Sketching in a Rohingya Refugee camp in Bangladesh

[By Dan Peterson in Cardiff, Wales, UK – drawn in Unchiprang, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh]

I spent the last few weeks of January in Bangladesh. The first week was spent in the North of the country in a region called Sylhet. I was there to draw pictures of a British Council funded project called “Connecting Classrooms” which saw a group of teachers from Cardiff and the South Wales Valleys visiting and teaching in schools around the region. I will write a post about that part of the trip at a later date.

The second part of the trip was an eleven hour train journey followed by a four hour car drive which took me from Sylhet to Cox’s Bazar via Chittagong. Then on from Cox’s Bazar along the Kolatoli beach, at 155km long, the longest unbroken beach in the world, for about 50km to the Unchiprang Refugee Camp. The camp is fairly new and home to some 24,000 refugees who have made the journey to Bangladesh from Myanmar to escape the “ethnic cleansing” being perpetrated upon them by the Myanmar military and, allegedly, groups of Buddhist civilians.

I was in the company of a group of British people from the Bangladesh Association Cardiff, who I had been working with during the last few months on 2017, to help raise money for the refugees. This visit coincided with the delivery of £40,000 worth of aid supplied by the Association and paid for by the people of South Wales who donated much of the money by visiting their local restaurants and takeaways who then donated their profits.

When we first arrived at the camps we stopped to register with the authorities and found ourselves next to a Malaysian filed hospital. It was early and I met the first Rohingya’s of the trip. They were queueing outside the hospital. A number of them had only just been registered and, on seeing me, were keen to show me their registration cards. They were kind enough to let me draw their pictures, although the little Rohingya lady found the experience rather overwhelming and slipped away through the crowd that had gathered while I was drawing her.

We moved on from there driving for maybe 45 mins. There was no break in the hills covered with refugee camps. Shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin sheets with the odd official NGO (Non Government Organisation) tent amoung them. It was during this drive that the scale of the situation became painfully apparent. There are, officially, over 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh with locals telling me it is over a million in reality. They are all living in these temporary shelters, crammed together with no sanitation and little food. They have used all the trees from the surrounding hillsides to make fires for warmth and cooking and the bamboo to make their shelters.

When we arrived in Unchiprang we drove into a paved courtyard that sits at the middle of the camps distribution centre. A meeting was in progress in a covered area at one end of the courtyard. On either side ran covered bamboo fenced queueing areas, much like at a football ground or festival site, where refugees were beginning to gather. It was the daily briefing, apparently, where NGO’s and volunteers discuss with the local Army the coming events for the day. We met Paul Chamberlain, Logistics Director for a charity called MOAS. He told us they originally came to Bangladesh to assist with water borne refugees who were making their way from Myanmar to Bangladesh across a stretch of water between there two countries. The charity had originally been set up in Italy and were among the first to assist migrants and refugees attempting the crossing of the Mediterranean. It became quickly apparent that they were needed on the land more and so have set up a number of aid centres, mainly medical, in the camps, and that Unchiprang was the location of one of those. He explained that currently their biggest concern was the impending monsoon season, only a couple of months away, which was likely to bring flash floods and mudslides due to the deforestation I described earlier.

I stood at the end of the paved area and began drawing the camp that lay across a dry, muddy, field and stretched out across the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The roofs of shelters shone out, reflecting the harsh midday sun. It was the middle of winter in Bangladesh but the temperature was still in the high twenties. A group of children soon gathered round and I got into conversation with a student who had simply come to observe and see the refugee crisis for himself. He was keen to talk to me and practice his english. I recorded the conversation as I had the conversation with Paul Chamberlain earlier, as I was gathering sound for BBC Radio and online reports. Must have been quite a sight, drawing board proped up on a fence, pen in one hand sketching and recorder in the other with a lead trailing to an earphone in one ear.

As I drew the sound of big diesel engines came from down the dusty track which had brought us to the camp and which ran between the camp on one side and a makeshift bazar on the other. Typical bangladesh market stalls with fresh fruit, sweets and biscuits and even a barber shop. The trucks came into view as they drove further along the track, past the medical centre and various aid stations situated on the camp side of the road and on to where I was standing by the distribution centre. They reversed, one at a time, alongside one of the sheltered queues to the left of the courtyard. There was a period of increased activity as the trucks were unloaded into holding pens that were positioned to the side and behind the meeting area.

Children and adults alike waited in their queues on either side of the courtyard. They didn’t have to wait much longer. As the children tucked into a hot meal paid for from the South Wales fund and prepared for them on site, the green tabard wearing men of the Bangladesh Association Cardiff worked with the local aid workers to distribute food parcels and cleansing kits to the refugees.

We had been brought to Unchiprang by retired Major Sayesta Kahn. Sayesta is Operations Director for Best Western Heritage hotels in Cox’s Bazar. He has personally paid for the construction of a school and orphanage, medical centre and distribution centre at Unchinprang camp. He works as coordinator for the camp and supervises the military personnel as well as the NOGs and volunteers who run the camp. He took me to see the school and orphanage. Effectively a set of tents some 400 metres or so further along the track. As we approached I could see water tanks with pipes running from them to a set of taps set into a concrete hard standing by the side of the road. Children were drinking from the taps. The school is made up of about 4 or 5 large marquee style tents with rugs on the floor and a board at one end. The orphanage is a group military green tents fitted with solar lights and filled with sleeping bags and mats. A row of chemical toilets runs behind and a dusty play area to one side with a volleyball / badminton net set up in the middle of it. “Major” tells me he has some 400 children in the school and 108 orphans. “Major” is currently having a set of classrooms built next to the water tanks where he says the children will eventually be able to access distance learning provided by teachers from Dhaka. There were not a lot of children at the school as they had gone for food but “Major” introduced me to one little orphan boy called Fahim.

Fahim told me his story with “Major” acting as translator. When the Myanmar Army and Buddhist’s came to his home he had run to hide in the jungle. He watched as his parents and younger sister were slaughtered and then as his home and family were destroyed by fire. He ran further into the jungle until he came across a group of Rohingya’s who he then followed to the border. They spent time in ‘no-man’s land between the two countries until the Bangladesh military allowed them to cross into Bangladesh. He was found crying on the side of the road and picked up by some Bangladesh soldiers who brought him straight to “Major”. He now lives in the orphanage and appears to be inseparable from “Major” whenever he is at the school. Fahim sat for the portrait which was drawn with pencil, brush pen and indian ink wash.

Before leaving the camp I was shown around the medical centre / hospital that “Major” has set up and is run by Army medics from the Bangladesh Medical Corp. I met there another refugee, a man who was helping in the medical centre and who had escaped with his family when the soldiers came and burned down their house and farm.

We visited the camp again the next day and spent time with the children in the school and delivered medicines to the hospital.

Major showed me the orphanage which is a group of tents set up behind the school. Each tent has a solar powered light, sleeping bags, water filters and spare clothes.

External Links:

Here is a link to the audio I gathered and which was edited by the BBC for broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on Monday 30th April 2018: Fast forward to 1:52 approx.

Here is a link to social media content (via Twitter) produced using the audio and the illustrations I provided to the BBC:

Fund Raising:

Here is a link to the fundraising page I have set up to try and raise more money for the refugees, specifically at Unchiprang camp. I will make sure the money raised goes directly to the camp administrator.


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