A woman rushed into our clinic holding a piece of cardboard. The scribbled, broken English read, Not come late…Help. Her brother for two days had neither walked nor eaten. She said that he had been beaten. She was desperately afraid for his life.
Where they live, there are only footpaths, steps carved in dirt that traverse steep hills. The smoothness of the steps, their ledges worn bare from feet hauling bamboo poles and tarpaulins, boxes of fruit, plastic barrels of water, firewood and human bodies into the heart of a camp too vast to count is population, tell us stories. The more worn the steps, the older the camp. The smoother the steps, the more we understand the density of the vast migration into the deforested hills of southern Bangladesh. On these steps we track the escape from the ongoing genocide in Myanmar. These steps speak suffering but they also reveal a burly will to survive among the Rohingya people.
Chris, our clinic field coordinator carried a folded stretcher on his shoulder. I followed with our translator, Mohammed, in a rushed cadence up the slopes. “When the rainy season comes, this camp will wash away,” commented Mohammed as he slipped upwards on the loose dirt. Up three slopes, down two and then along a final cliff-like ledge, we arrived at a small home. We removed our shoes and stepped into the shelter, wrapped in stifling plastic tarps. There lay a 19-year old, sweating, with his eyes closed. His sister had found him unconscious with a piece of cloth tied around his neck. She heard that he had been choked before being hit by a wooden board. Though Chris and I found minimal signs of trauma when we did a rapid initial assessment, we were very worried. This teenager was paralyzed. He did not move; he didn’t speak; he didn’t respond to pain. His eyes shifted from side to side when different voices spoke; he wept when he heard his sister’s voice, that was all.
We moved him to the stretcher. The weight of the metal-poled retractable cot is frequently greater than the weight of the patients we’ve carried out of the camp and to our clinic. The elderly and malnourished living here are beyond frail. But this patient was different, he was fit, muscular, and he had been well-fed. According to his sister, he had graduated with honors from his secondary school right before fleeing his village in Myanmar. We shifted him out of the tent and along the cliff. As we carried him out of the camp, a crowd of fifty or more people formed around us. For 30 minutes we navigated the slopes with our patient, his face covered to protect his eyes from the sunlight. The crowd asked if he was alive. Back at our clinic, we then loaded him onto an ambulance to take him to the International Red Crescent (ICRC) field hospital. I sat next to him in of the ambulance and held his arms to his chest so that he would not fall off of the stretcher while the vehicle trembled along the tired roads. The young man cried the entire trip, his tears carved rivers through the caked dirt on his cheeks. He did not fit the picture of a neurologically devastated patient, nor did he have signs on his neck from strangulation.
At the field hospital, he became slightly more responsive, but he was still far from normal. We considered catatonia. People who have experienced profound traumatic events, when reintroduced to some other trauma, have been observed to fall into a catatonic state, in which they seem to be physically paralyzed. Our ambulance team left the patient and his sister at the field hospital to return to our clinic, now saturated with patients waiting to be seen.
The road from the ICRC to our clinic is chaotic to say the least. Traffic, goats, people and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) line its borders in an incessant shuffle of movement and aid. We drove by one of the entrances to the camp (now preparing to increase its size to support 800,000 refugees) and there I saw a child running over a hill with a kite in tow. Behind him, more children, more kites. We had an entourage of onlookers who followed the teenagers body down from the camp, and now back up towards the heart of it, children ran and laughed.
A few days before to this event, on Winter Solstice, my team walked through the camp. We saw soccer fields and cricket pitches we rice once grew. We saw families playing kick volley ball together, small shops selling snacks. We saw many kites made from discarded plastic. Even the darkest day of the year was filled with the palpable energy of play. Children had filled a plastic water jug with air and were hitting it into the air as if it was a balloon. Adults laughed together, telling stories. This neighborhood in the camp was lit with excitement. It reminded me of walking through holiday markets in New York City’s Central Park. There was the flavor of thrill in the air. But through the crowd of onlookers watching the evening sports, we saw a man who walked towards the festivities from the road. He carried something on his shoulder. As he approached, we saw that it was a body, a woman in her late teens or early twenties. She was dead. He had brought her home, presumably from a clinic nearby, to his new home, to his home in which there was no fear of government sponsored rape, arson or massacre. He carried her to this now home to be buried in peace.
The scenes of suffering and joy here remain in polar contrast while ever shifting. There are moments of paralysis and moments of action. There are treatments for catatonia. There are methods by which to keep moving forward regardless of what has gone in the past. The solutions are as fluid as the crisis itself, and yet one thing remains constant in this collective. This thing looks like hope. It looks like resilience. It arises from family and community. At times it seems completely impossible, absurd even to consider. Yet, it remains pervasive.
I write this on Christmas Eve, a holiday that I was raised celebrating. It is time when we light candles and sing songs of birth, of rebirth. This is a time, back home, we we use the word “peace” with abandon. Here in the camp, we say it with every greeting: as-salāmu ʿalaykum (Peace be with you). Here, we see profound suffering every day, which is but a fraction of the trauma that most Rohingyas have experienced for years. The Myanmar government denies this ethnic cleansing, calling it “fake news.” Other media sources have reported on the horrors here, with keen accuracy, but they write without a sense of resiliency. What you read in the free press is true. But there is another truth that I would like to add to the narrative. It is the truth of human survival that rises with the kites in the mornings, held by children, who fly them above the hardship below.
If you are interested in helping, please consider donating to one of the many organizations working tirelessly to serve Rohingya refugees. The organization I’m working with is called MedGlobal. You can support them here.