Houses of Rohingya living quarter captured from a roadside tea shop in Bhasan Char Island
Houses of Rohingya living quarter captured from a roadside tea shop in Bhasan Char Island

What my lens sees in Rohingyas’ land Bhasan Char Island

A Photo Essay by Javed Kaisar

Bhasan Char Island, a once-desolate island in the deep sea of the Bay of Bengal, has garnered global media attention for housing a fraction of the million Rohingyas who fled waves of violent persecution in their homeland of Myanmar in 2017. The island is approximately sixty kilometres away from the mainland and officially belongs to Char Ishwar Union in Hatia Upazila of Noakhali district, Bangladesh. Bangladesh Navy has developed and maintains the infrastructure of this island under the Ashrayan-3 project of the government.

Construction of Rohingya living quarters that span an area of 13 square kilometres was completed in late 2019, and resettlement of Rohingyas from Cox’s Bazar began in early 2020. The island also hosts officials from various government and non-government organizations and a naval base.

I had the opportunity to stay in this island for my research work in August 2023. However, it is a restricted area and prior permission from concerned authorities is required to visit. If permission is granted, certain Navy ships can take visitors there.

It takes approximately three hours to reach Bhasan Char Island by ship from mainland Chittagong. However, due to swells and turbulence, ships sometimes cannot reach the island. For instance, on the day I was scheduled to return, the sea was so rough that the ship did not leave that day.

With prior approval from the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) and the Bangladesh Navy, we departed from a naval port in Chittagong on a Bangladesh Navy ship. The passengers were the individuals of various government offices and NGOs and us – two local accompanies and me.

After the ship docks at Bhasan Char, passengers walk along the side of the jetty to the interior of the island. Rohingya children and rickshaw drivers assist in carrying the arriving passengers’ bags.

An exhibition of the prototype model of the entire resettlement project in Bhasan Char. The
model is made of cardboard, wooden blocks, polystyrene and other materials. This framed model hangs in one of the Bangladesh Navy Guest houses on the island.
The photo shows a section of the entire camp from the RRRC office. Here, the red-roofed houses are the living quarters (camps) for the Rohingyas. The large buildings are “shelters” to protect them from cyclones or other natural disasters! Officially, arrangements have been made to house about one hundred thousand Rohingyas on Bhasan Char Island. However, only about thirty thousand Rohingyas currently live there, leaving many camps and shelters empty. Some of these vacant camps and shelters are now being used as offices by various government and non-government organizations. The island is powered by solar panels, and shopkeepers do not have to pay rent or levy.

Inside the island, the road next to the Rohingya refugee quarter looks like this, small stores can be seen along the road. These small stores are owned and run by Rohingyas.

A vegetable store in the Rohingya Bazaar – a market for groceries. The Rohingyas buy their daily groceries from this bazaar with their data card and cash. This bazaar is located at a corner of the island.

A general store with spices, rice, lentils and many other dry goods in the Rohingya Bazaar

A tea stall and its ambience next to the Rohingya Bazaar 

The Rohingyas use such curtains outside their camp. They serve two purposes: first, veiling, which is mainly associated with the religious practice of veiling, and second, protection from direct sunlight.

An elderly woman sits on the balcony of her camp house. It is right on the camp road. I saw her on my walk and asked permission before clicking.

A lighthouse in the Bhasan Char Island.

This area adjacent to the new jetty of Bhasan Char Island features various layers of coastal protection to protect the coast from erosion and natural disasters.

Outside the dam, near the coast, lies a market named Bangali Bazaar, selling mainly wholesale products and serving as a supply point for retailers. The market includes various stores and restaurants. A local merchant told me that the demand at this market has dropped sharply these days. 

Different types of trees were planted next to the camphouses. These plants are a kind of source of seasonal vegetables and fruits, at the same time, these plants help in cooling the hot daytime temperatures.

On the left side of this photo is the Rohingya living quarter and on the right side is the largest and busiest market in the camp. This market is locally known as Unisher Bazaar, while Unish means the English numeral word 19.

The goods are brought from the dock to Unisher Baazar by such a vehicle, which looks like a hybrid of a tractor and a mini truck. Every day, many trawlers with essential goods come from different regions and dock at the island, and then the goods are brought to retailers shop like this way.

Soil salinity is a significant issue on Bhasan Char Island. NGOs, government agencies, and Rohingyas work hard to cultivate crops amidst the challenges of brackish water. Freshwater plants struggle to grow and mostly do not survive with a long root system. Representatives from various organizations working with agriculture have observed that trees are surviving longer after the construction of the dam. This development may aid in reducing soil salinity and producing more crops in the coming years.

Here, a variety of natural methods are used to grow crops.

There are several parks for children in the Rohingya camp on Bhasan Char Island.

Several natural canals are there inside the Bhasan Char Island, and most of them are outside the camp area. Some Rohingyas try to grow various crops and fish with prior permission.

These rows of tiny houses are for goats and sheep of Rohingya families. In the past, Rohingyas used to keep their goats and sheep under or next to the camp house on a private level. As a result, the living quarters always became dirty and different kinds of disputes occurred. With the help of NGOs, separate sheds for goats and sheep were built in this area. Currently, more than 500 goats and sheep live in these stables.

Not all roads in the camp are paved with RCC, they often turn into such muddy mess.

Rohingya fishing boat. Rohingyas can take such boats to the sea or river to fish, and there are no restrictions on them.

The old jetty of Bhasan Char Island.

The sea and the river were very rough at that time. From here, in the distant shadows, another island can be seen, which the locals call Islampur Char or Islampur Island.

Plastic bottles came here with the waves of the Bay of Bengal, and this dirt line is the one way to tell how far the tide has come.

This marble game is one of the most popular games among the children of Bhasan Char.

At the time we visited Bhasan Char, the tide was much higher than normal due to the low pressure in the sea and the full moon. During this high tide, the shops, streets and canals of Bangali Bazaar went underwater. However, after a few hours, the water receded.

The sea was super rough with high waves, and an engine of a trawler broke down and drifted ashore. Some of the crew members of the fishing trawler were injured. Members of the Bangladesh Navy here are giving them first aid and some dry food and water to drink.

From the top of the dam: the inner part of the dam is on the left side of the picture, and the river and sea are on the right. This dam is 21 feet above the ground and is 11.7 km long.

Abnormal tidal water caused flooding in most of the old jetty area.

A Rohingya man sells fish in the local market, and the buyer is also a Rohingya. A measuring scale like this is not often seen elsewhere in Bangladesh, and strangely enough, it only measures on one side.

Tractors that used to be used to transport goods are now, in this high tide, parked in a row on the dam.
It’s an evening at the Unisher bazaar. This bazaar gets very crowded at this time. Both Rohingyas and Bangladeshis buy essential things from this market. Many Bangladeshi businessmen came here from different parts of the country to do business, but the number of those from the Noakhali region is relatively high.

Since the sea has been very rough, the ship is uncertain about heading for the mainland. After the announcement that the ship wouldn’t leave today, all passengers began to return to the island. Meanwhile, the road has become submerged by the tide. This is not usually the case in normal times.

The waves of the rough sea beat against the jetty of Bhasan Char Island.

Many passengers are using Rohingya fishing boats to return from the jetty.

After a day’s delay, the naval ship finally left Bhasan Char Island for Chittagong on the mainland at 5 a.m. amidst heavy rain.

Javed Kaisar is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany and a member of the Emmy Noether Group on “Sand: The Future of Coastal Cities in the Indian Ocean”. He is also a faculty member at the Department of Anthropology at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Bangladesh.