It is a much-told story - the Rohingyas, and yet it never fails to show up new twists and turns. Their miseries are unending. Their past is as gory as ever. Their future is as murky as can be. This is just another story we want to tell.
The green structure lies empty and unused in Teknaf. That was not what it was built for with temporary steel fabrication.
By now its rows of rooms were supposed to be brimming with Rohingyas eager to go back home to Myanmar from where they have escaped death, rape, torture and humiliation.
But two years since they had arrived in hundreds of thousands - to be exact some 7.41 lakh have crossed into Bangladesh since August 25, 2017 - none of them have left this soil.
If plans went ahead, some of them would have left for their forsaken country today, but that also has not happened as yet.
So for now, all of them are crammed in what was once a dense forest, forming the world's largest refugee camp of the most persecuted people in modern times.
Myanmar, with abominable insensitivity, ignored all humanitarian appeals and international nudging and has not taken back one single person.
The refugee problem has had a deep impact in Bangladesh, some irreversible, such as the loss of a rich forest and its biodiversity.
The local economy has also changed in strange ways, touching and affecting everyone across the Cox's Bazar-Teknaf-Ukhia stretch. Forever maybe.
Looking for a room?
On our flight to Cox's Bazar, the first thing we noticed were the foreigners. Half the passengers were from donor agencies, the UN system or the international NGOs – all scrambling for what they call 'emergency Rohingya response'.
For somebody going to the beach town after a long interval, it was something of a new experience. Being the booming tourist town itself, Cox's Bazar had hardly seen any foreigners except those curious and bold enough to venture out to this haphazardly grown place, outside the regular tourist circuit lacking the even most basic of amenities to attract world class tourists.
But now they are here. We talked to Christine from the Swedish NGO Terre Des Hommes.
"I have been here for quite a few years but had never been to Cox's Bazar. Now it is almost like my permanent residence," Christine said. "I have to look after the health issues in the Rohingya camps."
We also met Mike from the UN, Jessey from Action Contre la Faim, a little known international NGO, and others. They were all headed for the place that has now become a Mecca for the aid agencies.
As they and their local colleagues and the staff from the local NGOs have rushed into this small town, things have changed quite dramatically.
The house rent is one.
Cox's Bazar is basically a small town with a population of slightly over one and a half lakh, mostly permanent residents, and as such it has little excess capacity to accommodate a sudden rush of people. Hotels have mushroomed for local tourists and yet in high season, the 275 hotels brim with guests.
Now as the NGO workers flocked in, the first thing to jump was the hotel tariff. A room that used to cost around TK 4,000 a day suddenly shot up to as high as Tk 7000.
However, since then, hotel rent has stabilised a bit as NGO workers got smarter and found out they could stay in rental apartments instead.
But that has pushed up house rent.
Mohammad Ziabul lived at Laldihir Par area in a two-room house.
"I used to pay Tk 3,500 for my two rooms until a year ago," said Zia who works at an electrical hardware shop "But then the house owner suddenly increased the rent to Tk 9,000. This is absurd. My salary remains the same. "
Zia had to move out to find a cheaper place at Bazarghata area. He now shares a room with two others for Tk 4,500 a month.
"This same place was rented for Tk 2,000 before we came," Zia said. "I have no choice. I have to make do with this."
As we walked through a neighbourhood, we found new apartments were being built on a hilltop, known as DC's hill.
Two young boys approached us and offered rooms.
"Are you looking for a place to stay?" one of them asked. "We have a few left."
"How much is the rent?"
"Eight thousand taka. Two small rooms, one kitchen, one toilet."
There are apartments that now have rent tags as high as Tk 40,000. A lot of foreigners wanted to move out from expensive hotels and some of their savvy local staff grabbed this opportunity to make money.
They made underhand deals with local apartment owners so they would demand very high rents, the middleman pocketing a kickback.
The situation is even worse around the refugee campsites.
Once these were forested areas, very remote and lonely. But now they have suddenly sprung to life as hundreds of lumbering four-wheel drive cars and trucks roll through them every day, carrying food, medicines and NGO workers.
On a certain day, we found car after car passing by. Once these were nothing but narrow dirt trails, but are now wide herringbone roads.
Hordes of NGO workers are in the camps round the clock, and they need a place to stay close to the sites. The huge amount of relief material also needs storage areas.
The villagers have been quick to cash in. They have put up new rooms in their yards and even cleared up cattle sheds to provide accommodation.
The demand for food and groceries have shot up as well.
New shops and restaurants have mushroomed to grab a piece of the pie. Older shops have stocked up on soft drinks and cakes. A man readies a large skillet to fry Mughlai paratha, a popular afternoon snack.
In one such pop-up shop-cum-restaurant we stopped to take a tea break. There is a To-let notice pasted to the wooden shutter : "Semi-pucca by the main road to be rented."
