Two global agreements – one focused on the protection of refugees and the other on migration – are in the final stages of negotiation between different governments, under the auspices of the United Nations. Each offers a rare opportunity to protect migrants from one of the biggest sources of displacement today – climate change.
While the UN recognises that climate change is a cause for migration, countries are under no legal obligation to protect the rights of those affected by its consequences.
Through the following stories and photos, we are taken into the lives of mainly Bangladeshi women who are survivors of climate-induced migration. It is the ultimate display of human resistance.
Over the next few decades, scientists expect 17 percent of the country’s land to be submerged, and 18 million Bangladeshis to be displaced by seas. The country regularly suffers from deadly and devastating flooding, tropical cyclones, storm surges and droughts.
When a land that has been a people’s home for centuries disappears or becomes uninhabitable, through no fault of those who live there, what choices do they have and where can they go? These are questions that the international community currently have no answers for—and that’s neither fair nor just.
I have always known that ‘water is life’ but this water has been killing us for the last 10 years. This water never gives us any peace. I am from a coastal village. We moved here because of yearly river erosion. If there is a fire in your house, only the house gets burned; the land remains. But when there is river erosion, everything is lost. We lost everything six times while living in my father-in-law’s house after our marriage . We have nothing left now. We came here and started life with only a few clothes and took out a 2000 taka loan from my sister-in-law.
Life is very hard here and our poverty is only increasing. We are waterlogged for almost the entire year. We have thousands of problems here. Which one should I tell you about and which one should I skip? Everyone here is becoming a beggar and only buys medicine for waterborne diseases for their family members. We have to spend more than we earn every day. Every night this slum becomes like a howling Hell. All the children start crying when they go to sleep because of the pain of their infected feet caused by walking the whole day in this muddy water. We elderly people can tolerate most pain but the innocent children don’t understand that they are poor and should not cry about pain.
I came here with only one child and now I have 4 children. My husband is the only worker in our family. I can’t go to work leaving my children here in this unsafe slum. I have three daughters and almost every day in our slum, girls are getting raped.
For those with only one income earner, it’s very difficult for them to maintain a family and feed six mouths daily. Life becomes painful. It’s as if we are gasping for our last breath every day. In our village life was so beautiful like in dreams. My children have never seen a village in their entire lives. I sometimes tell them stories of my childhood and our village. They listen to me as if I am telling them fairy tales. They want to go there to visit. But there is nothing left in our village anymore except the name. Now everything is under water. I heard most of my village people moved to Dhaka already. We all know there are two things in this world, ‘Heaven and Hell’. When I was at home in my village with my neighbors and everyone else, I used to feel like I was living in Heaven. Now it feels like we are living in Hell. We have cried so much already, but you know there is no end to our crying.
After the flood, I lost my house for the sixth time because the river eroded. I sold my cattle and everything I had in order to rebuild my shelter last year. This year there was another devastating flood which destroyed my house again, and now staying here is another nightmare. I have no idea how I will manage to pay back all my loans while spending nights in this smashed-up house with my children. We have been starving most of this last week. We have nowhere to go, no way to cook and most importantly nothing to cook. We live on the bank of the river in the northern part of our country. Now floods come two or three times a year and in addition, the extra water from India also comes when we don’t need it. We live in the flatlands so even in heavy rainfall this area becomes flooded. We can’t grow crops because this kind of sudden flood destroys everything throughout the year. Before the end of one year of trouble, the second year of floods begin to make us suffer again.
I never had any happy childhood moments. From the beginning of my life I have been facing extreme hunger and a washed-up future. At the age of six for the first time, I had to rebuild our destroyed house those nights; when the river took every dream we had. I was never a child again.
Two of my younger brothers died after that incident from diarrhea. There was no treatment. We could not afford to go to hospital. I have seen many deaths and diseases. Some were silent, some were miserable and some were deadly. But nothing is worse than hunger. You can fight disease but you can’t fight hunger.
I am looking forward to joining my husband in Dhaka City. He tried for several years to make me understand that I had to leave this land and work together with him for a better future for our children. But I never listened to him as I never wanted to leave. But this time I have prepared myself to be strong. I love my land but it can’t meet the needs of my children’s hunger. My land can’t give me a respectful life. This land only can give me heartache every year with its cruelty.
