The Rohingya Reality: You Need to Read This

by Nathan Burns, Founder

Take a moment to think about the world you live in. Not the world we live in. Your world.

Think about your family. Remember important special moments spent with them. Breathe in their laughter, their emotion, their sheer presence. Next take a walk around your home. Look at the pictures on the wall, think about what they mean. Feel the comfort of your memories, the safety of your bedroom, the creativity of your kitchen, the cleanliness of your bathroom.

All the things you treasure, all in one place.

Now imagine – just for a moment – that in the depths of night your house is razed to the ground. Imagine all you own – keepsakes, cars, boats, pets…whatever – completely destroyed. Imagine members of your family being shot, beaten and raped. Imagine losing sight of them as they try to flee – as you try to flee. Imagine the feeling of doing everything you can to save or help them, and not being able to.

Suddenly the world, your world, is  destroyed. That thought you’ve had so many times, ‘It can’t happen here’ has happened, and everything has changed.

History has proven time and time again, that this is how genocide works. A series of brutal attacks, with rape playing a critical part, done quick. Overnight. Executed in bursts over many years, until a certain population is erased.

Not a day passed during DRG’s deployments where our minds weren’t blown by the brutality of the crimes inflicted on these people or the depravity of their new forced life.

I recall thinking more than a few times that in some, small way, perhaps it was the lucky ones who died.

This Crisis is Man-Made

Which brings me to the overriding and constant thought that has been in my mind whilst in Bangladesh: this – aaallllll of this – just doesn’t need to be. All this is man-made! Nothing more than a long series of ridiculous over-reactions, callous misunderstandings and a general lack of compassion for other human beings. Sure, some of this (maybe all of this) might go back centuries, but somewhere – everywhere – along the line tensions were sparked, hostilities created and populations ostracised because of a lack of compassion between brothers.

The more I thought about this single point and the more I looked around and saw the sad, gaunt faces of the Rohingya, the horrible, filthy, transient condition of their lives and the gargantuan NGO industry that has sprung up around it, the more I realised that, sadly, they’re not the only ones. Yemen. Syria. Somalia. Afghanistan. All around the world misplaced populations are fleeing the brutality of oppression rooted in geopolitics, egotism and a lack of compassion and understanding between men.

The Rohingya are the latest in a long, long, long list of innocents over the ages that simply want to live their lives. They weren’t the first and they certainly won’t be the last. Their suffering is immense and painful and brutal and heartbreaking but – and what a sad indictment this is on the human race – it is not unique.

What Can We Do

During the long daily trips to the Rohingya camps, I got to thinking about what we as ordinary, everyday people can really do about all this? Each of us have our own battles; struggling to pay the bills; ill health; priority overload; 24/7 demands; so you ask the question – what can li’l ol’ me actually do?

This is what I would suggest – actually change that to beg – you do. Take an Interest. Educate yourself. Know what is happening around the world. I guarantee that after some time of knowing what is going on, that knowledge will one day turn into an action, big or small. The scale of what you do is immaterial, just do something. Obviously you can see where I am going here. Everyone doing just a little something, will make a phenomenal difference. It might seem whimsical, but the power of their sum is tangible. I’ve seen it in action – every single day that the Backpacker Medics DRG took to the field not only in Bangladesh, but also in Nepal. I know it works (as do those that work with us) and I am so unbelievably proud to be involved in an organisation that does so much for those in need.

In fact, if the world was populated only with the kinds of positive, compassionate and caring people BPM attracts then, well, um, errrr…we probably wouldn’t need organisations like BPM!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Crisis Is Growing

by Anthony Gadenne, DRG Team Leader

The Rohingya Crisis continues to grow even though official reports say there are no more people coming over the border. Every day we see more people arrive as they walk past the training area carrying the Start-Up Packs they are given upon arrival and registration, consisting of a tarp, a blanket and some meager rations.

I am immensely proud to say that we started the next phase of the training,  which is the RVAN Train the Trainer program. This is the way we can continually increase that ripple effect I spoke of in my last post.

