"We lost everything because of the fire"

FROM: Franca Roiatti, Melanie Pietschmann – 30. March 2022

On the afternoon of January 9, 2022, Sahara was visiting neighbors when she heard that a fire had broken out in the camp. She hurried back to her shelter, but the flames had already started to engulf it. Sahara ran away. Meanwhile, her youngest daughter, Noor Ankis, was nowhere to be found. In the rush to flee the fire the girl had fallen into a pond. She was rescued, but could not reunite with her mother until the following day.

Sahara, a 50-year-old mother of nine children, is one of the 900,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar in 2017 and now live in camps just outside Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Helvetas, together with international and local partners, is working to support refugees and host communities.

“We lost everything,” says Sahara. “I could only save this,” she adds, slowly opening a small plastic bag that once contained flour and now protects the family’s identification documents and a few photos of happy moments.

Sahara and her daughter with the few belongings they were able to save from the fire.

Tears roll down Sahara’s face as she speaks of the hardships of the past few years. “I miss my niece who was living with us because my sister died. When we escaped from Myanmar, I could not bring her. She is still there, and I don’t know if I will ever see her again.”

The fire did more than just destroy Sahara’s shelter – it also tore her family even further apart. “My two young daughters are now living in another camp with their older sister,” she says. “It is not safe here for teenagers; there are too many people around.” The camp is bustling with workers carrying stones, sand and bamboo poles to rebuild the almost 400 shelters destroyed or damaged by fire. Children run along the narrow paths between the houses, with girls and boys returning from water pumps carrying jars of water. The recent fire destroyed several WASH facilities and learning centers, making life even harder for adolescents.

Preparing for the next fire emergency

Sahara is now living in a newly rebuilt shelter, but her fear of the next fire remains. Fire incidents happen almost daily in the camps during the dry season between November and April, often due to unsafe cooking practices. Fires in the camps spread fast since most refugees live in bamboo shelters that are only protected by tarpaulins and are located very close to each other.

Just a few days before Sahara’s home burned down, a fire caused extensive damages in another camp. Last year the toll was even more tragic. The March 2021 fire killed eleven people and left more than 10,000 families without shelter. "We did not pay attention; nobody has never explained to us the risks and the measures to prevent fire,” says Sahara.

Helvetas is organizing community trainings to raise awareness among 22,000 refugees about possible causes of fires, actions to be taken to prevent them, and how to act in case of a fire emergency. After a fire, Helvetas and its local partners Prottyashi and Uttaran support affected households in recovering by distributing supplies such as mosquito nets and clothes.

Over the last year, Helvetas also worked together with the technical specialist from the international NGO MOAS to prepare communities to respond quickly in case of fire. MOAS developed special mobile firefighting equipment, such as TukTuks with water tanks and water backpacks, and trained Rohingya community volunteers on how to use this equipment.  

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How Helvetas Supports People in Bangladesh

Preparing for climate change and promoting political participation, especially among women, are among our objectives.

Humanitarian Response

In recent years there has been a global rise in disasters. Earthquakes, droughts, floods and cyclones turn years of development progress to dust overnight.