Intercross recently caught up with ICRC Head of Delegation in Myanmar Fabrizio Carboni to discuss the political crisis there and the more than half a million who have fled to Bangladesh since the end of August. To learn more about the ICRC's work in Myanmar, go here.
Intercross: More than half a million people have fled Bangladesh since the end of August. What are you seeing on the ground?
Fabrizio Carboni: The images from Bangladesh are overwhelming, but what we see on this side of the border in Myanmar is the reverse dynamic. Formerly energetic communities and village tracts are suddenly empty. Life continues for those that remain, but in certain parts of Maungdaw and Sittwe, there is a pervasive sense of absence.
The level of destruction is remarkable. Everyone has seen satellite images of the area that are circulating on social media, and from a helicopter, one can get a sense of the scale, but then when we are on the ground and we drive by destroyed homes or villages, we can see the real physical impact of the fires, the footprints of the homes, and the small basic items left behind. In many cases, villages destroyed are located next to others that went untouched, a dramatic site that gives a clarity to what life here was and could be like in a time of peace.
In some areas that were not affected by the violence, there is a sense of calm and normalcy, and people tell us that they can move safely. The women are working at home, while the men are out selling fish. In others, there is distinct tension, and movement is completely restricted so children cannot attend school, or people who are sick cannot reach health clinics. Homes are crumbling, or there is nothing left where homes were burnt to the ground. As winter settles in, people are asking us for blankets. People are not eating, some have not received any assistance. Three months on, we are still reaching new communities in some of the most remote, mountainous areas of Myanmar, and help is badly needed.
IC: How is ICRC working in this context?
FC: Myanmar is a very unique context, and one that is not easy to understand from the outside. For us, it has been very valuable that we have been present in the country for more than 30 years, and even more important that we are able to work with the Myanmar Red Cross Society as our local partner. Our teams have a complementary way of working together; the Myanmar Red Cross help us navigate the nuances that can make all the difference in a large operation, they have key relationships at the community and state level, and volunteers from Rakhine are working hand-in-hand with our teams to deliver assistance. In return, the ICRC brings experience from similar operations, and we have global systems in place to facilitate humanitarian aid into Myanmar effectively and efficiently.
Working closely with MRCS enables ICRC teams to learn more about the operating environment in Myanmar, and allows ICRC and IFRC to help develop the capacity of this MRCS to respond in the future to natural disasters and other emergencies. This means the next time there is a cyclone or another natural disaster, these volunteers will be trained and ready to work immediately in their home communities.
IC: What are the greatest needs?
FC: Red Cross teams have done assessments of nearly all affected villages, and what we learn is that there are myriad of needs, both physical and otherwise. Food, water, shelter and healthcare are vital, and we have been providing it for the past three months to the most-affected areas, but this also comes with a pervasive need for a sense of security. While ICRC cannot provide the physical security and freedom communities want, we can provide an opportunity for people affected by violence to be heard, to share their fears and concerns, and to have a say in the relief programs we are developing. We are also looking at the medium to long-term needs. Rakhine was the poorest state in Myanmar before the crisis even began, so this exacerbates an already-problematic situation.
IC: How do you scale aid of this size so quickly?
FC: ICRC has been present in Rakhine since 2012 when a wave of violence caused a substantial displacement around Sittwe. In the aftermath of the incidents of August 25 this year, we were able to draw on staff and supply resources to quickly establish an operational presence in the most affected areas. We have sent large aid shipments by boat from Yangon, and we have staff that redeployed from Yangon and our offices in Kachin, Shan State and elsewhere, to step in and organize the immediate response and plan a longer-term recovery effort.
Yet it is still not as quick as we would like; we face challenges with roads that are virtually impassible, soft earth due to the rainy season that does not bode well for our heavy trucks, and we even had to spend a few day to repair a road connecting to the only jetty into a key part of the main town. Some villages are only accessible by boat or foot. Our teams walk for hours to speak directly with people, to listen to their stories and their needs, so we can make a plan together and provide the most appropriate assistance that we can.
IC: Is there an anecdote or image that you encountered that you feel summarizes the magnitude and severity of this crisis?
FC: I was personally struck by seeing a lone children’s bicycle standing left behind in a burnt out village. Bicycles represent the ultimate in freedom and mobility, and I think of that in contrast to the challenges faced by people whose lives are restricted and uncertain. I also think that this is a children’s toy, and how unfair it is for children to have the burdens of life placed on them at such a young age.
The juxtaposition of driving past burnt villages, with their drabness and browns and blacks, set in a lush green countryside, and what that represents is something that will forever be engrained in my memory.
IC: What is most important for an American audience to understand about the situation?
FC: It is deeply important to realize that the dynamics in Rakhine are very complex, have a long history and are layered on top of a national political and social process that is extremely fluid.
The speed of the displacement may also create a misunderstanding about the timeframe for response. We are all astonished at the pace at which so many people can move, but we are now thinking, strategizing and planning for a longer term relief and recovery operation – with a real understanding that a return to normalcy in this environment will take a very, long time. One thing that struck me personally is the levels of fear and uncertainty that are driving people to make the unbelievably heart wrenching decision to uproot their lives.
Finally, I know people in the United States and elsewhere are incredibly moved by the images from the situation on the ground. And I can imagine that there is a certain sense of helplessness in how to respond, but know that there is a resilience in people here. In every assistance distribution, community members rush to help with the logistics of our operations. And in nearly every village, our colleagues hear stories about individuals helping each other, communities providing aid and support. There are also many organizations like ICRC who are committed to assisting the affected populations.
IC: What would your message be for American policy and lawmakers?
FC: What we need in Myanmar is a long-term commitment by the United States and other donors to credible and principled humanitarian action. The immediate relief action, and the long-term recovery of this region, will take time. This is a context where relationships, trust and a continued presence is critical to the gradual yet important changes that need to be made. ICRC is committed, as are other organizations. So we also need to see the commitment of donors to ensure we have the resources and support to continue the work.
However, we also know that humanitarian action alone is not a solution, and there is a need for a political solution. As such, I would urge the U.S. and others to continue to think and work strategically to address the root causes of the conflict and violence, to help prevent future violence.
Fear and insecurity continues to affect all communities in Rakhine, who still experience shock following the scale and magnitude of the events following August 25. All communities in Rakhine continue to suffer in one way or another from the outbreak of violence. Yet we are hopeful. As Gun Naw, one of our medical doctors told me, “I am optimistic, that communities can be engaged again,” he said, “but it will take time.”