I hope our endless sorrow will end one day. Hundreds of women are leaving here and going to Dhaka. I also want to get out of this open prison, this world of water where I was born, as soon as possible. I want to give my children a better life and I want them to be able to have a childhood. I don’t want them to rebuild their destroyed house again and again with a broken heart. I want them to carry their school bags every day with hearts full of hope.
home with my parents when the flood hit us. Then the river took our land. I grew up during
_ Ashma Begum
My wife is probably not going to live much longer and I am a helpless man and unable to do anything for her. I had to leave the woman with whom I have been living for 50 years alone in that dead drought place. I came here to earn money so that I can send some money to feed her and buy her medicine. I was a farmer with land. We used to have happy and beautiful days before the drought. But now because of the drought nothing grows in our field. The drought killed everything; it killed our happiness and now it is going to kill my wife.
I have been working here for the last 2 years. I never rode a rickshaw before. When I ride this rickshaw everyday it’s very difficult and scary. But I am doing this for my Buri. She is waiting every day for me to come to her so that she can die in front of me. She is very sick and suffering from malnutrition. I don’t earn enough so it’s very difficult for me to bring her here or give her enough money for good food or medicine. She can’t even drink enough water. Where will she find fresh drinking water? She needs to walk for miles to collect drinking water. She can’t walk enough to collect drinking water every day. She lives alone in a drought-prone area on my land. All my family members including my son and daughters have moved from there to Dhaka. But no one took her with them.
We became our children’s burden. My Buri became their burden. Now no one is with her to take care of her or give her a drop of water in her mouth if she starts to die. I can’t even work properly thinking of her. I am so anguished thinking about her and I always feel worried that I might not see her again. I can’t breathe normally when I think of her condition.
I am trying with every single drop of my blood to accumulate enough money to bring her here with me so that she may die in front of me.
_ Rohomot Ali
Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination. I am Bilkis and come from a slum in Dhaka city. I used to work in a factory with my husband. I fell in love with him and I fled here with him eight years ago. For the last eight years I have seen a very different world, full of the hardships of the people on this island. Many times my husband told me he wanted me to return to the city again. But I could not leave this land and these innocent people living in this situation. For the last seven years I have been working to bring changes to their lives, a little at a time.
Every year unseasonal flash flooding and extreme river erosion make people’s lives in North Bengal impossibly miserable. Countless people lose their children and their cattle every year. People of this land live a life of uncertainty. The severity of this is increasing every year. Hundreds of people have had to leave here because they lost their houses, their land and their hope of living without a hungry stomach.
I am the only educated woman on this island. I wanted to guide the people but rather than cooperating with me, they always wanted to create obstacles because I am an outsider. But I never lost hope. My husband is always with me. He never interrupts my work and always supports me. He knows that I want to help these innocent villagers deal with nature’s cruelty. Seven years ago, when I was discussing my dreams with him, my husband said “to help these poor people you need to know about the floods and the current situation. Why don’t you buy a radio?” He sold our only cow to buy the radio. And that one radio changed the situation on our island.
I used to listen to all the news regularly, mainly in the rainy season to stay informed about the flood water so I could warn my neighbors to take shelter in the highlands and save lives. The first year no one wanted to listen to me about the arriving flood waters except two families and that was the biggest out of season flood in the last 10 years. Hundreds of people became poor and had to beg. Many people lost their children and cows. It was a disaster. In the last six years I have had to move our house three times but no one from my island has lost their lives.
Women from this island never wanted to leave here and work in the city, because they believed that working alongside men was a sin. I made them understand that women can work alongside men to survive and to end their hunger. Upon understanding this, hundreds of women from this island moved to Dhaka; to Amin Bazar.
Now everyone from my island, older or younger, admires me and listens to my words. All hard and positive work pays off. I have been providing education to 10-15 girls in my yard for the last five years and gave my radio to them. Together, we made some high land on our island. Now I am prepared to leave this island with my husband and move to Dhaka city because I know now that lots of Bilkis are ready to take the responsibilities of their own land and people.
_ Bilkis Begum
She doesn’t go to school anymore. For us, collecting water is more important than going to school now. We old people used to go to school but this new generation is becoming uneducated. But you know; education only helps when you don’t have to suffer for basic needs like food and water. Now staying alive every day is the biggest fight in our lives.
Every day here in this coastal area we have to face different problems. But the biggest problem is the lack of life saving fresh water. Water is life and we have an abundance of water everywhere, but for a bucket of drinking water we have to travel miles and miles or cross this river. We don’t get adequate sweet water for drinking or to use for ourselves. Our kids are wasting all their time collecting water for their families. We cannot remember the last time we took a shower in fresh water. Fresh water is now the priceless treasure in our lives. I passed my SSC education, but my children are illiterate. Like mine all the children of our villagers are becoming illiterate only because they waste their time collecting water. School will not save their lives when they need drinking water to quench their thirst and that of their families.