Yesterday I oversaw our RVAN Team Leaders training a new 5 man stretcher team. Today, they gifted the new trainees with their official BPM shirts. They were so proud to wear them and it helped to intensify the morning’s training. For some reason, whilst training, we had a huge influx of people coming to us today, in particular sick children, and thus our RVAN Crew and even the trainees, had some hands-on real life practice.

The good news today is that we have found a French rescue crew that plans to do similar work to us in the area. This means we can handover to them on Friday, and leave feeling confident that the care will continue after we have gone. We are eager to watch and see how it develops.

Ajida

Ajita

In October, Team 2 saw a young girl by the name of Ajida with a serious injury from a bullet wound. The wound had healed incorrectly, fusing her underarm to her chest and she was living with pain every day – worst at night. Team 3 came across Ajida this trip, and over the last couple of weeks, we have managed to get her looked at and we organised for her to have an operation to fix the injury. She’s out of hospital this week and looking much happier. Ajida lost her parents but is living with her grandparents now – we can’t do anything about her terrible loss, but at least she can now live more comfortably. Which is good, because she has a beautiful smile, and everyone around her needs to see it more.

I find it hard to not be emotionally affected by all the painful stories, but as Team Leader I have to keep an operations focus and remember that this is not about us or how we feel. It’s about every possible practical thing that we can do to help before we have to leave. The need is great. The world moves on quickly to other things, but the Rohingya population in the camps continues to grow and so too does the suffering.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Ripple Effect

By Anthony Gadenne, DRG Team Leader

It has been a very busy but rewarding few days for Team 3.

Team 3 arrived to join Nathan and Kate on Wednesday consisting of myself, Tom, Ben, Rhiannon, Paris and Kamarra. The first task was to begin the training of the Rohingya Volunteer Ambulance Network – a group of 30 volunteer Rohingya refugees that are willing and able to be trained and instructed in providing basic first aid and transport (usually in the form of a stretcher) to the surrounding community.

R-VAN Training Day 1

When we arrived the trainees were already in place in an area that had been set aside for the training. They had constructed a tarpaulin and bamboo roof and were sitting in their teams ready to go.

P1240901.jpg

Working through our interpreters we quickly progressed through the basics such as DRSABC of First Aid. The speed at which the volunteers picked up the training was a direct reflection of their enthusiasm and of how much they wanted to be there. As the day progressed we covered CPR and improvised stretcher making so that by the end of the day they could do simple assessments and if required conduct CPR on the move with their new improvised stretchers made of nothing more than a tarpaulin and bamboo.

P1240274.jpg

P1240256.jpgIMG_9235.jpgIMG_9238.jpgP1240318.jpg

P1240564.jpgP1240531.jpg

R-VAN Training Days 2 / 3

We started Day 2 doing a revision of the previous days activities. It was awesome to see how much the volunteers had retained. We moved onto giving out the uniforms and medkits that would be utilised by the teams, we were not prepared for how excited they were to be given these.

P1240542.jpg

I’d like to thank all of you who have supported us both financially and personally. It’s a moment like this that shows us where financial support in particular goes. These kits were donated to us by Survival Emergency Solutions plus ten of our supporters who donated to buy the kits. We could not have afforded to purchase even half the amount given how strictly we manage our funds to enable us in-field. At the same time I know we have a small group of people in Singapore who are currently working to raise funds for us. And today we received a donation from US actress Susan Sarandon, through our good friend CoryT who worked with Nath, Kate and Strunky in the first few days. It’s very motivating for us out here to know that people in Australia and all over the world, are following what we are doing, caring enough to comment on our posts with words of encouragement and recognition and in some cases, even donating some of their own hard-earned money.

We began the next step in the training, teaching them bandaging and slings. As soon as we began the training another call came out to help an old man that could not move from his hut. We decided this was a good opportunity to employ one of our newly trained teams to go and stretcher him to the MSF clinic for assessment and aid. The trainees did an amazing job of their very first patient pick-up and stretcher carry.  

