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Life inside a labyrinth

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2017/Samin

By Samin Sababa

Sultan Ahmed has been losing his way ever since he came to Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. His shed is among hundreds of thousands dug into the hills that once housed a lush forest.

Navigating the maze-like paths that run up and down the hills seems impossible to this 15-year-old Rohingya child from Myanmar. So he has just been going to the jungle to get firewood.
He wore an overwhelmed look sitting on the floor of a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space or CFS at the makeshift camp. He knows his way to the CFS because it stands apart from all nearby structures.

He brought with him two of his five younger siblings. Both their parents have been killed in Myanmar. That made Sultan the head of his household.

“I have an aunt, who we followed here. But she has her four children. We have an uncle too, but he has a new bride and a separate hut. They won’t be looking after us for long,” said Sultan, wearing the same wide-eyed expression.

The family has been surviving on relief, he said.

Many refugees from the camp have set up tiny shops and sold stacks of firewood beside the highway, but Sultan said he did not know how they did it. “I don’t have friends here. I don’t know anyone who can take me around.”

But he was not always helpless. Before the Myanmar army assault on his fishing village near Rakhine’s Koaisyang canal, he spent his entire day helping his family.

Sultan said he would wake up and take their five cows to the field. He would return with them in the evening and go fishing in the canal. His job was to catch fish for the family’s own consumption. He had been following the routine ever since he was seven years old.

His father was the breadwinner. He sold fish by travelling to villages. But a day before Eid-ul-Azha, he was rounded up with nine other men and taken away by soldiers.

“Next day, on Eid, we got a call from a neighbour who had gone to a nearby village to get relief. He said he saw my father’s dead body among a pile of other bodies dumped inside a hole on the ground. The soldiers were filling it up with soil. They killed my father by slitting his throat.”

Sultan’s family decided to flee right away. “We let our cows loose. No one we knew was in any position to buy them. Then we started walking towards the border.”

The family eventually reached a place called ‘Shokular Dwip’, an island on the way to Naf, the river that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh.

But Myanmar soldiers, positioned in the hills behind them, fired indiscriminately on the group. Several died including Sultan’s mother.
“We performed her last rites on our own and buried her in a shallow grave in the very clothes she was wearing,” said the child, seemingly lost also in his thoughts.     

“My mother had eight grams worth of gold jewellery. All of that is gone in coming here. We arrived here eight days after we set out from our village.”
His younger brother was playing with a plastic toy of a cow. It may be very long before they own anything of value. “I spend time playing with my two brothers and three sisters when I’m not collecting firewood,” said Sultan.                

I pray five times at the mosque here. I have so much time. I have to find something to do but I just can’t find my way here.”



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