We are going to collect water. It takes a lot of time to reach the pond from where we collect water and then we have to line up for taking water from the pond which takes a lot more time and then return home. The pond is also getting drier day after day. Sometimes the owner of the pond doesn’t allow us to take water from there. We have another water source on our island which is a 12-mile walk. Our children are becoming sick and exhausted from collecting water every day from different places.
Only during monsoons can we collect water easily from the roof of our house with thin plastic sheets. But monsoon season is also our biggest fear. Our house is just on the edge of the dam and every night we go to sleep afraid that it could disappear with a surge of water at anytime.
We used to fish in fresh-water and earn enough to feed our family, but now there is nothing except salt water. It comes inland up our rivers where it stagnates. We can’t earn enough money as there are no jobs. Salt water has devoured our place such that we can’t grow anything on our land. We can’t even raise cattle because they too need fresh water to drink. Our income source is low considering the situation of price hikes. I cannot buy any vegetables or meat for my 75-year-old mother or my children. We are becoming the workless and the poor as well as beggars. Our daily lives became a deserted life after the cyclone. Life seems so helpless here. Thousands of people are leaving this island because of these problems. But I can’t leave my elderly mother and she doesn’t want to leave this land. She would die starving and thirsty here but still she will not leave this land.
_ Hamida Begum
My children ask me all the time why we have to move from one island to another. I have no answer. I also ask Allah the same question every day. My home has been taken by the river six times. A few days ago, we moved to this island and made our seventh home. On this remote island my husband can only go fishing. Last night my five hungry children were freezing in the cold. To fight the chilly wind we embraced each other and their father kept reciting the Quran. If my husband can catch a fish, we can survive another day.
We fear the future and fight for today. As we are poor we don’t know what we will eat the next day. We had some land from where we used to get some paddy every year. But this year it is now in the middle of the river. We have no hope for paddy or rice this year. Only by the grace of Allah do we not have the problem of drinking water. For many days we have been only drinking water from the river to survive.
The river took everything from us; now we have nothing left. How can I make you understand how we are living our unbearable lives every day? I was once so fond of my village from my childhood, but this cursed land and cruel river is killing me and my family every day. I don’t want to live on this land anymore; not for a single day. But I have nowhere to go; I have not a single penny to move from this cursed land. On this island only two families live with us and they are also surviving like we are surviving; fighting all odds against us.
There is not a single person to help me. I wanted a loan from one of my brothers who lives outside of this town who came to visit us last year. But he refused to help; saying he is also having a lot of problems and he didn’t believe that I could refund his loan! He asked me, “How will you refund my money?” I could not answer his question!
No one believes in poor people, not even a brother from the same mother.
I feel hopeless as Hell nowadays. I have never gone anywhere away from this land and don’t know what I could do to survive with my whole family. I am in the middle of nowhere and finding no way to get out of this problem.
When my children get sick sometimes, except for crying and asking help from God, I can’t do anything for them. I don’t know how many days we can live here like this? How many days we can live hungry and fight this hostile nature and weather. I don’t know how our miserable days will end or if they will ever end or not!
How can I possibly make you understand what a big sin I have committed? I don’t know if Allah will forgive me or not but I am sure my child will not forgive me. My family members will not forgive me as I can’t forgive myself. I had to sell my 6-year-old son to a man in order to survive with my other two children and my husband. To save 4 more lives, I had to make the most devastating decision of my life. We had one little piece of land to cultivate that we had to sell 4 years back for very little money. After cyclone Aila, nothing grows on our land anymore so no one wanted to buy it for a fair price. My husband and I, are both used to cultivating fish in our own fishery. That was the only work and income source for us.
But after cyclone Aila, there was no sweet water anywhere anymore. We couldn’t cultivate fish nor grow crops on our only field. Aila took everything from us: our house in the tsunami water, our land, our fisheries, the food from our mouths and even our elder son. This is why we had to sell our son to feed the other four mouths. How many days could we live without food? Day after day we all had to starve. I was pregnant. I remember getting faint after several days of hunger. I don’t know where my son is now! I don’t know what they have done with that piece of my heart. I don’t know if I will ever meet him again or not! When I think of him, I become like an insane woman. Sometimes I feel like killing myself because I feel so guilty. But no one would ever understand the anguish of it if they do not go through having an empty pocket and a hungry stomach. With the money we saved, we managed to move to Dhaka last year. Now I work as a housemaid and my husband works as a porter at Shadarghat. Now we don’t have to starve anymore day after day but we can’t ever sleep happily anymore. Every day before we sleep we regret our loss. We think about our son. My husband cries loudly holding me and my two children. Almost every day we fight and cry before sleeping. My oldest daughter always asks me where her brother has gone. I can’t reply to anyone; instead I try to turn myself into stone again in order to go to work the next day.
