Race to save drowning Rohingya boy exposes spiraling crisis | 2018-08-23

Race to save drowning Rohingya boy exposes spiraling crisis


23rd August, 2018 10:25:54 printer

Race to save drowning Rohingya boy exposes spiraling crisis

The little boy emerges into view amid a chorus of panicked shouts and the thunder of feet from the horde sweeping past us. He is slumped over the shoulder of a man, his skinny arms flopping around like a marionette's. And though we cannot see his face, we know from his limp body that he is in danger.


My translator, Habi, and I are walking along a dirt road through Bangladesh's refugee camps, where 700,000 Rohingya people have fled since the military launched a violent campaign in neighboring Myanmar last August. Listening to the shouts from the crowd, Habi works out what has happened: The boy fell into one of the fetid waterways that snake through the camps. He is in urgent need of help.


It is Friday, a weekly holiday in Bangladesh. The medical tents in this part of the camp are unstaffed. The closest help is at an emergency clinic, several kilometers away.


Ahead of us, the crowd has descended upon a few slow-moving rickshaws, the only transport available to them. "They will never make it in time," Habi says, shaking his head.


We reach our van. "What if we took him?" I ask.


Habi looks at me in surprise. "Can we?"


His question is understandable. As journalists in a crisis zone, we are expected to be observers, not participants.


But a dying child renders such distinctions meaningless. My response is immediate: Yes.


Habi quickly ushers a shirtless teenager carrying the boy into the front seat of our van. The teen is the boy's cousin.


Our driver revs the engine, but the van is swarmed by the frantic crowd. "MOVE!" I shout at them. "MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!" Habi repeats the plea in the Rohingya dialect and we bang against the windows. The crowd parts and the van lurches forward.


The boy is draped across his cousin's lap. His tiny frame suggests he is just a toddler. Only the whites of his eyes are visible, but they are flickering. He is still alive.


I tell his cousin to turn him on his side to let water drain from his mouth and keep his airway open. But with every bone-jarring bump in the road, the boy is jolted backward, squashing his face up against his cousin's stomach.


The cousin tells us what little he knows: The boy's father was at the mosque and his mother immersed in afternoon prayers. At some point, the boy left his family's shelter and wound up in the water. When he was finally fished out, his belly was bloated and water gushed from his mouth.


No one knows how long he had been floating there.


The road is a nightmare. It is pockmarked with craters and waterlogged in places from the rains. It is jammed with cows and goats, trucks and rickshaws. Our driver leans on the horn and dodges left and right, pushing the van with its broken door to the limit.


We come to a halt before a narrow bridge. A truck is sitting on it, playing a game of chicken with another truck that wants to cross in the opposite direction. Neither will budge. Habi hurries over to reason with the drivers.


The boy's lips are turning blue. I press my forehead against the seat in front of me and briefly close my eyes. "We're not going to make it," I murmur.