Medical team visit to Rohingya Camp in Bangladesh

By Dr Mir Aman Khan, MBBS, FRCS,
Consultant Emergency Medicine, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Harlow, Essex, UK.

I usually get a phone call from my friend, Dr Amjad Ali for a general chat. This time, however, he rang and asked me if I will be interested in joining a medical team visiting Rohingya Camps. The team will have doctors from UK and Ireland. The logistic as well as medical support will be provided by local contacts and friends in Bangladesh. It was January and the trip was planned for late February 2018. Somehow the appeal was attractive and I agreed to visit the refugee camps.

Some detail for those of you who are not familiar with the Rohingya people…

The whole world knows about these refugees. These are displaced nationals of Myanmar (Burma) mostly Muslims and of Bangali origin whose ancestors went to Myanmar before the independence from British Raj. They have been living for centuries and were in fact born in Rohingya. The local people never accepted them full heartedly and treated them as second class ‘foreign citizens. With support from the new regime of the Nobel Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi and persuasion from local Buddhist religious leaders, massive massacres took place. The riots were organised with the help of army and government officials. Rohingyans were ruthlessly killed. Those surviving the Ethnic Cleansing were forced to flee to the neighbouring Bangladesh where they were and still incarcerated in refugee camps. Their never ending miseries and hardships continue in these camps, though they have a place to stay, safe from the Myanmar mobs, army soldiers and Buddhist monks. However the dangers of famine, living in tiny tents, rooms made of bamboo, challenges of extreme weather conditions and all diseases connected to refugees’ camps are still present. There was help from international aid agencies as well as Bangladesh government but these people still live in harsh conditions away from their own homes and dwellings. More than one Million refugees are living in the camps near Cox Bazar, 10 to 15 people on average occupying a tent or makeshift shackles.

Whilst continuing my phone call with my dear friend…

In my heart I knew it was a great cause and with such good planned arrangements made I was happy to go with the team. We were expected to pay for our air tickets, travel, food and hotel accommodation. We were also given the task to collect as much donations as possible for refuges before embarking on our trip. We had to arrange our leave from our work, immunisation and other necessities for the trip ourselves. Our donations will be added to the money already donated by the local communities (mostly from Bedfordshire) and will be spent on the refugees, buying food, clothes, shelter materials and medicine.

In the end the group consisted of…

  • Dr Aasem Chaudhry (Surgeon NHS) and Leader of the team
  • Dr Navaira Hamid, Paediatrics ( wife of Dr Aasem Chaudhry )
  • Dr Muhammed Fahim (Anaesthetist Ireland)
  • Mr Umair Aasem  ( Tech and Nursing care)
  • Mrs Anam Waheed Umair (Nursing care)
  • Dr Amjad Ali Bacha (Surgeon NHS)
  • Dr Miraman Khan (Accident & Emergency/ Disaster Management NHS)
  • Brother Abbas Idris Khan (Logistic arrangements and local contacts).

The group met to go through arrangements for the visit and to make it both purposeful and enjoyable. We had our immunisation updated and stored some basic medicines for our own use. The invitation letter was sent from Dhaka with instructions to get the visa on arrival. Most of the team was to fly via Dubai to Dhaka, while I was to go a few days earlier to Doha and then join the team in Dhaka.

The flights arrived on time and we met at Shah Jalal International airport Dhaka on 26th February 2018 around 10 AM. The visa issue and other immigration formalities took a couple of hours. The traffic was very heavy and we managed to arrive at the hotel in Dhaka. We took a shower (some of us with cold water) and then in sunny afternoon, our local friends took us to Mirpur Area. We had evening meal over here and saw a few places. Mirpur is very congested area with small houses. This was mostly a car run through quick visit as we were supposed to have a detail tour at the end of our visit. Later in the evening we went through the practicality and arrangements at the camps. Next day we flew from Dhaka to Cox Bazar airport. It was a beautiful small airport and with the sun shining it looked pretty nice. It disheartened some of us when we passed through the gate of ‘foreigners’ while our Bangladeshi colleagues went through gate for nationals. The realisation of the fact that it was Bangladesh and not East Pakistan anymore. However, wherever we went we treated with respect and were very welcomed. We took a minibus to the hotel and were soon joined by colleagues from Sylhet and Chittagong. They gave us logistic support and were always there for anything we needed.

Cox Bazar is a booming town. It is lush green and full of hotels and resorts for affluent visitors. Our four-star hotel was good. There were other foreigners having long stay in this hotel. These were staff and team members from NGO and AID Agencies. We were supposed to have a meeting with the manager of a Turkish organisation which was running a medical clinic in the camps. This was a polite young lady from Turkey named Marwa. She was in-charge of a makeshift hospital donated by a voluntary Turkish organisation. We came to know that running of this hospital was coming to an end shortly, as most of the hospital staff were either sent back to Turkey or deployed to other camp hospitals. She was very co-operative and bright who took us through the list of common diseases in the camp and the medication available in the hospital. She also informed us of what we should purchase from Cox Bazar. The evening was spent in Cox Bazar, a visit to a local fish restaurant where we had to select live fish from the water tanks which would then be fried for us there and then. Amjad and Mrs Chaudhry were against the idea, but we persuaded them to join us in the feast. Soon they forgot about animal cruelty and conservation of the planet, which was obviously due to the lovely taste of the fish.

