BALUKHALI, Bangladesh: It is known as “widows’ camp”—a sanctuary off limits to men inside Bangladesh’s congested refugee settlements, where Rohingya women and children traumatized by violence find rare moments of peace.
The cluster of orange tarpaulins strung across bamboo offers a safe haven for dozens of widows and young children left fending for themselves after fleeing into Bangladesh in an exodus of nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
They escaped atrocities likened by the UN to “ethnic cleansing” but their husbands did not, leaving them to compete for food, shelter and survival in a border zone teeming with close to one million refugees.
Among them is Swaleha Begum, who crossed alone after her husband of just three months was killed in an army-led crackdown on their village.
At just 18, she oversees the women-only encampment separated from other refugee tents in a crowded and dusty valley.
The sense of ownership and pride in their basic refuge is strong among the 60-odd widows, who maintain their own bathrooms, run prayer sessions and share responsibility for scores of children and orphans.
“Those who have husbands can make their own accommodation using bamboo and tarpaulins,” Swaleha told AFP.
“We got this by the grace of god,” she added, gesturing at the simple tents lined with thin sleeping mats and cooking utensils.
One of her primary tasks is ensuring men—even teenage boys— venture nowhere near their shelters, where the inhabitants are comfortable enough to eschew the veil worn by most Rohingya Muslim women in public areas.
‘Sisters’ in the camp
Aid workers say women and girls are most at threat from predators and human traffickers lurking in the poorly supervised camps.
This risk is compounded when Rohingya women—uncomfortable at sharing toilets with men—venture far away for privacy in the forest after dark.
The International Organization for Migration has documented cases of refugee women being lured away from the camps with promises of marriage or jobs that end instead in forced labor or sex work.
More than half the Rohingya refugees who escaped the bloodshed in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine state are women and children, the UN Women agency said.
They made it out alive but not without scars.
The UN Women agency says almost every woman and girl in the sprawling Balukhali camp is a victim of unimaginable violence—a survivor of rape, or witness to the sexual assault, murder or burning alive of their family and friends.
Mabiya Khatun, who said her husband and two sons were butchered as their village was razed by soldiers, cherished the solidarity among her “sisters” in the widows’ camp.
“I like it here. I find it very peaceful. We get to live a life of respect here, a dignified life,” she told AFP.
The mood shifts at talk of returning to their homeland.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to a two-year timetable for repatriating some 750,000 refugees to Rakhine on a voluntary basis, but the process has stalled.
Despite the safety in Bangladesh, and the horrors inflicted against their people in Myanmar, some Rohingya living in the widows’ camp yearn for the lives they left behind.
Kushida Begum, a 30-year-old refugee whose husband and children were killed in Rakhine, said no amount of relative comfort in Bangladesh could ever replace her ancestral lands.
“I was born there. So was my mother, father and grandparents. We only came here because of the torture and killing and arson,” Kushida said.
“If we get justice for what happened, we want to go back.”
But others are looking forward to rebuilding a new life in Bangladesh surrounded by the only people who can understand their pain.
“I won’t go back. I don’t have anything to go back to—no home, no husband, no children, nothing,” said Mabiya, who gave her age as 50.
“At least I have something like a family here.”