COX’S BAZAR: In the middle of the refugee camp, dozens of Rohingya children were massed around a man in the orange jacket, palms outstretched.
He had been handing out lollipops from a plastic can only minutes before. Now, they were all gone but the children kept coming, scrambling over each other in the dirt.
“Okay! Okay! Everybody! Everybody!” said Datuk Seri Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, raising a single index finger. There was a slight hush and then, he yelled: “Takbir!”
“Allahuakbar (God is great)!” they shouted.
This was repeated two more times. Then, Azeez smiled and walked up the dirt path, clogged with people, to see the rest of the camp.
But the children of the Balukhali camp had already turned away towards the next man carrying a can of lollipops.
On Monday, the Rohingya aid ship Nautical Aliya docked at Chittagong Port with 2,100 tonnes of cargo.
Mission organisers had wanted the ship’s 182 volunteers from 12 countries to get off, visit the Rohingya camps and distribute the aid.
However, Bangladeshi officials only allowed 25 people, citing security concerns, and the aid would be handed out via the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) within the next few weeks.
On Tuesday, organisers picked the 25 – all Malaysians, including 16 journalists – and travelled southeast about 140km to Cox’s Bazar, carrying three hundred boxes filled with food items for 150 Rohingya families.
The next day, the bus set off under a heavy police escort for the three refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, the first of which was at Kutupalong, more than an hour’s drive south.
Hundreds of people were already there, crowding around the Malaysians. Many looked on blankly but some wept openly, speaking through their tears.
“How do you know the difference between a Bangladeshi and a Rohingya?” I asked, getting off the bus.
Dr Rashed Osman Johar, 40, a volunteer from the aid ship and who is of Rohingya and Bangladeshi parentage, said the easiest way was to know the language.
“The speech, the accent. The words they use. They have a different script from Bengali,” he said.
It was food distribution day at the aid centre in Kutupalong, where local groups handled the giving of 25kg of rice to households twice a month.
Barna Paul, a project coordinator, said Rohingya numbers coming to Kutupalong was rising every day.
“When we started about two months ago, we had 2,000 households. Now it’s 6,990 families,” she said.
At the aid centre, a separate line had been made to hand out the 100 food boxes from Malaysia for 50 families, as well as the lollipops.
It was a scene that repeated itself in the camps in Balukhali and Leda, closer to the Myanmar border. In every camp, the stories that each Rohingya told were more or less the same.
Many of their new houses in these camps were ramshackle and hastily built, little more than a collection of sticks with black plastic tarps and leafy branches.
But in Leda, the houses were older and the place even had a market street where vegetables, fish and even Myanmar food were sold.
In each camp, policemen with shotguns and assault rifles stood guard, chasing off Rohingya that got too close to the group.
“There are some criminals here, people who committed crimes in Myanmar and here, too. Murder and rape,” said a policeman, adding that weapons and drugs had been found.
It’s hard to know if this was true, given the little time that we had.
By evening, the food boxes and another 300 copies of the Quran had been handed out and the organisers were back on the bus to Cox’s Bazar.
Later that night, Azeez said Tuesday’s aid handout was symbolic and promised that the rest would come soon.
“We want to tell everybody that what we are doing is real,” he said, planning on taking this issue to the Parliament with ideas to bring more aid on another trip.