P1250020.jpg

Whilst the training was going on, we set up a small treating station while some of the team went out to do follow-up treatments of those we’d already seen. The weather has been hot and the cramped conditions of treating people in their homes is difficult to say the least. We treated sick babies who wouldn’t feed and were suffering from dehydration, elderly people with dehydration but it was mostly old bullet wounds or operations that were still in the process of healing.  Cleaning and redressing these wounds is a long and delicate process.

P1230961.jpg

We visited the woman who Nathan wrote about two posts ago who’d had no post-op treatment after the tumor removal, she is starting to heal well. 

P1230985.jpg

R-VAN Training Day 4

When we arrived, our volunteers were there – ready and waiting for us and they excitedly showed us how they had already applied their new found skills and had treated an old lady that had injured her ankle, on their way to the training this morning. They are at a point where they now compete to be the best and fastest in their bandaging, splinting and stretchering skills amongst the teams. Building on what the teams had already learned we covered Paediatric CPR, and choking drills, followed by lower limb splinting and protruding wounds care.

Amongst this we treated a boy that had a perforated ear drum and a seven day old infant that had not been feeding. One of our newly trained teams went to pick up an elderly lady that was feverish, lethargic and confused. She was treated, stretchered and transported to the hospital by the team, for further care.

Yesterday

On route to the camp today we picked up a news team from Al Jazeera News and had them follow us around for the day.

P1250053.jpg

Today was our last day of official teaching and testing to complete the training. The Rohingyan teams did extremely well and the day finished with Certificates and ID Badges being awarded.

P1250145.jpgP1250164.jpg

As always there were multiple other things going on such as a retrieval of an elderly man that could not walk and treatment of more sick children.

The Ripple Effect

There is still so much to do as not only do we need to keep looking after the people we have treated but more people continue to arrive every day. We are still the only ones going out to the people to treat them but as a single entity we can only do so much. It’s kind of like throwing a single pebble into a vast lake. The ripples of effect surround the person being helped and those around them, but then quickly disperse.

However now that we have trained up to 30 others we have thirty pebbles that can have a much wider and long reaching effect into that vast lake, that will last long after we leave to go home in a week’s time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Rohingya Children: Camp Life

by Nathan Burns, Founder

Today we learned that Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed a preliminary deal for the return home of the 600,000+ Rohinyga refugees. The deal stipulates that they will process no more than 300 Rohingya people per day. Let’s do the maths on that one. 

Meanwhile….

In the fading afternoon light a small boy squats beside a water pump, staring over his shoulder with deep brown eyes. He absent-mindedly washes his clothes, naked whilst his sole belongings are slapped clean against the slimy concrete. To his left, an old lady emerges from a makeshift toilet cubicle, hoisting her robes and shuffling over next to the boy. She motions him aside, making room on the concrete to hunker down and continue peeling pumpkin leaves. Her gnarled, blackened fingers deftly peel fibrous strips, casting them aside into a small pile, whilst the leaves are piled into a dirty bucket.

P1230540.jpg

I make eye contact with a young man across the path. He has set up his own little ‘stall’ to sell his radishes. Despite everything, the drive to earn, the drive to survive  – keeps on. This is how he will provide for his family and his community. 

P1230521.jpg

There is a constant procession of bodies on the nearby path – shuffling, mostly bare feet moving people ‘home’ to makeshift shelters. Endless bundles of firewood burdens young spines – each painstakingly slashed from the shrinking forest many kilometers away. Intermittently a large tree root will come bobbing along, it’s owner caked in dust and grimacing under the weight yet satisfied in the knowledge that – tonight at least – his family will be able to cook what little food they have.

P1230336.jpg

A team of teenage boys trudge past, UNHCR-branded mattocks slung over their shoulders. Their faces are streaked with mud and tell the story of their day: a sweltering eight hours carving level shelter plots from incredibly steep terrain. From the edge of the path an old man tries to entice them, drawing their attention to a line of oily, stinking fish he’s been guarding from flies since before lunch. The boys wave him off, perhaps wishing they could afford such a luxury.

