THE BLOG

Too Fearful To Smile In Myanmar

02/10/2017 12:37 BST | Updated 02/10/2017 12:37 BST

In Myanmar just six months ago I met a young Rohingya woman called Fatima. She lived in Ye Thei, a Muslim village in central Rakhine State. She and her family had been displaced from their home due to conflict and been moved by the authorities into Ye Thei - what is known as a 'relocation village'.

Their movement was severely restricted and they had little access to any basic services, especially medical and healthcare facilities.

Near the relocation village was a Buddhist community, one that had also been displaced. There was deep suspicion, fear and mistrust between the two communities. At that time, a partner organisation of Christian Aid was organising an interfaith community programme, trying to bring the two communities together. Fatima had attended some of the community meetings. She told me: "We are scared to even look at each other and no one wants to smile. But if they smile first we will smile. It is like a mirror, whoever smiles first, the other will follow suit."

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But since then those tentative smiles have turned to shocking violence and tragedy.

As of mid-September, an estimated 412,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh. By this week that figure may be as high as 420,000.

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But because the situation is so fluid this figure could be far higher with new arrivals crowding into makeshift settlements as well as camps for registered refugees. A great many of them, we don't yet know how many, are children traveling alone, telling tales of mother's being dragged off by armed groups and fathers being murdered in front of them. For decades the Rohingya, stateless, marginalised and with their identity continually questioned, appear to be the world's unwanted peoples, not welcome in either Myanmar or Bangladesh. It is hard for us to verify all of the stories right now because access for aid agencies and journalists remains a challenge in Myanmar's Northern Rakhine State, where the refugees are coming from. Anti-aid agency sentiment runs high there and this makes it difficult for us to help people until they reach Bangladesh. Figures for how many more people have been unable to reach the border and remain trapped and displaced within Myanmar are currently impossible to know.

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One of Christian Aid's local partners is currently providing medical assistance in a border camp. This includes treatment for physical injuries from gunshot wounds (of which we are seeing many), burns, antenatal care, emergency obstetric care services. We are also prioritising food, shelter, essential items like cooking pots and hygiene kits (which include soap, sanitary towels and buckets). And as more people flood in, there is an urgent need to ensure families have access to water and sanitation.

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As of now no one knows how long they will need to remain there or if and when they can ever return to Myanmar. But these people have nothing, many fled with just the clothes on their backs, and they can't survive without our help.

As I look at the awful images I think of Fatima's words and the tentative hope that brief interfaith programme brought. Those smiles could have become hellos, maybe even friendships and maybe, just maybe, helped lead to peace. I remember lovely Fatima and I wonder if she is among the refugees now trying to flee? It breaks my heart to think she might be.

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Religious conflicts can lay bare some of man's worst instincts. Yet ironically in a highly charged environment, it is very often faith leaders who are best places to diffuse tensions and bring about social cohesion. Christian Aid has a policy of working with people of all faiths and none. 'Doing no harm' is fundamental to the way we work. And even in Myanmar that has had past results, albeit limited ones. During our humanitarian response to Cyclone Nargis, we as a Christian organisation received funds from both a Jewish and Islamic aid agency. The relief interventions Christian Aid managed on the ground were delivered by local Buddhist monks. That's a great example of interfaith work in action.

We know we can't fix the situation alone nor bring lasting change overnight, but we can and we do reach as many people as we can. In the words of one our local partners working in Myanmar: "The race towards peace is not a hundred-metre sprint, but a marathon."

I am from Sri Lanka, another country beset by the legacy of a violent conflict and all sorts of religious and ethnic tensions. It can sometimes feel overwhelming when I think of just how much of the world today is beset by similar problems. But when I feel like this I stop and I think of Fatima. That marathon needs to end one day. And if each of us play our part, however small, even with just that first smile to someone from a different faith or culture, then perhaps it just might.