Bishop John Cafod DiaryFriday 9th March 2018
Bishop John has recently visited Bangladesh with Cafod to visit the Rohingya refugees. Below is a diary of his trip.
Cafod Trip to Bangladesh- March 2018
The time has come for another trip with Cafod, for which I feel privileged and grateful. But this trip is to be very different from anything that I have experienced with Cafod over the last ten years. Whenever I have previously travelled with Cafod it has been to see the benefits provided to people through partnerships, where life is improving. In Zambia and Zimbabwe there were new cooperatives and farms benefitting from the provision of fresh water and specialised farming techniques. In Rwanda there was the gradual development for a generation scarred by the massacres of genocide. In Brazil there were the possibilities of employment for those occupying the empty buildings of Sao Paolo and the protection of the indigenous peoples. Even after the horrors of typhoon Hayan in the Philippines, there were the smiling faces of the resilient Filipinos glad to be re-building homes and livelihoods. The wonderful and encouraging list has grown over ten years.
But this trip promises nothing of that hope because I am going to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who, for the moment, have no hope nor any certainty for their future. Survival is the immediate challenge.
The recent history
Amnesty International describes the Rohingya as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. More than one million people from the mainly-Muslim minority group lived in Myanmar at the start of 2017, with the majority in Rakhine State. The government of Myanmar, a predominately Buddhist country, claims the Rohingya people are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship, leaving them stateless. The Rohingya – who have their own language and culture – say they are descendants of Muslim traders who have lived in the region for generations. The systematic discrimination against the Rohingya people has left them living in deplorable conditions and segregated, with limited access to schools, healthcare and jobs, according to Amnesty.
Tensions between the minority group and the mainly Buddhist Rakhine population erupted into rioting in 2012, driving tens of thousands from their homes and into displacement camps.
The UN has described the latest mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” and “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Day One – The Journey
Well I can report that we have arrived. Unfortunately, the skies were fairly cloudy during the flights and there was not much to see until we were beginning our descent to Dacca Airport. In fact the cloud had given away to sand, which is more prevalent in the air in the dry season leading up to the monsoons. The enormous river deltas were very clearly visible. And there were the dry river beds which will be flooded back into action soon when the monsoons come. So many of the people seem to be settled along the waterside, all so vulnerable to the flooding of the river as it rises in the rainy season, bringing waters from as far away as the Himalayas and as the sea levels rise with global warming and Climate Change. I remember the farmers during the last trip standing up to their knees in water and saying that they were standing on what had been their rice paddies and farm land. Climate Change is clearly evidenced here.
I have very happy memories of the previous trip to Bangladesh; not least that remarkable visit to the island in the Brahamaputra River delta where the Buddhist monk was clearly the revered leader of the village. He was over-seeing the flood warning procedures (known as DDR, Disaster Risk Reduction) that had already saved lives. I had stayed with him in his monastery for a night. There were the wonderful nuns in Khulna who rescue abandoned children and the gentle smiling nurse in their convent hospital who had been one of their first rescued children.
I also remember the traffic chaos of Dacca and that was still much in evidence as we made our way today, very slowly and falteringly, from the airport to the Caritas compound where we are to stay while here in Dacca. Essentially, there seem to be no rules of the road except that the bigger the vehicle the more authority it has, and pedestrians must be street-wise and very observant and look after themselves because the drivers will not make concessions for them. The city really is chaotic and this is Saturday which, with Friday, is the weekend here and traffic is – apparently – that bit lighter! There were people running across the road in front of fast-moving traffic and jumping on moving buses in the middle of the road. There must be a high casualty rate.
I doubt that anyone would describe Dacca as beautiful. A sprawling city, devoid of hills to break up the lines of low-rise apartment blocks which would appear to be the form of housing for most people. Here there are no golden Buddhist temples that are features of so many villages and towns of neighboring Myanmar (Burma) and even the mosques are not as impressive as those I have seen elsewhere. It has a drab appearance but one that also speaks of industry and hard work.
There is a more modern city centre but this is marked by higher-rise concrete and glass structures but no visible historical buildings or parks. Having said that, there are numerous new buildings being completed and there is clearly a lot of economic progress. One particular change is the number of new flyovers but they do not seem to be improving the flow of traffic. The journey of just a few kilometers from the airport took about an hour and a half.
