the handshake today.
While tackling such sensitive behaviours deeply rooted in the local culture, the Ebola crisis showed the importance of understanding the information ecosystem of the geographies hit by the outbreak and exploring culturally appropriate communication strategies with communities. It revealed the added value of community participation that targets all layers of society, building trust and partnerships with formal and informal leaders. This includes close coordination with all people present, working with social scientists, and integrating protection and gender into the equation in order to facilitate sustainable behavioural change.
Understanding this information ecosystem requires assessing the information landscape, needs, use and impact of knowledge, production and movement, dynamics of access, and social trust. It requires reaching out across the entire social ecology.
The more the information ecosystem is understood, the more innovative and effective behavioural support could be. Being innovative is not merely introducing “modern technology” to communities, the innovation process begins with one basic premise – listen first. That is, we need to communicate with communities directly.
Targeting the social ecology of the individual is vital so that barriers at different levels can be better addressed and agents of change can also be identified and mobilised at every layer. One of the key lessons I learned during the Ebola response was that the negative deviance and protection-motivation approaches showed results at the response phase, and then positive deviance and health benefit-based messaging were amalgamated at the recovery stage. This results in a trans-theoretical approach to behaviour change, which has shown success in the Sri Lankan context in response to COVID-19. It helped communities to adhere to the desired behaviours swiftly and then to sustain them for a longer term.
It is important to address misinformation to avoid increasing anxieties around the disease outbreak, rather than throwing information at the public. One of the unpredicted challenges I noticed in the Ebola response was the misinformation surrounding Ebola, the same way it is with COVID-19 today. Community dialogue could help community leaders understand perceptions, tackle misinformation, and adjust their approach accordingly. It can also help to reduce the stigma associated with the disease and facilitate social integration. Working with social scientists such as sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists has proven to be an added strength – especially in understanding the diverse nuances of different religious and ethnic groups and adapting messages toward effective behaviour change.
Communities play a vital role in the support for screening, referrals of suspected cases, contact follow-up, monitoring of the outbreak, and communication initiatives. Involving active and meaningful community leadership in risk communication and understanding the disease and desired behaviour has proven to be quite successful in the Ebola and COVID-19 contexts.
For diseases like COVID-19, where communities are often not familiar with what the disease is and how to prevent and treat it, the behaviour change messaging must come from a trusted source. Therefore, it is imperative to identify the most trusted and influential information sources and communicate with communities through those sources in a culturally appropriate way. In conflict and political crises, communities can be sceptical of governmental or international non-governmental organisations and may trust only their community leaders. Therefore, developing trust in communities is paramount.
Disease outbreaks affect men, women, children, the elderly, and the especially-abled differently. Belonging to a marginalised group exacerbates the situation. As such, an individual’s information needs, accessibility of information, and the sources they can trust could be different from the general population – therefore, “leaving no one behind” is key.
Partnerships and coordination ensure that the interventions are built on trustworthy demographics and context formations, utilising validated strategies without duplication. That is, they make it possible to reach people affected by the outbreak sooner and more effectively.
Epidemics centre around human behaviour, so understanding the information ecosystem and communication with communities will help create sustainable behavioural change. Even pandemics like COVID-19 aren’t exempt from that.
By-Pramudith D Rupasinghe ©
Being a refugee should not be a reason to deny the access to heath-care, amid a pandemic that affects people across the world disproportionally and indiscriminately
Walking through the muddy paths between the long-houses, hearing the infants cry and seeing boys and girls fetching water, men sitting and desperately looking up at the empty sky which held all their hopes , children playing in the stagnated greenish water behind common toilets and water points, and then again hearing Dhuhr payers fusing into the dusty air and blistering sun, I wondered if there was anything worse than this on earth. ‘This’ was the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site in Bangladesh, where the Rohingya refugees were living in horrible conditions: proper hygiene practices and physical distancing in the context of the most recent COVID-19 pandemic were near impossible to observe.
Unless witnessed firsthand, it is hard to imagine what the life of millions of refugees across the world look like: those in camps under the night sky lit by flying shells in Yemen; undergoing harsh living conditions in the camps in Turkey and Jordan; in makeshift shelters in Bosnia and Herzegovina in freezing cold temperatures with no proper winter wear; in the camps of Syria, where children played with left-over ammunitions that killed their parents. And then there were the world’s largest refugee camps, home to a situation worse than anything witnessed by the world before, and where over 900,000 Rohingyas – themselves belonging to one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities on earth – survived in unimaginable living conditions in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
On this day for International Refugees, we remember that they are “special” because they have been systematically marginalised, just like the Jews who were systematically marginalised, the Rohingyas’ statelessness is a result of systematic marginalisation too. They have neither the status of ‘refugees’ in the land where they have sought refuge, nor the legitimacy of being identified as ‘nationals’ of the country where they belong to. I for one, believe that we all are born equal and no human is illegal, especially in the land where few generations of your own were born. Indeed, the sweat and blood shed by their ancestors were the secret of the lush green rice fields of Rakhine, which fed the proprietor who raped their mothers, sisters, and daughters, tortured their sons, brothers and fathers, or who spit on their faces when they came his way on those muddy paths that separated the hamlets. And there was a time where Rakhine children and the Rohingya children played in the same waters running across the fields, and married amongst themselves. When democracy shattered into a million pieces after the devastating authoritarian military junta took over power, the sun never seemed to rise again over the green Mayyu mountains , and the waters of the impassable Mayu river and those of the Bay of Bengal were never blessings. What was left was merely a graveyard. The soothing chants of Buddhist monasteries stopped merging with the prayers of the mosque, and instead, all the mosques were partially demolished – becoming covered with green moss and Bodhi-trees over time. Though the mosques had fallen, the Rohingyas continued to pray: they would gather at a house of a Mullah and pray secretly. To travel from one village to the other, where they used to cross feely a decade ago, one had to obtain permission from the Rakhine village administrator, and there were no schools for the boys and girls, for education was a right deprived since the days they could remember. Whilst the Rohingyas in northern Rakhine were living lives absolutely deprived of basic rights – the right to movement, right to education and the right to reliable health-care, the military was encroaching upon the major townships of the region, Maungdaw and Buthidaung. It was two days before I crossed the river to come to Sittwe (on 22nd August 2017), that I was made aware of a horrific Rohingya story: around 100,000 Rohingyas had been confined to makeshift settlements for nearly eight years, and made to live in horrible conditions with extremely inhuman restrictions that had deprived them of their basic human rights. It reminded me of nothing other than the Nazi concentration-camps which I had read about in books and seen in films.
