With a sun hat on the snow-white head, Gerda Hasselfeldt trudges through powdered sugar sand at around 35 degrees, whirling up a small cloud with every step. During the two-hour car ride through chaotic traffic over a country lane, she first saw lush paddy fields and simple roadside stalls before the innumerable refugee shelters of bamboo and plastic tarpaulins finally sticking to almost any vacant spot. Even hills, which were still free a year ago, are now populated.
For a good year, the CSU politician has been President of the German Red Cross, now Gerda Hasselfeldt visited for the first time a refugee camp. It is the largest in the world – Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. There, more than 900,000 Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar have found refuge in an area of around 250,000 locals – about as many people as Germany recorded in 2015. Hasselfeldt looks at the huts, which stick closely to the barren hills, and says, “We live in paradise in Germany.”
She needs to develop a feeling for her new role
Hasselfeldt was Federal Minister, once for construction, once for health. She was Bundestag vice president and most recently CSU country group chief. The more balancing politician has experienced like no other beyond the Chancellor the heated and hurtful debate in the German refugee issue firsthand, with the relentless CSU party friends have put the country to a severe test and almost blown up the Union.
Today, the 68-year-old president of the Red Cross is at the head of a strictly neutral political organization whose international association is sometimes the only one in the world to help people in need in a crisis zone. Hasselfeldt now has to develop her own feelings for her new role. Right here, in Cox's Bazar, where she has the hopelessness, the almost indissoluble of a catastrophe in mind.
At the end of a steep staircase, green rivulets with an unpleasant odor pass through the dusty path between the huts. Hasselfeldt and her small delegation have to jump over it. The visitors are lucky: they do not catch any of the thunderstorms, which are very sudden in these weeks. When it rains here, the water – including everything it carries along the way – is sometimes waist high. Even the bamboo bridge in the valley of the terraced campsites on steep slopes is then flooded.
Beyond the valley Red Cross and Red Crescent halfway up a small training center. In the hut under the orange tarpaulin it is hot, but it is still full. Women in colored headscarves and men in wrap-around skirts are following three Red Cross employees, holding up pictures and a colorful bonnet. They explain the hygienic handling of food. Gerda Hasselfeldt does not show the effort, while the Tyrolean water expert Christopher Bachtrog explains: “The basic knowledge is usually there, we remind them of what's important.”
On the one hand, the days want to be filled meaningfully, because the Rohingya are not allowed to work or leave the camp in Bangladesh. In addition, they live in a special stress situation. Many of them have experienced traumas, do not know where family members are or how they will continue in the future. In this situation everyone goes through so many things, because “one often forgets to take care of oneself,” says Bachtrog.
In Myanmar, they are considered illegal immigrants
Most of the 900,000 Myanmar Muslim Rohingya currently living in Cox's Bazar fled across the border after 25 August, in an unprecedented mass exodus. At the time, Myanmar's army accused the Rohingya rebel group Arsa – the Arakan Salvation Army – of raiding 30 military posts. Subsequently, the army of the predominantly Buddhist country brutally attacked the minority not recognized in Myanmar, which claims to have been living in the west of the country for centuries, in the Rakhine state, one of the administrative units of Myanmar.
The government, on the other hand, considers the Rohingya to be “Bengalis”, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. During the retaliation, Rohingya were tortured, raped, killed, homes and villages burned down. The United Nations condemned the practice as ethnic cleansing. The army and the government in the capital Naypidaw insist to this day on only to attack terrorists. Access to the region is closed to foreigners, nobody can get an idea of the situation there independently.
Hasselfeldt does not ask her what people have behind her
Hasselfeldt looks at a first aid exercise with volunteers. They are fully committed. Including loud moaning, a team of men and women in the midday sun show how they treat injured people. Hasselfeldt will explain later that she needs above all a sense of how the Red Cross works here and how the cooperation with the International Red Cross Community works.
What the women and men here in the camp have behind them, how they feel about their situation, then Gerda Hasselfeldt does not ask them. What fate and violence the Rohingya experienced, “I know from stories,” she says. “I do not have to tell the stories with them.”
They are stories of great suffering (read more detailed protocols here), almost all in the camp can report it. Like that of 30-year-old Monira Begum, who fled with six family members after her husband was murdered in a neighboring village, she says. Some of the relief she gets from the Red Cross sells to buy fresh vegetables and worries because her four-year-old daughter is soon so old she needs to go to school. But whether Rohingya in Bangladesh may be taught at all, it is argued.
Or one hears the story of Ziaur Rahman, who works in the camp as a kind of teacher, teaching 80 children mathematics and English, although he understands the language only rudimentarily and his hut in the camp soon falls apart, but he does not know where he came from gets new building material. He wants to go back home, to the city of Maungdaw, where he had a fishing business, but also says that if he is to do so, the Buddhist neighbors, many of whom claim independence from Myanmar, would have to leave Rakhine. “There is only room for Rohingya.”