P1230472.jpg

At the top of a small hill a mu’adhin calls melodically outside an improvised mosque. Worshippers respond, dutifully removing their footwear and assembling inside. Dust swirls through the open sides of the building as prayers are offered. Those less devout continue on their way, moving slowly into the twilight. A young boy walks past me on the way home, carrying his little brother who is fast asleep on his shoulder.

P1230594.jpg

The Rohingya children are having to grow up much faster than any child ever should. But they’ve adapted quickly to camp life; they understand the role they now must play in their own and their family’s survival. 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The very worst of humanity, from all angles.

P1230761.jpg

by Nathan Burns, Founder

As the mid-afternoon sun beats down, we move through the far western blocks of Kutapalong refugee camp. The landscape resembles a Hollywood depiction of Mars – dusty, bare, ferociously hot. Sweat gushes from our foreheads in a constant stream and we’re moving slowly, but deliberately, guided by a rotating group of curious Rohingya.

The request comes casually- almost an afterthought in a constant stream of conversation between our brilliant interpreter, Mr Moslem, and the Rohingya.

“Would you mind coming to check on my wife?,” asks the gentleman, “She’s been sick for some time”.

And so, we head left and up, into the squeeze of temporary huts, shadowed by 30-40 curious minds with little else to do. As we stoop low and remove our packs to enter the hut, an oppressive wall of heat strikes our faces, raising the temperature by at least five degrees. In the oppressive heat cowers a young woman**- no older than 25, but its hard to tell as half her face is shielded by a scarf. A huge crowd crams around the doorway, straining for a look and eliminating any chance of airflow.

“This is my wife,” says the husband, “Would you please take a look?”.

Despite her immense shame, slowly the woman removes her scarf, revealing a hideously swollen and disfigured face. The entire left side of her head is bloated and taught – at least 2-3 times its normal size. Her eye socket is puckered inside this mass of swelling, her vision completely obscured. Spots of dried blood streak from below a dirty, poorly-applied dressing and have plastered her hair. Deep, yellowed bruising stains her entire face and pus seeps from the edges of the bandage.

She will not look up, but we must investigate so, gently, we lift her head and look into her one good eye. Shame pours from her gaze and the sadness of her condition is plain to see; now we must avert our eyes lest they fill with tears.

We set to work, almost unsure of where to start, but conscious that we must do something. We begin by peeling back the outer layers of the dressing and, as we do, we also unfold the woman’s patchy story.

Not long after fleeing to the refugee camps some eight weeks earlier, the woman presented to health services to have a facial tumor investigated. Somehow, she ended up in the hands of a doctor in Cox’s Bazar and had the tumor removed – a major surgical procedure. She was then discharged after 3 days with the instructions to “just remove the dressings after one week”. It had now been nine days and this poor woman could neither remove the bandages (for the gauze had adhered tightly to the dried blood around the wound site), nor would she leave the house for shame of being seen in such a state.

Now the complications of sub-standard after-care were evident for all to see. As we cut away the festering bandages, we revealed a terribly grotesque wound stretching from the corner of her eye to her ear. It appeared that her scalp had literally been hacked open, then pathetically sewn back together using heavy-guage sutures and little care. In places the edges of the wound barely met, in others the skin bunched in a swollen, infected ridge. With the sutures still in place the skin had begun to grow around the twine and infection had set in. Each place where the skin had been punctured now oozed with thick, yellow pus.

P1230788.jpg

We worked slowly, methodically, carefully. In some cases we needed to incise tiny pieces of skin to remove debris; in others, the dressings had become part of the skin matrix and needed to be torn apart. Our hearts broke with every layer uncovered, with every new, horrible unveiling.

Through it all this brave, beautiful woman made hardly a sound. Her pain must have been immense, yet she barely winced, biting down on her scarf and enduring a process she knew to be essential. With her head resting in her husband’s lap and a small group of family members looking on, this woman placed her trust in a trio of western strangers and endured unspeakable pain, indescribable shame.

P1230765.jpg

Whilst our patient lay suffering, our hearts and minds raged. We couldn’t shake the thought of what this poor woman had endured even to just get to the safety of this sweltering refugee camp. Now she had been treated in such a barbaric, inhumane way by those supposedly here to help her, to protect her.

