KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh—After fleeing flames and gunfire in Myanmar, Rohingya refugee Jane Alam thought danger was behind him in Bangladesh. But as he slept last night in a fragile shelter in a forested area near Kutupalong refugee camp, rampaging elephants crashed in on top of his family. The 18-year-old’s father and a seven-month-old baby were killed in the attack, which also injured seven of his relatives.
“We thought we would be safe here.”
Grazed on the cheek, neck and hip, he trekked barefoot up a hillside overlooking the makeshift camp this morning to bury them. “We thought we would be safe here,” he says, numb with disbelief, standing beside his father’s grave, marked with small bamboo stakes.
A few paces away, the tiny body of his infant relative lies on the muddy ground, wrapped in a white cloth. A man scoops out her shallow grave with a farm tool as a group of men stand solemnly by.
The deaths highlight one of the unexpected dangers facing refugees and the risks as humanitarian actors respond to the arrival in Bangladesh of at least 429,000 people who have fled the latest outbreak of violence that erupted in Myanmar on August 25.
As two formal refugee camps in Bangladesh are overwhelmed, thousands are seeking shelter where they can – some in an uninhabited forested area outside Kutupalong camp.
“The area is currently completely wild, so the people are settling-in where there is wildlife,” says Franklin Golay, a staff member for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, who is working to provide water, sanitation and shelter at the informal camp.
“There are elephants roaming around that pose a threat,” he says.
Asian elephants are considered a critically endangered species in Bangladesh, where conservationists estimate there are presently just 239 living in the wild. Many roam in the Chittagong area in the southeast of the country, where the refugee influx is concentrated.
Local residents say the elephants are drawn to populated areas in the Monsoon season, when fruit including mangos and jackfruit ripen.
Securing the rugged and partially forested area to mitigate the risk could be achieved with lights or electric fencing, Golay says.
But for Alam’s grieving family, who fled persecution across the border in Myanmar, the attack is a stark reminder that their trials are not yet over.
“We ran from danger, and we are still in a dangerous situation now,” says Ali Hussein, the dead man’s uncle. “This cannot be forgotten.”
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