The Rohingya Misery – Komail Somji
I’m at the world’s largest brothel...I’m going to be a while. Make sure you get a bite to eat, then get some rest. We fly out at 9am.
So says Ali Yusufali, CEO of CAI.
Hmmmm. I’ve known the guy for eons, but this is very strange, even by his standards (see story below).
I’ve landed in Dhaka for a night stop before heading to Cox’s Bazar to observe firsthand what is being described as the modern-day holocaust meted to the Rohingya’s of Myanmar.
We whizz through unorganized Dhaka chaos the next morning and fly Biman Air to Cox’s Bazar, a haphazard town with the guaranteed hustle and bustle of subcontinent Asia with its overcrowded streets. It has a Zanzibar vibe because of the beach, that is apparently the world’s longest uninterrupted one.
Ninety minutes from Cox’s Bazar, near the border with Myanmar, are border camps where the Rohingya’s are taking a second shot at life. UN, Red Cross, Red Crescent and other banners line the streets. Food distribution points are abundant. Temporary field hospitals with lines of desperate people look for medical aid. People walk bare feet with supplies balanced on their heads and shoulders. Children as young as 5 walking with bags of food to feed themselves, the handout from aid agencies. A kid struggles to hoist a jute bag full of building bricks to his shoulders and then teeters under the weight. All images nothing short of serious misery; the grief is crushing.
Over the past few months aid is pouring in from family and friends routed to CAI for these wretched people. And it’s time to see the progress made. Yusufali and I are visiting to open doors to the newly built school for up to 140 orphans. The funds allow us to feed them a healthy morning breakfast and a hot lunch every day. And of course, learn a thing or two during their class times.
The building was nonexistent the last time Yusufali visited and thus we have no idea what to expect. We arrive at the only solid structure in the vicinity, and I know it’s the school; CAI doesn’t do anything halfway. The solid steel structure was put up in about 6 weeks.
We walk into applause from the orphaned boys and girls, aged 5 to 8, cheering us and filling the sorrowful air with a little sparkle of enthusiasm and joy. They have come a long way and have a long way to go.
A young orphan girl, 8 perhaps, catches my eye. She has a beaming glow. Big bright eyes. I remember my niece immediately and fight back a tear. I am told she’s an orphan; her father and elder sister killed. I will never forget that feeling of being in the presence of a young child who has seen so much misery in such a short life. Then I realize there are over 100 more orphans in the same room. All having faced similar hardship and sorrow. Many have witnessed their mothers or sisters raped. Others have had their younger siblings burnt alive. I ask Yusufali to get some info on this beautiful young girl. We find out she is Begum Jiya, 7.
The children are handed hygiene kits, uniforms, some books and writing material before being let go for the day. We and the group inaugurating this school have a meal to end the event.
It’s a long ride back to Cox’s Bazar and a painful one for my right ear. I have an elderly Bangladeshi gentleman who insists on screaming the entire drive back; his views must be important. To him. Yusufali gives me a smile and knocks out as he is pooped.
I head back to Dubai, where normal life is to continue on and keep going. Everyone asks how my trip went and wants to know what happened and how it was. I’m speechless. That rarely happens. How do you describe misery? Sorrow? Pain? Injustice? Suffering? Unexplainable and unfathomable. I can’t express what I see in a camp where half a million barely exist, with no future in sight. Several months ago, everyone was living a normal life, some quite well to do, I’m told. And now they are at the mercy of donor dollars.
I would like to keep in touch with Begum Jiya. But she speaks no English. She’ll probably never remember me. But I don’t think I will ever forget her face. Her picture below.
The Brothels Of Daulatdia
Transvestites terrify me - the ones I encounter on Mumbai streets with loud sarees, painted faces, clapping hands, knocking on car windows demanding money or else, give me a creepy feeling, much to the amusement of Sarfaraz, the driver, who delights in my discomfort.
