Childhood is a luxury that some children cannot afford. Not when they have a household to run.
Umar Hassan was 12 years old on 25 August 2017 – Myanmar's evening of murder and shame.
He saw his mother raped, then killed along with his father. Umar and his sister Supaira, then seven years old, fled their home.
It was a long trek to safety. "When the ground was even, my sister walked," said Umar. "When it was muddy, I carried her."
A neighbour helped the siblings get on a boat to Bangladesh, but after they reached there, they lost their saviour among the vast throngs.
My sister was crying loudly. I was also very scared so I cried a bit, but also consoled her.Umar Hassan
He begged for food to feed her. He then found another family, which despite having six children of their own, took them in. Supaira – whom he calls Putu (little girl) – remains his responsibility.
He makes sure that she eats and sleeps on time. He helps her with her studies.
She used to be very playful, but now she has become very quiet, and she still cannot read or write though she is eight years old.Umar Hassan
Aged Before Time
If he sounds more like a parent than a brother, more like a grown-up than a child, it is because he has aged before his time. And he is not alone. There is 17-year-old Julehah, who takes care of her two younger siblings, and 12-year-old Najmah who takes care of three.
There is 10-year-old Nur Sadiah, who sells Burmese cigarettes at a stall and can count, even if she can't write. There is 11-year-old Rafiqa Bibi, who had to be separated from her seven-year-old sister Shafiqa Bibi.
Their parents were killed and since a single family could not take in both sisters, each went to a different home. “I told my sister we have no choice,” she said.
Families Headed by Children
And then there are the 5,546 households officially headed by children – because their parents had been killed and the children had to take charge.
These are the children that cannot afford the luxury of childhood – even in a township of children. For, in essence, that is what the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar are.
Of the 9,19,000 Rohingya who have made their way to the shelters in Cox's Bazar, 54.6 percent – or nearly half a million – are children below the age of 17, according to United Nations agencies. They have taken over the streets of the camps. Some are cavorting in the rain shirtless, often shortless.
Clusters of them play marbles frighteningly well, which comes from doing this several hours a day.
Some jump into the brackish ponds or defecate by the side of the mudpath. No one plays with a ball, because there isn’t an empty patch of ground and they can’t afford a ball anyway. When they spot a visitor, they run around him shouting in a single singsong breath: “MyNameIs, MyNameIs, HelloBye.”
It could be a scene from any poor country, but for the sheer crunch – 5,00,000 children packed into an area smaller than a little village not even the size of Sengkang.
Where You Won’t Find Them
The one place you will not find children in these camp settlements is where children usually are – at school. There are no schools for Rohingya children. Some of them attend madrasas for a couple of hours a day.
Others attend learning centres run by non-governmental organisations for three hours a day, where volunteer teachers try and acquaint them with the basics of numbers and the alphabet.
Even that does not interest most Rohingya families, as only 139,000 of the 368,000 children between four and 14 in these camps bother to show up for such informal schooling.
Non-governmental organisation BRAC, which has set up 200 learning centres in camps, freely acknowledges the challenges that organisations face in trying to educate children, who know only Burmese – from the land of their birth – not Bengali, the language of Bangladesh.
We still haven’t received approval from the Bangladesh government to introduce a curriculum that is right for these children.Mr Mohammed Abdus Salam, Head of BRAC’s Humanitarian Crisis Management Programme
If the government gives the go-ahead for a multi-year programme, it would mean accepting that the children will be in Bangladesh for years. Mr Salam said the reality is that the Rohingya are not going anywhere. "At least let them acquire some skills and study for a certification," he said.
As things stand, Mr Abdul Rahim, who used to teach at a high school in Myanmar before he had to flee to Bangladesh, finds the current efforts to teach children meaningless. “The children recite after teachers for two hours like parrots and their parents will tell you they go to school,” he said.
"But 10-year-olds can't even write their names. And when there is no light at night and the rain is seeping into their homes, do you think a child is thinking of studies?
"And even if he studies, so what? Is he ever going to be allowed to work here?"
Umar Hassan said he has not learnt anything at his school that he didn't know earlier. "I wanted to become a teacher and care for my sister," he said. "But that may not be possible. Maybe I will take any job I get."
(This article has been republished in an arrangement with The Strait Times)