We asked the owner why he is putting up new facilities.
"Well, the demand is high. Making some quicks buck while the demand is there," he grinned.
But what will happen once the Rohingyas are repatriated?
"Repatriation? Really? When?" He had a twinkle in his eyes.
Selling labour for cheap
The shop was an example of more ways the Rohingya influx has changed the economy.
There we met two Rohingya boys – Mohammad Sohel, 13, and Rahim, 14 -- both of whom have fled Myanmar and found jobs and a new life in the shop.
Sohel was playing in the yard of their home in Myanmar when a mob backed by the local police entered their neighbourhood.
"There were gunshots and my elder brother fell down," Sohel's innocent, smiling faces belies the horror he had undergone. "all around us there were leaping flames and blood-chilling cries of people fleeing."
As Sohel's home was torched, he fled with his parents and siblings, leaving the elder brother dying on the yard with a bullet in the abdomen.
"We had no choice, we had to save our lives. We ran like hell," he said.
Once the mob left after their carnage, Sohel and his family came back, arranged a quick unceremonious burial of the brother and took a boat to Bangladesh.
Sohel does not even want to recall the early grueling struggle in the camp in an unknown land. The story must be the same for the one million others like him.
He started scouting for a job as sitting idle in the camp was not taking him anywhere. Soon he was working in the restaurant as a waiter-cum-cleaner, getting Tk 3,000 a month.
"The money helps us a lot," smiled Sohel in a dirty yellow T-shirt. "At the camp we only get rice and oil and potatoes. No meat, no fish and no vegetables. We have to buy them from the market."
The other Rohingya boy, Rahim, has become spendthrift in his own way. He sports a big flashy wristwatch.
"I bought it with my own salary for Tk 500," he tapped on the glass of the watch.
Like Sohel and Rahim thousands of Rohingyas are now slipping in and out of the camps in search of jobs of which there is no dearth.
Nur Mohammad, the owner of the shop-cum-restaurant, said every day Rohingya children turn up in the village looking for jobs.
"They are cheaper than local boys," Nur said. "I pay Tk 5,000 to the locals. The Rohingya one I got for Tk 3,000."
Cheap labour has found its way into farming too.
On the way to Kutupalong camp, we found five farm hands transplanting Boro paddy. After some prodding, we found out two of them were Rohingyas.
Sadrul Amin came from Fakirabazar in Rakhine with a group of 18 people when his village was torched one morning two years ago.
His previous night was spent full of foreboding as he heard gunshots in a distant village. He and his family of four spent a sleepless night, expecting the attackers to arrive any time. The wave of genocide hit their village in the morning, leaving burned houses and paddy silos in its wake.
Sadrul and his family fled to safety across the border.
He now works as a farmhand for Tk 400 a day.
"The Bangalis get Tk 500 and we are paid Tk 400," Sadrul said. "As Rohingyas we have no choice but to accept whatever is offered."
We talked to his Bangali co-worker, Rashid.
Rashid looked glum when we started talking about wages.
"They have just ruined us," he sounded irritated. "Had they not come here looking for jobs, I could get Tk 600 a day. And now that they are here in hordes, the farm boss cut my wage. He just told us point blank that if we do not work for lower wages, he would get the Rohingyas."
The same thing is happening in other sectors too. We met a large number of battery-powered three-wheeler drivers who all come from Myanmar. Around the camps, they are said to be involved in smuggling Rohingyas out.
In Cox's Bazar town, we also found Rohingya women working in the kitchens of almost all the restaurants.
They quietly slip into the kitchens at dawn and come out in the afternoon before melting into the crowd.
The women can be hired even for less. A local journalist said they are paid as low as Tk 150 a day to work in the kitchens of restaurants and they don't complain.
But perhaps the one job where the Rohingyas have beaten the Bangalis flat is fishing.
We met scores of them on fishing trawlers – all of them first refused to reveal their identity but later in the face of repeated questioning – the easiest way to identify them is to let a local talk to them who can easily identify the nuances in their dialect and use of words – they admitted their Rohingya origin.
We met Mohammad Jalil who gets Tk 400 a day on the sea, much lower than a Bangali fisherman who would demand not less than Tk 600.
Other than the lower wage factor, there are other obvious reasons for hiring the Rohingyas. They are adept in fishing, and they are 'reckless', ready to take on risks no Bangali would.
In recent times, the sea has become much choppier than before as climate change has introduced more stormy days with higher waves. On such days, the Rohingyas just shrug and head out to the sea while the Bangalis stay put.
The other reason may be that the sea has been depleted of its stock from overfishing.
We met Md. Jewel at the Fishery Ghat in town where the big trawlers land their catch.
"We could catch as much as three Kol (cold chamber of the boat, probably a derivative of cold) of fish on a single trip, now we hardly get one Kol full," he said..
