"Hey kid, want to earn some money?" The man asking looks like a wealthy foreigner; nice clothes, shoes, well fed and groomed. I'm short and thin, barefoot and wearing ragged discards. At seventeen, I am often mistaken for twelve, because I have never had a day when I ate enough to keep my stomach from feeling empty.
"What work and how much?"
"Ten taka to carry a message. No peeking at it."
"How far?" Sometimes they want you to take things across the border. I won't go there for less than two thousand. It's twelve days on foot. Each way.
"Coffee house called Rest Easy, about two kilometers."
He doesn't need to point. Rest Easy is well known as a den for opium smugglers. The message might be a ploy to position me for a grab. Three hoods got a ten-year-old boy about a month back and sold him to a brothel. Sodomy may be a mortal sin, but it pays well.
"Pay now." I'm no fool. Even if this is a real try to hide something from the police, they'll take the paper and tell me to scram after. He hands me a piece of paper folded and taped closed, then a ten taka note. I fold the bill and shove it inside my only intact pocket. Then I run off. Most people meander along the crowded dirt paths inside the camp. I know all the routes, so I can avoid the worst spots and run instead.
Rounding a corner too close, I clip a plastic basket of beans. An old man, around forty, stands and yells, "Damned hooligan. Come back here and pay."
But I'm too far past by then. He'll never catch me- he's too slow. I drop to a jog when I pass the line for medical treatment. Only one place to get care, so it's always a pain, but Rest Easy is close by. That's why the doctors and nurses go there for coffee when they take a break.
Rounding another corner, I slip in mud. Somebody threw out wash water here instead of taking a bucket to the edge of camp. I keep the message clean, then make it to the coffee shop. Two names on the paper. I call over the murmur of the crowd, "Bu Lu?"
"Bu Joh?" A man pushes through. Another rich man, but older. He has gray in his beard, but not his hair. I wait, hoping for another easy message. The crowd is big enough he can't haul me away. He finishes the message and leans close. "Would you like to make a lot of money, young man?"
"I carry messages. Nothing illegal."
"I want you to join the army."
"Too young." I always play it this way. Nobody wants us in the real army. Means he's ARSA.
"The jihad waits for nothing." He sounds sincere.
"Show me where you got shot." I stare into his eyes. "Be the example. Walk the walk."
He slaps me. Someone sees and rushes over. I can tell how this will go. So I run out, but just at the door, someone grabs me and shoves me to the ground. I hear the rich man saying. "He came up with some story about his sick grandmother. I offered to take her to a clinic in Saudi Arabia, but then I felt his hand inside my jacket. He's a pickpocket."
They might stone me for being a thief. Then someone else speaks. Her accent is thick. "Boy muds. Man not. How?"
A nurse, maybe American, pushes forward. Several doctors crowd behind her. She's beautiful, fair skin, blonde hair, and a full figure. They begin talking in English. I can't follow, but I have to bless Allah for saving me with a puddle of mud and a bold nurse.
"We must go to a court to settle this." The foreigner wants something. He'll win because the court will take statements from everyone. But before I see a judge, I'll be cleaned. Testimony of unbelievers cannot contradict that of the faithful, so the judge will sentence me to whatever fate the Arab pervert wants.
"That's ridiculous." Another doctor, this one Bengali. "The evidence is clear. The Arab came to find a boy for something illegal. The boy refused and the Arab struck him. Then, like a good Arab, he lied to cover his sins. Perhaps he's a sodomite and the boy flatly refused. He couldn't let the boy talk, so he created an incident."
"You don't like me," the Arab says. "I can charge you with slander."
"I have pictures," the doctor says. "To support my observation the boy was very muddy and you were not. He could not have had his hand inside your jacket. So you lied. A liar cannot be trusted to tell the truth. So, you can charge me with slander, but how can we test whether you're a sodomite? Do you know, medicine can determine this."
"You cannot say these things." the Arab's voice pitches upward. "I was recruiting him for the jihad, nothing more."
"Terrorism," an American doctor says. "Say what you mean."
"The Rohingya people deserve better treatment." Someone from the crowd.
The Bengali doctor asks, "When even we, who share a religion, do not care for the Rohingya, why should we expect others, who have a different religion, to wish them around? Should not we, the people of Bangladesh, extend a more welcoming hand first?"
"Then why don't you?" The crowd begins to shift about.