So, when I meet Ivan Khata, a former sex worker and a transvestite in Dhaka, clad in a colorful saree and an ill-fitting wig, I am in anxiety overdrive. But Khata, who understands English quite well but speaks it sparingly, is remarkably amiable and accommodating to my apprehensions. So, I warm up to her as she relates me her story in a husky voice with animated expressions from a knowing face. I will not repeat it here since it’s not relevant to my visit to the largest brothel in Bangladesh, which has over 300,000 sex workers in the country. Khata is the thread that will make the visit possible.
I am drawn to this subject after watching a documentary that highlights the pathetic lives of young vulnerable girls into the deep misery of the flesh trade. I am interested in their backgrounds, why and how they end up in the current situation and how, if at all, can we help find them an alternative livelihood, away from sin. Kausar Jamal, CAI’s operational partner for Bangladesh makes the arrangements and I am off to Daulatdia, some 50 miles away. With me in the van is Kausar, Khata, 2 local NGO workers helping sex workers survive abuse and a very aggressive driver who thinks nothing risking all our lives with his highly irrational, dangerous and provocative driving. The 50 miles takes us over 2 nerve wrecking hours, with the madman in the driver’s seat thinking he owns the road. He breaks every driving rule and has the audacity to curse others who obey some driving protocol and decency. Since the others in the car are nonchalant or accepting of this behavior, I bite my tongue, seethe and bear it.
We have to wait for an hour fighting incredibly heavy traffic for a rickety ferry to take us over the Padma river. Our driver brazenly cuts before a barging truck, prompting an onslaught of curses from its driver and a terrifying one from me as well. Sunrise and dusk are early winter events in Bangladesh so it is magreeb as we line up in the ferry and I go join other passengers for salaat on a dingy upper deck of the moving ferry. Since the boat changes directions, we lose the qibla, but the imam leading the prayers is okay with that, so I reckon he knows what he is doing. If not, I am sure Allah will consider my intent and overlook this unavoidable transgression. The skies start drizzling just as we reach the outskirts of the vast slum area that make up Daulatdia.
It is with some trouble we locate the Mama of 10 sex workers who will guide us through the maze of lanes and dens that make up this sprawl of sin. Prostitution is officially illegal in majority Muslim Bangladesh, but the government is unwilling or unable to enforce the laws that will deal with the problem. Instead, the authorities issue an individual singing or dancing permit, which everybody knows is cops’ eyes averted as long as the person is not causing too much hungaama. Even if one is persecuted and brought to court, the fine for this trade is Taka 50 (about 65 US cents).
I meet with a couple of NGO employees who halfheartedly want to convince me they are doing the best to help the sex workers fight abuse, but lack of funding and disinterest from the government makes the task a challenge. So, do I have the money to fund them? I ignore the questions about money and tell them I am interested in helping potential reform-minded girls directly instead. I can see and feel the resentment in the shifting of their eyes and body movements. Still, the possibility of money is still the carrot that keeps them glued to me.
The Mama is huge, dark and ugly. But she is kind to her girls and fiercely protects them from outside elements with physical violence or bribes, which include the very policemen who are supposed to be protectors. In return, she demands loyalty payments and rent for the tiny digs that also act as entertaining rooms for clients.
The night is pretty dark, so I can’t see much beyond the reach of street lights, but I can smell the garbage dump behind the shanty town where trash piles up and putrefies – no municipal services here. The lanes between the sex dens are narrow, wet, slippery, uneven and noisy, so I watch where I tread very carefully, following Mama’s massive behind as she leads us to her corner. It is difficult, for me, to keep my eyes looking for a sure footing and observe the sex workers at the same time. Earsplitting Bengali songs blare from speakers. Several women, girls really, faces painted with makeup and ruby red lipstick, line up the alleyway, gawking at us. One of them blows cigarette smoke on my face and bursts out in merriment. Another one mocks a dance move and winks, smiling small uneven teeth marred by red lipstick. Since I am accompanied by 5 Bengalis, I feel little fear.
