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Childhood is traded in for daily manual labor which helps Rohingya families in Bengali refugee camps scrape by.  Photo by Mike Kai

Five, six, pick up sticks. The line from the well-known children’s rhyming sequence has a literal truth in Kutupalong Refugee camp where now over 400,000 Rohingya live after fleeing the Burmese surge in violence in late August.  Children even younger than five or six help their families survive by toiling in the sun to chop and pick up sticks in the wilderness beyond the camp boundaries.

I sat in the shade of a tent on the top of a hill in Zone UU on the edge of camp one day, waiting for hours for a man to come meet me to build a school.  The man never showed up, which wasn’t the first of many broken promises I found in camp, but in the time spent lounging in the dirt and twittling my thumbs on a hilltop, I observed an endless line of people coming back from the wilderness with bundles of sticks on their heads.  Most of them were children and walking barefoot through murky waterways and uneven ground with arms held high to stabilize their load. Go anywhere in Kutupalong in the early afternoon and you will see the constant waves of people flow from their morning labor back to the tarp and bamboo structures they call home.

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Trudging through waterways, forest, and hilly camp roads barefoot, hundred of people cross all terrain daily to harvest sticks.  Photo by Mike Kai

I spent a few days asking around and then corroborating the story that I heard about these kids: that they walk 8km round trip to sell the wood for 100 taka at the bazar near the camp entrance.  After I decided to follow them out on a day of labor, I experienced the truth of their story.

Human and sex trafficking is a disgusting reality in refugee camps and are especially rampant in large ones with little central authority and low levels of management.  Desperate women are lured away from camp for 1000 taka ($12) and the promise of a cleaning job only to be sold into rings of sexual and other forms of slavery on the Indian border.  Away from the protection of people, vulnerable children going off on their own are also at a higher risk of abduction.  Hoping I wasn’t at risk myself, I naively thought that at least the presence of a foreign adult might safeguard some kids for the day as I ventured out into the wilderness to hack some saplings.

It took about ten minutes of walking before I fully realized the great expanse of nature these kids and men venture into daily.  The area with a full panorama of speckled hills and winding valleys connected by increasingly dirty waterways was a national park and dense forest before Bangladesh committed it as a zone to become the world’s largest refugee camp.  As the recently made footpath split and curved around each small hill, new handfuls of the hundreds of children, men, and a few women scattered around the landscape became visible.  With no clue where to go, the best bet was to just follow where most people were coming from with big loads of sticks on their heads and shoulders.  A left turn at the first fork, then a right. Right, left, right, left, left.

No doubt if I was there alone, it would have taken me a considerable amount of time to find my way back.  But, at the urging of level-headed loved ones back home, I had convinced another random American volunteer and amateur photographer to come along with me. Carrying a machete I bought for 200 taka ($2.45) not sure if it was going to be used to chop sticks with kids or fend off a kidnapping, I definitely found comfort in being with another foreigner.

Carrying our sandals as we waded through cloudy streams of questionable cleanliness, we twisted ankles in mud and stepped on sticks for five hours in total as the sun burned our pasty skin.  My soft feet felt every pebble and stump that jabbed into my unconditioned soles.  It took maybe an hour for me to puncture my right arch on one of thousands of hacked stumps of a sapling jutting up on what was now a trail.

The wise voice in my head told me to not expose my blood to this water or a nasty infection was certainly in my future.  The force of curiosity inside me, however, dictated I move forward through unavoidable waterways, especially after I saw one man carrying another through a water-passage on his pack.  The piggybacked man was bleeding from the ankle and had an improvised t-shirt bandage which at least soaked up his blood, but did nothing to stop his limp. When he got on land, he picked up a waiting bundle of sticks and started hobbling back to camp with them.  Survival accepts no excuses.

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Blood trickles down the leg of a man being carried across one of dozens of waterways.  A few steps after this shot, he would take hold on dry land and carry a waiting bundle of sticks back off in the direction of camp.  Photo by Mike Kai

The collection process was pretty straightforward.  Everyone had machetes.  Four year old girls and 70 year old men all wielded the same pieces of cheap iron.  Rohingya families are large and kids far outnumber adults in the camp, with the same being true out in the wilderness extension that would soon be part of camp. Kids know the strength in numbers and so they too group up with other kids, perhaps brothers and sisters and take to hillsides of dense brush to hack away leaves and come out with bundles that exceed their body-size.

