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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
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Rohingya crisis 'I will never forget her words or the look in her eyes'

I have travelled extensively and have spoken to many people who have suffered huge amounts, but hearing that woman’s words hit me harder than anything else I had ever heard, writes Rosamond Bennett.

IF YOU’RE ON LinkedIn you will surely have seen a message popping up to remind you of your own or someone else’s work anniversary. This month, a notice to mark my fifth “anniversary” as CEO of Christian Aid Ireland flashed up on my screen.

The message prompted me to reflect on the last five years, on the places I have been, the people I’ve met and the subtle and not so subtle impact that all these experiences have had on me.

One of the most shocking visits I’ve made

Last autumn, I travelled to Myanmar to meet with people forced from their homes by conflict and living in camps in Kachin and Rakhine states. It was one of the most affecting and shocking visits I have made.

The camps I visited could be classified into three categories – Buddhist, Christian and Muslim. The conditions in the camps varied, but they had a common characteristic. None of them were somewhere that you would want to live or raise your family. Most of the camps I saw were large, open-air prisons, surrounded by tall concrete walls and barbed wire, preventing the people within from easily leaving.

Displaced people, forced from their homes and villages, tend to be more invisible than refugees. They are sometimes called the forgotten people, because they don’t leave the boundaries of their own country. And yet they have lost pretty much everything.

They no longer have a home, as they’ve been forced to leave because of conflict or in search of food. They end up in makeshift camps where there is little or no security, where there are no prospects and where they are not considered to be part of the local population, even when they have lived there for generations.

Poor conditions

Rosamond in Myanmar Rosamond in Myanmar.

The first camp I visited in Rakhine was reached by boat up the coast from Sittwe. We walked for quite a distance single file slipping and sliding along mud banks, which in some places were the width of my shoe.

The camp was in a very poor condition. There had been minimal support given to this community and camp since it was set up in 2013. There are about 770 families there and every day was a struggle. They don’t get enough food rations, stormy weather frequently means delivery of food is delayed, access to healthcare facilities is extremely limited and if there is a medical emergency, there is nowhere to go.

It takes around five hours for them to get there by boat and in one incident 15 people drowned while making the journey. Living space is cramped and privacy is non-existent.

I think that if I lived in any of these camps I would be angry. Angry at the world for sitting back. Angry at the dirt, the squalor, the lack of food and water, the lack of privacy and the lack of dignity. These people may have been angry, but after years of living like this, they appeared more desperate than angry.

Hardly a day passes that I don’t think of her 

At the end of one meeting, I became aware of an elderly lady waiting behind. She came up to me, put her hand on my arm and said: “Forget about my identity. Forget about my nationality. Just think of me as a human being and help me please. I am really struggling”.

She said it quietly and with dignity, but I could see the exhaustion and fatigue etched on her face. I don’t have a photograph of her, I don’t even know her name, but I will never forget her words or the look in her eyes. Hardly a day passes that I don’t think of her and pray for her.

Figures show that 500,000 Rohingya people have fled into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district since a fresh outbreak of violence erupted in Rakhine State on 25 August. Uprooted from one country and seeking refuge in another, they have nowhere to go and nothing to look forward to.

I have travelled extensively and have spoken to many people who have suffered huge amounts, but hearing that woman’s words hit me harder than anything else I had ever heard.

It made me realise how isolated, how low and how desperate she felt that she was compelled to remind me she is still a human being like you and me, regardless of her religion, her identity, the colour of her skin. And when I hear what’s happening in Rakhine state in Myanmar, I wonder just how much worse her life will be now.

Rosamond Bennett is CEO of Christian Aid Ireland. 

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