Dispatch from a Canadian aid worker in Bangladesh

Jean-Baptiste Lacombe shares a touching account of his two missions in Bangladesh from January 3 to February 20, 2018, where more than 600,000 people have found refuge after fleeing the violence in Myanmar since summer 2017.

eff8fbb6-6ed1-4128-bd88-3b97d2d77717_350_197.jpgAfter four flights in two days (Montreal-Toronto, Toronto-Istanbul, Istanbul-Dhaka and finally Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar), I quickly found myself at the Operations Command Center. There were people from all over the world. Turks, Italians, Qataris, Spanish, Swiss, Norwegians, Germans, a number of Canadians and many members of the Bangladesh Red Crescent had all come to help with the biggest response currently underway in the Red Cross Movement.

Despite their fatigue, they remained upbeat and were all smiles.

Very early, we headed for the south of the country, where more than 600,000 people have found refuge in makeshift shelters along a narrow strip of land between the Bay of Bengal and the Naf River, which forms a natural border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The chaotic streets remind me of India and Pakistan. It’s a jungle of horns, reckless drivers, bamboo carriers, tricycles, rickshaws, cows, chickens, children playing and vendors selling trinkets. It smells of spices, dried fish, chewing tobacco, burning garbage, diesel, humidity and the city’s open sewers. For several kilometres, we see thousands of small bamboo shelters with simple plastic tarps for roofs.

537e1596-b2e1-49fb-872b-3597385b7414_300_300.jpgWe join the group of Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers who are organizing hygiene awareness sessions. Using soap is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of waterborne illnesses such as cholera. Before leaving, the volunteers do a team cheer, clapping their hands. We follow them for a while into the maze of the camp, which has been built on hilly terrain where the paths turn into rivers of mud when it rains. Our feet sink several centimetres into the ground with every step, which makes it difficult for us to get around, especially when transporting bulky equipment like water tanks.

The refugees depend almost entirely on humanitarian aid to meet their needs. In the middle of the line at the distribution centre, a child about who is about five years old is naked, crying, and doesn’t seem to be accompanied by an adult. Many families were separated as they fled; children find themselves alone or become the head of the family when their parents are sick. We sometimes see them carrying bricks and bamboo to build shelters.

I had the opportunity to speak with a Red Cross volunteer who was organizing activities for children. She confided that she had rarely seen children who were so scared and withdrawn. Some of them had never even used pencil crayons.
129d34b3-5606-4687-a001-a4e656af331f_350_197.jpgIt’s difficult to not feel completely overwhelmed by the situation when faced with this distressing spectacle. That said, it’s encouraging to see the tireless efforts of the Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers and international teams who are hard at work seven days a week.

The outpouring of international solidarity and the results are plainly visible on the ground.

As citizens, we can stay informed to ensure that this crisis is not forgotten and support the Red Cross by donating to the Myanmar Refugee Appeal.   

Jean-Baptiste Lacombe
Rapid Response Manager, Emergency Response Team

Stay tuned for more on Jean-Baptiste’s mission.
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