The wonderful Atul met us at Dacca airport. I remember him so well from my previous visit. He is the Director of Caritas Bangladesh, a kind host and a mine of information about his country and its challenges. It seems that he will be with us for most of our visit and he is the one person most likely to be able to obtain the permissions still needed to enter the refugee camps.
As I write this, there is the constant sound of car horns and bicycle bells from the road behind this building which is a little street, busy with traffic and a local food market. It really is a constant noise. We have also been treated to a very loud “call to prayer” from two mosques close by. I think they will act as a very efficient alarm at 5.30am in the morning! And it is just beginning to cool from the 35 degrees that greeted us at the airport.
I am looking forward to getting down to the business of the trip tomorrow
The noise from the street did die down about midnight when the last of the street-sellers went away. But there was traffic noise all night. I am not sure that I have lived quite so close to a Asian city centre as this before, on all my travels. Most of the places I have stayed have been in compounds, usually in a quieter suburb away from the city centre frenzy. This is right in the thick of things and my window faces onto a very busy but narrow road. Having said that, it is quite an enjoyable experience of city life.
It seems that the constant horn-blowing of the cars and lorries and the bell-ringing of the bicycles and bike-taxis is not so much that they want to alert others that other drivers are doing something wrong but more to announce simply that they are there, as they turn corners or change lane or see pedestrians ahead. It forms a constant level of sound which, fortunately, I started not even to notice in my room. The activity on the street started early with deliveries and the setting up of the food market and people getting to work, as Sunday is the first day of the working week. I cannot believe that I missed it but I heard nothing from the mosque at 5.30am this morning. Given the volume that the man had for his prayers last night I must have been sound asleep. Apparently, the call to prayer was chanted as usual.
A good day and a busy one. We were in traffic by 8.15am so as to arrive at Archbishop’s House for 9am. In fact we were early, the traffic being so unpredictable. Being a mainly Moslem country the Sunday traffic is just a busy working day. As always in South East Asia there is so much life in the streets. The traffic is making its own rules and, from villages to towns to cities, so much of the life and business of the people seems to happen at street level. The shops all open on to the street, stacked with food and clothing and household goods. The little street onto which my window looks is very busy with a constant flow of traffic, mainly bicycle taxis but also cars and the occasional lorry which can just fit, to the frustration and loud objection of the on-coming traffic! There are four stalls directly below my window, three of them selling vegetables and one selling fish. There are over 700 rivers in this tiny country and Bangladeshis have learned to farm fish very efficiently. Fish seems to be a constant item at every meal. I also learned today that, in normal circumstances, Bangladesh can feed itself. Only when there are unpredicted floods is there much of a need to import.
We met Cardinal Patrick D’Rosario and were also joined by another bishop, called Gervas Rosario, who is the bishop responsible for Caritas Bangladesh in the same way I am associated with Cafod, though he seems to have a much more practical involvement than me. The work of Caritas is remarkable but there are many evident needs, even before the Rohingya crisis is included.
The Cardinal spoke a good deal about the Papal Visit of Francis in December 2017 of which we were to hear a great deal today.
What he had to say about Caritas Bangladesh was most impressive. Bangladesh is the eighth most populace nation on earth. A country about half the size of the United Kingdom it has 161 million inhabitants. The Catholic Church here is small, about 350,000 people but Caritas is providing for one third (300,000) of the Royhingyas. That is truly remarkable.
We spoke a good deal about the role of the Catholic Church which, small though as it is, has a good voice in speaking with governments and people of different Faiths.
The Archbishop’s House faces onto a busy road and the noise of the traffic was very noticeable and intrusive – constant horn blowing. Behind the House was a very unusual space for Dacca, an open green space bordered on the other side by the seminary. It was suddenly a serene and silent place. This is where Pope Francis held an open audience during his visit when the place was packed. The place was made all the more serene by the presence of a couple of grazing cows and also some sheep.
