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When a massive fire gutted several Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar on 22 March, more than 45,000 people were displaced, and all facilities were destroyed. What is it like to walk through the camp when most things are in ashes? Alal Ahmed shows us.
Standing atop a hill overlooking Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, all the eyes can see is a black desert. A week back, there stood houses, shops, hospitals, community centres – now all of it is gone. It makes one think, what it must have looked like while the fire was burning.
Late afternoon on 22 March, the locals sitting in shops to the east side of Balukhali camp smelled something burning. A fire had started from the west. They thought there was plenty of time for them to move to safety. A strong wind was blowing that day.
Within 30 minutes, the fire reached them. They ran with only what they had in their pockets.
“The earth was still hot the next day, even after the fire was put out”, says one aid worker.
Read more: How the Rohingya have built their own space for women in Cox’s Bazar
All the structures in the camp were made of bamboo – it burns easy, and fire spreads quickly. Walking through the camp now, the remnants of the fire can be seen – a large plastic water tank melted like a candle.
At least 13 people died in the fire. Most of them were either elderly or very young. They could not get out of the fire’s path in time.
Some people are more vulnerable than others, in the aftermath of a disaster. There are no sources of water available. The fire had welded the water taps shut. No latrines standing. For women and young girls, it is much worse.
Wild theories about how the fire started began to emerge soon after the dust settled. One man said he had seen another fire start from the opposite direction, while this one was already going on. Another said it must have been a cigarette that had started the fire. The official cause, after an investigation from the fire service, was found to have been an explosion from a cooking gas cylinder.
Walking along the camp, the children are the most interesting to see. They play in the burnt land where houses stood. They pick up ashes and use them to form a game. The food they received in foam containers was secured with rubber bands. They use these bands for other games and trade among themselves like playing cards.
Older children help the younger ones down hilly slopes. They come and go in search of water.
Children small enough that it can be said they recently learnt to walk, climb down a hill carrying jugs and bottles almost as big as them. A boy tries to balance himself while descending down a hill, holding a large jug filled with water.
There was a Turkish hospital in camp 9. It was one of the first to go in the fire. Temporary aid shelters using tarpaulin have been set up to offer healthcare to the survivors. Walking forward, a boy sits on a chair with a table in front of him. Laid out on the table is medicine. It is a temporary pharmacy.
The camps were located in a hilly area. This makes bringing building materials difficult.
People are given a sheet of tarpaulin and some bamboo. Speaking to a young boy, he says in clear English, that he is returning after buying some bamboo with his own money. None of this is close to enough in rebuilding what they lost. Nor is enough the amount of safe water they currently have access to.
Repairs are being done now. The trees have burnt crisp, there are no structures left, so no one has any shade to stand in. Slowly, shade is being set up. Water tanks are moving in. Toilets are being reconstructed. Buildings are being rebuilt.
Read more: A classroom in the sky: Building upwards in the Rohingya camps
A fire similar to this one had occurred in January. It started at 9pm and ended at 3am. While the fire had ended from one side, repairs had already begun from the other. A stable state was reached within two days.
What happens after everything is burnt down? Another camp located in Ukhiya is filled with greenery. Many organisations took green initiatives, planting trees and distributing seeds to families. As a result, the shelters can no longer be seen. All one can see is greenery.
As this camp is also being rebuilt, one thing to draw hope from is the children. Amidst a background of ashes, black and grey, the children, who have already been through so much, are sparks of colour. They are playing in the child friendly spaces, singing songs and dressing up in yellow, green and pink costumes, rising again from another tragedy. Hopefully this camp will be green again soon as well.
Alal Ahmed is a communications specialist at Humanitarian Crisis Management Programme, BRAC.
BRAC is the largest civil society responder to the Rohingya crisis in Cox’s Bazar, and has been working to ensure basic needs, protection and socio-economic opportunities for people in the camps and the host community since the influx began in 2017. On 22 March 2021, BRAC was on the ground responding to the most immediate needs of the community; alongside safe drinking water and food, tents were being installed to shelter people who were affected.
To know more about HCMP’s work, visit BRAC’s response website.