_ Hasina Begum
I poured my sweat and blood into building my house. I did it with my own hands. My wife and I worked hard every day so that we could make a home where we dreamed we could see out our days. Our children grew up there just like in our dreams. After so many happy years, one day like a nightmare, the river Jamuna took away our house. We never thought the river could come that close. Now I have only memories and nowhere to live. Isn’t life the most unpredictable thing?
Everything happened in front of my eyes. We could not save anything except our lives. My wife’s wedding sari, my cherished radio and years of treasured belongings all went into the river. I was stunned that night when the calamity hit us.
That house was everything to me. I was a simple farmer; my life and heart were rooted in that land. But now it is all in the river. Now I have nothing except a plastic shed where seven of us have been trying to make do for the last couple of months. Now even drinking water is a problem because my water tube wall which cost one year of income from my crops, is also gone into the river. Now we drink the river water. We don’t have a kitchen nor a toilet. We cook under the open sky.
It will cost more than two or three hundred thousand taka to build a new home. When I can’t even collect food for my family to eat, this much money is now a dream. In order for all of us to eat, my children had to stop going to school and have started working as maids in a villager’s house with their mother.
Though I know I will not get to return to my house, every day I come to the riverbank and try to mark the spot where my lost home might be now.
No one is coming to help people like us. It is getting worse every year. It’s a kind of war which has no value for anyone else other than the people who are fighting it and suffering every day for the rest of their lives.
I was a hawker of girls’ cosmetics in our village and married a beautiful happy girl who I fell in love with the first day I saw her. Twenty years before we were married she used to be one of my regular customers. She fell in love with me unconditionally and married me after dealing with a lot of problems with her family.
I am a poor hawker man, who loves his wife and daughter with his full heart, but as people say, this doesn’t fill your stomach. It is very hard for me to see innumerable pins on my daughter’s slippers and holes upon holes in my wife’s sari. I feel hopeless and a failure when I can’t feed them three times a day, when I can’t manage school fees for my daughter and when I can’t buy new clothes for my family for the Eid festival. I couldn’t do anything for my family. But they never complained about anything because poor people get used to it; they know that no one can cope with the power of nature.
For the last six months we have been really worried about what will happen if we will lose our house and land again. Where we will live? How we will continue to survive? We already lost everything four times in the river due to river erosion. We continued to buy land beside the river because it is cheaper.
This last time I intentionally collected more money to buy land in order to make our home away from the river and this village as we knew that the river would again sweep away everything we have and will again show her unkindness.
But nature is more clever than mankind and has bigger plans than we poor people. Last week she took everything we had away again. This time it was so rapid and so much crueler than before that I could not save anything. I could not even grab the money I was saving for my girl’s marriage, nor the money for buying the land on which we were planning to build our home. I could not save my hawkers box which I have been carrying with me for 25 years; nor could I save my only fulcrum tool. We lost our crops, our cattle… everything.
The night the flood hit one part of our village completely collapsed and was submerged in the river in front of our eyes . Before we understood what was happening, everything went under water. No one could save anything without losing their lives. We could just save our lives by running far away, holding hands with our family members.
I don’t know in what way I have sinned in order to deserve being punished like this year after year. I don’t know where I will go with my young girl after being released from here. For the last two weeks we have been living here because of my wife’s sickness. My wife’s condition is getting worse day by day. I am a beggar now. And as a beggar, I am begging to my god to please not take my wife away from me. I just don’t want to lose her too.
_ Khairul Mia
We have been born with the fate of uncertainty. Every year that we are alive, we live with the power of our fate. As each year passes by and we count ourselves fortunate; we count each new breath as good luck. The year of Cyclone Aila in 2009 was the curse of my life. We lost the only tree over our head. I lost my husband in the cyclone. No one could find the body of my husband for us to see him for one last time. Can you imagine how unfortunate we have been?