After an hour and a half with the Cardinal, we returned to the Caritas compound to meet Dr Alo who is the former Executive Director of Caritas Bangladesh. He is clearly a man of influence and his experience and good reputation caused him to be a central figure in the planning of the Papal visit. We wanted to speak with him about the impact of that visit. He said that there were at least three important achievements. The first was to win the Bangladeshi people over to a sense of welcome of the Rohingyas. He was insistent on the notion that we are all members of the one family and they are our brothers and sisters. And, apparently, it turned the consensus of the people and drastically improved the attitude to the suffering of the refugees. The second positive impact was for the little Catholic church, which is in fact growing well particularly among the indigenous peoples. It boosted their self-esteem and they clearly benefitted from the very positive attention of the media and an admiration for Francis beyond the Christian community. The third benefit was a clear warming of relations between Church and government.
There seems to be much more collaboration and cooperation between Church and government and between Church and other religious communities.
The very evident problem about the Rohingyas at the moment is knowing the immediate future. It seems very unlikely that they will return to Myanmar soon as they have been told that they will return to designated areas where they were not living before, and security is felt to be at risk. This brings other problems about which we heard in a further meeting this afternoon. The shelter provided so far the refugees is very temporary and not good enough for the monsoon period.
We then met with Theophil – Director of the Caritas Development Institution which is concerned with capacity building. It provides work for 3,000 people and has 6,000 volunteers. He is doing a study on the impact of the Rohingyas on the local economy and its longer term consequences. One thing that we heard was that large numbers of young people in the Cox’s Bazar area are absent from school because they are earning some money from charities helping the refugees. This could have serious consequences if it continues for long.
We also had a briefing about the work of Caritas Bangladesh and its ninety projects beyond its response to the Rohingya crisis. So we have learned a lot today.
How on earth could I have missed that….? At the Call to Prayer this morning at 5.30am it felt as though the cantor was standing in my room with his megaphone! The place shook. Surely I could not have slept through that yesterday……
The more I see of Dacca, the more I think it is reaching a saturation point. Just outside the gate of the Caritas compound there is a new triple level flyover, within a few feet of the compound building. Everywhere the traffic is caught up and every journey is completely unpredictable. And the many new buildings are reaching ever higher into the sky and increasing the density of population and the problems of traffic.
Today we are going to OKUP, partners of Cafod outside the city. It will be good to get away from the congestion. It meant a two hour journey through the chaotic early morning traffic to a small town near Dacca called Narsingdi. We passed through miles of industrial and manufacturing areas which was very squalid but the place of employment for thousands. There was a considerable area given over to brick manufacture and then a very colourful area where textiles were being dyed and dried in the sunshine. On our arrival we were immediately treated to large plates of banana, pomegranate, papaya and grapes. It is always my experience that those who have least will be so generous. Then it was down to work.
OKUP is a project concerned with safe migration. I should explain that the Bangladesh Government encourages its citizens to travel abroad to work as it means that money is sent back to Bangladesh which benefits the economy. In this populace nation about 1.5 million people enter the labour market each year. Normally about 500,000 go abroad although last year this is thought to have been one million. In a normal year 160,000 are women. There are at present some 10 million documented workers abroad and probably an equal number of undocumented. This migration brings problems of exploitation, trafficking, sexual abuse and modern slavery. OKUP provides a comprehensive service which begins with a pre-departure education which shows examples of malpractice and prepares people for the sorts of traps into which they might fall. It teaches about what needs to be in an employment contract, how to negotiate wages and how to avoid exploitation. It provides a hotline for those who are abroad for times when they feel they are victims of crime or exploitation. It also provides retraining for returning migrant workers. With an average of 11 dead workers being returned each day (some 4,000 a year), OKUP provides assistance and any investigation into reasons for their death and accurate reporting on how they died.
OKUP has five regional offices in Bangladesh and these are in the rural areas where migration is highest both into the cities and abroad. One of the greatest problems lies in the role of the “dalal”, or middleman. These are Bangladeshi “officials” who are responsible for organising a contract for a worker; finding a destination and work. They charge for their services in a total price. Often these men are corrupt and may have contact with traffickers. They may falsify papers for boys and girls who are under the age for migration who are then allowed to travel.
We met with various local officials, including a headmaster, local councillors and journalists who were speaking about the criminal practices that they have experienced. Their comments clearly emphasized the importance of this work and how vulnerable people may become, even when documented.
We talked at length about the need for a correct pre-migration procedure, the need to share reports on violations, and the provision of access to legal redress and representation.
