Rohingya youngsters tell of life in world's biggest refugee camp

Two young Rohingya have described what life is like for children growing up in the world's biggest refugee camp.

In Cox's Bazar, southern Bangladesh, an estimated 671,000 refugees have settled after fleeing across the border from neighbouring Burma.

A sprawling camp of makeshift shacks and tents perched precariously on uneven land, stripped bare of vegetation, has sprung up in the intervening months.

And more than half of the displaced - some 370,000 children - are living in cramped, precarious conditions, many reeling from recent trauma.

They run along the labyrinthine paths that crisscross through a sea of tents, unaccompanied and often undressed shouting "hello", "good morning" and "goodbye" all at once when they see a foreigner.

With the monsoon season imminent, Save the Children said these children risk being separated from their parents by flash floods and being cut off from services such as learning centres and health clinics.

The rains are expected to damage a quarter of all toilets and half of all wells, the charity said, with malnourished youngsters particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious disease that may erupt.

Sumaia Aktar, 15, came to the Balukhali camp with her older sister who is now in a nearby field hospital after falling ill with diphtheria.

The pair are orphans - their mother died when they were younger and their father was shot while the family made their way from Burma to Bangladesh.

Kneeling and barefoot, she is building a solid curb with mud and water to reinforce the perimeter of her tent.

She shyly opens up her home, a small section of a larger complex made of bamboo covered with tarpaulin which homes multiple families.

Sumaia Aktar, 15, in her tent in the Balukhali refugee camp, Cox's Bazar (Federica de Caria/PA)
Sumaia Aktar, 15, in her tent in the Balukhali refugee camp, Cox's Bazar (Federica de Caria/PA)

In the dark tent, there are clothes and bags hanging from the sagging roof.

In one corner are pots, a bag of rice and oil. In the other, a piece of plastic fabric in a shallow hole in the ground functioning as a sink.

Speaking through a translator, Sumaia said she used to share the housework with her sister but is now forced to carry out most of the tasks herself, including collecting water for cooking and washing from a well and cleaning her tent.

She gets monthly rations of 30kg of rice, 3kg of dhal and three litres of cooking oil for her and her sister, and will also buy potatoes and vegetables if she can afford them.

She said: "In the evening during the prayer, I go to collect water. But after collecting water I don't go out anymore.

"I'm afraid to go out of my tent in the evening because it's dark outside and I always feel like somebody is following me.

"I have a brother-in-law and he sometimes collects firewood for us but that's often not enough. We manage anyway."

Her neighbours in the Balukhali camp were arranging a marriage for her, she added.

Twelve-year-old Selim Uddin lives with his grandmother and older sister in Balukhali camp.

Selim Uddin, 12, with his older sister and his grandmother in their tent in the Balukhali refugee camp, Cox's Bazar (Federica de Caria/PA)
Selim Uddin, 12, with his older sister and his grandmother in their tent in the Balukhali refugee camp, Cox's Bazar (Federica de Caria/PA)

His mother died of a blood pressure condition when he was younger and his father died of tuberculosis last year.

He attends what he calls "school" - a temporary learning centre set up by aid workers - daily, where he learns the Burmese alphabet, maths and English.

After returning to his tent for lunch, he goes for Arabic lessons and plays with his friends.

On the right is Selim's tent where he lives with his sister and grandmother (Federica de Caria/PA)
On the right is Selim's tent, where he lives with his sister and grandmother (Federica de Caria/PA)

His face lighting up, he said through a translator: "I like to go to school very much.

"I can play there with my friends and can learn and it helps my brain to be sharp."

Selim said that sometimes he has to walk for more than two hours with his neighbours to collect firewood.

Since two of his neighbours were killed by elephants, he has been afraid to go out after evening prayers.

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