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Ray of hope in Bangladeshi refugee camp

By Carol HonsaSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 1981



Mirpur Camp, Bangladesh

Two-year-old Muksed can sit up and look around, now that he is recovering from kwashiorkor and beginning to add more weight to his 11 pounds. With nourishing food and care, three-year-old Jasmine is slowly progressing out of acute malnutrition.

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"Look at their arms -- that's where it shows," says Nuala O'Reardon, an Irish volunteer nurse, as Bangladeshi nutrition workers stir up pots for the youngsters' third feeding of the morning at this camp for the rural dispossessed. They were washed up in Dacca after monsoon-fed floods devastated much of Bangladesh more than six years ago.

It is a measure of Bangladesh's staggering mass destitution that 11,000 children and adults are still here, and that thousands more occupy similar camps , years after the government resettled them in the capital's barren outskirts to rid the city of squatters and beggars.

It is also a small measure of hope that Mirpur's flood-refugee families are surviving, and that dedicated volunteer workers are reaching youngsters like Muksed and Jasmine.

There are grain rations to prevent starvation, and volunteer agencies to teach Mirpur mothers to combine these rations with cheap, nourishing local foods to avoid malnutrition. "It's only a drop in the ocean," says Ms. O'Reardon, a volunteer with the Irish aid organization, Concern. "But you have to keep on going."

The words of this Dublin public-health nurse might be the motto for the young nation of Bangladesh. Dirt poor, overcrowded, subject to natural disasters, the country has surprised many by managing to keep going.

Dubbed and "international basket" by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the time of its violent struggle for independence from Pakistan less than 10 years ago, Bangladesh remains on the international dole. It still cannot feed itself, and its swelling population has less to eat and less real income per person now than it did in pre-independence days. Mirpur's malnourished children are no exception in Bangladesh. Eighty percent of its people live below the poverty line and cannot afford minimum daily food needs.

But Bangladesh is now driving hard for food self-sufficiency, and international experts are optimistic the country will make it -- if not by the target year of 1985, then shortly afterward. At the same time, the government is actively promoting family planning so that food grain harvests can finally catch up with population growth.

Bangladesh officials put no gloss on what they are trying to do. "It's our survival," says President Ziaur Rahman. Planning Minister Dr. Fasihuddin Mahtab flatly declares, "Unless we can change the direction in this country, famine is going to be a yearly feature."

The current government, which took over after a series of coups in 1975, also has gained experience in coping with Bangladesh's frequent natural crises. When a severe drought in 1979 threatened a repetition of the famine deaths brought on by the 1974 floods, the government quickly procured food abroad and got it to the drought-striken areas.

Skeptics had doubted that Bangladesh's lethargic bureaucracy could act in time, an area analyst recalled. "They unloaded twice as much as they ever unloaded before, and they moved much larger quantities up country than they ever had before," he said. "They ran a large food-for-work program. Nobody starved. There were a lot of hungry people but they didn't pile bodies up in the streets as they did in 1974."

The future, as seen from the Mirpur survivors' camp, is far from bright. Dirt parts and open sewage ditches separate thatched shanties thrown up by the residents. Many tube wells, standing in pools of green slime, are contaminated. Jobs are scarce for men and boys in a city of high unemployment, except for occasional day labor and pulling bicycle rickshaws.

Numbers of camp residents are abandoned wives or widows, who have particular problems finding work in a society where women customarily stay at home. Concern is working with 200 of the poorest women, teaching them simple skills such as sewing, cane and bamboo weaving, vegetable gardening, and paper-bag assembly with which the women can eventually earn extra money by working at home. Health clinic services, nourishing meals, and pre-school education are provided to the women's families. Concern's intensive care unit treats acutely malnourished camp children and teaches their mothers how to feed their children better on even the tiniest incomes.

For the majority, who have nowwhere to go, the camp is now home and the wheat rations distributed there by the government are the main lifeline. "They're not afraid of what is coming," says Simon Adikary, a women's training program ai de. "They're surviving one day at a time."