The question as to where men still find thick branches, logs and stumps is one that can’t be answered, but what I do know is that they go far.  I am a conditioned athlete who trekked out wearing sunscreen, a head cover, and a backpack full of water and snacks.  I didn’t even do any chopping and after two and half hours of walking past elephant poop in the direction of where all the people were carrying back larger pieces of wood, all I found were macheted stumps of what used to be.

Hoards of fast moving refugees zipped by me, bouncing under the weight of sticks carried on their head with a piece of clothing or bundle of leaves used to absorb the shock. Some stronger men balanced a more sizeable haul on two sides of a whittled bamboo yoke or in the ultimate showing of manliness, just tucked their head down and threw it across their shoulders.

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A line of people bouncing under bamboo poles carry bags of miscellaneous objects across a small waterway in Kutupalong Refugee Camp.  Photo by Mike Kai

No one goes out with a day pack.  There is no food or water carried on the trip that takes at least eight hours (to walk and chop) and even in Bengali winter, the burning sun is an oppressive force.  How this persists in the heat of the summer or in the rain of monsoon especially as this surefooted group has to trek further and further for the same haul, I really have no idea.  With a camp growing to 800,000 people, it will not be long until their eight hour sole source of livelihood turns into ten hours and then not long until the sticks are all gone.

I kept thinking about what I was doing when I was five or six.  Learning to read with my mother, the teacher.  Playing with blocks with my father, the carpenter.  Discovering the joy of swimming in a backyard pool.  Playing soccer in the side yard with the family, energetic cocker-spaniel included.  I didn’t have the motor skills to even use a butter knife yet, let alone a machete.  My parents still tease me because as a kid, I wouldn’t get out of the pool since I didn’t like the feeling of grass on my wet feet.  I wouldn’t have lasted here as a kid.  I couldn’t last here now as an adult.  I have never toiled out of necessity as much in my entire life as a six year old does here in a singe day.

So what becomes of these sticks?  Some no doubt get sold off in market for firewood.  Others sit on the tarped roofs of shelters until they can dry out enough to be used for fuel to cook a half cup of plain rice, so a child will have the energy to go out and collect more sticks the next day.

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A brother and sister (assumed) team rest up in the midday heat before finishing the long haul back to camp. Photo by Mike Kai

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One of many long lines of patients wrap along the tin sheet walls of doctors’ offices in a field clinic near Balukhali Refugee Camp. Photo by Mike Kai

The army officer lifted his gun he had been using as a leaning crutch and walked off down the road after he told the girl just diagnosed with diphtheria she wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital.  The Prime Minister of Turkey was visiting and the Bangladeshi military had installed new checkpoints, restricted traffic, and called out their soldiers in full force to line the streets all the way to Cox’s Bazar, an hours drive away.  Coughing with low energy, the child and family took the news as if they had heard this line of logic before; they didn’t bat an eyelash as the volunteers around them erupted in protest.  Despite the fact that Turkey has a population of around 3.5 million registered refugees themselves, they are donating funds in mass for Rohingya, compelled like Indonesia by the plight of fellow Muslims.

Around 200 patients a day filter through this makeshift medical center on the edge of a massive refugee camp.  Staffed by doctors from an international placement organization called MedGlobal and run by HOPE, a Bangladeshi hospital, the tin roofed structure does indeed provide hope in recovering from some of the worst conditions imaginable.  Two months ago, people were coming in with fresh gunshot wounds.  Respiratory illness and rape are common reasons for visits as well.  Most wait from 3-5 hours to see one of a handful of doctors and nurses paired up with volunteer interpreters after they are registered by the dozen other volunteers who handle the less technical though still important clerical work and triage.  Everyone gets a prescreen for diphtheria as the camps are on official outbreak status with hundreds of suspected cases and 27 deaths as of December 26.

Today, the number of patients were fewer because the military would not let people up the road to seek medical attention and they also ordered the medical center shut down early, even though the Turkish Prime Minister came and left in the early afternoon.  Because of lower numbers, it was easier to sneak away to do a check-up on a woman the medical team was not sure would still be alive.  She was suffering from heart failure and after an assessment the day before, the team concluded she had little time to live.  With nothing to do, but ease her suffering in the final hours, they literally carried her over a broken bamboo bridge and up a hill to her sweltering hot (it’s currently winter in Bangladesh) tarp and bamboo constructed shelter.