"Because our nation is overcrowded." The doctor turns around the room. "We cannot support more people. You have trouble because you caused too many problems and now we have no room for you."
All I want is to get out. Away from all this trouble. Then the man on my back shifts his weight. A moment later, pain lances through my side and he darts out the door. Rising proves impossible. My breath comes short. The nurse rushes to my side, then my eyes shut and nothing.
Waking up, everything is pain. Ribs, eyes, mouth, all scream their outrage. The pretty nurse comes over as soon as I stir. She sits on a wooden stool and does doctor things that make no sense to me. Despite parched lips, I say, "Water."
She pours some into a glass, then holds it while I sip. She says in surprisingly good Rohingya, "We will probably discharge you in another few days."
"Your words are clear today."
"Oh, that," She drops her head, looking down. "I'm only a nurse's aid. More peace corps worker than real nurse. I've been here almost three years and practice every day."
"You are beautiful."
"And a lot older than you. Three months ago I turned twenty."
"I turn eighteen next month."
"You look a lot younger." She glances up. "Islamic men prefer younger women."
"I want a woman who is capable. Not a sheep." And none want me because I look like a child.
"I won't convert."
"You like me?"
"You showed spirit. You tried to escape terrorist recruiters."
"Mujaheddin." I don't want my religion maligned.
"They target children."
"So do the Myanmar authorities."
"Two wrongs don't make a right." Her eyes waver. She cries for all the children.
"I won't join them." I really don't care. I want a life. "I'm not a good Muslim."
"Don't say that."
"I want a life beyond just existing." I have to make her understand. She's perfect. Beautiful, educated, and not ready to send me off to die over a scrap of land I barely remember. She looks at me like I'm a person. "Here, I work every day, just to earn scraps. I have to live off charity. All I want is a chance to raise a family, but I can't. I want others to listen and hear my plight, of all my people's losses. But I can't do anything here because nobody wants any of us. I won't make a child grow up like this."
"I can never have children." Her eyes hold unnamable sorrow when she says it. "I'm not as perfect as you think."
"You have eyes of compassion." I reach my hand up, then wince as it pulls something.
"Be careful. You have stitches."
"Will I die?"
"Not from this. We're watching for infection." She bites her lower lip. I want to tell her how tempting it is. She continues, "How hard are you willing to work for five dollars a day?"
"What is that in taka?"
"Five hundred and fifty," she says after consulting her phone.
"Hard." She understands. I may not be very big, but I can work from morning until night with only a little rest and water.
"Come to the back door the morning after you are released. Someone will have errands. Do them well and you'll keep the job. You get paid at the end of every day."
I've been working almost a week. I carry messages, help load and unload supplies, clean, move cots and crates and machines within the clinic, and anything else they ask. She comes out near midday. "Want to eat lunch?"
"I talked to your supervisor." She holds up a box in her hands. "I packed a lunch this morning."
"I would rather starve with you than feast with another." I smile. "To eat something you prepared, I wonder if I died and am now in paradise."
"That's nice. You know I'm still not sure how to say your name." She looks at me oddly. "And you've never asked mine."
"Many think it improper to ask. I need an introduction from one of your male relatives."
"My family isn't like that." She holds out a hand, "Tracy Epps."
"Ah." Her hand is so soft, I lose track of my thoughts for a moment. "Zahid or Denpa."
We walk together for a short distance before we reach an area reserved for medical personnel. Unlike the places where I might eat, the lean-to where I live or the dirt beside the road, this place has benches and tables.
Tracy puts the box down. "We can eat here."
The box holds so much food. "I have never eaten this much."
The food is odd, but delicious. I have not eaten any meat in so long. It is chicken in thick crunchy breading. "I think I'm in love. I never had chicken like this."
"I'm from where all food is fried. Chicken, okra, steak, you name it, we fry it."
"Why is a beautiful woman like you interested in a nobody like me?"
She puts down her fork, into the thick potato puree. "First, you're a person. Everybody is somebody. Second, I don't know for sure. You're nice- everyone comments on how you treat patients when you pass them. Water or a little conversation, or whatever they need, you do it. We hired you to fetch and carry, but you act like a caregiver."
"This is the only hospital we have."
"More a clinic. Remember the Covid crisis back in twenty?"
How could I forget? My last surviving relative, my grandmother, died of it. I nod and bite into a piece of chicken. She must note my sadness, because she changes topic.
