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Lighting up the shelters of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Darkness comes early in the makeshift shelters built by people from Rakhine State of Myanmar. BRAC is distributing solar lamps so life can continue after the sun goes down.

“Our friends come over after dinner again now. Lights are helping us get some sort of normalcy back.”

Tahera is eight months pregnant. She and her husband, Salam, got married two years ago. They conceived last year, but their unborn child died before birth.

Tahera and Salam crossed the border with Tahera’s mother, Salam’s brother, his wife, and their four children. They were all guided by their friend Rahmat, who is originally from their village in Myanmar, but left eight years ago and has been living in the registered camps in Bangladesh ever since.

“It was a brutally long, hard and dangerous journey across the border. It took us eight days. We walked until it was dark, then fried rice to eat and slept wherever we stopped.

I tried to do everything for my wife. It was our worst nightmare. [After the miscarriage] we were being so careful, and then right in the last month of pregnancy, we were forced to flee. If I could have, I would have carried her the whole way from our village to Bangladesh. Every step she took was painful.”

Tahera’s tent, high up on a hill above Thaingkhali settlement, was specifically targeted by BRAC to receive a solar lamp.

Many of the pathways in the shelters are steep and all are made of mud. Moving around is almost impossible for pregnant women like Tahera, especially at night or when it rains.

“We are far away from where all of the aid is being distributed, because we got here much later than many others. There was no space left close to the entrance.”

Getting to Tahera’s house is no easy task. All of the hills are muddy because of the constant rain and there is no pathway. The only access is by climbing up the hillside: grabbing on to small trees and dragging any supplies needed behind in sacks.

Salam has spent all of the money they brought with them on dry food, so he would not have to leave his family to stand in the relief lines.

“We left Myanmar with 30,000 kyat. We exchanged it and got BDT 8,000 [100 USD]. I used all of it to buy dry food. Tahera found these extra kyat notes yesterday. This is all we have now.”

In a huge effort to help make sure people are safe and mobile, no matter what time it is, BRAC started distributing solar lamps this week. Staff are specifically targeting pregnant women. BRAC’s teams start in the areas furthest away from the entrance and go house to house. A wide variety of other items are being distributed too. When BRAC visited to ask Tahera if she would like to receive a solar lamp, they found that her family slept on nothing but empty sacks, usually used for supply distribution. BRAC staff added floor mats to the list of things to bring the family.

Bangladesh has opened its doors to an estimated 501,000 people over the last four weeks, and the numbers continue to rise. Most people live in makeshift settlements, and it is common for extended families, like Tahera’s, to stick together. They also stay close to friends. Tahera has three friends closeby who are also pregnant. All of them received solar lights from BRAC this week.

Tahera and Halima, who is also from the same village, are both pregnant , and endured similar journeys to get to Bangladesh.

The community spirit is strong, but with no electricity, it was difficult to move around.

Night comes very early and it stays a long time because we only have candles and they do not last. Now we can see each other’s faces.”

As more solar lights are being distributed, the settlements are also becoming more organised — and services are slowly becoming more accessible. The Bangladesh Army has moved many people to safer ground because of potential earthquake risks, centralised aid distribution and started building a road to improve access.

BRAC continues to scale up its work to support the relief efforts of the government and others. It is focusing on providing services in healthcare, specifically for women and children, as well as water, sanitation and hygiene and child protection.

Words by BRAC/Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh

Photos by BRAC/Kamrul Hasan