Half a million Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past six weeks. Most of them have camped in the area between Kutupalong and Balukhali, west of National Highway 1. This used to be forested rolling hills. But the trees have all been chopped down and the ground is covered by makeshift dwellings made of plastic sheeting stretched over bamboo.
For the past two weeks, I have been confined Kutupalong Hospital. Now that I have been joined by another expat doctor, I can have some time off. In fact, I have been ordered to have some time off, so I decided to go walkabout in the camp. For security reasons, I needed to go accompanied, so I asked our “mapman”, JG if I could accompany him. He is teaching refugees to map the camp by recording GPS coordinates of all the blocks of housing, noting the mosques, shops, rivers and bridges.
The driver dropped us at the roadside close to Balukhali Bazar and we walked down a muddy path to the site where the new MSF hospital was being built. Two wards are close to completion. The outpatients’ department is situated across the paddy fields. It was constructed in a couple of weeks and is working to capacity. The camp was buzzing with activity. People were carrying plastic sheeting and thick bamboo poles to build homes.
We met our local GPS plotter at the clinic and walked to one of the MSF health posts in the more remote parts of the camp. JG called the path “shit street”, which was accurate. After the health post, we followed a stream (no prizes for guessing what JG called this), jumping from bank to bank, trying to avoid sinking deep into mud contaminated with faeces. The sun broke through the clouds and it became very hot.
Good places to build are scarce. Some people have even constructed homes over pit latrines which have filled up with excrement. There are some tempting flat sites next to the river, but when the rainy season resumes in April, homes built here will be washed away by the monsoon.
We bounced across a bamboo pole bridge spanning the river. Beneath us, children were playing in the water, women were washing clothes. It looked tempting for a minute until I remembered the effluent. This was unmapped territory, so we needed a GPS reading. We could have walked to the centre of the block, usually where the mosque was situated, and taken a reading. But our plotter was (literally) more pedantic. He led us around the perimeter of the block – through swamps, traversing muddy cliffs, past latrines and boreholes. Then we walked up the hill to the mosque.
The imam came to meet us and put up his umbrella to shade me from the heat. We took a break under the awning around the mosque and I drank a litre of water. I took some photographs to stitch together a panorama. To the north and east was the established part of the camp, dating from 1992. The demarcation between old and new was clearly shown by the appearance of the roofs. Gourds and pumpkin plants covered the old roofs; the new roofs were bare black plastic. Beyond the established camp there was a belt of trees and greenery, marking the best land which was occupied by Bangladeshi villagers.
At the mosque, we recruited another plotter and taught him how to do the work in the next two blocks. I stood back in the shade and watched naked children pumping water from a borehole and pouring it over themselves in delight. We set off in the direction of another health post, situated on a hill to the north. It was almost complete, with a roof and internal bamboo walls forming consulting rooms. The floor was bricked, laid in a herringbone fashion, which would be concreted over. The builders were lying down, resting on plastic sheeting. We disturbed them, so they went off to pray.
“Let’s go for a stroll,” said JG. This part of the camp had shops. There were smells of perfume and cooking. People poked their heads out of their homes to see the strange white people walking past. We turned left to pass the cemetery and the plantation of mango saplings and crossed the stream.
The black clouds on the horizon signalled rain was coming, but it crept up on us quicker than we’d thought. We considered seeking shelter, but by then we were already soaked. JG’s umbrella provided some protection, but within minutes we looked like a pair of drowned rats. White rats.
I was wearing some lightweight walking boots, lined with Gortex, but my feet were so wet that when I put my feet down, bubbles squirted up through the material. It looked as though my socks had not been thoroughly rinsed when they were last washed. I was completely drenched.
The path back to the health post was now a torrent of yellow muddy water. Steps which had been cut into the clay were now treacherous and slippery. At first, children came out to play in the warm rain, but as the rainstorm became a cloudburst, even they took shelter. We reached the new health post just as the rain began to stop. The sun came out and everything looked shining and brilliant, but not clean. Children started playing in the rivulets between homes, making dams, racing twigs – Pooh sticks would be an apt term.
The rain began again, then stopped. It was a bit like colic – increasing in intensity, then dying back. By now we were surrounded by a pack of feral children. JG let them try on his spectacles. Then he taught them a drumming game and led them around the health centre like the Pied Piper.
He checked the work of his GPS plotter and gave him his marching orders around the camp to complete the mapping over the next couple of weeks. We squelched through the camp for half an hour until we reached the road, by the Kutupalong Hospital. Even though I hadn’t even started to dry out, I saw a few patients and picked up a pile of paperwork to do at the office. I started to sneeze…
Back in my shared room later in the evening, I emptied my pockets. My notes, written on paper, were sodden and illegible. My wallet was wringing wet, with £50 worth of Bangladeshi taka forming a costly mush. I carefully separated every ancient banknote and laid them on the table to dry. It looked like a scene where a forger had been producing counterfeit notes. They were almost dry by morning.