On 24th August 2017, I landed in Paris and tried to contact one of my acquaintances based in Maungdaw to check how he was doing. His phone was not contactable, and I did not hear from him again – until I found out about him later in Bangladesh, more specifically, in the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, which is host to approximately 626,500 Rohingya refugees- the largest refugee site currently in the world. – And this was where my acquaintance was now confined to; he had been one of my ex-staff members who had been working as a respectful professional before crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar boarder. But now he was a desperate father who had to wait until the aid agencies arrived to feed his children.
On 24th August 2017, the military crackdown to villages of Northern Rakhine State led to the largest exodus known to the world in the history known to older generations. Hundreds of houses were burnt down to ashes; men, women, children and the elderly were pitilessly slaughtered and shot to death; women were gang-raped before the very eyes of their husbands; infants were killed in the hands of their mothers, and all valuables were looted. These stories echoed of those I heard from the North and South Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where once not so long ago, the world’s largest refugee camps resided following the Rwandan Genocide. Even then, rape had been systematically used as a weapon of war.
Under the ceaseless August rains, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled their homes on a mortal journey with their loved ones to neighbouring Bangladesh, where today over 909,000 of them are crammed into the world’s largest refugee camp. Aside from the atrocities committed by the Myanmar militia, starvation, disease and fatigue had already claimed hundred thousands lives during the exodus, and numerous infants, pregnant mothers and the elderly could not hold their breath until the men carried them across the border on their own fatigued bodies. Furthermore, ruthless tides and deep waters had also claimed a few hundred of those lives. Collectively, more than 723,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25th August 2017. It also assumed that at least 18,000 Rohingya Muslim women and girls were raped, 116,000 Rohingya were beaten, and 36,000 Rohingya were thrown into fires set alight in an act of deliberate arson.
Today while the media focuses on the great cities that have fallen silent , the once-prestigious industries that have been critically affected, and the great economies that are rattling due to COVID-19, the fact that refugees are humans like you and I with hopes and dreams of their own is being increasingly forgotten. This comes at a time when the refugees are compelled to live in camps where there are no minimum required conditions for safeguarding themselves from the next challenge of their lives, and cases of COVID-19 are already emerging in a few sites in Bangladesh. At the time of writing, there is a few feet of water in their temporary shelters, soaking their beddings provided by the aid agencies, and forcing them to seek shelter in safe-houses which simply forget the existence of any physical-distancing rule.
One of the key ways to fight COVID-19 is by washing your hands. But unfortunately, the limited access to clean water, caused by conflict, drought and poverty, implies that hand-washing is not an option for millions of people. And physical distancing, being the next key preventive and containment measure, will not be feasible in a place where there is only a one-inch breathable bamboo-mesh (thinner?) partition?? that separates one family from the other, where women need to wait with their children hours and hours to get ‘Plumpy’nuts’ for their newborns, where several longhouses (containing at least eight families) share one toilet, where women have to wait in queues for half a day under burning sun or pouring rains to receive their free hygiene and dignity kit, where water points are shared among several families, and where children have nothing but stagnated water puddles to play together in. Thus, maintaining physical distance is not an option. In camp conditions, under horrible climatic conditions being deprived wearing masks appropriately has become challenging and wearing masks in those limitations have become rather a risk than a preventative measure. Therefore, though everyone has the right to be protected from COVID-19 and the right to access the health care they want, maintaining good hygiene is challenging and physical distancing is almost impossible. Even with the tireless support provided by aid agencies, the Rohingya still remain extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 in refugee settings. Their lives have not been changed positively since the very day they felt persecuted, and with every challenge added to their harsh lives , they still remain the most persecuted minority on the earth, sequestered in the world’s largest refugee camps – and the world’s voice for them is falling silent. So in these moments, , let us be reminded that they will not be able to fight this next battle without our support. . And in addition to the Rohingya camps, there are many more refugees around the world who are exposed to high risks, atop the horrible conditions they live in. And the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.
You need not be a refugee to hear their heartbeat, as they are like you and I with only one difference: they are looking for a place where the value of their lives is recognised, their identity is accepted, where they can raise their children without fear. They are in search of a place they can call ‘home’ and a place where they could wholeheartedly feel they belong to. No human being is illegal and refugees have the same rights as you and I: and the right to live in conditions where one can stay protected from COVID-19 and the right to access timely healthcare are certainly among them.
Many people around the world still subscribe to the myth that COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone without discrimination. While that may be partially true, it should be highlighted that it also affects some more than others – and refugees and stateless people are indubitably at a relatively greater risk of being victimised by the disease as evinced earlier in this article. No human being is illegal, and to prove one’s humanity with papers should not be a requirement