More than 2,000 houses and shops were burnt down in a terrible fire in Rohingya camp in the in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Sunday.
These houses were burnt within a few hours of the fire in Balukhali camp of Ukhia.
No casualties were reported in the fire. However, apart from Rohingya houses, some offices of donor organizations and hundreds of shops were burnt down.
In January last year, a fire broke out in a Rohingya camp in Ukhia, destroying six hundred houses.
Two months later in March, another fire in this Balukhali camp destroyed about 10,000 houses. 15 Rohingyas were killed then.
How quickly did the fire spread?
Fire officials said the fire spread quickly because the houses in the densely populated camp were made of wood, bamboo and plywood and because of the wind.
Officials say that initially the fire broke out in camp number eleven, but soon it spread to camp number ten.
At last around four o’clock, the fire spread to Camp No. 6, local journalists said.
Atish Chakma, Deputy Assistant Director of Cox’s Bazar Fire Service, said that some of their units also took part in extinguishing the fire.
However, the fire had to be brought under control due to various reasons, including narrow lanes in the camp. Firefighters could not get close to the fire, especially due to the steep terrain, narrow roads and dense population.
Cylinders were exploding with loud noises.
Moreover, due to the wind, the fire spread quickly in the houses made of bamboo-wood-paper.
Conspiracy theories about fire
A resident of the Rohingya camp in Ukhiya, who did not want to be named, told BBC Bangla that there is a dispute between several groups over dominance of the area and control of the camp.
He said that there are more than twenty groups of Rohingyas including ‘Arakan Salvation Army-Arsa’, ‘Arakan Solidarity Organization-RSO’, ‘Al-Yakin’ are active there. They have clashed before. Several casualties have also been reported in clashes between them in the last one month.
This Rohingya resident said that he heard from other Rohingyas that some men with guns came and asked the Rohingyas to leave their houses before setting them on fire. At that time blank shots were fired. Then the house was set on fire.
The fire at the Rohingya camp comes just a day after the Joint Response Program (JRP) meeting is scheduled to take place in Geneva. In order not to divert the international attention for the Rohingyas, the meeting on March 7th will be emphasized by Bangladesh.
In the meantime, after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, aid from various countries and donor organizations for the Rohingya began to decrease. The World Food Organization (WFP) recently reduced per capita food aid for the Rohingya.
Some more rumors have spread about this fire in the Rohingya camps. A Rohingya leader, Majhi, told BBC Bangla that they believe that the fire may have been set because of the thought that foreign aid will come and international attention will be received if houses are burnt down.
BBC Bangla has seen a video recorded on a mobile phone at that time.
The remote video shows some people setting fire to a room in the Rohingya camp. Locals say these people are also Rohingya, though their identities have not been confirmed.
Why is the Rohingya camp on fire again and again?
Local journalists and public representatives say that there have been many fires in Rohingya camps in the last five years. Most of these are due to inter-group conflict.
A report of the Parliamentary Committee on the Ministry of Defense on February 15 this year said that a total of 222 fires occurred in Rohingya camps in the two years from January 2021 to December 2022. Of these, 63 fires were either malicious or intentionally set. 99 fires were accidental and 63 were unexplained.
According to the report of the parliamentary committee, 10 terrorist groups are currently active in the Rohingya camps. Killings and clashes are happening between them due to dominance.
A resident of the Rohingya camp told BBC Bangla that the camp has been set on fire several times in clashes over control by terrorist groups. Another group set fire to the area under the control of one group.
Fire service officer Atish Chakma says, “In the Rohingya camps, they build houses with wood, bamboo, plastic, paper. All of them are easily flammable. They also lack awareness about fire. As a result, once a house caught fire, it quickly spread to nearby houses and the entire camp.
“Again, because there is a problem in the transportation of fire service personnel and there is no good water supply, if there is a fire, it cannot be extinguished easily.” Every house has gas cylinders, which also spread fire quickly.
Officials said there is no mechanism to extinguish or prevent a fire in the entire Rohingya camp.
Additional DIG Md Amir Zafar, the commander of the 8th Armed Police Battalion of Cox’s Bazar, says, “In the past, as there have been accidental fires, there have also been allegations of sabotage. And their houses in the camp are made in such a way that if any house catches fire, it spreads to the whole camp.
What officials are saying
The Cox’s Bazar district administration has formed a committee to investigate the fire incident, which started working from Monday.
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Mizanur Rahman and Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Shaheen Imran told BBC Bangla that they do not want to comment on the matter without seeing the report of the investigation committee formed in the fire incident.
Atish Chakma, a member of the investigation committee and an officer of Cox’s Bazar Fire Service, told BBC Bangla, “I have taken the testimony of several Rohingyas today and will take it tomorrow as well. We have also heard the rumors you are talking about. But we will talk to the eyewitnesses, take their testimony and find out the cause of the fire.”
“Maybe it will take us three or four days. I can’t say the reason for the fire before that,” he said.