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I cannot unsee what I have seen

The word ‘sandcastle’ conjures up happy seaside memories from a childhood growing up in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Days spent on the beach creating masterpieces of sand and stone. My brother and I would cleverly craft a moat so it would capture the tide before our castle was swept away. Today the word encapsulates a far more macabre mental image.

It is easy for me to visualise this horrific scene as it has been playing out in my mind since February. It is so utterly predictable. Stood in the squalor and the heat of those camps three months ago I looked out over hundreds of fragile bamboo shelters and, along with every other humanitarian worker there, I muttered the words, “just picture what will become of this place when the rains come.” And the rains have now come. This weekend they claimed their first lives. The death of two children is a small statistic but one that should shock us. These are children that have already lived through the horror of a journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Children now dead because their place of sanctuary was not a place of safety. For the Rohingya, the threat of violence and persecution has now been replaced by the threat of the monsoon and cyclones.

In February, I spent time with Rohinya women like Toyaba and had the privilege of taking their photographs and listening to their stories. Toyaba welcomed me into her little shelter with open arms and hospitality.

The monsoon season in Bangladesh has started to affect Rohingya refugees, who fled persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to take refuge in Bangladesh. Sometimes more rain falls in one day in Cox’s Bazar than falls in a whole year in Southend-on-Sea. Bangladeshis are used to the deluge of rain, their country has become sadly accustomed to it. But the threats posed to the Rohingya refugees are triple-fold: Flooding, mudslides and the risk of deadly diseases caused by poor sanitation and a lack of access to clean water. All of this is without considering the risk of cyclones. A member of UNHCR staff this weekend described the camps as a “sandcastle”, a sandcastle ready to topple. And as I remember the way flags waved in the sharp midday sun in Bangladesh as children ran with kites made from carrier bags a tear escapes me and runs down my cheek. This is a human-built sandcastle. Human violence led to this exodus and now human neglect allows people to live in such a precarious ‘castle in the sand’.

I spent just a few days in the makeshift homes of some of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar since August 2017. In Toyaba’s shelter, I sat crossed-legged avoiding a shaft of sunlight that pierced the ramshackle roof. Green plastic sheeting had not quite reached its way across the structure leaving parts of the room vulnerable to the sun – and now presumably just as vulnerable to the rain. Toyaba lived there, one of four generations of her family who had fled Myanmar. In her arms was swaddled baby Mohammad. A dear little boy of just two months old. Here, back in London, I cannot help but wonder if Toyaba has managed to secure her roof so that hole doesn’t let the rain in. I question whether Mohammad has had the vaccinations he needs. I ask myself whether the tears have stopped coming to Toyaba’s eyes when she speaks of Myanmar and all she has lost. I try not to think of her little home too much, because I know where she is, perched on the edge of a steep slope, the risks for her and her little family are high. She has no carefully crafted moat to protect her, no foundation of stone. I try not to think about it because it makes me feel sad, angry and impotent.

The Rohingya crisis is badly underfunded, and the needs are huge. I have seen with my own eyes the difference giving has made to families in Cox’s Bazar – families like Toyaba’s. I have also seen with my own eyes the potential for a catastrophe within a catastrophe this rainy season in Bangladesh because not enough of a difference has yet been achieved. I have been praying for a miracle and I have been praying earnestly for justice for these people, for the people we call Rohingya. I have been turning on the news lately with great hesitancy as I have not wanted to see a story like the one being shared today. I have been thinking of the children, like little Mohammad, who have the right to expect to live a life fit for a king or queen, but who are instead living on a castle made of sand. I have been thinking of the parents and grandparents who brought their children to safety now only to fear once again for their lives. And most of all, I think about the little boy who died this morning and I remember his mother. He was only three-years-old, she would have had to carry him through forests and water to reach her place of refuge in Bangladesh. And today, her safe-haven has become a hell and she will have to carry his little body once more to lay it to rest.

It is on days like today the idealist in me shrinks and holds her head in her hands. The world seems too unjust, too unfair, too sad. Yet, as much as I have seen the misery, I have also seen the potential for lives to be saved. As author and activist Arundhati Roy once said, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” I am accountable. I am accountable to Toyaba and Mohammad and to every person I met in Cox’s Bazar not to forget them. So tonight, I sit writing this blog because I want to ask the world not to forget either. Because we can still save lives by acting now. We can prevent lives from being lost. There are hundreds-of-thousands of refugees living in their plastic-sheeted castles in the sand in Bangladesh. They badly need our help. I write this blog tonight, not as Laura, All We Can’s Communications Manager. I write this blog as Laura, an All We Can supporter, and someone who cannot unsee what she has seen.

All We Can is working in Cox’s Bazar to help refugees secure their homes. A gift of just £88 could provide the materials needed to secure the home of a vulnerable family against the destructive monsoon rains.

Image by Lauren Anders Brown

About the Author Laura Cook

Laura works for All We Can as the Communications Manager. She is also an internationally acclaimed photographer with a passion for women's rights. She is studying MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies in her spare time and lives with her husband Stephen in Essex.

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