Bangladesh – Part 7 – Cox’s Bazar.

Cox’s Bazar and Refugees

Today we learn that 91 agencies in the Cox’s Bazar area are helping refugees to stay alive, Red Cross people are a special breed and there’s fun to be had wherever you are in the world.

Cox’s Bazar claims to have the longest unbroken beach in the world and I can vouch for that, it really is long. It’s a fishing port, it’s the district headquarters of southeastern Bangladesh and it’s a tourist resort of some significance for the Bangladeshis. It has broken pavements, where there are, smelly sewers and streams, desperately poor and squalid areas but most important of all, there is the germination of investment in modern hotels, cafes and restaurants and various other positive developments going on.

Like everywhere we’ve been in Bangladesh the people are the place, they’re proud and, over time, they’ll make these towns fabulous places to visit in the process, some of what we experience will be lost but it’ll be replaced by better, cleaner and safer things. I’m just glad we’re here now, yes it is dirty and smelly in places but that’s more than made up for in so many other areas including fabulous food off the hawker stalls on the streets where you can see it is fresh before it is cooked and you can see it being cooked in searing temperatures on grills and in clay ovens then served in a clean plastic bag, on a banana leaf or on the skewers on which it has been  prepared, you’d have to be a pretty robust germ to survive this.

Cox’s Bazar has retained the name that was first used to commemorate the work of one Hiram Cox of the British East India Company who founded a camp here but for what?

… refugees… we’ve come full circle!

Hiram Cox was appointed Superintendent of Palongkee outpost. He embarked upon the task of rehabilitation and settlement of the Arakanese refugees in the area. Bear in mind this is the 18th Century and we’re now in the 21st Century with a similar crisis.

Hiram died in 1799 having not finished his work but all of the rehabilitation was recognised by the establishment of a market in his name, Cox’s Bazar. Many locations in the Indian sub-continent have had place names that were based on the founder and have been changed, Cox’s name is still retained by the city he founded.

It is busy, not as busy as Dhaka and Chittagong but busy along the Marine Drive but the driving techniques and rules are identical. With regard to the rules, the horn is mandatory and the second and only other rule is that there are no other rules. The driving techniques include ‘inshallah’ (if God is willing or if God wills it) and, in fairness, most of the time, and to the benefit of all of us, He does!

We’re invited to part of a day with Uncle Frank, who’s here on Red Cross duties and it’s good to catch up and see first-hand some of the things that they’re doing. He’s very kindly set up a couple of briefings to give us an insight into the work that’s going on and the progress made. The first is with Haroon who is working now with American Red Cross on the cyclone preparedness programme. But his main claim to fame is in his work in preventing tragedy to this end he’s built up robust strategies and procedures to deal with the cyclones that can brush across this region wreaking havoc, death and destruction in their path. He’s built up a hierarchy of communications that can be supplemented with modern technology but the genius of the system is that it will work without it. I’ll not try to explain as it’s unnecessary unless you live in cyclone-prone parts but I offer you two statistics – twenty years ago approximately 222,000 died in cyclones, last year it was 4,000. He’s in his seventies now and if ever a man deserves recognition for his work it is he, I’m proud to have shaken his hand.

We move from Haroon’s office to Rachael and Maria who collect data from – and share it with the 90 odd other agencies (initially over 150). They are the official source of data and it shows.

