Has Russia ever been part of Bangladesh?

Bangladesh: One of the largest refugee camps in the world shows the importance of the World Food Program

Every grain of rice counts for Aziza Bourgut. In Bangladesh, she ensures that the people in the largest refugee camp on earth have something to eat. The Sudanese move thousands of tons of food there, fighting malnutrition, sexism and sometimes the tears

Aziza Bourgut didn't have a childhood dream, she had a plan. One day she would be in one of the white jeeps parked across from her school, outside the office of an international aid organization. She, Aziza Bourgut, would, like the people in the jeeps, “travel around the world and help others”. She announced that at ten. An uncle prophesied: you will not go anywhere, you will only get married.

In their home country Sudan there was a drought, people were starving, the Islamic fundamentalist government had just introduced Sharia law. Aziza Bourgut would never learn English at her school in Nyala, the largest city in South Darfur. And she belonged to a nomadic tribe in which the fathers determined the life of the daughters.

Aziza Bourgut is 39 years old now, speaks fluent English and spends more time in white jeeps than she would like. She has lived in Bangladesh since June 2018. As a logistician for the World Food Program (WFP) of the UN, she transports thousands of tons of food to the largest refugee camp in the world.

Around 860,000 Muslim Rohingya are holding out in the south of the country, expelled from their home in Myanmar, not recognized by Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of children have been born in the camps since the displacement in August 2017, and simple huts are now replacing tents, and some families are planting vegetables in tiny gardens. But people are not allowed to leave the camps, they depend on help. To the fact that Aziza Bourgut sends up to 100 trucks every day, filled with rice, lentils and oil and with additional food for pregnant women, mothers and small children.

8.30 a.m., a Friday weekend in Muslim Bangladesh. Aziza Bourgut sits in the small office of the Uttaran warehouse: a walled area on the outskirts of Cox’s Bazar, the southernmost city of Bangladesh. A pink cloth covers each strand of hair and rounds her face. Her features seem gentle, her voice is strict. She phoned a supplier: “Your rice is decreasing. We found insects. And it smells musty. Do not try again to deliver me goods from the previous year! "

Dozens of empty trucks are already waiting on the runway in front of the warehouse. Inside there are ten white tents, each the size of a gym, filled to the roof with sacks of rice. On a board the current stock: 3845.174 tons. That's 128,166 sacks, around ten million daily rations. Enough reserves for a month or two in case the monsoons wash away the streets and no supplies come through.

Aziza Bourgut is the head of all four warehouses with food for the Rohingya refugees. She has to keep track of rice from Bangladesh, lentils from Australia, baby food from France, wheat from the USA. She reports to two dozen local employees who until recently had never heard of the WFP. She constantly shuttles between her office container on the WFP's administrative area and the warehouse: two of them in Cox’s Bazar, one in the port city of Chittagong, 100 kilometers away, and one next to the Kutupalong refugee camp, 35 kilometers away.

No sack or box leaves the depot without Bourguts approval. “Nothing should be lost,” she says and repeats: “Zero!” ZERO. A number she pronounces a lot. Zero losses. Zero mistakes. Zero hunger. “Zero Hunger” is also the target of the WFP, which feeds 87 million people around the world. On that day alone, 33,000 sacks of rice had to be delivered to the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Workers load a good 80 trucks by hand. Dozens of porters march into one of the tents in a silent column. Barefoot figures in wrap skirts, with tattered T-shirts, their heads padded with scarves. Moments later they step out again with a 30 kilogram sack of rice on their heads, load it into a truck, and turn around. “Faster!” Calls out a foreman. It smells like sweat. Aziza Bourgut joins him. “Tomorrow we need more people,” she says with a friendly and determined tone. "Order 200 men, if possible 250."

Working women are a rarity here

Porters, foremen, warehouse managers, quality controllers, truck drivers: men. The only two women keep a record of the inventory. In their long, colorful robes, their face veil held by a brooch, they look as beautiful and strange as butterflies on the dusty terrain. If it weren't for the clipboards that hold them against them like protective shields. But the men's looks penetrate through every fabric. Your employees are afraid, Aziza Bourgut knows that. That is one of the reasons why she often comes to the warehouse herself. Working women are unfamiliar in this poorest and most conservative region of Bangladesh. Few women can be seen in the streets and markets, and every fourth married woman in Bangladesh experiences sexual violence in their relationship. One of the highest rates in the world.

“Tell me if someone disobeys you or harasses you, regardless of whether you are a porter or a colleague,” Bourgut continues to urge her employees. She warns the men: “If even one person molests these women, then they all leave!” Sentences that she herself never heard from her superiors - when she was the only woman to work among men in Sudan.

