Witnessing the torment, anguish of Rohingya refugees 'operating on sheer survival instinct'

Witnessing the torment, anguish of Rohingya refugees 'operating on sheer survival instinct'

Witnessing the torment, anguish of Rohingya refugees 'operating on sheer survival instinct'

Updated 30 September 2017, 10:50 AEST

In steamy southern Bangladesh close to half a million Rohingya refugees are trying to carve a new life of sorts into the forests near the border with Myanmar, writes James Bennett.

In steamy southern Bangladesh, close to half a million Rohingya refugees are trying to carve a new life of sorts into the forests near the border with Myanmar.

It's the end of another long day out in the Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, and I'm spent.

Every part of my sweat-drenched clothing clings uncomfortably to my skin in the sticky monsoonal humidity, and my mind spins at what I'm witnessing.

The aid workers, many wearied by years of crisis, all to a word shake their heads.

"I've never seen anything like this … and I've been to Darfur, or Sierra Leone, or Syria," they say, comparing the first days of this crisis to an honour board of horror.

I saw that torment and anguish too, in early September when as many as 20,000 refugees a day were flooding in.

They trudged through the muddy paddy fields of the border in sullen lines, then paused seemingly not knowing what to do next.

Yes, they were safe from the persecution they'd escaped. But what now? These people were searching for a destination that simply did not exist.

That's because no-one anticipated the speed and scale of this human tide — so when the most people were arriving, there were few aid workers, and scant aid.

They're operating on sheer survival instinct

As we walk back to our vehicle through these hundreds of thousands of upended lives, my legs ache from the long day filming and my ears ring from the ceaseless honking of vehicles.

I'd been thinking about how to describe the intensity of the experience, and on reflection I've realised that being there, I was surrounded by people operating on sheer survival instinct, born of bitter necessity.

Initially, amid the cruel competition for scarce space and resources, that had a flint-hard edge to it.

But what has also been amazing is the way the camps, and their inhabitants have established themselves. It has changed dramatically over several weeks.

On the very first day I went to the Kutupalong, I got out of the car with my camera just as refugees gained access to a new hillside.

Within seconds I was recording a mad scramble among the waiting families, desperate to lay claim to a the uneven ground for a makeshift shelter.

Boys were hacking at the vegetation with machetes while parents lined up the tarpaulins.

Two children born to two entirely different worlds

Amid the bedlam a young woman, Khuthija, sat still, cradling a tiny bundle, a two-day-old baby girl, to whom she'd given birth while fleeing.

My brother and his wife had just had their first baby a month earlier, and I instantly thought about the conversations we'd had then and since, and the contrasting fortunes of these two infants.

One child, born in a world-class hospital with the birthright to a first-world country, the other child stateless, coming into the world on the forest floor as her unassisted mother feared for own mortal safety.

I've been back to that spot since to try and find Khuthija, her husband Ali Johar and their baby girl, but sadly my efforts to trace them have come to no avail.

As we continue our dusk walk back to the car, I'm again wondering where they are, as tapping on my elbow starts.

I look, and the leader of a pack of bedraggled children following behind me stares up. One hand is outstretched and the other stops tapping to make a hand-to-mouth motion.

The whites of her eyes glisten in the fading light. Others in the pack, girls not more than 10 or 12 years of age, carry babies as well.

This is where this kind of assignment is at its absolute toughest.

Intruding into the lives of traumatised people

To get the shots I want to convey what's going on here, I've spent the day intruding into the lives of traumatised people.

Now, I need to retreat and process that information, to try to turn it into something more insightful than, 'look at how awful this is'.

But perhaps it's an important reminder that while I can dip in and out, travel into the camps, film by day and retreat to a hotel at night, that's not an option for those trying to piece together a new existence here.

It's funny timing though, because oddly enough, on this particular day, that reminder comes after I'd actually seen and filmed some uplifting scenes.

Here amid circumstances driven by unspeakable horror, suffering and fear, was the best of humanity — resilience and community spirit were on display.

Stalls were going up, the army was bringing order to the chaotic, ad hoc aid distribution, and a steady hum of activity had replaced the earlier desperation.

I'd met warm-hearted Bangladeshis down from Dhaka with clothes, and materials to help build a mosque.

I'd even shared a good bonding laugh with several refugees, pitching in to pave a road.

I was down on the ground, filming one man arrange the bricks. He was wearing the traditional lunghi — a sarong-style of dress.

I didn't get the exact translation of what his mate said off camera, but from the embarrassed look on our man's face as he lurched bolt upright and re-wrapped the lunghi more modestly between his legs, I gather he'd been politely informed perhaps he might be revealing a little too much to camera.

We'd all burst out laughing, and I tried to reassure him the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would not be airing any images of his tackle on the evening news.

It's exhausting, but it's important

As my walk continues, I'm still giggling at this as the tapping starts again, snapping me back into the present.

To give, or not to give? Just reaching into ones pocket means an instant mass of hands and unseemly scrabble erupting around me. Not giving means guilt.

If I'm honest, I simply want to collapse in a heap. But as we finally near the car my mind drifts forward.

What awaits me is a long night of work, turning the raw vision and interviews we've recorded into radio, television and web stories for waking audiences in Australia.

I know I'd better use the bumpy, hour-or-so drive back to our hotel to make a start, copying memory cards into the computer and interviews onto a separate hard drive for our translator and producer to transcribe.

If I don't get cracking it'll be early morning before I file my last piece and crawl to bed.

But although tiring and demanding, it also rewarding, because obviously there's not much point in running around breathless, sweaty and muddy capturing what I'm seeing here, if I don't share it.

And that's where I want to end this little meander, with a note of thanks, because as I finally reach the car and check my phone there's a message from a friend back home saying, "Important story, great you're there doing it".

There've been lots of messages like that, most from people I know, but some from people I don't.

But they all mean a lot, because covering this story has meant long and sometimes trying days.

My producer, Som Patidar, and our translator, Faruque, have worked bloody hard with not a word of complaint, and I'm grateful for their efforts, as much as I am the opportunity to be here, telling this story.