With the catch dwindling, the trawler operators find local fishermen costly, so hiring the efficient and low-cost Rohingyas is a no brainer for them.
A UNDP study from November last year shows wages have fallen by more than 14 percent in Teknaf and six percent in Ukhiya because of Rohingya influx, the most affected being farm wage.
Interestingly, wages in the rest of the Cox's Bazar district have increased by 6.7 percent.
The combined effects of changes in wages and prices have increased poverty. The headcount poverty has increased by 2.73 percentage points in Teknaf and 2.63 percentage points in Ukhiya.
While wage is falling since the Rohingyas made landfall, cost of living is going up and creating deep resentment among the locals.
Not only do they have to pay more in rent, price of daily essentials have soared.
"From vegetables to bananas to eggs, everything is costlier now," laments Saleem who works as a waiter at The White Orchid hotel. "Our income is fixed. It increased 5 percent this year, but the prices have gone beyond our reach."
Each kilogram of rice and flour has become costlier by Tk 5 to Tk 7, beef by Tk 50 to Tk 60, freshwater fish by Tk 20 and vegetables by Tk 5 a kilogram.
Ukhia is a vegetable-growing area and yet truck loads of it are now coming from Dhaka.
So when vegetables for one and a half lakh Cox's Bazar city people also feed about a million Rohingyas, the demand-supply curve is bound to go haywire. This is exactly what has happened, making life difficult for salaried people.
Car rentals are no exception.
Hundreds of microbuses move in and out of Cox's Bazar every day with stickers of all kinds of NGOs on their windshield. The area is today a milieu of donor agencies, international and national NGOs, charities and government agencies unknown to us before.
With demand rising, renting a microbus costs no less than Tk 6,000 a day – not a surprise as lose money sloshes around.
We have never found Ukhia so run down and yet so crowded before. Every five minutes, a bus leaves from Cox's Bazar and still the fare is way too high.
We asked a bus attendant how much the fare would be for a trip to Ukhia.
"Taka 160, (it was Tk 100 before, locals told us)" came the curt reply from the boy, probably himself a Rohingya.
We asked him if that was what he was; the boy vehemently shook his head.
"I have my national ID," he said.
Outflow from camps
This is what the Rohingyas say first if asked about their identity.
The photocopy shops in the town have made a thriving business in making fake IDs to be grabbed by the Rohingyas. One NGO worker who has been closely working with the Rohingya affair from the very beginning said about two lakh fake IDs have been generated by the clandestine businesses.
Check posts have been set up along the roads from Ukhia and Teknaf. Police diligently stop vehicles and inspect the passengers in search of Rohingyas jumping camps. But this only creates long tailbacks on the highway for as long as three hours at a stretch.
The highway is only one route that is being guarded, there are also 13 lesser roads connecting Ukhia to Cox's Bazar and it is just too easy to walk out of the camps.
The markets and shops around the camps in Ukhia and Teknaf are now owned by the Rohingyas in great numbers.
A thriving bazaar has sprouted beside the Kutupalong-Boalkhali camps and elsewhere also where the refugees are selling all kinds of relief materials – French and Italian soaps, UNHCR stamped soybean oil and solar lights, American toothpaste and sanitary napkins and what not.
Education can wait
In our hotel, we watched a group of young women and a few men busily walk in and out. They obviously did not look like tourists.
We approached one of them, Fatema Begum. They come from different parts of Cox's Bazar district and Chittagong and work for UNHCR.
Fatema, who comes from Ramu, was a teacher at a primary school when she saw this job notice and applied for it.
"I never thought I would land the job but then I did get it," Fatema said. "The salary is good, so I immediately joined."
As a teacher, she used to draw Tk 2,800 a month and now what she gets is just over 20 times more at Tk 60,000.
Fatema has been with UNHCR for the last nine months and she does not care much how long her temporary job would last because in the last nine months she has already earned 12 year's equivalent of a primary teacher's salary.
"I don't think the Rohingyas are going to go away anytime soon," Fatema smiled.
But this is a new kind of crisis being spawned by the refugee influx – the NGOs need educated people who can both speak English and the local dialect to interact with the Rohingyas, and if the person is a woman, the demand is even higher.
School and college teachers have found it as a grand opportunity and have left their teaching jobs for Rohingya emergency response jobs just as Fatema did, and so education has suffered terribly.
Everest Educational Institute in Ruma was recognized as a 'good school' as far as the local standards go. All its seven teachers have left since to work for donor agencies. The school had to close down for some time for the lack of teachers until it got some less qualified substitutes.
There are scores of such educational institutions which are also facing similar consequences. Their 'guest teachers' have mostly flocked to Ukhia for relief work, collecting data or just as interpreters. Students have followed suit too. The pull of easy money is much greater for them than their future.
