On the anniversary of Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar after many atrocities, Fozia Alvi, a Canada-based doctor, recounts the physical and psychological sufferings she encountered while treating them in Bangladeshi camps.
Fozia Alvi is a 46-year old physician. Born and raised in Pakistan, and trained in the US, she now practices as a family doctor in Calgary in Canada. At the end of October last year, she went to a Rohingya refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and spent nine days there. In early August this year, she decided to visit the refugee camps again and TRT World caught up with her in Istanbul as she was on her way to Bangladesh.
Since when have you been doing humanitarian work, besides practicing as a full-time doctor?
FOZIA ALVI: My husband Tahir, he has been heavily involved in humanitarian work for a long time. I started to get involved four to five years ago. We are building an orphanage in Africa so I was in East Africa about three years ago and I took my family over there. We are working actively for the last five years to build an orphanage but it was not that much work when I was in Africa – but, you know, it’s a different world.
Last year when I heard about Rohingya, when the mass exodus happened in August of last year, I heard that there were about 90,000 pregnant women and only a handful of doctors treating them.
So what triggered your interest in the Rohingya issue?
FA: What inspired me was one of the ICNA relief worker doctors. He came back in October from refugee camps, ICNA Relief Executive Director named Shaukat Hussain. I was talking to him at a fundraiser about his visit. He showed me some pictures.
So I said “OK, there are lots of pregnant women,” and he told me that the women sometimes deliver [babies] in the water [of Naf river] while crossing the border and that there are also women in the jungle ... I asked, “Who takes care of them?”
I learned there were only a handful of doctors and there were about 500,000 people who at that time had reached Bangladesh within a couple of months. I asked him to connect me with local doctors over there. I told him "I can [help pregnant women] deliver those babies.”
So he put me in touch with local Bangladeshi doctors. They were like, “Oh for sure doctor. Come and help us.” There were lots of male doctors; there were no female doctors in October last year.
It really blew my mind. I felt it’s been going on at this age, in this day, and how ignorant we are and why [these stories are] not coming out and the horror stories that I heard from my patients.
Like one lady, one woman came in with pelvic pain. She told me she was raped for two weeks by Myanmar soldiers after her husband’s throat was cut in front of her.
Every time she stands up, she bleeds. Or she coughs, she bleeds. Apparently, she had a fistula due to repeated gang rape. So it was like I could not even imagine the horror that she’s gone through.
After visiting Rohingya refugee camps last month, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “nothing could have prepared me for the scale of the crisis and the extent of suffering” he witnessed there. Was that how you felt when you visited? Can you tell us about it?
FA: I felt the same way. I knew that I was going to face hard conditions and hear [about] hard conditions, and I braced myself for that. But what I saw there, I don’t think anything could have prepared me – to hear, to see what I saw there. I’m not an activist or anything, I’m just a medical doctor, a busy mother. But what I saw there moved me deeply. I told myself that I have to raise my voice.
Can you tell us about what you saw there?
FA: When you enter the camps, more than 50 to 60 percent [of the population] are children under the age of 16. Lots of children and women, because they [Myanmar soldiers] have killed their sons and husbands. That looks like a genocide. They have raped those women; they've raped young girls.
One 14-year old, she came to me with a urinary tract infection. She said she was raped by [Burmese] soldiers and now she was working as a sex worker. Can you imagine that? Small children between 13-14 years of age? They have been taken out of the camps by sex traffickers and they are working as sex workers.
I asked her “Why are you doing it?” She said “To help my mother, because the food that they give us is not sufficient to survive.” The conditions at the camp are really bad. They are living in filthy garbage conditions: there’s no clean water, and there’s small tents that are [just big enough] to sit in; I don’t know how they sleep there.
When I went there in October-November, the temperature was rising to 35 degrees Celsius and I was sweating. There are no windows in the camps, there’s nothing. There are no trees; they’re sitting literally on those barren hills.
All of these things that you witnessed, how do they make you feel as a doctor?
FA: It was hard after coming back. I could not sleep for days. I’m sleeping in my comfortable bed, while I have witnessed those small children sleeping in the rain, in the mud, in those bamboo tents, sometimes if the rain comes, there's leaking in the tents everywhere, and [it’s very windy] over there.
I had lots of sleepless nights. That’s why I decided I had to do something about it.
Has going to the camps changed your perspective about life?
FA: Definitely. It made me angrier, actually. Why have we made these institutions – the UN, the International Criminal Court, the EU? To make people accountable, to protect human rights. Why are they not protecting rights? I’m just a medical doctor, but why is the UN not doing anything? It’s been a year now and I don’t think the UN has a clear mandate to solve this issue. Those military generals, the Myanmar government, they are still free; nobody is making them accountable for what they have done to these people.
There’s still talk “Is it a genocide?” and lots of countries are not declaring it as genocide. If the UN is declaring genocide why are they not protecting those people? I get very angry when I talk about this.
“The world needs to do more to help the Rohingyas.” How does it make you feel when you hear such statements?
FA: There’s a lot of statements, lots of NGOs, lots of talk … Lots of meetings going on between world leaders, at the UN level, that “yes, we have to do [something]” and there are talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh governments for [Rohingyas’] repatriation. Honestly speaking, it looks so silly to me that we are not addressing the root causes first – that why did this happen? We are not making them accountable.
How is Bangladesh treating the refugees?
FA: You know Bangladesh is a very poor country ... Now when you are asking me this question, I would like to stop here and talk about your country and your president. President Erdogan, he has been for a long time an icon not only to me but to the whole Muslim world around the globe.
It was you, Turks, who stood up to protect the Rohingyas. It was your president, your government and then the people of Turkey who stood up for them.
How did Bangladesh treat you when you went there?
FA: Yes I was welcome and Bangladesh – when you guys pressured them to open their borders yes they’re kind to us. But the land [the Rohingya] has been assigned is the worst land in Bangladesh. They’re living on barren hills. In Cox’s Bazar there was 80 milimetres of rain. Those camps are two hours away from Cox’s Bazar and there was 300 millimetres of rain in one day. Think about those temporary toilets they have. We should not call them toilets, because they are like buckets.
There’s no clean water for them. When mudslides happen those people are buried alive every other day.
I’m taking my children to the camps because it’s the summer break; I thought they would see that part of the world. They should see that the Rohingya are also humans. They are living in those conditions.
How old are your children?
FA: I have two sons and a daughter. One is 20 years old and another is 15 years old. And my daughter is 12 years old.
What kind of health and social hazards are these refugees exposed to?
FA: First of all, the GI [gastrointestinal] diseases, infectious diarrhea, infectious diseases because a large number of people are living in a very cramped situation. So the communicable diseases are on the rise: tuberculosis, HIV, and with all those, the sex trafficking now, I don’t think their health is going to get better any time soon.
World leaders just need to stand up, UN needs to have a clear mandate to help those refugees and maybe transfer them to a different place. Or, first of all, address the root cause, restore their citizenship rights and give them protection.