Chapter 8: Rohingya Refugee Camp: Food Crush

Walking through the camp, there is a sudden crash at a low bamboo “gate.”  Very small children are inside the courtyard and others outside are straining. From somewhere more deep within, that I cannot see, the littlest of children  are apparently being handed styrofoam containers held together with a single rubber band.  Food.  Food distribution for the very young.

I don’t see the NGO sign that indicates who is responsible for this food program.  I just see a throng of small bodies push in sloppy waves of different heights, arms akimbo. At  one point an adult sweeps an arm, vocalizing and gesturing, briefly scattering the children.  Just as soon as they have created some space between them, they collapse and surge again into a dangerous, chaotic crowd.

I stand, watch, and with my body create a narrow foot path so those to whom food has been given can safely leave without being trampled on by those rustling, panicking.  It helps, and the crowd somehow briefly respects this introduction of make shift order.  But soon enough it becomes unruly again, and a very small child, maybe two years old, honestly just big enough to walk, is knocked over and trampled.

I lunge at him, scoop him up, and clutch him to me. For a few eternal seconds he is mine, safe, pressed into me. He hangs on to his styrofoam box with life saving food as he clings to me.  I walk him swiftly past the worst of the crowd.  He never makes a sound. 

His older sister, herself no bigger than a minute, a diminutive sylph in a vibrant slash of fabric tied as a sarong and wearing an improbable smile, emerges from the mayhem near us, and I take him to her, and set him down.  She takes his hand, and off they set out together, toward what she knows, in spite of her being so terribly young, is the direction of what comprises home in this refugee camp of 1.2 million souls.

I watch them.  It’s a deeply touching scene.  She drops his hand and lopes ahead, doing her “I’m an unconquerable girl” thing, and he toddles faithfully behind.  She waits up for him a few times, something in her being already trained to look after the littler ones.  Just before they turn right and down a narrow space space darkened by an interminable row of tents made from plastic, she and I connect eyes. Boom.

I smile.  She flashes back at me a smile so replete, I know I will remember the moment for the rest of my life.


Purple sarong will be bring me mirth and she will haunt me.  Her losses and her potential ~ oh, her potential! ~  caught up under her brown skin and in the tangle of ethnic identify and statelessness, will alight in my consciousness, intrude into my thoughts, disturb my day dreams, and skitter across my soul like the light that came from her eyes when she smiled at me.  I will never see her again, which grieves me, so I remind myself I saw her close to a Women Friendly Space.  Maybe I’ll be be back in the Rohingya refugee camp, maybe she’ll make it to the WFS, maybe we’ll be there at the same time. This is  highly improbable yet nonetheless gives me solace, something that assuages the poignant pain of her sass, her beauty, her spirit.  My flimsy notion has so many holes in it, such as if were in the same space would I really recognize her, but believing anything else her else hurts too much.

Purple sarong. This is for you.

1 The US cut all its finding to UNFPA when the new administration was elected. USAID does fund World Food Programme and coordination of agencies for durable goods and food distribution.