'FARIDA'S VILLAGE WAS BURNT AT NIGHT AND SHE FLED BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT'

I entered Ukhia town ten days after the first refugees arrived from Myanmar. The car slowed to walking pace because the road had tens of thousands of refugees on it. Surrounding the car there were women and children tapping on the windows, pointing at their mouths and stomachs. Others on the road were sleeping, or staring blankly and worst of all, weeping quietly. My colleague Mahbub told me, “it was worse last week”.

I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Thick crowds of people, barefoot, ragged, exhausted, confused and afraid. I continued on foot. On both sides of the road, as far as I could see, there were refugees. Every available space had people on it, often just sitting in a small group, but many had already built tiny ‘shelters’: four branches and a few plastic bin bags.

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Other countries have hosted more refugees, but none I know of have received close to 500,000 in six weeks, concentrated in such a small area. Any country would struggle to cope, but despite being one of the poorest in the world, the local Bangladeshi population and government made a valiant attempt to support people with food, water and shelter.

In 20 years of working with refugees and other disaster survivors, I have never seen conditions this congested. Thousands of flimsy shelters tightly packed together, spreading up and over hills as far as I could see. There is a terrible smell everywhere, due to lack of toilets. In some cases just a block of four latrines for a thousand people.

It is rainy season here, and a downpour starts minutes after I arrive. The ground quickly floods and all the shacks have an inch of water inside. Many of the least lucky still don’t have any plastic, so they just squat in the rain, ankle deep in mud. Conditions here are ripe for a second disaster: diseases can spread fast. Already it is obvious that hundreds have diarrhea. Hundreds of tents on the hill side look like they might slip away at any moment.

I spend an hour with one family who have managed to buy a few thick plastic sheets and tied them between two trees, to create a small dry patch. Farida is 20 and has three children, as well as their younger siblings and her elderly mum. Two women and six children under ten. Farida’s youngest is only one week old. There are no men.

Their story is typical among those fleeing Myanmar. They were in their village when armed men attacked. Huts were set alight and men and boys were taken away or shot. Women and children ran, often barefoot. Farida and her family fled at night. Their family got split up. Tears streaming, she quietly tells me “I was pregnant, my husband ran to see what was happening, he never came back, and I couldn’t manage to keep the rest of the family together. We had rice stores, money, cooking pots, clothes, tools, everything… but I couldn’t take anything because I was in pain, it was dark and there was fire everywhere”.

Farida was eight months pregnant. She gathered the family she could see and ran for safety. She led her family on an eight day walk, across fields, forests and rivers, to cross the border to the safety of a refugee camp. Along the way, she met other refugees who shared some food, which Farida always gave to her mother and the children. By the time she arrived in Bangladesh, she was malnourished and weak. Local people fed her and a few days later she gave birth. She was too weak to breastfeed. Farida and her family have had only a small bowl of rice once a day since arriving and it was clear that her whole family were weak with hunger.

CARE and other DEC Agencies have given cooked food directly to Farida and 3,500 other vulnerable people. I returned 3 weeks after my first visit and found the camps even larger and even more dense. Even more women had newborn children, meaning they also made the hazardous journey while pregnant. I also met children who had been separated from their families, lost and frightened.

Despite the chaos and crowds, women had created order within their tiny living spaces with neat piles of clothes, bedding and whatever few items they had brought or received. Mud stoves had been built and many families were cooking together to make rations go further and save on wood. Family members were taking turns to stand in relief queues, search for firewood, clean clothes, or look after babies. I was moved by the sheer resilience of people despite all the traumas they had faced.

My wife gave birth in Glasgow three months ago, in a beautiful hospital surrounded by the best care in the world. We took a taxi to the hospital, all smiles and excitement. I have two other children, under five, surrounded by love and security. Perhaps because I am a father myself, this crises has shaken me to the core. After 20 years of working in Humanitarian crises, I have never felt injustice as keenly as I do now.

Zia Choudhury, 45 from Glasgow, is Country Director of Care International.

'IN THE MIDST OF PAIN AND SUFFERING THESE PEOPLE OFFER ONLY KINDNESS'

It was around noon, about 35 degrees, and my clothes were soaked from the humidity, when I spotted Mohammed sitting in the narrow passage between tents.

He was 52, but looked in his mid 60s, and had been a teacher in Myanmar. He was dressed in a grey shirt, that was once white, and had a dirty lungi cloth covering his legs. When he got up to invite me inside I could tell he was exhausted and aching.

Mohammed arrived at the Balukhali camp in Bangladesh on September 10 along with 5000 other Rohingya people, who fled his village.

His story was of death and destruction. A single tear ran down his cheek as he told me the torment and torture faced in Myanmar.

As I talked to him about his hopes for the future (he dreams of opening a school for Rohingya children) his sons came out to see me.

They were in their late teens and each of them picked up a bit of plastic and started to fan me. I asked them to stop - it didn’t feel right that they were cooling me.

