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The slow-building genocide we can stop

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Not all genocides move with quick pace. Some are slow and calculated and kill by the intentional replacement of food, water and basic healthcare with disease and abandonment. All genocides are deliberate and horrific; and they are always preventable. The Rohingya humanitarian crisis is at that tipping point. Current suffering is on a catastrophic scale, and it’s about to get far, far worse.

Right now, the number of Rohingya people fleeing violence in Myanmar (formerly Burma) has made this the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. The intense concentration of refugees in Cox’s Bazar, located in neighboring Bangladesh, is now amongst the densest in the world. The Rohingya people who remain in Myanmar are also confined to their own camps, afraid to run, and quickly running out of basic resources and access to any medical care. Escape might mean death, but staying could offer the same result.

{mosads}The same is true for those who have fled and are now living in dire conditions in Bangladesh. The Myanmar militia has lined the border with landmines to keep the Rohingya people from returning to home. Not wanted in Myanmar and not wanted in Bangladesh, the Rohingya are living in a constant state of fear. Their refugee camps serve as a cage, and now that cage is poised to trap them in utter catastrophe in Bangladesh.


As if this crisis wasn’t enough, Bangladesh is approaching monsoon season and the camps in Cox’s Bazar are right in the middle of a flood zone. As this humanitarian crisis meets natural disaster, this area will be overcome by uncontrollable waves of water from torrential rain and will wash away temporary housing and shelters. The danger of landslides will soon be pervasive and the risk of waterborne illness will soon be rampant. According to a report from Reuters, 100,000 people are in danger due to the landslides and flooding alone.

We’ve seen the effects of Bangladesh’s infamous extreme flooding before. Just last year, major flooding victimized more than 24 million people. Now the monsoons will victimize refugees who have nothing but us to rely on. But where are we?

We’ve been here before.

I can’t help but see the parallels to the Rwandan genocide. Having just observed the 24th anniversary of the mass killings that lasted over 90 days, I hope that we can learn from where we’ve been. Before the mass killings began on April 7, 1994, United Nations peacekeeper Roméo Dallaire was pleading to the world. He believed that we could stop the genocide from progressing. But the leaders of the world turned their collective heads and Rwanda experienced an event that will forever change its history and world history. 

During his 1995 speech, then-President Bill Clinton acknowledged his own lack of response along with the international community and publicly sought forgiveness from the Rwandan people.

“We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become a safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past…So let us challenge ourselves to build a world in which no branch of humanity, because of national, racial, ethnic, or religious origin, is again threatened with destruction because of those characteristics, of which people should rightly be proud. Let us work together as a community of civilized nations to strengthen our ability to prevent and, if necessary, to stop genocide.” 

Since WWII, the battle cry has been ‘never again’ and yet here we are, again. The word genocide fills our minds with images of rage and unrelenting noise, killing with machetes and fire and ovens. But it also kills with global negligence because genocide has always been and always will be about deeming one group as subhuman and justifying their eradication without moral and ethical repercussions. It’s our duty to fight against these deadly perceptions.

There are plenty of organizations working on both sides of the border, ready and willing to offer preemptive humanitarian aid to help the Royhingya survive the monsoon and its aftermath. We’ve been serving the people of Bangladesh since the genesis of our organization in 1971. We’ve helped communities prepare for intense flooding and recover afterward. We have experience stopping the spread of cholera and our partnerships in the camps are working hard to continue saving lives and restoring dignity. 

Organizations are on-the-ground now. We have people mobilized. We have funding. We have resources to begin responding in a way that could change the tide on this impending dual disaster combining the natural and man-made, and keep it from exploding into a full scale genocide. But the red tape for aid organizations is monumental, and aid workers are being jailed over permits, while new laws are being regularly written as an obstacle to progress for the Rohingya, a people caught in the middle. The scale of this crisis is going to require intervention by the U.S. and other worldwide governments, via the United Nations, so that aid grows exponentially and gets to where it is needed. 

They got rain this week in Cox’s Bazar. The full on monsoon hasn’t started but they’re already looking at the skies in fear as collectively the world is watching. None of us can claim ignorance and we cannot let this happen again. Not on our watch, not in our lifetime. We need the world powers to stand up and say “never again” for real. If we don’t respond soon, we’ll be begging for forgiveness for another deadly scar on inhumanity’s history.

Gary Edmonds is president and CEO of Phoenix-based Food for the Hungry, a nonprofit group seeking to end poverty around the globe. 

Tags Bill Clinton Gary Edmonds Myanmar Politics of Myanmar Rohingya people

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