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Rohingya Camp Fire Eyewitness Account: 11 Deaths, 300 Missing

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On the 21st March, our Doctors Worldwide team was in the Camp 9 Clinic in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, visiting IOM colleagues to discuss our emergency care project. Less than 24 hours later, on the 22nd March, the entire structure and surrounding area had been destroyed by a devastating fire.

The Rohingya Camp Fire: “just call if you start sending anyone, we are ready.”

Hours after the starting of the fire, our phones were flooded with messages and updates of the large, well-organised response at hand by Rohingya and Bangladeshi first responders, ready to support their colleagues for what was at the time an unknown understanding of the scale of injuries and deaths they may be responding to. Our Bangladeshi colleagues – of those we’ve previously trained and continue to stay in touch with – sent supporting messages to each other in our Whatsapp group: “just call if you start sending anyone, we are ready.” I deeply admired and felt very proud of their colleagueship and importantly, courage and moral support.

The Aftermath of the Fire: Words Can’t Explain What We Witnessed

Our team assessed the area the following day to witness the new realities of the residents and workers of the camps. We had just started two large programmes, and one clinic enrolled was no longer an option to use. Words can’t explain what we witnessed in the aftermath. Car access was restricted so we set off on foot to visit our IOM colleagues in Camp 9 and the surrounding area that was severely affected by the fire. The security situation was strict, and there was a bustle of people carrying out widespread activities that my eyes could not take in all at once – people carrying large amounts of bamboo canes, people (many of who were children) searching through the rubble and broken glass – for reasons unknown, but likely attempting to find any remnants of their home, or items to sell or use to rebuild a new home – heavy boxes of aid and cartons of water on people’s shoulders, people sleeping in half-open shops that served as temporary shelters next to piles of clothing still releasing trails of smoke, workers piling up destroyed metal structures that had once served as a house or a shop…

I think what stood out to me most was a small make-shift area that served to assist camp residents to reunite with loved ones. There was a large yellow poster with a hand-written message outlining its purpose. A person with a megaphone was announcing names of people being searched for. A crowd of community members circulated the area waiting anxiously or just there for support or curiosity. A pain in my gut immediately ensued, thinking of my own family members and what that would be like if I needed to search for them with so much uncertainty.

The Impact of the Fire: 11 deaths, 300 still missing, many injured.

Since 2017, the Rohingya have continued to flee from persecution. After dealing with the physical and emotional wounds of the 2017 genocide, now history has repeated itself, likely triggering unfathomable emotion and grief of residents reliving the trauma of fires burning their homes, or loved ones disappearing.

Accounts are circulating of individuals unable to seek safety due to large wire fences surrounding them, serving as an inhumane barrier to the outside world and a right to citizenship. My heart goes out to the Rohingya communities and families of loved ones passed away or missing. There have been 11 deaths so far, with 300 still missing.

As mentioned, our colleagues lost crucial clinics too. They have been there since the very beginning of the refugee crisis, building the healthcare system for the Rohingya and host communities they serve. That day, nothing but shock, sadness, and fear was portrayed on their faces. Our team will never forget these emotions, and the recollection of events described by them who had to rush to move patients and community members to safety within minutes of the clinic being engulfed by the fire. They had not slept all night, making sure their colleagues and patients were OK. Some did not want to leave and wanted to do what they could, or just be there with their colleagues, and patients seeking basic care.

“This is my home,” one said. What was once a bustling, large, well-structured primary care clinic serving thousands of patients, now stood an emptied charred space, filled with Rohingya volunteers removing all of the damaged structures into piles outside – hospital beds, equipment, filing cabinets…

So far, 6 health facilities have been reported to be damaged or destroyed, previously providing care for over 70,000 people. There is now even more anger, sadness, and grief to think about what the Rohingya will wake up to each day, whether they were affected by the fire or not; it’s now a fear they have that it could happen to them, or it could happen again. Our world’s refugee crises are only getting larger and more complex, with the constant risk of injury, violence, disease spread and climate change. Strict policies and crackdown of movement and seeking refuge, puts innocent, vulnerable people in danger every single day.

The Rohingya Camp Fire: Looking to the Future

Clinics and structures can be rebuilt, but emotions, grief, and loss remain. This was the third blaze in 4 days, will there be more? And how many times can the same individuals and families rebuild their entire life, and endure yet more harsh emotional trauma?

The stories now coming out of those affected by this fire are distressing and extremely sad. A missing child, a mother, a father… at Doctors Worldwide we are offering support to our colleagues – some of which we have known for 3 years now – on the ground, who are working hard to adapt to their new realities and provide ongoing healthcare and support to the Rohingya and host communities. Given the severe loss to the health sector, we are monitoring the situation closely; this will have lasting health impacts to Camp 9 residents and surrounding areas . As a reader of this personal reflection, I encourage you to follow a refugee crisis, a story, every so often. Although your daily reality may be different to what you see in the news, the human element is still there, and I only encourage awareness of what others in the world endure; it really could be any one of us.

Emergency care development in the camps is now even more important. Our DICE (Doctors Worldwide Improving Care in Health Emergencies) & PGF (Postgraduate Fellowship in Refugee & Migrant Health) participants are currently on the ground in the camps, serving those in need and utilising their medical skills to support the healthcare system in Cox’s Bazar.

To support the continuation of this work, and the strengthening & development of the primary care and emergency healthcare system in the refugee camps, you can donate to our DICE & PGF programmes here.

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