The critical problem is that there could have been something done besides just easing her suffering.  In a country with decent medical care, her nurse told me her heart failure was treatable in many ways.  They could drain the fluid that had built up making her heart weak and unable to pump blood properly.  They could repair her lungs, also filled with fluid.  They could get her a heart transplant.  But here, they could not do surgery. Here, the Rohingya are stuck in a restricted area, not even allowed to travel to nearby Coxs Bazar where there is a hospital I casually walked into at the end of the day to get a diphtheria vaccine with no questions asked or money exchanged.

Instead, the scene this 50 year old woman faced as her ultimate reality was to be clinging on to life and literally to the bamboo beam keeping her tent and her torso upright.  Unable to speak or to even open her eyes, one of her seven daughters spoke for her while holding her tightly and another daughter along with her only son waved hand fans to create circulation in the tent so the medical team would be more comfortable.  The men of her family were presumably killed and a heart condition quite often linked to extreme stress that the western world normally sees around mid 60’s and 70’s according to her nurse, had become terminal…but only terminal because of who she is and where she is.  In the true essence of a mother’s love, her chief concern was for her daughters and wishing for them to get married.

It’s sometimes hard to find hope here.  Surrounded by children literally rolling tires with sticks past the medical clinic where people cough, cry, or internalize their pain; it’s impossible to shrug the reality that pain is all around.  As I was thinking back to my childhood of playing with all the toys a kid could want while watching a child pull a plastic bottle he tied a string to as a play-thing right in front of me, my daze was shook by the thunderous crash of a tuk-tuk into a goat on the road behind the medical center.  Three goats scurried off, but a crowd a men gathered and within a minute had chased down the goat that got hit while another man rushed from a nearby shelter with a curved machete and slit the goat’s throat clean to the neck-bone.  “Life just isn’t fair,” I thought to myself as I stood over the goat and watched it twitch its final movements while bleeding out on the soft sand beneath.

Below is a snippet of background information on the current refugee crisis in Bangladesh and violation of human rights in Myanmar that I wrote for a food crawl fundraiser in November.

Since the current refugee crisis in Bangladesh reached its main point of escalation on August 25, 2017, around 800,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar, escaping what the UN labeled “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” After years of being trapped in a stateless district and denied basic human rights, the government carried out a scorched earth campaign, pushing the mostly Muslim minorities across the border as they were brutally murdered and entire villages burned.  Amnesty International has pointed to accusations that the military of Myanmar even planted landmines along the path of exodus from the country.  The Rohingya continue to flee violence by crossing into Bangladesh daily, entering a nation which lacks the infrastructure or capacity to properly care for all the unique needs the situation demands.

While not exactly impartial, I believe it to be a fair assessment of the current situation and one the helps explain the need for immediate action.  When Beijing restaurants were sent this piece, they said they could not print or distribute it or there would be problems for them and problems for me. I had an inkling this might be an issue as I had read articles critical of China for failing to condemn this as a genocide because of commercial interests in Myanmar.  The PRC has an important oil pipeline that runs through their neighboring country and in building new infrastructure for their modern day Silk Road (called the One Belt, One Road Initiative), they don’t want to initiate bad relations.  The bigger problem stems from their seat on the UN Security Council where they have veto power over any condemnation or subsequent action plan.  I hate when the world gets sucked up and spun around in politics while people are suffering.

What further pains me is that this ethnic cleansing is being carried out by a Buddhist majority against a Muslim minority.  Using a perverted interpretation of Buddhist doctrine, they’re justifying and encouraging action against Rohingya by saying they are vermin, cockroaches, lower than the value of life and in need of extermination.  It’s a repeat of the same tactics that people have used throughout all of time to carry out such large-scale atrocities.  Think of Nazi Germany.  Think of Rwanda.  The rhetoric is always the same. I guess it just shocked me to hear this was the stance of Buddhists who I automatically equated with peace and pacifist ways in my head.  In an escalated great irony that no audience would believe was real if this were a Hollywood production, the (essentially) Prime Minister of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.  And now she rules over the outbreak of violence, unable to curb the unspeakable horrors carried out by a ruthless military.

