It is not yet dawn as the father carries his limp son to the cholera treatment center within the refugee camp in Gundam, Bangladesh. Behind him I cannot see the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar — just the outline of the hills in Myanmar where the Rohingya people used to live.

As the father lays the unresponsive boy down, I silently start to grieve, but the child’s chest is still moving slowly and there is a faint pulse in his groin. I pinch the skin on his belly and lift it upward. It offers almost no resistance, like lifting the wrinkle in a sheet on an unmade bed. I remember a Doctors Without Borders nurse telling me that in Mozambique during a cholera outbreak, they would place the intravenous line directly into the abdomen to rehydrate children if they could not get an intravenous line in place. I had never done this before, but then I had never treated cholera before either.

I pull up gently on the belly skin again and puncture the large “intravenous” needle directly into the abdominal cavity. I connect first one, and then a second liter of fluid. After two bags of fluid, the pulse in the boy’s wrist returns; after two hours, he is sitting up and able to drink oral rehydration fluids; after two days, the boy walks on his own back to the family’s shelter within the camp.

This took place in September 1992, exactly 25 years ago, when I was a field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders at a refugee camp in Bangladesh on the border with Myanmar. We saved some and I think we helped many, but we failed a lot, too. Before the cholera outbreak, I remember a boy who had a simple ear infection that was untreated for so long that it infected the bone behind his ear. I thought he was getting better, but one day he just did not wake up.

The Gundam camp, where I worked, was a refuge for Rohingya people fleeing violence in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. About 250,000 Rohingya had fled persecution by the Myanmar military, including 60,000 in the camp where our team was based.

The Rohingya are not welcome in Myanmar because they are a Muslim ethnic minority. The majority of the people in Myanmar, including its government, are Buddhist. While I know it is hard to conjure up the image of Buddhists violently forcing people out of their homes and burning their villages, it happened in 1992. What is more amazing is that it is happening again in 2017. So far this year, almost 500,000 Rohingya have been forced by the Myanmar military to flee, once again, to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

In the 1990s, the world community felt powerless to stop the forced migration of the Rohingya because Myanmar was ruled by a military dictatorship. There was a voice of peace and hope in a human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, but she was often under house arrest. I remember thinking that if only a person true to the teachings of Buddha were in charge of Myanmar, perhaps the Rohingya would be able to live in peace.

A great deal has changed in the past 25 years: Aung San Suu Kyi is now the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. She is now the leader of the civilian government in Myanmar. I am sure she is under complex political pressures that I do not pretend to understand. I have to believe that if it were fully under her control, the Myanmar military would not be causing such suffering to so many.

It is with great sadness that I watch another generation of Rohingya forced into camps in Bangladesh. I wonder: Were some of the young mothers themselves born in the camps a quarter-century ago? I wonder: How does anyone think it is OK to burn villages and force women and children to flee? It was wrong when we did it in Vietnam. It is wrong when it happens in Myanmar today. My hunch is that the Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus would all agree. I hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will agree as well. I hope she will act. I hope we are not again in a time of cholera.

Michael Curtis, M.D., lives in Portland with his wife and three sons and works at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. He previously worked for Doctors Without Borders in Bangladesh, Bosnia and Macedonia and practiced medicine in New Hampshire, Vermont and Zambia. The opinions expressed in this column are his own; he has not worked for Doctors Without Borders since 1999.


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