(AFP) – It is known as “widows’ camp” – a sanctuary off limits to men inside Bangladesh’s congested refugee settlements, where Rohingya women and children traumatised by violence find rare moments of peace.
The cluster of orange tarpaulins strung across bamboo offers a safe haven for dozens of widows and young children left fending for themselves after fleeing into Bangladesh in an exodus of nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
They escaped atrocities likened by the UN to “ethnic cleansing” but their husbands did not, leaving them to compete for food, shelter and survival in a border zone teeming with close to one million refugees.
Among them is Swaleha Begum, who crossed alone after her husband of just three months was killed in an army-led crackdown on their village.
At just 18 she oversees the women-only encampment separated from other refugee tents in a crowded and dusty valley.
The sense of ownership and pride in their basic refuge is strong among the 60-odd widows, who maintain their own bathrooms, run prayer sessions and share responsibility for scores of children and orphans.
“Those who have husbands can make their own accommodation using bamboo and tarpaulins,” Swaleha told AFP.
“We got this by the grace of god,” she added, gesturing at the simple tents lined with thin sleeping mats and cooking utensils.
One of her primary tasks is ensuring men – even teenage boys – venture nowhere near their shelters, where the inhabitants are comfortable enough to eschew the veil worn by most Rohingya Muslim women in public areas.