COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — If it hadn’t been for her neighbors, Toyoba Khatun would almost certainly be dead.
The 65-year-old Rohingya refugee was buried alive on June 10 after her home collapsed in the first rains of the monsoon. A video of her rescue shows her face weary with exhaustion as men dig frantically to pull her from the mud that minutes before had been a part of the hill on which she lived.
“Allah didn’t take me, but he could have,” Khatun said a few days later, still weakened by the ordeal.
Bamboo and tarpaulin are all that the Rohingya — hundreds of thousands of whom crossed into Bangladesh after fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar — have as shelter from the heavy rains and cyclones that lash the region each year. The rains have already caused 100 landslides this season, most of which were small in scale, and aid agencies estimate that 185,000 people are at immediate risk of being caught in landslides or floods in the coming months as storms batter the world’s largest refugee camp.
Concerns about shelter are just the beginning. Aid workers fear that rains could cut off homes from receiving food, fuel and medical help. Young refugees are especially vulnerable to malnutrition. Latrines could collapse into the muck, creating a sanitation nightmare. Cases of diphtheria — a disease that has nearly vanished in the West but has made a comeback in the camps — could see a catastrophic surge as immunity declines.
Aid groups have been preparing for this since February by leveling hills and relocating a fraction of the most vulnerable people to homes on safer land. But space is tight — Bangladesh’s government has allocated a limited amount of land for refugees — so at best, only 40 percent of those at risk will be relocated this monsoon season, said Frédéric Cussigh, senior field coordinator for the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Those who remain in high-risk areas are buttressing their homes with sandbags or moving into mosques to stay safe.
But the rains are still causing damage, and they will only get more intense as the season progresses.
One night last week, Soyeda Khatun’s 3-year-old son died when their home collapsed in a landslide. Khatun became trapped and could not free her son, who was buried in the mud.
“I was screaming to save my children, I was asking for help,” she said, still injured and weak in her home, which was rebuilt by aid workers.
Those who survive are at risk of losing their few treasured belongings in the storms.
“All our property, our rice, our oil, everything was destroyed,” said Mahmoud Amour, 41. Three women and two children in his family were buried in mud after their home in a nearby camp was destroyed. “I don’t have anything else to wear anymore, except what I’m wearing now.”
Since the exodus from Myanmar began in August, the refugees have lived in shelters cut haphazardly into hillsides — a necessary solution that was supposed to be temporary as tens of thousands arrived each day. But in the process of building the shelters, refugees uprooted trees that held the soil in place and used the mud as the foundation for the bamboo frames of their homes, wherever they found space.
Humanitarian workers say they are battling the clock to make homes safer.
Last week, aid workers began moving an entire neighborhood — 21 families — to newly built shelters on leveled ground. Noor Ayesha, a 46-year-old woman who was being relocated, wept as she took one last look at the place she and her family have called home for the past 10 months.
“I don’t know whether to be happy or sad,” she said. “When I came here, I made friends with the neighbors. I will miss my home.”
About 15,000 people like Ayesha have already moved, but aid workers said the departures are happening too slowly. By the end of the week, another 7,000 are to be relocated. These moves are not easy: Relocating brings painful memories for refugees, including Ayesha, who trudged through forests and rivers to escape to Bangladesh. Many refuse.
For Ayesha, refusal was not an option. The house next to hers had collapsed a few days before, and hers could have been next.
The refugees, who may not have planned to stay this long in Bangladesh, cannot yet return home. Plans for repatriation to Myanmar have stalled because the nation’s government refuses to grant citizenship to Rohingya, and rights groups and activists have warned that repatriation under current circumstances is unsafe. The United Nations has signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar on repatriation, but details of the agreement have not been released.
Bangladesh does not want the Rohingya to remain in the country. The government has granted permission for only temporary housing in the camps, so in this limbo people go without necessities like access to the electrical grid and public schools.
The Bangladeshi government is making plans to relocate 100,000 refugees to a low-lying, uninhabited silt island by August. But the United Nations has called for an independent assessment of the island to ensure that it is safe and that Rohingya settled there are free to leave and return to the island.
Refugees are preparing themselves to endure this season of misery. They are sharing videos — like the one of Toyoba Khatun — to raise awareness. They are taking classes from nongovernmental organizations to learn what they can do to minimize the impact of the rain.
“We will rebuild our homes,” said Moryam Khatun, who moved into a mosque when her home was destroyed in a landslide last week. “We will continue.”