Then we had a rather heart-rending hour with some of the spouses of present migrant workers and some former migrant workers. They recounted all sorts of exploitation, bullying, and abuse and the dishonesty of dalals. Wages had often been reduced or not paid at all. They had been concerned with several countries. The greatest number of migrants go to the Middle East, notably Qatar, but there are large numbers of migrant workers elsewhere, notably in Malaysia and Europe.
We heard also from a young woman who was tortured and then left on the side of the road.
The next group we met were all returned migrant workers, some 24 of them. They are working together to promote what could eventually be a union. There are sixteen unions sanctioned by the government and these people claim that if the government are so keen to promote migration workers then they must also promote their protection and well-being. It makes eminent good sense. They had just come from their union meeting. The immediate priorities are to disseminate good pre-migration policies. Passports are often confiscated when migrant workers arrive at their destination and then have to be bought back.
OKUP is a fine organisation which is gaining credibility and respect.
The flight to Cox’s Bazar fairly full – many I would guess were staff from various agencies connected with the refugee crisis. (Once again, I have been struck by the absence of European faces. I had seen not a single one since I left the International Airport when we arrived. And today, I saw just two people on our flight. At the meetings there have been a few more among the aid workers, but not many)
How different the visitors to Cox’s Bazar are these days from the tourists normally visiting this place. So much of this city’s activity is now swamped by the needs of the refugees. The main camps are about sixty kilometers to the south, in a small wedge of land that separates Myanmar from the sea. It is through this very limited space that some 900,000 Rohingyas fled in just a few short weeks in 2017.
We were warmly greeted by the Caritas team, at their office and what an impact these people are having. Their work was explained to us. Caritas Bangladesh has responsibility for three of the twenty zones in the refugee area. It is likely that they will take more responsibility. This means they have care of 40,000 families, some 200,000 people. As a Church with such a small membership in this country, that is a great statement in itself. They spoke about the first stage of the crisis, last August to October, when all that they could hope to do was provide food and essential non food items to the thousands as they arrived, and offer basic shelter for them. Then they were able to plan more carefully and to ensure that housing, sanitation, care of children and very vulnerable people was provided, and to assist the refugees to create a sense of community. I was very shocked and saddened to hear that the challenge continues to grow with the arrival of an average of about 1,100 new refugees daily. We saw pictures of the zones in their care; clean and ordered with proper drainage and street lighting which is so important for the safety of women and children once dark has fallen.
The future is not clear as there has been no permission from the Bangladeshi Government for the camps to have any more than temporary housing. This creates an immediate problem about how to face the coming monsoons. These cause floods and landslides and the temporary shelters may prove to be inadequate. The team had been working all hours, without respite, in the early months but are now having their work times structured for their own well-being.
That meeting over, we were then driven to another meeting for many participating NGOs in this area. Some fourteen organisations were represented. There is clearly a good networking and sharing of best practice – something that I was able to witness when I went to the Philippines and saw the forum of national Caritas organisations coordinating their work. For the second time today I was invited, with no warning, to speak to the group……
Tomorrow will be an important day. Will we be able to enter the camps? The news today has been encouraging about the possibility of gaining access and I am very pleased to hear that Archbishop Moses, of Chittagong, will be traveling with us. Cox’s Bazar is within his Diocese so he may add an important weight to our purpose.
I must say that I find it difficult even to start to recount today. It has been at once a marvellous, depressing, hopefilled, and despairing experience. I will only be able to take you through the sequence of what has happened.
The day began with the arrival of Archbishop Moses, of Chittagong. I was able to have a good conversation with him before we set out from the hotel. His own personal journey has been fascinating. Just last year Chittagong was made an Archdiocese. Pope Francis did not insist on Moses going to Rome to collect his pallium (the sign of the office of Archbishop) but said that it should be done here among the people that the Archbishop would serve.
We spoke about the Diocese. There are just ten diocesan priests and twelve religious priests. There are eleven parishes. The membership of the Church is largely in the remote hilly region (This is the only part of Bangladesh that actually has hills) and he must travel through difficult areas to get to remote villages. Recently he travelled for two days, by car then boat then on foot to visit a village where many have recently become Catholics. That part of the Diocese has 13 different indigenous peoples, each with their own separate language. Mission work for them is hampered by the fact that they are in a military exclusion zone and permits are required. Foreign priests are simply not allowed to enter.
He is a very gentle man, with a warm smile and sense of humour. He was speaking to me about his first visit to the refugee camps, in December, when he said the conditions were dreadful. People had no proper shelters and they were crawling under tarpaulin to sleep. We set out to make our visit.
The journey to the camp was about one hour and began with a drive of several miles along the length of the beach. There are various new building developments and many new hotels – or at least the skeleton frames of many new hotels, some of which have been abandoned in the building. The hills of this area come right down to the coast but it was pointed out that there is little rock and they easily give way to landslides in the monsoons. There is also the problem of Climate Change which is real here. All along the beach there were concrete blocks and large sandbags, placed to contain the high tides. The beach itself is beautiful but is in danger of overdevelopment on the one hand and erosion on the other.
Our main sights along the last part of the way were little hamlets and very rich and extensive rice paddies and cultivation. Bangladeshi is food self-sufficient and this was clear evidence of that. The region is obviously poor but the people have food and housing and access to medical care, all of which has much improved in the past twenty years.
Suddenly we saw a concentration of buildings, tightly packed together. We had arrived at the refugee camp and had managed not to be stopped by the military. It is difficult to describe the scene. I shall hope to send a short video showing just one of the views. This is a city, stretching 14 kilometers and housing 900,000 people. It is beyond description. There were only a few motor vehicles, all belonging to the aid agencies and the roads in the camp were teeming with pedestrians.
The camp is divided into 20 zones, all named by double letters; AA, BB etc. Caritas has been entrusted with three zones and this is likely to rise. There was nothing at all here last year on these hills and then the Rohingyas began to arrive in late August. The first essential was to provide them with food and simple shelter. There were such numbers that the various aid agencies were so overwhelmed that the essentials was all that could be provided. The Archbishop came to the camp in December and things were in a dreadful state. Some 800,000 refugees had arrived in a matter of a few weeks. With materials provided by the government and the agencies the people began to construct temporary shelters in a rather haphazard manner.
In December an engineer working with Caritas offered advice on improving the housing. He was with us today, explaining his project. They chose a section of BB Zone to pilot the ideas. The people there were unwilling to re-locate as they were understandably exhausted and afraid, and felt that they might lose even the simple shelters that they had made so the engineer devised ways of installing drains and sanitary systems, wells and street lighting which could be undertaken by the Rohingyas themselves. He found them to be willing volunteers and willing to accept guidance and building instructions. In just two months they transformed the housing and made the alleyways clean and drained. The shelters are rebuilt and are now sturdy constructions. There is no doubting that conditions here are still utterly basic but they are clean. This transformation has proven to be a model and is offered to the other zones. Many are taking the opportunity to improve the better conditions and the UN is funding the materials.
We went into one of the houses. It has ten families, about fifty people, in ten properly separated areas and these “rooms” are high enough for people to stand upright (unlike before). There are clearly defined drains down the hills, in every alleyway, and wells and toilets distributed throughout the area. While being horrified that people should be crowding into this place as refugees, there is much to be grateful for in the improvements that are being made.
We also went to areas outside BB where these improvements have not yet taken place and there was much squalor and the shelters were very fragile and cramped. It was a very different place. The alleyways were filling up with garbage and there were no drains.
The fears at present are about the monsoons which are imminent. The camp is built on dozens of hills and there is little rock for any firm foundations, like the hills we had seen by the sea. Heavy rains could cause another disaster through landslides and flooding. We saw a team of men digging out a canal through one of the valleys, clearing the mud and debris in expectation of the monsoon rains.
Everywhere there were small children. The Government have not allowed the provision of schools but many of the agencies provide child friendly areas where the children can safely gather. It is tragic to think that so much valuable time in their young lives is being wasted.
We visited a re-location centre. This is for refugees already in temporary accommodation in Bangladesh who are moving into the camp. We met a very impressive – and young – Caritas team who assist them in various ways. So when a family arrives they are asked to choose a plot on which to settle. They are given the rudiments of a shelter. They receive the vouchers for food and are registered. It takes maybe three days for them to construct the shelter and in the meantime they sleep in one of the child friendly areas when the children have gone. Families with very vulnerable members with disabilities are assisted by Caritas staff and housed within a day. They are also trained by specialists in various aspects of hygiene as there is always the danger in such places of outbreaks of various diseases.