Bourgut's mother gives birth to five daughters - and two sons. Neighbors and relatives advise her father: "Get a second wife who will give you more boys." Not unusual in traditional tribal society - but Aziza Bourgut has an unusual father. He replies: "No, I will train my daughters well."

Two of her sisters become doctors, one becomes a lawyer, the youngest nuclear engineer, one brother an electrical engineer, the other, like his father, joins the military. Aziza Bourgut is also supposed to study medicine, but she wants to become an English interpreter. That seems to her to be the best prerequisite for being able to work for an aid organization. The father gives in. Because how could he refuse this daughter whom he named after his great love. He had to marry someone else: his cousin, Aziza Bourgut's mother. She calls her daughter Maha, the name is also in the passport. “I'm Aziza only for my father and the WFP,” she says. She bears her name out of love for her father, with pride and defiance.

However, her wish to study remains unfulfilled: She falls ill, a sister fills out her application - and twists a number. Her dream college number 335 becomes 353: Environmental Studies. Aziza Bourgut struggles through the unpopular training, teaches herself English. She doesn't find work. But she got a chance: When she stopped by a cousin's one lunchtime at the regional office of the WFP in South Darfur, the warehouse manager was looking for a day laborer. Aziza Bourgut steps in.

Her father accompanies her every evening from the warehouse six kilometers home on foot. After a few months she gets a permanent job and is allowed to use the driving service. For years she will be the only woman at the WFP in South Darfur. She learns to stack thousands of bags and boxes perfectly and to count them easily. But above all, she learns to defend herself. “All the workers, drivers and colleagues belonged to my tribe, and for most of them one woman had nothing to say,” she recalls. When a worker announces that he will rape her after work, she informs the office manager. A Dane. He fires the man.

Aziza Bourgut is soon managing food aid for 150,000 refugees from South Sudan and 165,000 local displaced persons. As is customary, she lives with her parents and does not go out in the evening. She uses the time to train herself online. She has completed more courses than her 1,000 Sudanese counterparts, and is third out of all 17,000 WFP employees worldwide.

The head office in Rome becomes aware of them. Aziza Bourgut is supposed to represent the WFP at the torch relay of the Winter Olympics in Russia. She flies from 45 degree hot Sudan to wintry St. Petersburg. She has a fever of over 40 degrees and doctors check on her every three hours. Aziza Bourgut thinks the concern is exaggerated. “It's like having a malaria attack,” she explains. Takes over the Olympic flame and runs the required 300 meters for the WFP.

Aziza's new life in Bangladesh

Bourgut's driver carefully steers along the brick-paved main street of Kutapalong, also known as the “mega-camp”. It is considered the largest refugee camp in the world: around 600,000 people live on 13 square kilometers. A population density almost twice as high as in Manhattan, but there are no residential towers, only bamboo huts on bare ground, tied with perforated tarpaulin. In between paths and bamboo bridges; Toilets in green or red. There is only one tree left of the former rainforest.

“Tom Toms”, motor rickshaws, push past each other, and at cobbled-together stalls, locals sell the Rohingya second-hand clothing, rat traps, dried fish and vegetables. Children wave, men carry gas bottles and rice sacks, drink tea in crates. Many women are covered with black throws and face veils. At first glance, the mega-camp looks like a huge village. But there is a high fence along its outer borders, and there are no schools for the children. Because Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees, even if no one believes that they will ever be able to return safely to Myanmar.

The government and the UN refugee agency jointly manage the camp and coordinate the work: 200 aid organizations operate field hospitals, provide clean water and clean latrines, offer sewing courses, and take care of reforestation. A gear train that runs more and more smoothly. The WFP is responsible for feeding the refugees, but also for logistics, road construction, telecommunications: the basics for every aid mission.

As she drives by, Aziza Bourgut points to health centers where mothers and toddlers get supplementary food from the WFP, to “learning centers” where three to 14 year olds are looked after for a few hours. Since the WFP began distributing high-calorie biscuits there, significantly more children have appeared than before.

WFP containers with emergency rations stand behind barbed wire - in case the monsoons wash away huts again. In 2019, 17,000 people became homeless. “Many have lost everything for the second time,” says Bourgut. "They are even worse off than the refugees in Sudan."

In spring 2018, the WFP asked her to help out in Bangladesh. Six weeks turned into five months, then the head office in Rome offered her a contract as a “junior consultant”: She would earn almost twice as much, could be deployed worldwide - except in Sudan. “I wanted to learn something new,” she says. "Besides, my parents were sick and I knew that with the money I would be able to pay for treatment abroad." Now they have both recovered. Aziza Bourgut pays them half of their income and finances the education of three relatives. It doesn't seem unusual to her. That is how it is in her home country.

