by Nat Crewe; DRG Team Leader
Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh
Apologies to our followers for not being able to submit a report these past few days, but as you will see, it’s been an eventful 48 hours.
Tuesday started bright-and-early with a breakfast invitation with our friendly Rotarians. It was business as usual afterwards with both teams heading south into the camps. There were two patients to be transported from the Red Cross/Crescent clinic in Kutapalong. Team one, made up of Alex and Shane, reacquainted themselves with their elderly gentleman whom they had delivered to the clinic a couple of days before, and had the pleasure of returning him home.
Meanwhile Kate, Amy and myself met with Rohingya volunteers who are keen to assist us in finding community members unable to seek medical assistance due to serious injury, sickness, or simply because they are unwilling to leave children or loved ones behind in order to seek help. The idea is that they will scour the camps and report back to us if they find someone in desperate need. Their access to the refugee community is invaluable and much broader than we can ever manage alone.
Once done with the patient transfers, Alex, Shane, Amy and Mel headed to Leda camp where the continue to identify patients that require transportation to the local clinic. This Malaysian run facility has been welcoming and enthusiastic with every patient admitted. They team has forged an excellent relationship with them.
Dr Kate, Simon and myself headed to the very southern tip of the peninsula, Shah Parir Dwip. This is where the vast majority of the Rohingya refugees arrive by boat, usually between 2am-5am. From here the Bangladesh army transport them to the registration point a few kms north. We had some information from a contact in Myanmar that one (possibly two) boats would be making landfall tonight with a group of some of the sicker and more vulnerable refugees.
NGOs and foreigners aren’t permitted to be in this area or any of the camps after 5pm. We approached the area commander and persuaded him to let us make the small boat trip over to the peninsula island where the boats might arrive, with a view to waiting it out till the boats landed.
It was a surreal trip over, crossing a watery no-man’s land that makes up part of the delta. In a mixture of barely-held-together fishing boats and archaic speed boats, we crossed to the peninsula, arriving just on dark. This area is controlled by the paramilitary and local police. Fortunately we approached the paramilitary post first and were met with a highly educated and very bored Major who engaged us in philosophical debates over delicious sweet tea.
He was pretty straightforward in his opinion that if refugees were met by friendly Australian faces, it would only encourage more refugees. We said that this was for policy makers to discuss and that we just wanted to help. The decision was taken out of his hands when five local police arrived, handcuffs out and ready. Our benevolent Major talked them down and, in the end we were provided a police escort back to the mainland. It was disappointing not to be there when boats were potentially due to arrive, but we had done well to get as far as we had. It was worth a try.
We rejoined the rest of the crew and found somewhere to sleep in order to be close to the refugee registration camp in the hope that we might be able to help with any sick arrivals in the morning.
Staying at the southern end of the peninsula (an advantage that is not usually afforded due to all foreigners being expected to be back in CBX at night), we were able to be present at the refugee processing camp when it started operations early in the morning.
Although it has been conducting a system of triage and aid distribution for some time now, it is still a chaotic process. The whole team rolled up their sleeves and got to work in in an attempt to assist MSF should there be any acute cases to treat and transport. It transpired that the boats that we had been hoping to greet never even left Myanmar.
Tragedy had struck the day before, with two boats capsizing, killing a total of seven people- four of them children. As a result all boat movements had frozen, and none left the night before.
Later in the day we made our way to Unchiprang camp where our first visit was to the sector meeting, which is run by the army in charge of that area. Here we discussed the camp’s needs and (specifically for us), how we might be of use. The Major in charge was delighted that we could spend the day combing the camp for people in need. From there we touched base with the MSF clinic to see if there was anything that we should be aware of. The clinic coordinator, stated she’s happily receive anyone that we could bring to her.
We split into two teams and took half the camp each. We engaged a local community leader to lead us through the maze of makeshift shelters, looking for anyone who might need help. This turned out to be one of the more ‘pleasant’ camps. It’s is built among rice fields and is well managed. Both teams came across only a handful of patients that required treatment.
Unlike working in a clinic where people can come to visit us, roving the camps in this fashion is an extremely taxing and time consuming endeavour. It took much of the day to visit the entire area. Once we were happy that there was nothing more we could do here, we moved north to Kutapalong 1.
Simon, Mel and Amy split to deliver medications to our old Rohingya doctor friend in Burma Para, as well as deliver the female hygiene pads that we had brought all the way from Australia to the Women’s Safe space. Kate, Shane and I went to visit a patient that we knew might need transporting deep within Kutapalong 1 – about a half hour walk into the camp. On examination we recognised that she will need to be carried by stretcher all the way to the clinic. This will require the whole team due to the distance and the terrain – it’s fairly treacherous. We will return first thing in the morning to retrieve her.
It was close to 7pm before we got back to CXB after 2 long days away. The team were exhausted but in good spirits and rested well in the knowledge that many more huge days were to follow!
If you would like to help our mission, you can donate to the Backpacker Medics cause here: https://chuffed.org/project/bpmdrg-bangladesh#/supporters