We walked quite a distance through the camp and, as we reached the top of a hill, there was another landscape of shelters stretching ahead. There were also some hills in the distance which will all be included in the expanding camp very soon. It is sad that about 1,100 refugees arrive daily. If that is correct then the camp is likely to exceed one million people by the summer. While a number of the refugees have been able to start shops and small trades, most are necessarily idle, as are the women and children.
When we left the camp by the same road we found that the military, who were improving it, had in fact closed it by dumping loads of earth across the road so we had to turn back and leave by another route.
When we are back at Cox’s Bazar there was time to visit this famous beach – eighty kilometers long. The high season is now over but there were simply thousands of people on the beach, but simply standing and talking or walking. There were no signs of sun-bathers and there were very few bathers in the sea. Some fishing boats were close to shore and casting their nets. Just away from the beach was a market selling everything you could possible associate with a seaside resort.
Being Europeans was evidently a curiosity for many. We spotted a number of people trying to take secret selfies with us. When we stopped to speak with three young men, who turned out to be from Romania, a whole crowd gathered around us to listen and watch! Two of them, now living in London and working as plumbers had come to visit their friend who is living in Dacca and learning Bangla. All three want to dedicate their lives to helping this people.
Yesterday ended with a meal there was much to talk about on the day’s events. It will certainly take me some time to be more objective about all that I have seen. The challenges are far from over for the Rohingyas. How long will they be held in the camps? Will there be adequate protection against the monsoons? What is the future for them? Will they be allowed back into Myanmar and feel that they can go there with a sense of security? Many voices I have heard suggest not.
I am also aware that, in all I wrote yesterday, I did not describe individuals. Contact was difficult. We obviously stood out as visitors and must have been objects of curiosity. The children were all around us wherever we went and they were testing their few words of English, with constant “How are you?” They had smiles and curiosity but also the shyness of all children. The women in general were silent and very few made eye contact at all. They were often looking out from the doorways of their huts but not wanting to engage even with a smile. Little wonder. They are foreigners with a different language to their hosts, let alone to us visitors, and there were also all the religious attitudes and customs of a conservative Islam. The men were generally the ones in the streets and alleyways but there was almost no individual contact with them either. One woman invited us into her home because it was arranged that she would show us her improved accommodation and answer questions but she did not speak Bangla and what she said needed to be translated. The understandable lack of personal contact with outsiders must be a major factor in the sense of isolation they feel.
There were marked differences in appearance. Many were clean and smartly dressed, which was a wonder to me given the conditions. But there were others who were disheveled and in rags. I suppose the overwhelming impression was in the sheer numbers of people with the knowledge that the crowds that we saw were repeated everywhere through this vast camp – all trapped and frustrated and fearful for an unknown future.
This morning began early for me simply because I wanted to be sure to bid farewell to Archbishop Moses before he left on his return journey to Chittagong. Hopefully, he will be able to include a visit to Salford when he comes to England in the summer. It is always fascinating to compare dioceses with another bishop and see the very different priorities that we face. For Archbishop Moses there are the primary challenges of having a tiny Catholic minority (just 35,000 in his extensive Diocese) in a Moslem country. His attention must be concentrated on the welcome given to the indigenous converts in the remote regions who, hopefully, will provide priests, religious and catechists for the future. He has opened a junior seminary in a remote area and, in this first year, he has fourteen boys living there and attending school.
We set off to visit another partner, DAM. DAM (Dhaka Ahsania Mission) was found in 1958 as a charity, possibly the first NGO in the country. It has always been involved in education and healthcare and is presently building a 500 bed cancer hospital in Dacca. We are to see some of their projects in the camps.
We took the same coastal road from Cox’s Bazar as yesterday and, as we turned off the main road, I said that I thought this was the same road into the camp as before. “It must be. This is the only road to the camp”! That is extraordinary as it is a little winding lane barely wide enough to take a lorry. It winds through a cluttered little town which is bursting with shops and street businesses. The only road!? That is like saying this is the only road into Sheffield, if all provisions for the camps must come this way.