In Bangladesh, however, she sometimes crosses the line with her generosity. She not only invites colleagues or friends to dinner, a coffee, a tom-tom ride - she also makes arrangements with waiters and drivers so that no one gets ahead of her when paying. An Italian colleague therefore has two nicknames for her: "Mum" and "Boss". The "Mum" is giving coins to begging children in Cox’s Bazaar. The “boss” tolerates zero contradiction, even if the colleagues warn: “Stop it, otherwise there will be more and more. It has to be enough that we feed the people through the WFP. ”Aziza Bourgut is not enough.

A tight organization regulates the help

A banner on a bamboo hall reads: Food distribution. It is one of 17 issuing points in the mega-camp, supported by partner organizations of the WFP. Aziza Bourgut trained their employees on how to store and log goods correctly. She does spot checks once or twice a week.

At the goods counter, Rohingya unload a truck full of rice. You earn three euros a day as part of a “Work & Cash” program run by the WFP. Work outside the camp is not allowed. So that there are no other conflicts with locals, the WFP supports the surrounding communities - with biscuits for school children, food supplements for the undernourished, with further training and microcredits.

Aziza Bourgut is satisfied: all the sacks are on pallets, the floor has been swept, a man sprinkles water to keep it from dust. “I imagine I would eat this rice myself,” she says. "So we have to keep it safe."

The refugees wait, women and men separated by a bamboo fence. They hold plastic folders in their hands with their UNHCR registration, a grocery card and a pick-up slip inside. Depending on the size of the household, they can pick up their rations every two or four weeks at a fixed time. They confirm the visit with a thumbprint. The weak have priority. At the passage to the goods issue area, a man checks whether an old woman's thumb is marked in ink, crosses out her pick-up slip and waves a porter over.

The young refugee in an orange WFP vest clamps the bill between his teeth. The paper is blue, so everyone can tell that this woman lives in a three-person household and knows what she is entitled to. One helper lifts a 30 kilo sack of rice onto the shoulder of the porter, the next fills bags with nine kilograms of lentils into an empty sack, another adds three liter bottles of oil and lifts the bundle onto the top of the rice for the porter. At the exit someone pulls the blue note out of his mouth and tears it up. The whole thing doesn't take a minute. The woman shows the porter the way to her hut.

Aziza Bourgut no longer follows these last meters of the food rations, her work ends at the allocation office. So she does not see the clay balls that dry in the labyrinth of the huts and serve as toilet paper substitutes. The insect-eaten bamboo, the few belongings stuck between the beams. But she knows the plight of the refugees, knows that they sell part of their rice to traders in order to get some money for other things.

All humanitarian workers must leave the camp by 5 p.m. at the latest. Thousands. It's rush hour on the only access road. Jeeps, minibuses, buses and rickshaws are jammed in a kilometer-long caravan. An ambulance with flashing lights is coming from the opposite direction. Nobody can make room.

On good days, Aziza Bourgut needs two hours for the 35 kilometers to Cox’s Bazar, on bad days it takes twice as long. She is unusually silent on the way back and passes the time with the English learning app Freerice - "free rice". A grain of rice is donated to the WFP for every correct word.

Together against loneliness and suffering

After visits to the camp, says Aziza Bourgut, she often feels down. It can satisfy the refugees' hunger, but even with its perfect logistics it remains powerless against all the other suffering. Instead, she is tormented by another talent: her ability to empathize with others. What if I were in her place? She wonders looking at the refugees. What if soldiers raped me or killed my loved ones? She says, “I don't think I would be strong enough to go on living. That always goes through my head. ”In Bangladesh she has become thinner and more emotional. Some days she would like to return home. "I pull myself together, but when I'm alone I just want to cry." Then she pray to Allah. The next morning she competes again.

In Sudan she always ate lunch with her father. She could tell him anything. He listened but didn't judge, as she says. Now the phone calls are short, her surrogate family is her colleagues, her surrogate home is a hotel.

"Relax in the paradise of the Bay of Bengal", advertises the three-star hotel "Windy Terrace", in which Aziza Bourgut lives. The new building in the center of Cox’s Bazar promises an "exhilarating" experience on the "longest beach in the world". Garbage paves the way there.It leads past stinking fallow land, concrete skeletons full of mold, and open sewers. In Bangladesh, the city with around 200,000 inhabitants is a holiday destination - from the WFP's point of view, it is a hardship post, a post full of deprivation: without medical care, without international school. To compensate, the consultants get a week off every two months. Then Aziza Bourgut sometimes flies home to Sudan. Travel time, there and back: four days.

In the orphaned hotel restaurant, two dozen WFP permanent guests push the tables together to form a long table. This is where the United Nations gather: colleagues from Egypt, Vietnam, France, Eritrea, Iraq, Italy, and Great Britain.

