Friday, May 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Forging resilience in the aftermath of a fire

While the resilience of the Rohingya may be strong, natural disasters affecting their camps expose weaknesses in camp life

Update : 04 Feb 2024, 04:05 PM

The faint smell of smoke lingers in the narrow path between shelters and stalls towards the site of the massive fire that destroyed nearly 900 homes at the start of the year. Rounding the corner, the source becomes evident. A break in the tree line reveals an expansive, blackened stretch of land. The hills that were once covered in greenery are now punctuated by the charred remains of trees.  

Thousands of Rohingya refugees sheltered here have lost everything, yet again, on that fateful night of January 7. Their homes were simple tarpaulin and bamboo shelters, containing their few possessions collected over the years in the refugee camp -- all lost in the flames, as they scrambled up the hill to safety. Their return was rapid too. They now sit in makeshift shanties on their plots, eager to rebuild on the ground where their homes once stood. The emergency shelters and communal housing offered by humanitarian agencies may be warmer and sturdier, but many chose to stay in the same familiar space. As one affected resident put it, “We are tired of being displaced. For now, this is our home.” 

As the first responders to fires in the Cox’s Bazar camps, Rohingya volunteer firefighters, rigorously trained by humanitarian partners, show tremendous courage and heroism. Photo: Mohammed Kayas, Rohingya photographer

In this barren landscape, one can hear the clang and clamour of tools and shouts of workers with shelters materializing all around. It is evident that the Rohingya people have built and rebuilt again -- a testament to the sturdy resilience of this community.

What fills us with pride is the determination and professionalism demonstrated by the refugee volunteers and the community itself in the rapid response so crucial to mitigating such a calamity. Not a single human life was lost or seriously injured in this fire. When the first sirens blared just after 1am, hundreds of volunteer firefighters in the area sprang to action, evacuating the 5,000 people in the valley to safety — children, elderly and people with disabilities -- while simultaneously fighting the flames. 

Other volunteers came across the hills from other camps, towards the fire that devoured as it sped. They knew well the speed at which such fires can spread across shelters in the dry season, aided by strong winds. Their homes could easily have been next. Three hours after it started, and thanks immensely to the Bangladeshi firefighters who arrived from the closest town, the odds turned in their favour and the flames retreated.

The devastating Camp 5 fire destroyed around 900 shelters in the early morning of 7 January. Firefighters battled strong winter winds to extinguish the blaze. Photo: Shiraj Ullah, Rohingya photographer

I am in awe of the bravery and swift action of the community. Rescue volunteers recall carrying out elderly neighbours unable to walk. Others were in charge of firebreaks, demolishing shelters to create open spaces to stop the fire from spreading. Each played a crucial role in the response. 

They all agree that better access roads to the site would have saved precious time. 

When the refugee camps in this valley materialized in late 2017, soon after the Rohingya’s arrival, the green wetland was quickly transformed into congested clusters and neighbourhoods. In those first weeks and months, as the camps welcomed and accommodated growing numbers, Bangladeshi and international humanitarian actors worked towards the rapid establishment of a settlement that rivals San Francisco or Amsterdam in population size.

To create a more resilient camp environment, volunteers are stabilizing hundreds of metres of slope in the fire-affected zone. Photo: Fahima Tajrin/UNHCR

By the time the camp-wide road network was established in later years, shelters already occupied most of the hillsides. Connecting the area with a wider access road would have required demolishing homes and relocating families. So, the shelters stayed; the road was never built. This meant that, on the night of the January 7 fire, access to the valley was limited to a path and paved stairs. Narrow alleyways fortified with bamboo further reduced access to the firefighting vehicles.

There have been major upgrades to the camps since 2017: Hygiene, learning and medical facilities have improved the quality of life. Intense re-greening efforts have returned the brown expanse to lush and shaded greens. Skills development and resilience projects have established structure and belonging. And although almost everyone we speak with expresses a continued desire to return home to Myanmar when it is safe, they have nonetheless tried to incorporate a sense of normalcy and routine within their lives in asylum.

Over 400 new shelters have been completed by skilled refugee labour, with the support of NGO partners, Camp 5 authorities, and UNHCR. Photo: Fahima Tajrin/UNHCR 

Together with Bangladeshi humanitarian actors, UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR is rebuilding the destroyed camp with the goal of improving where we can. A better planned camp is less vulnerable to calamity. Though the temporary materials used to build the shelters remain the same, we are making critical improvements -- regarding site planning, width of the roads, hygiene facilities, street lighting and overall shelter layout. 

Devastating fires in the camps are stark reminders that, while the resilience of the Rohingya may be strong, natural disasters affecting their camps expose weaknesses in camp life. It is essential that we make collective efforts to invest in key improvements to support these communities, such as better access roads and more resilient shelters that can withstand cyclones, monsoons, fires and landslides.

Despite offers of emergency safe shelters, some families set up makeshift tents on the ashes of their shelter plots, wanting to stay close to ‘home.’ Photo: Fahima Tajrin/UNHCR 

The hundreds of shelters, paths and facilities now being rebuilt are the hallmarks of a community being restored. Where people will welcome back their neighbours into newly built homes. And where, we hope, people will be able to sleep a bit more soundly knowing that help can reach them sooner if they need it.


Sumbul Rizvi is UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh.

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