If you were ejected from your home at gunpoint and forced to walk to the safety of another country, what’s the one object that could not be abandoned? I’m told that for refugees fleeing Burma it tends to be the family solar panel. These panels are the costliest purchase many dirt-poor Rohingya have made. They are relatively portable.
That’s important if, as is the case, the sanctuary of Cox’s Bazar, a port town in south-east Bangladesh, typically lies a 10-day trek away. Being able to re-charge a torch is vital for the journey through the jungle. Given that 60 per cent of those arriving in Bangladesh are female, many of them recently widowed with lots of young children in tow, the ability to find relief from pitch darkness must be a lifeline.
I write this having spent the day filming at the massive Kutupalong refugee camp on the Bangladesh side of the border with Burma (also known as Myanmar). My clothes and hair are rank with the smell of woodsmoke and the stink of open sewers. My shoes reek of petrol, which was sloshing around the floor of our van. The fuel is for a portable generator, without which live news broadcasting would be impossible in such a remote location.
A hot shower, a beer in the hotel bar, a phone call home later, I am restored to a state of five-star equanimity denied to those a few miles away. I am not a regular foreign correspondent any more and so I have to reconcile myself anew to the journalistic cognitive dissonance required by the job.
We tell these stories of misery with all the empathy we can muster but, when all’s said and done, there is still a ticket for a flight back to Britain sitting in my backpack.
David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere has done for me. Block it from my mind though I try, his book has become a prism through which it’s possible to view almost everything. That makes it sound like an instrument of oversimplification which, for those who’ve read it or remember the cover story Goodhart wrote for this magazine, it most definitely isn’t.
To recap: “anywheres” are educated, mobile, with “achieved identities”. “Somewheres” have not been to university, never lived in London or abroad, and have “ascribed identities”.
Foreign correspondents epitomise anywhereism, as do the foreign aid workers with whom they share a symbiotic – and sometimes more intimate – relationship. There is a lot of crossover between the two groups. On this trip I’ve met a World Food Programme official formerly of the BBC and her Unicef equivalent who previously worked at CNN. They are über itinerant.
If you were being unkind, you might feel they fit snugly into Theresa May’s controversial definition of “citizens of nowhere”. They are fantastically well-meaning but, if Goodhart is right, they represent an elite minority who have fashioned the world in their own image and to their advantage.
As I watched Rohingya workers getting paid for portering, I wondered how they fit into Goodhart’s template. All of them “signed” for their pay with a thumb-print, so we can assume low levels of formal education. They have been briefly, and painfully, mobile. However, judging by the experience of previous waves of refugees, their travelling days are over. Most of the Rohingya who arrived in the camps of Cox’s Bazar in the 1990s have never left. Uprooted yes. But not without social cohesion, a strong faith and that kind of family joy which thrives in spite of the awful poverty.