Big Mama’s pad is a cluster of 10 individual tiny rooms, nestled in one corner of the favela with a massive mango and jamun tree in the middle of the front yard. Mama informs me the mangoes and jamuns are abundant and sweet in the summer. I get to meet and talk to 5 of her wards. Surprisingly, to me, all the 5 rooms are exceptionally neat and clean, cots with floral bedsheets and sparse furniture that is exceptionally dust free; I always imagined these places as seedy and grimy. Also, the air is breathable and odor free, smelling of fresh rain with a hint of jasmine. Again, I am surprised as I had assumed, for no apparent reason, these places stink evil. Each of the girls has a story to tell, overwhelmingly miserable starts in life, with crushing odds stacked against them. I will relate the tale of one girl, Pinky, since the others are pretty much the same sad saga of woes and life turbulences.
Pinky is in her late teens, with a pretty face and a pert ambiance, so it is easy to converse with her, even with the help of an interpreter. She first assumes I am an upscale tourist customer, and immediately quotes a price that is 10 times her normal rate; my dressing, mannerism, and English warrant the rate hike. The translator, rather rudely, tells her to wake up and ask her Mama, who has okayed me talking to her and asking questions. I can tell Pinky is not too happy with giving this free service but the mood does not last too long.
She is the first born into a poor family of 3 daughters and a son in a village outside Dhaka. Her father, a petty rice farmer, is afflicted with tuberculosis and rendered useless midlife. The mother picks up the slack and becomes a housemaid. At age 16, Pinky is lured to a job in the city by a cousin and the rest is history. Pinky is unrepentant about her profession, proud even. She supports her family of sisters and also pays for her to brother attend school. The maximum she earns is Taka15,000/month (US$185). After paying off her Mama for rent and protection fee, the balance goes home to her family. No, her family does not know she is a sex worker.
Enamored men buy her gifts or sometimes pay bonuses that she saves for her trousseau. I laugh and ask if she really thinks someone will marry her. This draws instant ire from her; eyes flash and face set in an angry pout. She wags an indignant finger my way and lectures me in a quivering, teary voice.
Yes, yes, I’ll marry and demand a hefty dowry as well. And I’ll have children too. And the children I’ll have will be free from what I do. They’ll go to school and be prized in high society and will hold their heads up…
Amen, I silently pray and immediately apologize for laughing at her aspirations, she relents. She tells me she is good at what she does and laughs at my obvious discomfort. So, I change the subject. No, she stands for no abuse by her customers, Mama is swift in reckoning with troublemakers. Yes, she is aware of her exposure to sexual diseases in her trade but not overly concerned. This makes me feel quite despondent for some inexplicable reason. Will she consider a change of trade if given the opportunity?
Pinky goes quiet and I sense disquiet and apprehension on her face. She clamps up and glances at Mama, sitting and chatting with Kauser at another cabin, nervously. I again press her for a possible career change, assuring support and financial assistance but the damage to the carefree chat has been done. She becomes agitated, gets up in a hurry, signaling an end to the interview and leaves the room. Baffled, I turn to the translator, who shrugs her shoulders and rolls her eyes to the heavens in disgust.
I am so exhausted with the long day, having begun in Mumba at 4 AM with the flight to Dhaka and then the crazy drive to Daulatdia and the emotional upheaval there, I nap on my way back, uncaring if the driver is playing Russian roulette with my life.
Maybe I am being naïve in trying to help the sex workers at Daulatdia - the whole system is highly complex, intractable and fraught with some danger. But it’s worth a try to save a few trapped and desponded sex workers who want out and are willing to train for alternative employment. The robust garment industry, health and data entry job centers in Bangladesh are alternatives where the pay is at par or better than what they currently make. It’ll be a challenge to extract the girls from the dominance of overpowering Mamas I met but doable. The successes, however, for me, will be no less than ecstasy. Nothing is impossible. Insha’Allah.