I have the means and desire to help a huge catastrophe in a really small way.  I have no special skills like medical or engineering which are always in high demand in such a crisis, but I can come with some money in my pocket to help provide food, water, and shelter.  I wish I had a better plan, but for now, it is just show up in Cox’s Bazar which is the main concentration of refugees in the country and figure it out from there.  For the months of planning this, everyone I have connected with online and on the ground has advocated for just that, much to the chagrin of my Type A hyper-organized personality.

I’m sure it will be chaotic and frustrating, but no more so than waiting on the political powers that be to sort out long term relief and recovery while trying to stop the violence on the Myanmar side with the speed of molasses in January.  In the time leading up to my flight, I have been reading weekly reports from UNICEF and WHO (click on those links and read the reports, there is so much information). More orphans are coming into Bangladesh.  The funding gap for food is increasing.  Diseases like diphtheria are spreading at alarming rates.  All of this suffering from people who did nothing wrong and fled their homes because that was the only way to avoid death.  The Rohingya were already one of the most marginalized people in the world, denied citizenship, freedom of movement, or even education before the outbreak of violence.  I couldn’t see pictures like the ones below and carry on like everything in the world was happy and fine.

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A Rohingya refugee child washes utensils in the in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh Source: Reuters

The Dirt on Dhaka

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The Pink Palace in Dhaka: Once a playboy’s mansion for parties and amorous activities, now a crumbling museum-ish structure. 

If there was ever a time I was convinced of the evolutionary advantage of nose hair, it was today.  I looked at the blackened Kleenex at the end of the day and gave thanks to the deep forest growing in my nostrils for stopping some of airborne toxins from ending up in my lungs.  Sitting in traffic, and even walking through traffic, the day became mostly a parkour and Frogger display of skill with breathing equivalent to sucking on a tailpipe.  The think haze in the sky was like Beijing on its worst of days and the instant scratchy discomfort in the back of my throat was a clear indication that the city has problems.

I arrived in Dhaka little before midnight after two flights and three movies that I almost stayed awake throughout.  A man from my pre-booked hostel showed up to pick me up, much to my surprise, without a vehicle, so we walked around the airport haggling with tuk-tuks.  Racing down the jam-packed roads with horns incessantly blaring and all sizes of vehicle clamoring for position in their individual interpretations of what driving lanes are, I wondered how people could say India is worse.  I could stick my fingers out chain link side doors and touch three other vehicles at any given point.

Amazingly arriving at the hostel across from a field of garbage after only scraping three other vehicles and stopping hard enough to slam my face into the passenger/driver cage once, I climbed the stairs past stray cats, purified a liter of water, crawled under my mosquito net and was lulled to sleep by the sounds of barking dogs, police whistles, and planes overhead.  The morning crows of roosters added to the mix to rouse me several hours later to face the first dilemma of the trip: My accommodations for the next three weeks just got cancelled.

I’m not saying it was the best plan to begin with, but I had secured a free stay with a random guy I met on facebook through a small volunteering group.  After weeks of banking on that, he sent me a message out of the blue saying his landlord would not allow him to have someone stay there.  Just as quickly (and sketchily) as he offered his space in an unfurnished apartment with no hot water, it was taken away.  I spent the first four hours of my morning sending out a slew of new messages, posting in different groups, and linking up with handfuls of new contacts through WhatsApp.  Luckily, a new sketchy man agreed to pick me up from the airport and let me stay with him.  After volunteering in Lebanon where the volunteer coordinator sent me the name of the intersection in Beirut to catch a van headed towards Damascus, but telling me to make sure I got out halfway so I didn’t enter Syria, I feel okay where I’m at now.

A little over two months ago, I wrote about a fire that destroyed a Syrian Refugee Settlement in Qab Elias, Lebanon.  As I interviewed more people and heard accusations of foul play involving the government/terror groups and the failure of NGOs to properly train residents in fire safety, I did not feel safe nor comfortable publishing critical points of view while still in the country.  This is the long overdue story from the perspectives of those who were there.