Was it because she is a Rohingya? Or was it because someone well-meaning had paid for her operation and the hospital had seen this as a chance to profit from suffering? Or was it simply a case of standard third-world medicine.

Perhaps we will never know. What we do know, however, is that this brave woman will receive all our love and care whilst we are here.

After all, if we choose to do nothing, then we will take all the blame.

**Note: name has been deliberately withheld.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life on the fringes of suffering.

P1230386.jpg

by Nathan Burns, Founder

Earlier in the day, in a high-level health sector meeting, we listened as bureaucrats squabbled over bragging rights for health posts in their region and used platitudes and jargon whilst hypothesising over which clinics should be closed to ‘consolidate services’. Numbers were flashed, reports printed on state-of-the-art colour printers were presented and I just watched, as paid humanitarians fought for their piece of the aid pie.

Meanwhile, life on the fringes of this suffering continues to unfold. It’s the end of the day now. A hot afternoon, and we’re standing on a hilltop looking back at the vast miasma of the Kutapalong Refugee camp. We’ve stopped in front of a makeshift shelter – a white tarpaulin, splashed with UNHCR insignia that is home to a family of seven. A cluster of children crowd the ‘entrance’ staring blankly at the strange white men. Their mother will not look at us; she averts her eyes and covers her face, ashamed at what her life has been reduced to.

Their shelter is located on the fringe of the camp, at the edge of a small grove of trees. Compared to the rest of the dusty, bare camp – it is relatively cool. A slight breeze blows through the area, rustling leaves and wafting smoke away.

It could almost be pleasant here, an idyllic little campsite on the edge of the forest.

But it’s far from ideal. This family are some of the stragglers – the last ones to make it into these massive, throbbing camps. They and hundreds of others have been bunkered down on the Myanmar border for weeks, cowering in fear until an opportunity presented itself to make the run into Bangladesh.

Their shelters are token; the bare minimum that UNHCR can provide and their surrounds are transient, at best. The cooling forest behind them will be gone in days, stripped bare by refugees searching for fuel to cook with. There are no basic services here on the fringes – no latrines, no running water, no medical posts. Their clothes are putrid, if they have any at all. The children are snotty and coughing and their bellies round with malnutrition.

The people on the fringes are suffering immensely. Meetings and printed presentations will not cut the mustard. For them the clock is ticking. 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Rohingya Crisis. Forget everything you thought you knew about human existence.

Nathan Burns, Founder.
Boy on First Day Nathan Burns

There is nothing that can prepare you for this. The sheer crush of human bodies, the frenzied existence, the vacant traumatized stares of children, the stench, the dust and the maggots swarming in the latrines.

There is no relief, not for any of the senses, let alone the heart. At every turn swarms life, cheek-and-jowl existence in the most literal sense, whole families crammed into stifling shelters, not a spare inch of land left unused.

It is approaching winter, yet the sun beats down relentlessly, baking the clay into which lives are carved. Dust plumes permeate every tiny corner, invading already violated lives. In a few weeks the second monsoon will come and wash away the toil – the harsh deluge tearing through narrow, hand-carved paths, and across the floors of makeshift homes.

Any attempt to capture the extent of these camps is futile. Mere months ago wild elephants trampled through these jungles on their way to find water, now the throng of almost 700,000 human feet lay the earth bare and lifeless. Stagnant, effluent-filled water pools in the gullies between dwellings, swarming with the refuse of a population in turmoil. Hand-pumped wells draw muddy, rancid, fluid from the ground, splattering the clothes of children as they watch idly. A man hawks loudly and spits beetle-nut into a purpose-dug pit. It spatters red against the sides and leaves a lasting impression that, most probably, this is also where the dead are buried.

A boy stands in the middle of the path, his eyes intent, his stare relentless, his suffering palpable. With his gaze, he questions: what kind of tragedy, what level of pain would you have to experience to flee your homeland to come and live like this? I take his picture, permanently capturing his intensity, his bravery, his existence.

Yet, it is he who has left the indelible mark.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment