“I’d been in the country for about 12 months before the crisis started,” Debra Blackmore says, from the Kutapalong camp in Bangladesh.
“That sea of people walking down the road was something I’d never seen in my life and, honestly, I hope never to see again.”
From August to December 2017, more than 688,000 people fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Camps already overcrowded filled to bursting, and humanitarian agencies began a race against time to help people stay alive and safe.
Debra works in a mobile health clinic run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The clinic treats everyday illnesses like colds, skin ailments and diarrhoea.
“I have been privileged to meet newborn babies who have been delivered on dirt floors in plastic huts, and offer postnatal care to mums and babies,” Debra says.
All aspects of life in these camps depends on the availability of water – and now it’s running out. Water engineer Mark Handby is part of a team looking at solutions.
“The hand pumps dotted along these hillsides dry up fast when it stops raining,” he says. “It’s a race against time to drill deep bores to get water to people.”
Not surprisingly, toilets are the most unpleasant challenge of all. “Of the latrines here, maybe 30 or 40 per cent are too full to be used – they’re waiting to be treated and de-sludged.”
And that job – like many critical, gruelling tasks in this relief operation – falls to volunteers from Bangladesh, some of whom have lived in the camps for years.
Farid Alam was born in Kutapalong, his parents having fled Rakhine State more than 17 years ago. He’s been volunteering with Bangladesh Red Crescent since he was 12, doing what he can to make life easier for newcomers to the camp.
“I’ve been distributing soap, hygiene items, kerosene for lamps and rice husks that people can use as fuel for cooking fires,” he reports.
“It makes me feel good to help my friends and neighbours. It’s my duty.”