Archive for January, 2018


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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