Births, marriages and deaths: Rohingya lives playing out as refugees

AFP-JIJI

A newborn yet-to-be-named squirms in a mother’s arms; a marriage party lights up a fetid lane; a dead man’s face makes a soft impression on the blanket covering him — with no route home Rohingya lives are playing out in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

Chased from Myanmar in waves reaching back to the late 1970s, a million of the stateless Rohingya are cornered in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

Most are unable to work legally, move freely or access full education — existences pared back to the basics of survival.

The camps of Cox’s Bazar district buzz with children, typically curious and mischievous, but many also underfed, with few clothes, less schooling and nothing but homemade toys for entertainment.

Expectations of marrying early, having a family and dying a refugee are realities, with faith and tradition providing rare constants for a minority without a state.

Births

“One day I want my daughter to see Myanmar,” says 20-year-old Setara of a tiny eight-day-old child born in a bamboo shack in the Thangkhali refugee camp where the family arrived last year.

“But I won’t go back unless everyone else does.”

Throughout her pregnancy, Setara did not seek help from the NGO-run health centers.

Instead like most Rohingya women, she relied on a traditional midwife — known to Rohingya as “diama” — for the delivery.

Five thousand babies will be born over the next few months across the new refugee camps, according to the United Nations Population Fund, which delivers 300 babies each month in its facilities alone.

The birth rate has kept the diama busy.

“Sometimes I have gloves, but if there are none available I will do the delivery with my bare hands,” says 60-year-old Majuna Begum.

She has delivered 22 babies in nine months at the camp without charge.

Pregnant women are expected to provide the diama with a basic delivery kit — fresh cloths, scissors, a needle and a tub with clean water. But there is no pain relief or antibiotics.

She insists that she will not assist with births “if there are complications.”

But plenty of others do, say health workers.

Ten percent of births involve complications and without full medical care the risks of infection and injury to the mother or asphyxiation of the newborn are high.

The birth rate among the new refugee community is potentially dangerous for women and unsustainable for the camps, given the extreme resource squeeze on an already poor wedge of Bangladesh.

But contraception remains taboo among Rohingya men.

“They really don’t want to use it as it’s a cultural and a religious issue,” says family planning expert Shapta Aktar.

But Rohingya women are increasingly taking charge of their bodies.

Contraceptive injections — discreet and short-term — have surged from five a month to 250, Aktar adds.

Marriage

“WELL COME TO HAPPY MARRIAGE DAY 10.08.2018” reads the pink banner inside a rattan-walled shack, the decorations of bright tissue paper incongruent with the mud and sewage that glistens outside.

The nuptials are for groom Wahidur Rahman, a 21-year-old born in the camp, and his bride Nur Kaida.

Her husband insists his wife is 18. Neighbors say she is younger, yet hesitate to give an age.

Rohingya marry young and concerns are mounting that a rising number of adolescent girls are being married off to men they barely know.

Women and girls in bright sequined saris, make-up and henna tattoos lead the party, while music blares from two tuk-tuk motorized rickshaws crammed into a narrow alleyway.

Nur’s face is covered throughout as per custom, while relatives of her husband’s family try to draw her out from her home in a ritual that descends into a water fight.

“I’m happy,” says Wahidur as he sneaks a cigarette away from his family.

“The marriage was arranged by our parents. … The last time I saw her (Nur) she was young, she has been inside since,” he says of a tradition that sees unmarried young Rohingya women kept housebound.

Refugees like Wahidur who were born in the camps fear they have been relegated in the eyes of the aid community by the massive needs of the 700,000 Rohingya who arrived last year.

“I don’t know what will happen,” the newlywed Wahidur says. “It depends on the will of Allah.”

Death

Najmul Islam died in a roadside shack aged 72 after months suffering from tuberculosis and jaundice.

A Buddhist — and a former Myanmar soldier — he converted to Islam in his mid-fifties and married Mabia Khatun, a Rohingya who was 15 at the time.

It was a rare union in Rakhine, a region cut deep by ethnic and religious enmity.

“He was a good man,” Mabia says, mopping tears with the corner of her headscarf as her husband’s body lies under a gray blanket below, his lips and nose pressing through the cloth.

The family fled last year from Tula Toli, the site of an alleged massacre of Rohingya villagers by Myanmar security forces.

Before he joined them in Bangladesh, Najmul was held for a month by soldiers.

“They kept asking ‘why did you convert and live with these people (Rohingya)?,’ ” his wife says.

He left behind four young children in a Rohingya refugee camp and five Burmese offspring from a previous marriage.

An elder with a beard and a prayer cap carefully measures the body with a bamboo stick. The burial will be on a neat hillside cemetery nearby, where in death, the order that was missing from the chaotic last year of Najmul’s life is once again re-established.

“I took him home from hospital. I wanted him to breathe his last breath here,” says Mabia.