'Give me strength': Muslim refugees from Myanmar recount double fire tragedies

Ruma Paul
·2 min read

By Ruma Paul

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Rohingya teacher Mohammad Harun was at his Islamic school in a Bangladeshi refugee camp when fire began creeping through the settlement, soon to turn into a massive blaze destroying thousands of shanty homes.

With the flames still far away, he saw his elderly father, 77-year-old Bashir Ahmed, rushing by to try to rescue his mother, Katiza Khatun, 62, and take her to safety.

But the fire spread too quickly, throwing up plumes of choking black smoke. Harun, 27, never saw his parents alive again. Their bodies were found outside their home.

Ahmed and Khatun are two of the 11 so far confirmed dead in Monday's blaze southeast Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, home to the world's biggest refugee settlement. Hundreds are missing and tens of thousands have been left homeless.

A million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Cox's Bazar with little hope of returning to their homes in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where most have been refused citizenship and face persecution.

After losing loved ones and fleeing their homes after Myanmar's military burned down Rohingya villages in 2017, many are now grieving for a second time.

"We fled to Bangladesh to save our lives from the Myanmar military," Harun said.

"Never could I imagine that I would lose my parents and my home here in Bangladesh in a fire too. Oh Allah! Please give me strength to endure this pain."

Authorities are investigating the cause of Monday's fire, but aid groups and witnesses said it ripped through the highly flammable bamboo and plastic huts, trapping many people, including young children.

Mohammed Kashim, a 35-year-old refugee leader, said he could hear the boom of cooking gas cylinders as they exploded, accelerating the blaze. They buried the unidentified bodies of two children.

"Everything has gone. Only metal items remain, deformed by the heat"

Harun remembers the fire that led him to flee Myanmar in 2017.

Troops burnt down the family's village, he said, and shot some of their neighbours dead. Harun, along with his parents and other relatives, crossed into Bangladesh after walking for four days, passing burnt-out villages and bodies lying in the streets.

Myanmar is facing genocide charges at the international court of justice in The Hague over the 2017 campaign. The military denies the charges, saying it was waging a legitimate campaign against insurgents who attacked police posts.

Harun's family have lived in the Bangladesh camp ever since - a difficult life, but one away from persecution.

On Monday morning, Ahmed went to collect the family's food rations and gas cylinder.

"He was so happy," Harun said, sifting through the charred remains of his hut. "But, in the afternoon, he was no more."

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Cox's Bazar; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Nick Macfie)