When I met Shah

In February our team from Restless Beings was in Cox’s Bazar, collecting data and distributing aid to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh. I’ve been with the organization for almost a year and this was my first visit to the Rohingya in Bangladesh.

I met Shah, a 10-year-old Rohingya who had recently fled Myanmar on our last day at the camps. Our team had been looking for the matriarchal camps; these where segregated camps where widows who had lost their husbands stayed with their children. These areas were women-only areas, and men were not allowed so that the Rohingya women would feel safe.

I was walking a bit behind the team as it was a steep hill and I wanted to slowly take in my surroundings with it being our last day in Cox’s Bazar. As I was walking on, someone behind me tapped my shoulder, “Apu”(sister) they handed over a bottle of water. It was my bottle, I must have dropped it a while back without noticing.

I took his hand and started thanking him profusely; he smiled and then slowly started to follow me. I waited till he caught up with me and as we started walking together, I asked him his name. “Shah, Shah Uddin”. “Uddin? - That’s me too” I said back to him a bit too excitedly. He started laughing. I asked him his age, he told me he was 10 years old - I then asked if he was Rohingya, he nodded.

“How long have you been living here?’ His smile disappeared. Looking at the ground, he told me “ 2 months - we did not want to leave our home but we had no choice”.

Walking side by side, Shah started talking about his brother. “We had to leave after we saw my brother cut up in front of me” I stopped and had to take in what he had just said. He looked at me for the first time, his smile had distracted me from his eyes before. His eyes looked worn out, almost as if they had seen too much violence - like they needed rest. Failing to even comprehend what had he just said, I repeated what he had told me in almost disbelief but he nodded in agreement and showed me cutting actions with his hands.

This all felt surreal, we have all heard stories of this happening on the news and such, but here in front of me was a ten-year-old boy telling me how he had seen his brother die in front of him. When we hear these stories we fail to put a face behind them; we almost fail to humanise them. But this was Shah’s story, he was the one to go through this. Even writing this now, almost 2 weeks on I can’t seem to get him out of my mind. Even now it’s so difficult to comprehend but it’s also hard to forget.

He told me his brother was only 15. In my mind, I was still trying to get my head around it. Shah is 10 years old. He is a 10-year-old who saw his own brother slaughtered by the Burmese military.

We carried on walking and the heat became unbearable. Our communication was minimal, but he stayed walking close, right next to me, smiling, every time I looked at him.

“We have had nothing to eat or drink today.”

Again I stopped, this time my emotions had got the better of me, turning my face to the other side to hide my tears from him. I told myself I had no right to cry if he was not, this was not about me. Shah stopped too, took my hand and gently squeezed it.

I would have expected him to take my bottle of water. I would have preferred if he had and never given it back to me. I was angry more at myself, more at who I was, my position. I hated how he felt the need to give me back my water, how he didn’t keep it for himself, how he put my needs before himself.

The Rohingya people were the most humbling people I had met. I can not begin to describe the warmness and love I felt from them. These were people that had nothing but still wanted to give us everything. It was hard to understand how they stayed so tender, so soft and still so compassionate. Most of the Rohingya we spoke to put it down to God and their trust in their Creator.

I believe if most of us were in Shah’s position we would have taken the bottle of water, but here was 10-year-old Shah, who ran up behind me to make sure I had my bottle back. I handed him the bottle of water, making actions for him to drink it. He again started laughing. He drank a bit and handed it back to me, out of respect he wouldn't take it from me.

Rushing up to my Director, I told him about Shah. I wanted to carry on speaking to Shah but wasn’t sure how to. My Director then suggested we carry out a PTSD assessment. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events. In order to measure what the Rohingya are going through mentally, we created these questionnaires, asking in detail what they had seen, what they have been through etc to get a clearer image so we as an organisation can come up with solutions to help them get past their trauma. All Rohingya we spoke to either suffered from flashbacks, traumatic events, anxiety, depression, acute stress, recurring nightmares, not being able to sleep, eat or even speak and more.

We sat down on the hill first, when an elderly Rohingya woman next to us insisted someone get us chairs. We declined the offer of chairs but asked if we could conduct the interview inside her hut. She invited us in and there we sat down with Shah. We asked him if it was okay if we asked him questions, he smiled and nodded.

We asked him what he had seen – “I saw my 15-year-old brother killed in front of me, he was cut in the stomach. The military they came to our village, they would come house to house looking for children to kill. They would cut up children and throw babies down wells. The military had found my brother, they found my brother and slashed him in the stomach whilst I watched. I think about him all the time. I have reoccurring flashbacks, I can’t sleep.”

The immediate manifestations of trauma are evident here and to every Rohingya we speak to. This is a distressed community who have lost trust, who have lost hope. Without the right help, the longer term implications are even more fateful. After the violence the Rohingya community has endured, after that much death, giving aid or food is not enough, what is the point if they can not even stomach eating no more?

(This is the first part of a series of stories I will write about the different stories I heard in the Rohingya refugee camps.)

By Tasnima Uddin