I’m slightly embarrassed when I ask them the question, “How do you count refugees?” But I’m rewarded with a positive response and a smile as they explain the various techniques each one more accurate than the last but increasing in the amount of time to gather the evidence. As the numbers become more refined it is increasingly clear that there are over a million unfortunate (or are they fortunate?) souls living in these camps. They’re being supplied with food, water and healthcare here so that’s a huge positive but they also remain unwanted. In a sense the feeling is mutual as all they want is to return to their homes and villages in Myanmar (Burma) but the continued threat of murder, rape, mutilation and the fact that their village has been burnt out in a semi-official exercise similar to the  “Harrying of the North” when William-the-Conqueror took exception to the people of the North of England and laid their villages and arable land bare by fire and butchery to ‘cleans the area’. But all of that was a thousand years ago when savagery was the norm. We’re said to have moved on since then but I’ve seen the words “ethnic cleansing” used several times over my lifetime and here, in this beautiful part of the world it is still clearly evident. The Red Cross and Red Crescent would never make any observations like mine here, they are above all of that and deal with the consequences without discrimination or judgment and they certainly would not endorse what I’ve just said but it is with a tear and a degree of anger with no apology for the expletive earlier that I offer you this at least so you know, and if you can pressure someone with a letter or email then please do so.

The camps themselves are just a few miles from this town of high activity and relative normality but the occasional white 4×4 ghosting its way along Marine Drive picking up essential personnel and VIPs who’re able to do conjuring tricks with either extra money or resources should they be convinced of the argument.

An Afternoon Run-Out

After a brief discussion with the owner of a fleet of electric tuktuks, we agree on a price of 2500 taka for the day it’s about £25 so we’re happy. We travel south to the Himchori Waterfall which in fairness is not worth the journey; however, if you couple it with a walk up the steps near the falls to monuments and the viewing point then it’s fine but the waterfall area is extremely littered and the waterfall is suffering from lack of the stuff that gave it its name.

We enjoy both and the Bangladeshis do too as we are stopped numerous times for ‘selfies’ with small (and some not so small) groups of youngsters who’re bemused with the novelty of a couple of Europeans in their country.

We jump back in the tuktuk and continue south to Mermaid Spa and spend a relaxing hour or so drinking fruit juices and looking out over the Bay of Bengal, it really is glorious. The grounds are beautiful and the staff is both helpful and attentive, any element of this excursion is probably not worth doing but put them all together and it’s idyllic.

Our driver is waiting patiently with some of his mates all with tuktuks ready to burst into life at the flick of a switch.

We leave the mermaid and rejoin the loose train of tuktuks many of them rammed to capacity with whole families clinging to each other and laughing their way along the beach-lined road. Family is key here and they do things together. The waterfall is unimpressive but that doesn’t matter, it’s what they have and selfie sticks were in abundance. They’ve had an excellent day and so have we.

We re-enter Cox’s and turn left onto the beach as the road is still closed but the newly established sand track is free-flowing save the re-entry point where there appears to be a problem moving from the tidal area to the looser sand of the beach. It’s a Bangladeshi traffic jam and believe me, it’s a beauty. The long line of traffic stretches along the beach, it looks surreal and wouldn’t be out of place in a desert. There’s the whole beach to go at yet the traffic chooses to remain in line patiently(ish) waiting for whatever is causing the issue to move. There’s lots of shouting and pushing at the corner and on-lookers are taking up vantage points on rocks or huge stones that are randomly occupying space on the beach. There are willing helpers in the form of young men who want to push the unfortunate tuktuks and when we make an effort to help they’re mortified and direct us away to safety and calm. Our tuktuk lurches forward with a jerk and we hold our breath hoping it gets a clean run at the furrowed slope and eventually makes its way the 20 yards out of the mess and then, within minutes, we’re scooting towards the sea wall in a cloud of sand then back into the melee on Marine Drive.

These people of any age genre are wonderful and repeat the process of welcome in every which way always with a smile and often with a comment, “Are you Happy?”

“You bet we are”

Our meal this evening is with a bunch of multi-agency folks the majority from the Red Cross. There’s no alcohol but the food is second to none and the company is fascinating in their modesty. They’re helping huge numbers of people and willing to talk about what they do but always ready to talk about every other subject under the sun and with humour and authority. They’re not locked into self-promotion, they’re humble and normal. Once more I thank my lucky stars for a night of wonderful entertainment with lovely people, only this time, it’s not on stage.

More to come…

Enjoy the snaps…G..x

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