Today we are visiting two very different parts of the camp. We travelled first to “II” where we went to see two Child Friendly Spaces which are the nearest thing that the camp has to schools. They are simple huts with about thirty children together with two teachers. Both gave us a great welcome and they sang songs for us which included, in English, “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and “A,B,C….”. Lots of smiling faces and laughter. While it was good to see the children, this part of the camp where they live was by no means ready for the monsoons. The shelters are on the side of steep hills. Although covered with forest just one year ago, all the trees have been cut down for fuel. The highly fertile soil is solid and strong when dry, good enough to be the surface of roads, but dissolves quickly in heavy rain. There are no drains between the shelters and some of the shelters will quickly slide away. We also saw a medical centre which looked very efficient and orderly. There were about twenty mothers and children seated in a waiting area. Sanitation training is also offered at this site.
We then travelled some ten kilometers to a different section of this vast camp, called Jamtoli. Again, this was one of the first areas to be designated for the refugees in September last year. It is made up of eight hills and the plain in between them was a rice paddy field which has now been dried out and is being used for storing building materials. When the first refugees arrived the hills were forested. It will be the first place to flood when the rains come. There are no improvements here and the makeshift shelters do not even all have the wickerwork walls and tarpaulin roofs. Here we visited a clinic and some WASH training. (WASH is water, sanitation and hygiene training). The work is admirable. We also entered three of the shelters here to see the new rice husk burning economy stoves. The need for fuel for cooking has meant that all the hills around, have been cleared of all timber and the search for wood has begun to affect much larger areas around the camp. DAM has been piloting a new economy stove. It is the size of a large bucket and can be carried by hand, if necessary. It burns rice husks very economically without smoke and makes a radical difference to cooking. We spoke to two ladies who are very pleased with the new cookers. One of the ladies was holding a children of about one year. She is also well advanced in another pregnancy but we heard that her husband had been killed by the Burmese army as they fled their village.
We also heard that three thousand women refugees had arrived pregnant and those children have now been born. The Bangladeshi Government will not give them citizenship as they are refugees nor, apparently, will the Burmese Government give them citizenship. They will be stateless until all this is resolved. It is just another worry for the families.
The shelters that we entered today were not as good as those we had seen yesterday. At a rough estimate, each family seems to have a space about 12foot by 8foot, so enough for everyone to lie down. There is no room for storage and the shelters were very hot – absorbing the forty degrees of sunshine heat outside.
So we managed some better direct contact with at least some individuals today. It makes it all the more difficult to accept the state of things for so many desperate people. From our visit today we have been made all the more aware of the danger of the monsoon. I can see the headlines now as the almost forgotten Rohingya crisis claims the attention of the Media again.
Our last stop was to seen an example of the sanitation work being done by DAM. These were clean, well constructed latrines, distributed through an area of this camp. The work is important and welcome but we were told that there is now a latrine for every 10 families, and the average family is taken to be seven people. One toilet for seventy people hardly seems to be enough.
Walking through the camps this morning, it is clear that there has been, and continues to be, a wonderfully generous response on the part of governments and NGOs from all over the world. Their work seems to be coordinated and providing so much. But these camps are now said to be the biggest in the world and the daily requirements, even for basic provision, is enormous.
With a very early start in the morning for the airport I will hope to use some of the journey to make some closing remarks
Day 7 – The Journey home.
Our last experience of Dacca traffic was this morning’s journey to the airport. Being Friday, the Moslem holy day, and 5.30am, the traffic was about as light as it could be. While there was little traffic about we were treated/subjected to the skills of Dacca’s drivers when they actually have an open road. It can be fairly terrifying. Fortunately, our driver here, Onshoo, has been skilled and patient at all times. We were in safe hands. His patience was tested once again last night when we set out to visit a fairtrade shop which we were told was “close by”. After half an hour we were standing still in yet another gridlock jam, still a long way from our destination and we decided to abandon the plan. Onshoo patiently took us on to our next meeting place. He left us at 9.30pm last night and with an hour and a half journey to his home and then back again he was waiting for us at 5am. Nothing has been too much trouble.