Perspective 1: Women in the Settlement Yearn for Home

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Shaikha al-Abid sits in front of two friends from Raqqa Syria who migrated to Qab Elias, Lebanon five years ago and now endure what they describe as even worse hardships.  The dozen other women gathered around for the interview did not wish to be photographed.

Shaikha al-Abid sat with a large group of women by the emergency tents and candidly spoke of the impact the fire has had on the community now dependent on aid.  As the elder of the group, she provided the narration while others leaned in to add a level of solidarity and occasionally offered additional explanations or elaboration.

Most of the group started their exodus from the ISIS declared capital of Raqqa, Syria five years ago.  Around 50 families who all knew each other spent the next year leaving at different times that suited them to escape the rapid escalation of danger.

How the entire community ended up where they did in Lebanon was mostly due to chance.  Hopping on a bus with a plan that didn’t extend beyond “get out of Syria,” the first group to cross the border was brought by their driver to a piece of land he told them had a shawish who was “nice and good.”  After the first group arrived, everyone else flocked to the same place, finding a familiar comfort in the surroundings of loved ones.

The close knit families got even closer as their kids grew up and married each other while in the settlements. Just as soon as Shaikha spoke of it feeling like there was a wedding every day, she broke into the pain of losing that little piece of beauty in her life.  The fire, she says, brought unexplainable suffering.

The normalcy of life the community fought so hard to recoup after fleeing their homeland was lost once again in the explosions of gas canisters and billowing smoke clouds.   Once they heard the first tank rapture, there was a huge commotion of people rounding up propane tanks, children and heading to the area of refuge: the nearby road, as flames engulfed everything.

NGOs have stepped in to fill the items of immediate need: food, water, shelter, bedding, but for most other items they are on their own.  Shaikha half-jokingly asked me if I knew anyone that could provide her with a refrigerator.  For now, it wouldn’t even be able to run as the settlement does not have permanent electricity and the large generator burst at the seams helping to fuel the spread of the fire with an explosive spray of burning diesel fuel.

The number one concern the entire group voiced was that they are not receiving any direct financial benefits such as the much coveted cash cards that UNHCR distributes to some camps for people who meet “certain qualifications.”  There is no money for people to pay for essentials like medicine and hospital visits.  They still have to pay the landlord of the burnt down settlement who allows them a small patch of untillable land on his farm. He also makes out on the deal, as my translator told me by hiring/pressuring female residents into a full day of work on the farm for the equivalent of $10, half of which gets skimmed off the top by the Shawish.  (Note: This middle-man pocket stuffing was corroborated by two other sources who testified they saw this reserve of cash go up in flames in the Shawish’s housing unit as they rushed around to try to save people).

In a close second on a serious list of concerns was the destruction of everyone’s Syrian IDs.  This identification is vital for navigating the hurdles of displacement, however, the IDs can only be issued in Syria and the borders are closed so people cannot return back home to get new IDs or even to visit family.  This is a two way closure as new family members are also officially prohibited from coming to Lebanon from Syria.

Shaikha and the women all around her unanimously agreed that they want to return to Raqqa.  I thought my interpreter had gotten something wrong here, certainly not believing such a large group of people could want to return to the ISIS stronghold that while American led coalition forces had declared liberated this very week was still in a dangerous state.  In clarification, Shaikha assured me they all felt Lebanon was too dangerous and they aren’t treated well here.


Perspective 2: Leader of the Settlement Tries to Save a Life

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Moustafa Mahmoud stands with bandaged legs in front of the burnt wheat field adjacent to the destroyed settlement as he recalls the horrifying scene the day of the fire.

Moustafa Mahmoud is the second in command in the camp, a veritable number two to the Shawish.  He rushed out of his tent in late morning after hearing screams of “Fire! Fire!” and saw flames enveloping the tent next to his where the fire was first reported as having been started.  He immediately snapped into the training he said he received from Save the Children and ran to the closest fire extinguisher which the UNHCR mandates must be maintained in a ratio of 1 extinguisher for every 4 dwellings (according to an official presentation given to volunteers by an organization representative).

The fire extinguisher he remembers were delivered only eight months prior, did not work.  After pulling the pin and aiming at the fire, a single small puff of a white cloud came out when the handle was squeezed, but nothing thereafter.  Moustafa says he was the only person who received the training on how to use the extinguisher so he knew it was his duty to put out the fire. Running between 28 homes, he tried a total of 7 extinguishers before he knew they must have all been dead.  Meanwhile, the fire raged on.