Inside the camp, we met Rashma Sharmin, a second semester computer science student at Southeast University in Dhaka. She now teaches life skills at an informal school run by Coast, a local NGO.
"I saw this job notice and applied," Sharmin told us. "Now I work here six days a week and then go back to Dhaka and attend my class and come back again."
It is strenuous, it is harming her education as she has to cut on the courses. But it brings her money.
The fallout of all this is reflected starkly on education outcome.
In Ukhia, the pass rate in the SSC exams came down drastically to 27% this year from the previous year's 45%. When the teachers have left teaching, and the students are busy making money, it is no wonder that education will suffer.
From an outside view, the refugee crisis has been creating new opportunities, new jobs and new price incentives. Businesses are finding cheap labour and becoming more competitive. This, in simple understanding, should spurt new growth in the region.
But that is not to be. It has rather spiked inequality and economic stress.
Beneficiaries of the crisis are few, a larger section is rather hit under the belt. There are a few house owners who have benefitted, but a far bigger population has suffered.
The educated have found high-wage employment, but those who have not and those who have to bear the brunt of high inflation are many.
Wage suppression and job replacement are today weighing heavy on the locality.
Remains of the day
It is an awe inspiring experience to step inside the Kutupalong camp, no matter how many times you have been here before.
As far as the eyes go, it is just shanty after shanty, until your eyes reach those not so far away hills. That is Myanmar, the clear boundary between Bangladesh and the country from where these people have come to be dubbed as the 'most persecuted people' in modern times.
How do these Rohingyas feel about those green hills that should be so alluringly comfortable and yet announce the presence of a ruthless region? How do they feel about their villages and homes lying ravaged and burned beyond that hill range? How do they feel about the people they have left behind dead – bayoneted and raped and shot -- and rotting to the bone? Do they still dream of what they were and how they were in that land before all hell broke loose?
We found this little boy standing on the edge of a knoll and trying to make a headband with one single white flower and a piece of string. He had one missing milk tooth.
Below him stretches the endless bamboo and plastic huts, one leaning on the other. Surprisingly for such a dense place, the smell of excreta was very mild.
We asked the boy where he came from and he just pointed to the hills. We asked him whether he wanted to go back there and he shook his head sideways. No. A clear instant answer.
Why. He said death waits there. Death and fire and a fear of primordial nature. He has no ground to play here, no mango trees to climb to pluck some ripe and sweet mangoes. No ponds to swim.
But no death also.
We took another look and then shuddered at the thought of what it once was and what it is today. A dense forest that supported the largest land animal that roamed here freely.
Today only one tree remains standing. A mother tree. Why was it spared? Maybe just as a reminder of the past, of the years of plenty, of the troves we have lost and of the things we will never get back here.
Just by the main gate of the camp, as a cruel joke, still stands an elephant shaped steel sign board. On it is written "Safe passage for elephants".
This over 4,000 acre forest can practically never be brought back and the biodiversity lost is a loss forever.
The forest department puts the economic loss to $55 million.
The forest was once home to 1,156 wildlife species, 65 of them critically endangered. All of them have been wiped out from here.
More as a cruel joke we saw the refugees walking down the road with green and red cooking gas cylinders . Had the cylinders been here much before, much of the forest could have been saved. Or could it be? The trees are gone and only then the gas came.
In the endless rows of the camp, we met Shafiq Alam, a young man sporting sand-blasted jeans, a gold ring and jungle boots.
Last week he and his few friends made a perilous journey through the dense forest of the faraway hills to get back to their village.
For four nights they travelled to avoid the Myanmar forces, hiding during the day. Then they reached what was once their village.
"I knew this was my home because the tall jackfruit tree is still there. It was the tallest in the village," Shafiq said.
And the village?
"All gone. It is now just tall grasses and thick bush. Scrubs. They have grown so fast and so rich that we could not even find the graves where we buried our brothers and sisters," he said.
The villages are now deserted. Not even the Bhuddist mobs that led the genocide and brought into being the exodus of the million people have taken hold of the property. Land grabbing was not the reason behind the massacres. Myanmar is a huge country and land is in no short supply there.
In the same place we met this bearded old man who claimed to have had a big business once in Mawngdu. He had wealth and luxury of air-cooler and food extravaganza. But now he lives here penniless, like the million others in the camp.
Does he want to go back and reclaim his business?
"No, not like this, not until we get our citizenship."
Just a few feet away, a family of seven that lives in a ten feet by 12 feet hut has fenced off a small patch and is trying to grow a pumpkin plant, a gourd plant and something else. The plants are just lifting their heads.
Maybe another reminder of what life was for them before they became homeless and landless. And then we saw a swallow and a palm swift flying overhead, the first sight of anything wild in the whole time we had been there.
Another reminder, another remains of the day.