The Rohingya Camp

The Rohingya Camps were about 20-25 Kilometres from Cox Bazar. One could see the big hospital of Aid Agency MSF, a number of small towns and villages along the roadside. These villages have markets and shops selling vegetables, fruits and building materials for daily use in the camps. Most of the volunteers and god-fearing donating people, buy these items to take to the camp. Our private transport between Cox Bazar and the camp was convenient. It would take us in the morning and bring us back in the evening. The government of Bangladesh has a very tight control and checks are made at entry and exit points. This is mostly for the safety of refugees and also preventing their mixing up with locals or taking any local jobs. Every time we went through the check post, our van and identities were checked thoroughly by the army personnel. Every visitor had to leave the camp by sunset and it was forbidden to stay overnight at the camp, unless issued a special permit for the hospital staff permanently stationed.

On the first day of our visit to the camp, we were taken back and disheartened by the dismal living conditions of these refugees. I was not expecting a very high standard of living and I have been on medical visits to Afghan refugee’s camps in Pakistan. However, this was the lowest standard of living in the camps. People were living in makeshifts small huts made from small branches of bamboo sticks. These were split in the middle to try and cover large areas and were covered by black plastic. The land was lying low, prone to flooding and with the monsoon rains, there was very little chance of these structures remaining in one piece. The only strong building present was either the mosque or the hospitals made by the medical agencies and UNHCR. I also noticed the camp consisted mostly of small children, women and the elderly. It was lacking young men, revealing the harsh realities of conflicts and wars.

Medical Clinic

We arrived at the small medical clinic. It had a nurse, pharmacy, treatment room and two consultation rooms. There were four or five Rohingya volunteers helping out and playing dispenser roles. One of the volunteers was Wajed who looked after us. The camp residents came to know about our arrival and they poured into the health centre. They were mostly minimally wounded, people with high temperature, cough and gastroenteritis. We were able to deal with thee easily in the clinic. A few seriously ill patients needed referral to the big Turkish hospital. This was about one kilometre away and it will take referrals from the centre.

Most of the diseases were malaria, diarrhoea, vomiting, skin and psychiatric conditions. This was due to the harsh living conditions, physical and psychological trauma they had been and still going through. The most obvious illness which none mentioned is the “Severe Malnutrition and Anaemia”. The mothers and small children were so malnourished and weak that one would hardly see such people in Europe. We learnt a few bedside tests like the lateral flow test for diagnosing malaria and pregnancy and Turkish names for medications. We became friendly with the local dispensers working in health centre and the Turkish medical team in the referral hospital.

Evenings in Cox Bazar

Our organisers kept the programme both productive and useful, as well as enjoyable. The main day was spent in the camp treating patients and the evening was for socialising as well as enjoying the different foods. Some of us tried different ventures like riding cycle Rickshaw, which only stopped due to my fall injuring my elbow and hip, my wife was not very happy about this when she found out. We became friends with the camp residents and the children followed us around in large numbers wherever we went. Amjad was officially told to stop buying the children sweets or giving them cash. This caused great excitement and it was almost like a riot occurring which could have been difficult to control.

We had a great week at the Rohingya camp. The most enjoyable part was going to beach and having a dip in the sea. Some of our friends had to be dragged out to get back to hotel on time. Towards the end of our trip, we were invited by friends of Brother Abbas. We visited an Islamic Primary School for a couple of hours and saw the well behaved children. The evening meals was with the locals. We then drove to Chittagong, spent the night in an old British time resort and flew to Dhaka next day.

Dhaka

Whilst in Dhaka, we saw the old and new city, the silk bazar, national monuments, museum, Dhanmondhi and other novelties of Dhaka. We visited the famous BIRDEM Hospital and its medical college. We had a meeting with Professor A K Azad Khan, who is involved with BIRDEM. He told us about his visit to Pakistan (West Pakistan at the time) and attending his friend’s daughter wedding in Mardan. His son is working for NHS UK. We did not have enough time to be his guests. We also met an old doctor friend of Mr Aasem Chaudhry who visited us in the hotel and offered us the traditional Dhaka sweets.

Our Return

We flew back to the United Kingdom on the 3rd March 2018, a little tired but with the intention to support the Rohingya refugees. May be another visit sometimes in the future. I am hoping that these people will be accepted back gracefully in their country. I wish them safe return to their own homes in Rohingya. It’s their wish as well. I was extremely grateful to my friends for arranging for this trip. I am pleased that I was able to make a very small difference to the inhabitants of Rohingya Refugee Camp.

 (The medical clinic closed down after some time as the duration of the project came to an end. The Turkish managers went back. The facility and equipment is still available. The volunteers are available as well. They only need Medicines and some support for the volunteers. AIMS International feels it’s a very good project to support. Please come forward and support or become a sponsor of the clinic).

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