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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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