Volunteers providing a lifeline to divided communities in Rakhine

Published: 15 January 2013 11:28 CET

By Becky Webb in Myanmar

It is 7.30am in Sittwe, Rakhine State, and volunteers from the Myanmar Red Cross Society are assembling outside a large wooden shelter. The shelter is home to 30 volunteers who have been drafted in from other parts of the country after outbreaks of intercommunal violence swept through Rakhine earlier this year, causing loss of life and massive displacement.

“Lives have been torn apart by the violence in both ethnic Rakhine and Muslim communities,” said U Khin Maung Hla, secretary general of the society. “Red Cross aid is reaching thousands of people from both communities every day, but we have had to rapidly scale up our number of volunteers to help respond to the significant needs.”

In Say Thamar Gyi camp, a basic bamboo structure serves as a health clinic. Working in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, the Myanmar Red Cross Society is supporting health services in over 10 camp clinics, with volunteers on hand to help respond to common health complaints such as skin diseases, cuts and sprains. With the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the volunteers visit the camps and also provide a medical evacuation service to take people to and from hospitals and clinics.

Ms Thida, 23, has visited this clinic a number of times and is back today with her baby daughter. “I know this clinic as I have been here two or three times with my daughter who has a skin problem,” she said. “I have been living in this camp for six months since my house and the shop we ran was burnt down. I have no job here and I want to send my children to school, but there is no school.”

Over in Pyidawthar camp, the needs are also evident. As the Red Cross trucks arrive to distribute the daily drinking water, families come out of the temporary bamboo shelters lining the route. “Every day, our volunteers are distributing 8,000 litres of water to camps which house families from both communities. We have also constructed wells and toilets to help meet some of the basic water and sanitation needs,” said U Khin Maung Hla.

Back at the Red Cross volunteers base, 59-year-old U Tun Shwe is unpacking his medical supplies. Originally from Kachin State he now shares his living space with the other volunteers who eat, sleep, wash and socialise in this small space.

“This is no problem for me, living with other people,” he said, “The main thing is helping other people – that is what makes me happy. Here in Sittwe, we are providing treatments to patients who are in great need. As a Red Cross volunteer there is no discrimination between race or religion so we will help everyone who needs us.”