For the last six years I have been fighting uncountable complications with my four daughters. People say daughters are blessings, but for me daughters are dangers no matter how beautiful and moderate they are. There is danger in everything and it’s worse when you are poor and homeless. I had never thought it would be such a challenge to marry my beautiful daughters. Whenever I used to worry about them my husband would say, “Why are you so tense? The boys will fly to take those angels away.” But like everything else the salty water stole my daughters’ beauty.
I came here from Shatkhira, Munshiganj with my two unmarried daughters two years ago. Who wants to leave their birthplace and come here? But I have been obliged for the sake of my daughters’ lives and futures. My daughters had to walk uncountable miles every day for drinking water. If it’s so difficult to find enough drinking water just to survive, can you imagine how hard it has been to obtain fresh water for my girls to showers? So they have showered in the salt water, which is very bad for our skin. It itches. It was a nightmare when my girls got their periods. I couldn’t bear their crying every month. The land gave us nothing but dead hopes. We couldn’t grow crops because of the cursed salt water. We couldn’t provide drinking water for our cattle. With no source of income, we couldn’t live there. Must I remain because it is my homeland even when my homeland is not able to feed me?
I moved to this rice field two years ago with others from my village. I had to take an advance of 50 thousand taka from my manager. With that money I repaid the loan I had taken to feed my children throughout the years since cyclone Aila. It may take me one more year to repay the loan to my manager. Our work here is very hard but at least I can drink water whenever I feel thirsty and I can feed my children every day. We don’t need to starve day after day. I don’t have to listen to my children crying for water and food. Sometimes at night I remember tearfully the joy of earlier days. But I force myself to go to sleep, in order to be ready the next day for the reality of life.
_ Parvin Akter
I never thought even in my worst dreams that I would have to leave my land and move to Dhaka – but this is what I am about to do. But what we want is never always that which happens. I don’t know how I will live there in one restricted tiny room after living in my open-spaced village here. How will I breathe in that blocked room? But it is also not possible to live here in my village anymore.
My grandson Motaleb came from Dhaka last night to take me with him from this cursed village where I have been almost dying for the last 10 years. But I didn’t want to go to Dhaka or leave this place. My seven sons moved from our village after the severe cyclone to search for work and for living. We had a house of eight rooms. We were not a poor family but now you can call us beggars. We have nothing left after that extreme cyclone. That cyclone took thousands of people’s houses and lives. Everyone moved to different places from here. Overnight middle-class families became beggars.
Luckily one of my sons saw a tide 8-10 feet high breaking a dam and coming right towards our house . He cried out, “We will die if we do not leave this place. Let’s leave the place”. We couldn’t take anything with us. We were holding trees with one hand and with their other hand my two sons helped me and saved my life. I saw everything was floating; cows, goats, ducks, chickens, trees, even people. Everything was floating away in front of me. I can never forget this memory.
We are from the coastal area so I have seen a lot of cyclones during my lifetime of 70 years, but I never felt that worried. However, this time people were very worried. I have never seen this kind of destructive cyclone before. Usually water would come and go and we would mend the damage every year. But Cyclone Aila took everything from us. It is not possible for us to be like we were before.
My sons tried to make me understand that nothing was left here for me to be able to live here alone. But I never accepted their impassioned insistence and I did not want to leave my homeland where I have been living my whole life. However, it is now impossible for me to live here alone with a lack of available food and sweet water. Drought, frequent floods and storms as well as the barbaric torture of jungle animals have made my life Hell and have caused health problems for me. Last month I asked my elder son to take me with them. Today I am leaving my homeland forever at this old age taking every good and bad memory with me. I don’t know how many days I will live but I know even after my death I will not return to this land again.
_ Hamida Begum
I have no one. I am alone in this world now. For the last 10 years I have been living alone only remembering that day. For my one and only wrong decision, I lost my whole family in the horrifying 15 November Cyclone Sidr. I don’t know what I should call it – good luck or bad luck. I am the only one in my family to have survived by holding onto the last tree in our village! I can’t forget how the next morning I was searching for my loved ones and lining up the dead bodies one by one. I lost my two daughters, my only son and my husband that night. I can’t forget losing everything; all my cattle were floating away like water lilies in the cyclone water. The water took away everything from me.
I am from Pathorghata Borguna. There, every year we faced big and small cyclones. But in 2010 even in my worst dreams I never thought this would happen. My daughters asked me while holding onto me tightly several times “Ma, it’s a number 10 warning signal and they are announcing it again and again. Ma, we are feeling really afraid. Let’s go to the cyclone center.” But I was a foolish woman. I did not listen to them. I did not listen to my husband either because I thought nothing would happen. I was feeling very lethargic and did not want to take everything with us to the cyclone center. I thought like the many storms before, that the cyclone would pass and nothing would happen. For my obstinate decision of that cursed night I had to bury them alone the next day. I had to take out a loan from my villagers to bury my family members because I lost everything in the cyclone. I have only the sari I was wearing that night. I starved under a tree for several miserable nights.