Moustafa started to head toward a water tank in the settlement, but knew that would be worthless as the chaos was too much to make a coordinated extinguishing effort and the fire was now too strong to throw buckets of water on.  The propane tank explosions caused a panic of fleeing and Moustafa noticed a baby left behind in a tent.  Separated by flames, he saw the fire spread to the infant as he tried to fight his way through to rescue him.  Moustafa pushed through as far as he could before the flames burned up his own legs while he watched a life get swallowed up in fire.

Moustafa knew there was nothing left he could do to save this area of the camp, but he set his sights to moving quickly to the area on the opposite side where the fire had not yet spread so he could help rescue the elderly.  In moving, he noticed a car on fire he was scared would explode like the propane tanks all around him.  He punched out the back window of the small white sedan and pushed it away from the most intense heat before he ran towards the burning wheat field to successfully aid the elders of the settlement in their egress.

As he recounted the experience, he paused to say he didn’t care about any material possessions lost by the fire, but the vision of the child burning was stuck in his mind.  He has opted to not seek psychological support, citing lack of time, saying he is second in charge in the settlement and has to liaise with all the NGO’s because he has the records of families in the settlement. The huge stigma of mental health is also playing a part with the pervasive opinion that he does not in fact need any professional help in coping with this trauma.  What Moustafa does want, is to return back to Raqqa so he can continue his studies in agricultural engineering.

No one on site with Save the Children would discuss the fire extinguishers with me and residents told me all extinguishers were quickly taken off site before they could be examined.


Perspective 3: The Bystander Takes Action

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Ahmad Alsari stands in front of his mother’s snack stand where he recounted the action he took when he saw smoke rising from the refugee settlement nearby.

While the settlement was fleeing, many from the surrounding community sprang to action.  The phone lines were immediately lit up with people calling the fire service for help even though multiple sources say it took first responders over an hour to respond (the fire burned for about two hours according to the same sources).

Ahmad Alsari, whose mother owns a snack store around the corner that he works at, was the first to see the black smoke before it became billowing clouds.  He ran to the settlement to pull kids out of their tents and stayed on site for the next four hours helping dig through ash.  The whole time he said he was crying and screaming “Allahu Akbar,” which translates to “God is great” and is often called and repeated in times of distress modeling after the prophet Muhammad who spoke the words after a funeral.

Ahmad observed a circle of structures burning which had trapped from his estimation 200 people in a literal ring of fire.  The man who owns the gas station next to Ahmad’s mothers shop drove his car through a point to create an opening so people could escape.  The exploding propane cylinders are what he said kept more people from running in to help.  As he continued in post fire salvage work, Ahmad found the sole casualty, the baby, lying lifeless on the ground of what used to be a structure, with hands badly burnt.


Fact Finding Perspectives: Accusations of Foul Play

The Shawish, whose brother lost his child in the fire, was skeptical of the preliminary stated causes of this being a cooking fire or generator malfunction.  He was positive that no one was cooking in his brother’s tent located next to his own tent at the time the fire started and this is the place they were told was the origin of the fire.  There was no electricity active at the time and the generator was turned off.  All he knows is that his wife saw their mattress was on fire and when she pulled it outside, she saw fire dripping down from the roof.  Some used this image as evidence for casting blame on a deliberate man-made fire, leaning towards Hezbollah taking action on anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments.

Many people I spoke with pointed fingers at other possible sources.  The most damning accusations were hurled at the government as initiating this fire.  Residents explained that in the long years of this crisis, donor fatigue had hit the country hard lately and much less aid money was coming into Lebanon from foreign supporters.  Because all NGO money and private donations have to filter through the government for declared processes of registration, the popular belief is that they skim some off the top and that a tragedy like this was a way to prime a donation surge once again to line the pockets of money hungry officials.

In light of this, when residents were asked what their immediate needs were that the international community could help provide, many were quick to advocate direct aid that circumvents government channels as they believed they would never see the benefit of that.  No official government organization was contacted to comment on these accusations.

With the overwhelming number of sources from which I heard accusations of foul play, it is worth noting that no exact cause of the fire has yet been pinpointed.

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