Three weeks later, we have a pattern. Every Tuesday, we eat together. And talk. And last time she held my hand as we walked back. Today, we get a big pallet of supplies, but they are on the far side of camp and I go with a driver to retrieve it. Hard work, but we run late returning and I fear I will miss lunch. As we near the clinic, I see a plume of smoke. People are gathered, watching and we cannot get through. I get out and run around, past them, yelling to get out of the way. Eventually, I get close.
Smoke billows from windows and flames lick the eaves of the clinic's roof. I don't see Tracy. The doors smolder. I run, leap, and crash through a window. Someone lies slumped over a table. I drag them to the window and hoist them out. Someone outside can help them. I go further into the building. Another person, very heavy. Drag them to the room and call out, "I can't lift. Get in and help."
Still no sign of Tracy. Run back in. My legs tire and my lungs are on fire, but I will save her or die. A cot with a patient and someone on the floor. Tracy? No, but I put them on the rolling bed and wheel them to the first room. Someone broke the wall and waiting people take the two I just brought back. Someone puts a thing in my hand. A mask and a tank. I put it on and run back. My hands crack, the skin peeling off, but I spot Tracy.
I grab her. She's heavier than me, but I get her in my hands and drag her. Fire races across the ceiling and pieces of panels fall around me, burning what they touch. I lean over Tracey to keep it off her. What an idiot. After taking a deep breath, I put the mask over her face. Her beautiful face will not be burned today. I drag, even as my head starts to swim. I stagger. My shirt catches on fire, but I see the room. All it needs is to drag, one foot after the other. Then hands grab and I make sure they have Tracy before it all goes black.
"Hey hero," Tracy greets me when I wake. "You're in a National Hospital in Chittagong."
"I will never be able to pay for this."
"My uncle is paying. You saved five people."
"You have a rich uncle." Of course she does. They will never accept me.
"My uncle Sam paid."
"Thank him for me." Bandages wrap much of my body. Everything hurts.
"Uncle Sam is the United States government. One of the people you saved was a visiting Navy doctor. If you ever wanted to emigrate, now would be the time."
"What of my people?" If I have the chance, I must not forget them.
A big man, older, western, speaking English too fast for me to understand.
"Meet my dad." Tracy smiles at me.
"Mister Epps." I shake his hand.
"We know how you kept going in until you passed out," Tracy tells me. "Dad's impressed."
"I kept looking for you."
"You never passed anyone," Tracey says. "You could have just gone looking for me and left them. But you didn't. Dad told me it's OK with him if we go out together."
"And what of the Rohingya?" I don't want to lose her, but I feel obliged to help my people as well. "I have been here for eight years, since 2017. I've lived here and seen it get worse. Nobody wants us, but if we split apart, we will disappear. What then?"
Tracy tells her father what I said. They talk a bit. She turns to face me. "Dad says you can learn English, go to America and help raise awareness for all the genocide. Get education and give talks. Rally support. People ignored the Japanese in China until Pearl S. Buck wrote The Good Earth. Your people need a voice. You can be that voice."
"I will need your help." I stare into her beautiful eyes. "I cannot do this without you."
"You came for me when I needed you most. Of course I'll stand by you."
Johnny, and Luther Htoo (pronounced too)- twin brothers born 1988 who, in the late 1990's were leaders of an insurgency group in the Myanmar wars. They started fighting at age nine and were chain smokers by age ten. They were nicknamed Bu Lu and Bu Joh.
The Rohingya Genocide is considered ethnic cleansing by Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims. It has been tolerated and/or facilitated by the Myanmar government since 2017. Death totals are estimated around 24,000 in the last four years and another 700,000 have been displaced. The total Rohingya population is estimated as under two million people. That's more than 1% of their total populace murdered in four years, and more than a third driven from their homes.
Myanmar underwent a period of over seventy years of internal warfare following their independence from Britain in 1948.
Myanmar currently produces a large portion, perhaps as much as 25%, of the world's illegal heroin/opium.
Pakistan, which then included modern day Bangladesh, sent Mujaheddin into Myanmar from 1948-1950. A current group ARSA may also have ties to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, though this is not conclusively proven. Amnesty International has reported at least one incident by ARSA where they massacred local Buddhists.
10 taka are roughly equal to 12 cents. Right now. That may well fall in the future, so I dropped it to 10 taka are 9 cents, or a dollar is just over 110 taka.
Cox's Bazaar is home to many of the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.