I could not bear it, but I had to come here to search food in order to stay alive with my other villagers. When you are alive, your stomach hurts for food. For the sake of this stomach I had to come here. But it’s a very difficult job that I have been doing for the last 10 years in order to survive. But now I know there is nothing too difficult for the poor. When coming here I took a 20-thousand taka advance from the owners and I have been returning this money for the last ten years. We get a very little amount of money: only 60 taka for a long day’s work when we finish drying one field of rice. Sometimes when it’s the rainy season or the sun doesn’t show up, it takes three to four days to finish drying one field of rice for 60 taka. The owners take the loan money out plus interest. They give us rice but we have to buy vegetables from our money so we have to take out more loans from the owners. I became their slave for 20 thousand taka and this is how my life will end: working here day after day.
_ Fatema Begum
My entire life had been spent on an island on the Brahmaputra River. I had never seen any vehicles in my 35 years of life, except for boats, ox carts and horse carts. Like me hundreds of women from these islands had never seen any modern vehicles. The men of the islands went out for necessary things but women didn’t need to go anywhere. I, myself, never imagined a city life could look like this. Last year for the first time I left my land in search of making a living with my complete family and came to Dhaka. We took out a loan to move here in the hope that our family could at least eat three meals a day. We had to rebuild our home 5 times before we decided it was time to move. Before coming here, we were surviving by eating a blend of wheat powder with river water once a day. Sometimes we ate a mix of rice and eggplant. If my husband could catch a fish from the river, it was royal food for my family.
I was born on the island of Shakhahatichor in Chilmari district, 400 miles away from Dhaka. Chilmari district has 6 unions, or councils but 4 out of 6 are now in the middle of the river. Our island is one of them. Life is becoming more difficult every year for the people of the islands. People are dying from starvation there. Nothing grows on our islands because of draught. People have nothing to do; no jobs for surviving. There are no agricultural activities for farmers. In recent decades our area has been afflicted by severe droughts. There were not many problems in the previous years because there was adequate water in the Brahmaputra River. Now the water does not flow. The mighty Brahmaputra is the lifeline for our agricultural and our domestic lives, but it is dying every day and taking thousands of lives with it.
Thousands of islanders are facing a serious food crisis, natural disasters and temperature problems. Every year from mid-September through mid-November, this crisis is extreme. We call the period Mora Kartik, meaning the months of death and disaster. The last time we were there we couldn’t even stay in our hut because of the intolerable cold and wind. Now the season and weather have become unpredictable. Last winter my father died in his old age because he couldn’t tolerate the biting, painful cold any longer. My father used to say: “It’s so cold that tigers are shaking.” He is not the only one; lots of old people die every year from these conditions. During winter this place becomes unbearable yet during summer the heat feels like Hell.
Even though we were hungry on our island, we never wanted to move to Dhaka. But we had nothing left but our two hands. Without food or a job, these hands are incapable of feeding our mouths. So, I listened to my husband and came to Dhaka for work. My husband is a day laborer and I work as a cook in a canteen where laborers eat every day. I have to work hard the whole day for 3000 taka and food for myself. Sometimes I can take some leftovers for my children. Life is very hard here too but at least we have opportunities for income. We can eat three times a day. My children don’t have to starve for food anymore. That is what I have wanted my whole life.
_ Morjina Begum
When danger comes, it comes in every conceivable way. Who would have thought that we would have to work here in this dirty dump yard? Fate has dragged me here. I am from a respectable family. Women of our family never used to work outside of the home ever. Now I work here with my whole family.
After cyclone Sidr, we were trying to fix our house but another cyclone, Aila, took the rest of it. We lost everything to the rising tide. We lost our home, crops and now we are losing our dignity by doing this work every day. Everything we had is under water now. Now, except these hands, we have nothing left and are like beggars.
My father-in-law could not tolerate our situation and died from the grief of losing his home, land and property. My husband left me with my two daughters without saying anything and married a woman for money. I know he is living with his new wife in a nearby slum. I never thought that he could do this to me and to our two beloved daughters. How could he leave us like this? Once upon a time I had a family and a home. My husband could not eat if I did not cook the food myself. Now I know everything was a dream and the biggest lie ever.