And you hear the story of Imam Hadayet Ullah, who is disappointed by Myanmar's de facto Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi. He had expected support from the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, “but the situation is much worse than before.” In his place bombs have been dropped. All three want to go back, and all three will not dare, as long as Myanmar's government does not reliably assure them of being recognized as a citizen.
Gerda Hasselfeldt does not want to listen to these stories. She says, “That would overwhelm me personally.” But she also says she had “no illusions” about what to expect in the camps before the trip. What she saw, however, left an impression. “It's depressing to go through the camp and see hundreds of thousands of people who depend on outside help,” she says, while girls bring water behind her. She also depresses, “that these people lack perspective”. A future perspective that even the Red Cross can not offer.
Anyway, she says, it's about more than the CSU
The world looks helplessly at the Rohingya in Cox's Bazaar. Nowhere are they wanted. Bangladesh took her in and did not resettle her, but she does not want to have her permanently in the country – and she does not want to take any more. The governments in Dhaka and Naypidaw have repeatedly made repatriation agreements, but the conditions for voluntary and safe return are lacking. Whether there can be a solution under UN mediation is unclear. At any rate nobody believes in a speedy return, at the moment it's all about improving living conditions.
Gerda Hasselfeldt says she will use her “contacts in the politically responsible circles” after the trip. What thoughts go through her mind when she thinks here of the crossfire from her own party in the refugee question, she does not like to talk about. At all differences with many a booming man's image at home – in the end she is thoroughly a CSU-growth. Instead of responding to the anger, she praises the efforts of the CSU Development Minister, the “landauf, landab” attempt to escape causes of flight. With him she feels in line. Anyway, it's about more than the CSU. “There is no party-political deficit, but a deficit in society as a whole, and we have to do everything we can to shake them up,” says the Red Cross boss, who sees here in the camp, how much help is needed, even if the issue is too Home has largely disappeared from the agenda.
Even for professionals it is not easy to work daily in this environment. Even in the evening there is little distraction. Who helps here, needs a lot of composure. The helpers are advised to leave Cox's Bazaar and go on holiday at least every four months.
For Gerda Hasselfeldt, the honorary post of DRK President has become a full-time job. And she knows: “This is not a short-term crisis.” The Red Cross staff will have to help even more humanitarian in the huge refugee camp. But that means there must be a perspective for her and her work as well. So far, appropriate funds from the pot of the Foreign Office are paid only for a maximum of one year. “We do not necessarily need more, but sustained resources,” says Hasselfeldt cautiously. In order to achieve that, she is convinced that no law would have to be changed, just the “practice in budgetary management”. So far, a distinction is made between humanitarian emergency aid and long-term development aid. But both are increasingly not clearly separated.
So far, only bamboo and tarpaulins were allowed as building material
In Bangladesh, too, the duration of the aid is an issue and requires a sensitive approach by the helpers. Because the government in Dhaka fears that solid structures in the camp could be misinterpreted as a signal that the Rohingya can stay. “Only now we can build such a health station,” says Hasselfeldt and knocks on the metal wall of a house that has just opened, even if there is still no chair and no bed here. So far, only bamboo and tarpaulins were allowed as building material. But they do not withstand the weather – just like all the huts of the refugees. Also there should be corrugated iron soon.
In the new health station made of metal can Mothers give birth to their children, minor injuries and illnesses are treated. 30 employees will work here. The Red Crescent is looking for staff across the country – and is paying above-average wages. Even in Bangladesh, doctors and nurses do not go to the countryside. The Rotkreuzler try to agree on the payment with other organizations, says project manager Alfred Hasenöhrl. They all know what competition for good people means for the job market.
Flood, earthquakes, cyclones: a never ending story
These weeks will be another challenge. The helpers have started to prepare for a cyclone. After several quiet years, many locals fear that it will hit their region this year. The Red Cross relocates to storage and has reactivated a building near the coast, built back in the 1990s, to provide shelter for 300 people in the event of a flood. It will not be enough for everyone. There Hasselfeldt meets the Croatian precautionary expert Ead Becirevic. “This is the worst place on earth for disaster,” he says. Even without a single refugee, everything starts again and again. “A never ending story.” Flood, earthquakes, cyclones. It's hard to imagine how help can be provided on the few little streets.
The potholes can not even cushion the comfortable black Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, in which Gerda Hasselfeldt is traveling. “I'll jiggle now,” she whispered, as she leaves the hotel after eleven sweaty hours, which after all leads Paradise in her name. The Red Cross President is waiting for the bath in “Ocean Paradise”.
The trip to Bangladesh was supported by the German Red Cross.