Chapter 3: Rohingya Refugee Camp | Ajida


A baby goat has its head in a small watermelon, gutting the rind for any nutrition left.  We are on our way Kutupalong Extension Area, Camps D 5, to visit midwives.  Midwives have been busy since the Rohingya crisis of August 2017 began.  They have screened more than 170,000 women.

40,000 women have received antenatal care, and more than 1,500 babies have been born. In the camp, 78% of those outside any health facility, at home in the mom’s makeshift shelter of mud or tarp.  UNFPA has distributed over 5,000 Clean Delivery Kits, encouraging mother’s to take their Kits to any facility when labor begins.  Clean Delivery Kits include a sanitary mat for childbirth, gloves and a bar of soap, a razor and a clamp for the umbilical cord, and a squeezy suction thing for mucous. They cost $5.

We so often don’t think of pregnant women in crisis.  We somehow think life freezes, and activity other than basic survival halts.  But women were pregnant before they fled Myanmar, women get pregnant by their husbands and the men who rape them.  Childbirth stops for nothing.

Right now, 60,000 women are pregnant inside the refugee camp.  I’ll be meeting some of them today, some who may give birth on the spot.


Hercheekboness flash, not her eyes. They are steep, like Miry Ridge in the Great Smoky Mountains, following some unknown and ancient line of necessary architecture.  Along and below them runs lengthy, deep hollows, space enough for small universes, until her strong, gently sloped jaw bone.  Her eyes are a clear brown, a color I can’t quite describe, although I see them, frozen, very fixed, like one of those time I saw a certain distant star so vividly that the pattern of the sky was imprinted with me, even though I could never make another person see the same thing.

I have my left hand on her hands, in which loosely lie her ironic identity cards.  They are ironic because they say she is something the very people it says she is declared long ago she is not: Nationality, Myanmar.  But the card would never say Bangla, she is refugee here, with “rights” in so far as refugees have them, which is to say she is permitted to squat on this dirt-y land and avail herself of primitive service meted out by international donors.  It’s confusing, just looking at this small yellow card, the color of an infraction in soccer, that at some time in the recent past has been damp.  It says so much, and it means so very, very little.  Meaningless authority.  Official, Officially Incorrect.  These papers are supposed to carve out autonomous agreements that are respected by unrelated, disparate bodies, who may eye them suspiciously, the onus on the individual, never on the issuing, sovereign government.  It is people who fuck up their documents for some nefarious purpose, not sovereign nations who fuck up their people by invalidating and mocking their documents.  The numbers, the bar code, work only in this distorted parallel universe where people whose documents (passports) have stamps of many colors and stapled addendum  (visas) try to help her breathe and jostle through what her government wanted, her murder and the murder of her eight children. The small squares of shabby paper in her hand, held together by a coil of slack ribbon, are the languid meeting of bureaucracy become vital and existential crisis become real. The certainty of her fundamentally uncertain existence typed on pulp.

My right arm is stretched behind her shoulders, resting partly on her, partly on the rail behind the bench on which we sit.  I occasionally wind my fingers through dark phalanges of girls and women who form a flat, pressed, long  tail behind us.  The queue for the maternity clinic is stultifying. It is in three directions and then there are thick, deep, mildly disorderly squares of women pressing against one another outside the physical space, dozens and dozens of more women who wait to be able to join the infernal queue. It is very hot. Everyone is dressed in layers of black, with headscarves and niqabs.  I don’t know if they are patient, exhausted, in pain, defeated, or bored.  I myself am all of those, and I am curious about it. I can feel in my body and my spirit that the vast fatigue of woman kind is upon me. Unregulated fertility is depleting, tiring.  No love for baby or family overcomes the grinding down of the bones that comes with multiple back to back pregnancies while walking for water and collecting firewood and serving men and giving up marrow and milk for babies and staying on vigilant high alert for assault and rape.  I have walked into the very tableau of what exhausts and lassos and cinches my kind globally and my cells know it.  I could be in the Sahel, there are so many bodies swollen with pregnancy.  How can so many women be pregnant?  Don’t refugees know that being pregnant would be a very inconvenient and untimely thing?

Didn’t the men who who cut babies into pieces and slit throats know mother’s have more to do, and ongoing obligation, that becomes exponentially more difficult?


Her name is Ajida.  She speaks in bursts.  I say very little. We are at the front of line for maternity service.  Two small offices, one to our left and one straight ahead, have little sheets for doors that periodically flutter open, ushering out, and then beckoning in, women like Ajida, Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar pregnant.  But Ajida skips her turn, preferring to sit with me. She says I am “giving” her something and that makes me cry.  I am sitting.  I am touching her. I am listening.  She describes my support as psych social support.  I let her know I am so sorry for her suffering.  That I will give her all I can.  I check in briefly with God, because together we can give a lot more than I can on my own. Her need is deep and vast.

The military came and after the slaughtering, they fled.  In a boat, they were pursued, and the boat capsized.  Ajida’s ten year old, her seven year old twins, and her three year old, died.

She misses her family.

Later that night, I think about the yearning of missing.  I miss my cats.  I miss my beloved deceased grandparents.  It’s universal, I suppose, this missing. It’s very human.  We all know how to do it, the instinctual, in-built yang to the yin of presence.  But I am not sure how to miss four dead children.  I am not sure anyone is, except somehow, Ajida, who with her carved face and hand resting on mine, is an expert.

Women behind us continue to stand up and take Ajida’s place.  We remain seated at the end of the bench, quiet.  I become aware at some point there are seven people waiting on me.  But we all of us, all eight of us, are doing something very important. We are waiting with Ajida.  For what, none of us knows.

I slowly begin to bring up that at some point I will have to go, by letting Ajida know I will sit with her as long as she likes, until she is ready to stand, take a few steps, have her pre natal appointment.  She surprises me by saying the baby hasn’t moved in a month.  I want to pretend she did not say this, because this news is so bad it can’t be true on top of four already dead children.  She says she has a terrible burning and she gestures to the area of her diaphragm, and she explains that the baby is in low slung, off to a  side position that is very heavy and hard, and makes it hard for her to move or walk.  I am immediately convinced the baby is still born but I can’t cope with that, and I unconsciously remand this hellish information to the maternity clinic UNFPA midwives, who will care for her, who live in premises, who tend to refugee women 24/7.    

I have someone explain, several times, to Ajida where the closest UNFPA Women Friendly Space is, and invite her to the Peace House. I am not foolish enough to think I will ever see her there.  We disentangle our fingers, and I look one more time into her eyes, which she is generous enough to share with me. I try to see as much as I can, everything that she is showing me.

Later, I get a text from Bono asking me what certain girl’s name is, the girl I “married,” who put her ring on my wedding on my finger. He says he’ll sing for her.  Instead, I tell him Ajida’s name.  He responds, “O Lord help her.  She must have something very special to offer if she made it.”