I came here after taking a loan from villagers and selling some of my jewelry which I had been wearing my whole life. I took my mother-in-law with us. She is all alone now. How could I leave her? I thought if we eat, she will eat with us. Now I have four mothers; my own mother, my mother-in-law and my two beloved daughters. We are all working here and living in a rented tin shed room. We are working hard and repaying the loan every month. My daughters can’t go to school anymore. How can they? After working here the whole day in this smelly rubbish, no one allows us to sit beside them. Getting water is very tough. The whole night we have to wait in the line to take a bath, but washing and smelling the soap feels heavenly.
I passed class eight but my daughters can’t even pass primary school. There is no end to our troubles. I can’t tolerate seeing two older women working so hard every day. I can’t bear to see my innocent, beloved daughters working in this dump yard from morning till night just to survive. I feel so depressed and feel like giving up sometimes. It’s better to die than seeing this misery in our lives. People throw broken glass and blades in the garbage; they never think there are people like me who have to work here. Those of you who threw that broken glass in the garbage need to know it cuts our feet. But it’s okay; I am accustomed to such pain. I forgot the last time when I smiled but the tears never stop rolling down from my eyes. We sit here and have our lunch. The smell of rubbish is nothing to us anymore. Nowadays our lives have become more rotten than this rotten dump yard.
_ Nurjahan Begum
We are the people from north Bengal who lived on the banks of the Brahmaputra River. Each year we were the first in the country to endure the flooding, before floods came to other parts of the country.
We had become accustomed to flooding because we had experienced it all our lives and fought against the odds every year. But in 2010 the flooding was so sudden that it left us with a new shoreline. We survived for four days on the top of that shore but the next day, it too was underwater. After searching madly for a whole day for banana trees, my husband finally found five trees to make a raft. We tied it to our hut so that it did not float away and we moved our essentials onto the raft.
I never imagined that on this night my life was going to change forever. After finishing our dinner, we were resting on our raft sitting and holding each other so that we didn’t fall into the water. After having done a lot of work looking for materials and building the raft, we were tired. We were resting and I was breastfeeding our one-and-a-half-year-old girl. The whole night I was very concerned and was breastfed her for a long while. At the end of the night when it was almost dawn and I heard the sound of the azaan call of prayer. Then I heard the sound of something falling into the water. For just one second I had not thought about my child and the next second she was no longer there. I cried out wildly and jumped into the water. My husband also jumped in. We searched for her frantically. We were dipping in the water and crying loudly at the same time. My husband was diving and calling her name “my Moyna, my Moyna, O Allah, my mother!” The current was so strong that it was pulling me away. After a while I fainted at the thought that I had lost my treasure; a baby that had taken seven years to conceive. After that accident I became mentally-ill for five years. I had to have treatment in a mental hospital from 2010 to 2015. My mental health improved when I fell pregnant for the second time, 6 years later. But after Arafat was born, I became terrified that I would lose my child again in the water. After seeing my mental condition, my husband brought me here by selling everything we had.
There is nothing called poor persons ‘luck’ just as there is no guarantee of a poor person’s life. We came to this railway slum last year. Life became even more perilous here in the slum than in our flooded village. I can’t leave my son for a single second because trains come and go every 10 minutes. There is nowhere to move to from here because this slum is the cheapest in the city.
With the money we have we cannot go to any other slum. My husband works alone for us as a rickshaw driver. I cannot go to work – who will guard my son? It does not matter if I do or don’t eat, but I can’t bear losing my child, my heart again. If you haven’t gone through this, you wouldn’t understand the horrific pain when one loses that part of your heart. Life is hard for poor people when even nature treats us so poorly. It is nature that plays the most devastating role with poor people like us. If this were not true then the floods would not have been so cruel as to take so much from me.
_ Rita Begum
We woke up in terror after the roof of our house was swept away, and moments later we were chest deep in rising waters. The water came in so quickly and it got so high that it almost reached the ceiling of our house. My parents jumped into the water to try to save the cattle but could not. We lost everything in the cyclone. We escaped with just our lives from there seven years ago.
There were between 100 and 150 families along the riverbank. All their homes were washed away just like ours. We lost everything. We lost our boats, our cattle, and our land was flooded with salt water. All the land is under water now. We had to move very quickly and we couldn’t take anything except the clothes we were wearing. We were left with nothing just like refugees. Today, boats pass over the place where our land was; where I spent all of my childhood like a dream.