I know that I have mentioned the traffic several times but it has been, in its own way, quite a dominant factor. It is difficult to describe the sheer chaos of the roads. I have seen heavy traffic in some major cities, like Nairobi and Phnom Penh, but never known this type of crippling gridlock which brings this place to a standstill daily. There is a complete lack of any highway code. Although there are traffic lights installed in the city, most are turned off and any functioning ones seem to be completely ignored. If there is any control provided, even at major intersections, it is provided by several traffic police together but they seem barely able to achieve orderly directing of the traffic as cars and rickshaws simply edge forward and cut across the lanes. People we spoke to say that it affects plans for work, meetings and social life and wastes hours every day. The vehicles edge their way through jams, and where there is any open road the vehicles jostle at the greatest possible speed to get even a little advantage and the pedestrians take their lives in their hands as they step out into the road. There seem to be three levels of traffic which all have different needs. There are the bicycles and pedal rickshaws in large numbers which clog the roads and travel in and out of all the lanes on the wider roads. They are allowed on every road except the new fly-overs. They slow the motorized rickshaws which could travel faster. Their presence in such numbers just cause all the cars, lorries and buses to be weaving their way from lane to lane so everything just comes to a standstill. If cars were banned |I suspect things would actually move much better.
Enough of the traffic. This has been a very good trip despite the awful realities which we saw and heard about. Clearly the Rohingya crisis dominates the work of all the agencies here and it is good to see Cafod in partnership with some life-saving programmes. Its presence is clearly appreciated by its partners – as we heard everywhere that we went. The work of DAM will save lives in the camps when the rains come and it can only be hoped that other agencies will adopt the housing, cooking and drainage improvements which seems to be of such benefit to people in desperate conditions. The work of OKUP was so impressive in combatting exploitation and protecting particularly young migrant workers; providing training and a practical response when people are in danger or trafficked.
The flight from Dacca to Doha this morning was full of young people. Literally over 90% of the passengers were young Bangladeshi men. The very young man next to me was on his mobile phone as we waited for all passengers to embark. He made several calls and was still trying to phone as we took off. Twice he was in a flood of tears and I can only imagine that he was on a first trip to working overseas. He had no English but we managed a little communication. He did not know how to use his safety belt or that the food on the plane was included in the price of the ticket. When we landed at Doha he asked where we were! Given snatches of conversation, it seems that a large number of the passengers were on their way for the first time to work in Kuwait. It really did not seem to be the adventure that it should have been for these young men.
I must say something about my companions on this trip. I have been surrounded by their knowledge and experience. They have provided all the answers to my questions and made the trip very easy – even when flexibility has been required and plans have changed. Matthew and Janet have many years of experience in the work of NGOs and Tom was thorough in dealing with all the details of the programme and the travel. This was his last visit to Bangladesh as he was only in a temporary appointment here. He now moves on to the challenges of Programme Funding Officer in South Sudan. And among our hosts, Atul and Archbishop Moses have been good companions.
I have said nothing about the security in Bangladesh. Perhaps I have got all too used to it when traveling with Cafod. It was very evident in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Niger. It is just as evident here with every public building having armed security guards and security screening. At our hotel in Cox’s Bazar guards checked below the vehicles as they enter the car park and all our luggage was screened on arrival. The Caritas Compound was guarded as was every hotel and restaurant and shop we entered. The briefing notes for this trip were comprehensive and the security level for the whole trip has been “High”. This level of security is evident in so many parts of the world and will no doubt be with us well into the future. I am not sure that such security makes me feel any safer, especially when things are done in a casual manner, as is sometimes the case. At the airport this morning a passenger’s bag visibly containing full water bottles and liquids passed though the X-ray machine without comment.
The trip has come to an end, and I am now back in Salford. All three flights went to time: Dacca-Doha, Doha-London, London-Manchester. Just twenty two hours from door to door and, as always, a great privilege. I now want to communicate to people the good work that Cafod is enabled to do among some of the poorest people in our world. The Media seem to have largely forgotten the plight of the Rohingyas. I sense that they may be back in the news when the monsoons arrive and their needs for very survival will be all too evident for some time to come. Thanks for reading this diary. I hope that you may have found it informative. I am not at all sure when there may be another reason to travel with Cafod but you will hear if there are plans.