BALUKHALI, Bangladesh – Walking around the Balukhali refugee camp for Rohingyas in Bangladesh Tuesday, one can see the drawings of Rohingya children depicting a past in Myanmar, full of shootings and homes burned down by soldiers, but also a more hopeful future, full of smiles.
“We want today to be a day of hope and that they think about the future, because (...) when they draw about the past, the experiences that these children have had are absolutely terrible,” Spanish volunteer Laura del Castillo explained to EFE.
Laura is collaborating with American Adam Ostasrewski on several projects in refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, in which they try to “inspire” children, who account for around 60 percent of the 625,000 Rohingyas who have fled from Myanmar since the outbreak of violence in the country on Aug. 25, according to UNICEF.
For that, they have chosen an orphanage in the Balukhali camp, where dozens of boys and girls in a building made of asbestos break into laughter while a local artist encourages them to paint themselves with a watermelon smile.
Not far from the building is a UNICEF-supported “child-friendly space” housing 139 children and full of balloons, toys and a wall filled with drawings made by the children.
“They paint their home, their villages and also the killings that occurred there,” according to the head of the center, Sadrul Alam Milton, who explains that the purpose of the place is to make the children happy and forget about the traumas outside.
Milton describes how one of the children seated on the floor is drawing a “good” Bangladeshi soldier while around him are hung dozens of drawings made by other children, including those which show burning homes and soldiers firing.
According to UNICEF spokesperson Benjamin Steinlechner, the therapeutic process consists of “the children painting the experiences they have undergone so that psychologists come and speak with them,” a method which has already benefited 1,170 children.
One of the employees at the center, Sharmin Husna, recounted to EFE what a six-year-old girl told her.
“She told me that she was playing inside her house when the police arrived and took away her father. Her mother was locked in a room and set on fire. The girl was witness to everything. She escaped, she was the only daughter,” Husna says.
In early December, the Bangladeshi government said that at least 36,000 children have lost one or both parents among the over 600,000 Rohingyas who arrived in the country.
Near the center, Abdu Salam told EFE some of the traumas that children from Myanmar have had to face during the military campaign, which both the United Nations and United States government have described as “ethnic cleansing.”
“It took us 25 days to get to Bangladesh. Many of the babies died in their mothers’ arms due to lack of food. There were women who gave birth on the way and left behind their dead babies,” the 60-year-old says.
The man describes how in villages, including his own, in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine, the army “put the weakest in houses and set them on fire” although his son managed to save himself by hiding in the hole of a toilet.
“I have seen many children, like him, tossed into the fire,” exclaims the man, pointing to a 2-year-old boy dressed in a yellow jersey next to him.