But then one of them said “thank you” and smiled at me. I realised that this tent, with holes in the sides and the roof, had become his home. He wanted to show me hospitality. He was grateful that someone had taken an interest in their plight.

I couldn’t believe that in the midst of the pain and suffering I had witnessed these people were showing me kindness.

Tearfund has been trying to help with the ongoing influx of people, each with a story to tell, each needing help. This week I have seen hundreds of people arriving with horrific injuries and urgent medical needs - missing limbs, pregnant women about to give birth, malnourished babies. I’ve been amazed by how by the medics working with Tearfund’s local partner, the Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust, are dealing with it all all - from offering pain relief and vitamin supplements to, dressing wounds and assisting with complicated births. But they are in urgent need of more supplies.

Later in the week I met Jono, 28, who arrived at the camp a month ago. His eyes lit up when I said hello to him and he invited me into the small tent he now calls home. He told me about the shop he had back home. While we were talking his young daughter came in with bottles of juice. She handed me and my colleagues one each.

I told Jono that I couldn’t take the drink from them because it would not be right. He insisted, almost pleaded with me that I take it. I couldn’t take any of the few supplies that he had. His home was a tent - but he still treated us like guests in a mansion.

On another day, as we walked back to the car someone tugged on my arm.

A boy about three-years-old was looking up at me. He had a huge smile on his face. His forehead was sweaty and his clothes were dirty. He was barefoot and thinner than I’d expect a toddler to be.

“Thank you very much,” he said in English, with a big grin. Despite living in such difficult conditions and having nothing but the clothes he was wearing, he was grateful.

I got out my phone and we played around on it for a while. He liked the camera filter that gave him dog ears the most.

He and his friends followed me back to the car. As we got in he was hitting the side of the car. “Thank you, thank you!” he said.

Antony Bushfield, 27 from Glasgow, works with relief and development agency Tearfund.

'WHEN THE ATTACKS HAPPENED THEY RAPED AND TORTURED WOMEN'

Until a few weeks ago the name 'Cox's Bazar' would conjure up vivid memories of childhood holidays. As a Scot of Bangladeshi origin, I used to spend my school holidays visiting relatives near the city, which boasts the world's longest beach.

All of that changed last week, when I went back there with a very different purpose.

As an aid worker, I went to support the emergency relief effort targeting the thousands who have fled violence in Myanmar. At the last count, this amounted to over half a million Rohingya people.

I spoke to the women and girls living in a camp in Cox's Bazar's. I asked them about the life they had left behind and the life they have now. What I saw and heard will stay with me forever.

Taslima, ten, walked barefoot for five days to reach Bangladesh after seeing her father being shot dead in Myanmar. When I met her, she had been living in the camp with her younger sisters for 20 days.

It was also the day that she received her first pair of shoes since arriving in Cox's Bazar.

They were a simple pair of rubber sandals; part of a 'dignity kit' being distributed by ActionAid to 2,000 families in the camp.

"When I fled I only had the clothes I am wearing," Taslima told me. "I couldn't bring anything."

The dignity kits also contained bars of soap, clothes and underwear .

In the camp, the lack of proper sanitation is pressing. When it rains heavily, the lanes become rivers and waste from latrines run into the flood water, sometimes seeping into homes. To prevent the spread of disease, ActionAid is installing toilets and bathing areas.

The charity is also offering much-needed counselling to women and girls. There is a well of raw emotion in the camp. Almost everyone there has lost someone. Sometimes the tears flow as children recall seeing things that no-one should have to see. Sometimes emotions are dammed up as people try to stay focused on the everyday business of survival.

Amina, for example, is another lady I met who is eight months pregnant. Her troubled eyes remained dry as she described the violence that prompted her to flee her home while in such a vulnerable condition.

"When the attacks started they would break into homes and rape and torture women," she said. "Some of the women were killed and some stayed alive after the rapes. I could hear their screaming."

The 33-year-old now fears for the safety of her daughters and unborn child because they are living in a flimsy hut made of bamboo, rope and tarpaulin.

Down the hill from Amina's hut is ActionAid's women's safe space, where she has been offered antenatal care. It is run by trained counsellors and paramedics.

Fatema, 35, is a counsellor in the camp. Most of her clients have seen houses being burned and people being slaughtered. Some of them have survived sexual violence.

"We listen to people's experiences and we try to build them up," she said. "We explain to them that what happened was not their fault… I tell them: 'you have to survive, you have to live...and I am beside you. We are all beside you."

Under the golden gleam of sunset, it's clear that there is a certain truth to Fatema's words. Amid the hardship, ordinary life carries on as much as it can. The smell of wood smoke pierces the air as mothers prepare dinner and children stare in wonder as a digger eats chunks out of a hillside to create shelter for newly arrived refugees.

Every day more people cross into Bangladesh. Many of them are mothers like Amina with young children. They are exhausted, hungry and traumatised and they need our help.

Himaya Quasem, who moved to Aberdeen when she was 12, is aged 36 and works with Action Aid.