I started my job as a sex worker seven years ago here in Dhaka City, when my mother committed suicide for the unbearable pain of our losses and my father fled leaving me to look after my four siblings. My little sisters and brothers don’t know what I do till midnight. Sometimes it’s very hard to explain to them why I can’t return at night to them. But this is the only job I could find that would allow me to feed my family. They wait the whole night for me so that I am there to hold them beside me while we all sleep. My only aim now is to feed my siblings and give them a better life. Seeing them going to school every day fills me with a lot of pride. I can take care of them till the evening, after that they take care of each other.
I have been pregnant several times and have had to have abortions. I always prayed to God, “Please don’t allow this pain to happen to even my worst enemy”.
We came to Dhaka from Gabura, Munshiganj, in the Sathkhira area two months ago and now we are living on the streets. There was nothing left in our area except hunger and uncertain livelihoods – we were surrounded by salty water and drought ravaged lands. In order to come here, I had to I had to sell my only pair of gold rings that I got from my mother-in-law which is a symbol prestige and value in our family. When our life is valueless, how is it possible to protect our values? I sold my prestige to feed my family.
I never thought my life would turn into Hell soon after that first cyclone. Hundreds of people left our villages after cyclone Aila due to lack of food, sweet water and a secure life. But we did not leave then. We did not want to leave our forefathers’ land, showing disrespect. But we had no choice. There was nothing left there. No opportunities for surviving. You could not even beg from anyone. Everybody became so poor, nobody had anything to give you.
We suffered terribly in winter and during the monsoon season in our broken hut in our village. My husband used to sell fish in the local market and somehow used to manage to get us one meal a day. When he would manage this one meal, my son used to burst into happiness and I would burst into tears, thankful that we were avoiding starvation. But there were many days when all my son wanted was some rice and I had none to give him. In such unimaginable misery, our hungry stomachs pushed us to come here to search for work and survive.
My husband started riding a rickshaw a few days ago. It was very difficult to get the rickshaw for rent because owners won’t rent you one if they don’t know you. We knew no one in Dhaka. After several weeks, we got somebody from our area that helped us to rent the rickshaw from the garage. Before this, we begged on the street in order to survive with our children.
We are still living on the streets as we can’t afford to rent a room in a slum. The rooms are more money than my husband can earn in a day by riding the rickshaw. I know no work other than doing household chores. I am now searching for a job as a maid but like my husband, I need someone to help me.
"I see the beauty of people and the human soul in the pictures I take. And though the circumstances of some of the people I portray may be grim, back-breaking, depraved, the people themselves are always remarkable characters and souls"
For me Photography is my language, to access, to communicate, to identify and mostly to make it hear. Through photography I only jot down my heart’s language. The best part about being a photographer is that I’m able to articulate the experiences of the voiceless and to bring their identities to the forefront which gives meaning and purpose to my own life.
I have received more than 68 international awards and my work has been featured in over 70 major, international publications including: National Geographic, Vogue,Time, Sunday Times, Newsweek, Geo, Stern, Der Spiegel, The Fader, Brand Ein, The Guardian, Marie Claire, Colors, The Economist, The New Internationalist, Kontinente, Amnesty Journal, Courier International, PDN, Die Zeit, Days Japan, Hello, and Sunday Telegraph of London. In 2002 I became the first Bangladeshi to be selected for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in the Netherlands. In 2004 I received the Young Reporters Award from the Scope Photo Festival in Paris — once again, the first Bangladeshi to receive this honour. In 2005 I was awarded “Best of Show” at the Center for Fine Art Photography’s international competition in Colorado, USA. And in 2006 I was awarded World Press Photo award and released my premier book “First Light”. In 2007 I became the first Bangladeshi to be selected for the 30 Emerging Photographers (PDN 30), sponsored by Photo District News Magazine, USA. I won the 7th Vevey International Photography Grant from Switzerland in 2009 and in the same year, I took home the international ‘Travel photographer of the Year” title at the International Travel Photographer of the Year Competition (TPOY 2009) in the UK, the most prestigious award in travel photography. I was one of the speakers in the fifth Global Investigative Journalism Conference, held at Lillehammer, Norway in 2008 and as well I was the first Bangladeshi in Ted talk at TEDxOporto 2011, in Portugal. I was one of the speaker of “7th Forum of Emerging Leaders in Asian Journalism”, Yogyakarta / Indonesia”. In 2011 Nikon has selected me as one of the 8 influencers in Asia pacific (APAC region). Presentation of my 10 years project published as form of book ‘Survivors’ in 2012, which has reviewed by prestigious Geo magazine.