Baby born in Myanmar camp a brief chapter in painful story of health care denied to Rohingya


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SITTWE, Myanmar — Hours after Shamshu Nahad gave birth to her second child, a beautiful baby girl, her husband was digging its grave.

The tiny corpse, wrapped in white cloth, was placed on a straw mat and lowered into the moist earth, neighbors and relatives bowing their heads as they quietly recited Muslim prayers.

Like the child's life, the ceremony was brief, over in a matter of minutes.

For tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims trapped in displacement camps in western Myanmar, it is a scene that is becoming all too familiar.

The predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million has been gripped by religious violence since it started moving from military rule to democracy three years ago, leaving up to 280 people dead and sending another 140,000 fleeing their homes. Most of the victims have been Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by national law and are looked upon by much of the population with disdain.

The suffering of pregnant women and sick babies goes on silently in the camps, in dark corners of barrack-style homes and bamboo huts.

They lost their main source of health care when the government kicked the aid group Doctors Without Borders out of Rakhine state in February. The activities of humanitarian workers helping deliver food and clean water were severely restricted after Buddhist mobs attacked their residences and offices a month later.

When complications in childbirth occur, patients cannot go to government hospitals without hard-to-get authorization and hefty bribes. Nearby clinics are usually staffed by just one or two doctors, sometimes for only a few hours a day. Many emergencies are now handled by midwives and workers in ill-equipped village pharmacies.

Nahad didn't even make it out of her makeshift bamboo hut to give birth. The 20-year-old lay on the floor for four days before going into labor, writhing in pain, her body soaked in sweat.

The young family was already deep in debt and could not afford to bribe anyone. And during her pregnancy, Nahad could not afford to eat anything except small amounts of vegetables and rice.

A midwife came, one of just three who serve more than 10,000 Rohingya in Dar Paing camp and surrounding areas. As the contractions intensified, she worked late into the night to finally coax the little girl into the world.

Four hours later, the child was dead.

Nahad was grief-stricken. She broke down into tears with every sideway glance at the small corpse in the corner of the room.

Her only other child, 2-year-old Mohammed Rohim, could not understand why he wasn't allowed to go to his mother, who could barely move because the bleeding wouldn't stop. He looked curiously at the baby, unaware it was his little sister. Finally he was shuttled from the room and placed under the care of neighbors.

When the sun came up, the midwife returned to help prepare the burial. The warm water poured over the little girl's body drained through the slats of the shack's bamboo floor. It was sprinkled with perfume and bundled up in white cloth, as is the Islamic tradition.

Nahad could hardly move. Others took her dead daughter to the mosque, walking along the muddy road between long, bamboo camp homes, sidestepping huge puddles left by monsoon rains. Some neighbors joined the procession, while others peeked out from the windows.

When they reached the cemetery, Mohammed Shafiq, the baby's 25-year-old father, dug into the wet earth with his spade. Other men took over from time to time until the hole was about 1 foot wide, 3 feet long and 3 feet deep.

There were more prayers as the tiny corpse was lowered into the grave and covered with dirt.

Nahad didn't have a chance to say goodbye.

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