600,000 people... but there was just silence

A Bandon woman who has worked with Concern for more than 30 years talks to EMMA CONNOLLY about their latest challenge
600,000 people... but there was just silence
 Anne O'Mahony talking to parents in nutrition centre in Rohingya.

A REFUGEE population three times the size of Cork — that’s 603,000 people — are facing at least a five year wait in a Bangladeshi camp before they find out where they can call home.

And even though most of them don’t even know where Ireland is — in fact, many of them don’t even know they’re in Bangladesh — it gives them an enormous boost to know that we support their plight.

That’s according to Bandon woman Anne O’Mahony, one of the country’s most experienced aid workers, who has just returned from a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, where she saw their trauma first hand.

Bangladesh, she explains, is a tiny country, smaller than Ireland, but with a population of 163 million people.

The region made headlines in Ireland this week because of the decision by musician Bob Geldof to return his Freedom of the City of Dublin in protest at the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who also holds the award. Ms Suu Kyi has faced heavy criticism over her failure to address allegations of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

Anne O’Mahony’s attention is focused on alleviating the plight of the refugees.

“It’s hopelessly over-crowded,” she said of the camp. “And now 603,000 people have fled across its border in the last two months after fleeing a sustained campaign of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Anne O'Mahony, Director of International Programmes for Concern Worldwide. Photographer: Kevin Carroll
Anne O'Mahony, Director of International Programmes for Concern Worldwide. Photographer: Kevin Carroll

The stateless Muslim minority who are viewed as illegal immigrants have had little or no access to basic services for decades but when a campaign of ethnic cleansing began in August by the Myanmar army, they felt they had no option but to flee for their lives.

Anne has worked in some of the world’s poorest countries including Lebanon and Ethopia during her 30 year career with Concern, initially as a nurse and now as the organisation’s Director of International Programmes.

She’s seen people at their most vulnerable but says what she witnessed when working with the Rohingans was ‘quite weird’ on two counts: the silence and the fact that no-one wanted to return home.

“Even though there are that many people there, it was the silence that struck me. There was no noise or energy. People are hugely traumatised. Some just look off into the distance and are not in touch with reality at all.

“These are people who have lived with 20, 30 40 years of continuous persecution so I asked them what was the straw that made them flee their homes?

“And they said it was the blatant attacks on women that made them grab what they had and go. Some walked for seven, eight days just to get here.

“Many of them after that were then held up in camps on the border with no food and no water, before they were eventually allowed to cross into Bangladesh.”

That was in August when she said the army could no longer “hold back the tide of humanity”.

Boli and Mohamud (not their real names) at Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Boli and Mohamud (not their real names) at Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Anne said the levels of rape and torture were very high.

“Children as young as 12 or 13 were routinely raped — these people are just relieved to be in a safe place.”

In all the places Anne has worked she said the one ambition among those she helped has been to go home and rebuild their home country.

“But not one Rohingan has said that — they don’t feel like they belong anywhere; they’re a stateless community that nobody wants — they’re not considered a nationality of any place.”

Concern’s immediate action there is to operate four feeding centres, screen children for disease and manage illness.

“We are working with extremely vulnerable children who have gone through so much and suffered so much to make the journey from their home in Rakhine State.

Concern has already screened 10,000 children under the age of five through its nutrition programme, provided treatment to over 1,000 children suffering with severe malnutrition, and distributed food packages to 123,000 households.

“It’s hard to believe that two months ago, the area where the Rohingya people now live was an elephant reserve. It has now been completely transformed.

“Roads have been built, shelters have been constructed, and people at least have somewhere to live that is secure and safe.”

But she said there was nothing for them to do all day long, they can’t work and as the camp is only two months old as yet there aren’t facilities like schools in place.

“Our first job is saving lives and minimising disease, introducing clean water and sanitation — only when people are more settled will things like that happen.”

There are now believed to be more than 900,000 members of the Rohingya community living in Bangladesh, with many solely dependent on humanitarian aid for food and shelter.

Concern, which has worked in the country since 1972, has responded to the crisis by setting up four nutrition centres and has reached a total of 250,000 people so far.

Ireland’s largest humanitarian aid agency has 40 staff on the ground in camps in Moynaghorna, Hakim Para, Jamtoli and Burma Para, where it is screening and treating children suffering from malnutrition.

While Myanmar has vowed to co-operate with the repatriation of those living in camps on the border, the future is still uncertain for the Rohingya population as their ethnicity is not recognised in their home country.

Khaleda (not her real name) at Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Khaleda (not her real name) at Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

“At the end of the day, can they go back to Myanmar — there’s no openness even though it’s been their home for generations,” said Anne.

The transition will be further complicated by the fact that several Rohingya villages have been destroyed by military forces and many refugees fled their homes without papers or identification.

“They fled from huge trauma. During my visit, I have heard countless stories of how the Rohingya in Myanmar have been victimised. They grow their crops in the field but as soon as the crops are grown, the army rushes in and takes them.

“They don’t have health services, they don’t have schools. The final straw was when they came under attack at the beginning of July, causing all of these people to flee for their lives,” added Anne.

“These are essentially stateless people. We talked to a woman who didn’t even know what a vote was when we asked her if she had an ID card from Myanmar. She didn’t know what it was to be a member of a nation or a country.

“So much has been done but it’s only the very beginning. A lot needs to happen to make this place suitable for the Rohingya for the short time that they’re going to be able to remain here, and before decisions on what will happen to them in the long term are made.”

Just returned from Bangladesh and next headed to Kenya and Somalia, what motivates Anne to keep going?

“There’s a huge personal bonus for me once you can see you’re changing people’s lives, can see a marked improvement and making things better for the most vulnerable of people,” she explained.

She said she envisaged the situation with the hundreds of thousands being accommodated in camps for five years or more and appealed for people’s support. Naturally, like all charities, Concern’s donations took a hit from other charity scandals; she said things were beginning to pick up but admitted it can be a struggle.

“These are deeply traumatised people who have no way back at the moment so we’ll be physically staying with them and it’s a huge gee up for them when we say that people are supporting them, even though most wouldn’t even know where Ireland is.”

To find out more about Concern’s work in Bangladesh or to donate towards the Rohingya appeal, log on to www.concern.net.

Concern Worldwide, an international non- governmental humanitarian organisation, is dedicated to reducing suffering and working towards the ultimate elimination of extreme poverty in the world’s poorest countries. The public can receive regular updates through the Concern Worldwide website, www.concern.net and follow Concern Worldwide on Twitter http://www.concern.net/twitter.

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