Race to Save Drowning Rohingya Boy Exposes Spiraling Crisis

Rohingya refugee children play outside their makeshift school in January in the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Manish Swarup / Associated Press
Rohingya refugee children play outside their makeshift school in January in the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Manish Swarup / Associated Press

UKHIYA, Bangladesh — 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.

Though no one knows how the boy ended up in the water, it was not surprising that he had.

More than half of the Rohingya refugees living in these camps are children. Many clamber over crumbling hillsides to reach aid distribution points, and trek into the mountains in search of firewood. They cross rushing creeks barefoot while balancing piles of tree roots bigger than their bodies atop their heads. And they play in excrement-riddled waterways, which have swelled with the monsoon rains.

That these children have managed to survive what the United Nations calls textbook ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and nearly a year in the chaos of the camps feels like a miracle. Some parents say they watched helplessly as members of Myanmar’s security forces bashed their babies against trees, threw them into fires, stomped on them with their boots. The children who survived walked for days across mountains and squeezed into rickety boats to cross a river into Bangladesh.

Here in the camps, the children face other dangers: Malnutrition and disease. Human traffickers. Flooding and landslides. And violence.

One evening, we heard about a community leader stabbed to death along the main road running through the camps. Another day, a woman’s screams sent us running toward her bamboo shelter, which was shaking from the beating she was suffering from her husband. By the time we reached their hut, the woman had escaped, sobbing as she ran by. Her husband fled in the other direction.

The death toll in these camps is unknown, because many die far away from clinics. But the cemeteries that now dot the hills make clear that Bangladesh is hardly a safe haven for Rohingya children.

Relief groups have tried to help youngsters. Save the Children runs safe spaces where they are free to play. UNICEF runs treatment centers for the malnourished.

Yet there is only so much that can be done to protect a child in this environment, particularly with limited resources. A global appeal by the U.N. and other agencies for around USD$1 billion in humanitarian aid has raised just a third of that.

During my reporting trip to the camps last year, many Rohingya expressed hope that the world would hear their pleas and help them safely return home. Now, nearly a year into the crisis, much of that hope has given way to fears that the world has forgotten them.

One day, I ran into a woman I met last year as part of an investigation into the military’s mass rapes of the Rohingya. She had been pregnant when soldiers gang-raped her and killed her 3-year-old daughter.

The woman cradled her baby as she asked what had happened after the story was published. I told her that many people had been moved by the rape survivors’ accounts.

She stared at me. But no one has helped us, she said. We are still waiting for justice.

The cost of languishing in limbo was clear. We saw it in the two emaciated girls scrounging through the muck for discarded bananas, shoving the rotten fruit into their mouths with bony hands. We heard it in the weeping of the woman who was too distraught to notice the army of rats scurrying around her shelter.

Sitting and waiting in the van, I silently will this not to become another tragedy for the Rohingya.

Finally, mercifully, the trucks begin to move. We cross the bridge.

By the time we reach the clinic, 20 minutes have passed. The guards at the gate take one look at the boy and let us through. We race toward the medical tent.

“This boy needs help!” I shout. “He fell in the water!”

Everyone freezes and stares.

“He fell in the water?” one doctor repeats. “YES!” I scream.

A doctor grabs the boy and dashes into an adjacent tent. Then he begins to frantically pump the boy’s chest.

Why hadn’t I thought to pump his chest?

Another doctor rushes in with a ventilator. The first doctor keeps pumping his chest.

The curtain to the tent is drawn shut. I pace outside, running the events of the drive over and over in my head. In my tunnel vision to get to the clinic, it hadn’t occurred to me to try CPR.

About 10 minutes later, a doctor emerges.

“Is he OK?” I venture, knowing the answer, hoping I’m wrong.

Her response is blunt. “No.”

I would later learn that the boy was dead by the time we made it to the clinic. I would also learn that he was not a toddler, but a malnourished 6-year-old. Around 40 percent of Rohingya children in the camps are stunted, according to UNICEF. After almost a year of subsisting on little more than donated rice and lentils, thousands are shadows of who they should be.

I walk back to the van. Habi and our driver look at me expectantly. I shake my head. Their faces fall.

We had failed him. Looking out at the suffering that stretched in every direction, it felt like the world had failed all the Rohingya.


Habi is quiet for a minute. When he speaks, his words are the final knife twist:

“He was an only child.”

Story: Kristen Gelineau