From time to time they are allowed to use the hotel kitchen. That evening a Syrian is baking pizza. As soon as he brings in a new sheet of metal, everyone rushes on it. "Zero losses! Please finish everything, ”says Aziza Bourgut. Vodka and whiskey from the duty-free shop do the rounds, Bourgut drinks orange juice. They joke and tease, serious conversations are now taboo. This is the improvised alternative world to the refugee camp, a place to be forgotten.

Sitting next to Aziza Bourgut is her friend Nadika Senadheera from Sri Lanka, "my sister," she says. The petite geographer, who studied at Oxford, has already worked in the world's largest crisis areas: Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nigeria. Countries in which the international aid workers hardly ever leave their high-security zones. They can move around freely in Cox’s Bazaar, but Senadheera from Bangladesh has had enough: too many inexperienced colleagues, too much sexism. In a few weeks she wants to continue, “preferably back to Yemen.” The helpers are nomads who travel from crisis to crisis. None of the women at the table have children. “Work comes first,” says Bourgut. “We pay a high price for it. Zero work-life balance. ZERO."

The goal of the consultants is: to get rid of themselves, to hand over the work to the locals. When Aziza Bourgut arrived in the early summer of 2018, only five people were in charge of delivering food to a million refugees. Proper accounting? The main thing is that the people got something to eat!

Bourgut had to start from scratch and hire employees. Some had never worked with a computer before. It is still not possible to record all deliveries in the system on the same day.

At the beginning of the refugee crisis, data reliability in Bangladesh was 34 percent. Now, depending on the warehouse, it is between 93 and 99. “Aziza's merit”, praises Guillermo Iezzi, a logistics specialist, on a visit from the headquarters in Rome. A few more months, then one of your employees should be able to take over their tasks.

The supplies for the refugees are also gradually being given up: Coordinated by the WFP, retail chains from Bangladesh are running their first shops in the camps; Local farmers sell vegetables and chickens to new farmers ’markets. There the refugees pay with “e-vouchers”: plastic cards with a chip, photo and electronic fingerprint recognition. The WFP credits this with a monthly amount of nine euros per household member. This is how recipients of aid become customers. “That way, people can choose. That gives them dignity, ”says Aziza Bourgut. "I like that. Even if it will soon make me unemployed. ”Your deliveries have already halved since the beginning of the crisis.

Aziza is preparing for a life after the Rohingya camps

“You need a new challenge,” says Iezzi. “More complex missions in which we deliver three, four, five times as much food - Yemen, Syria, Chad. Or a natural disaster like the cyclone in Mozambique in 2019. “Can it get worse?” Asks Bourgut and laughs.

They are particularly attracted by Yemen, which is currently the largest WFP mission in the world. But her dream has a catch: her uncle's prophecy has come true. Aziza Bourgut has been married for two weeks.

“I was in a rickshaw when my sister called me from Sudan and congratulated me. I fell from the clouds. "

She had agreed to a marriage, but that would not take place until next year.

“I never thought of marriage in Bangladesh,” she says. “I can meet friends here without asking permission. Eat where and when I want. ”But at home the neighbors asked:“ What is Aziza doing alone abroad? ”And her parents feared that by her late 30s she would not find a husband. But it was clear to them: unlike her sisters, she would never accept a cousin as a man.

“If you absolutely want me to get married,” she relented a few weeks ago, “then just Ayman Hamad Alawad.” A friend from Sudan who used to work for an aid organization himself. “He understands how much I love my job. That's why I accepted him as a husband, ”she explains.

Alawad works as an IT specialist in Saudi Arabia. They last saw each other six years ago, but they talk a lot on the phone. “He's been calling even more since we've been married,” says Bourgut. She is not used to that, and she has a lot to do after all. “Let's see how long he's open to my work. We're still at the beginning. "

After she agreed to the marriage, Alawad flew to Darfur with father and uncle to introduce themselves to their family. So far everything went according to Aziza Bourgut's plan. But then her future husband and her father decided to have the imam seal the marriage that same afternoon - a coup for the men. As if they were afraid that Aziza Bourgut might change her mind.

"I felt cheated out of all the excitement and anticipation of getting married," she says.

In February, when she has a month off, there is to be a celebration.

And then?

Aziza Bourgut, who usually always knows what is right and what is wrong, what she wants and what not, now begins her sentences with “maybe”.

Perhaps her husband will accompany you to Bangladesh. “But only if we don't quarrel beforehand.” Maybe she would like to have children. Maybe then it would be better to return to Sudan. But not under the umbrella of the parents, where the siblings already live with their families. “I want to lead my own life,” she says.