By Allison Joyce
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Covering the violence against the Rohingya leads a photojournalist to ponder whether journalism sometimes does more harm than good.
Jamalida begum is sitting on the dirt floor of her bamboo and plastic hut with her head in her hands. It’s been half an hour since she last spoke or moved, and she seems to be in another world. I don’t want to disturb her. She’s been through enough.
It’s Jan. 20, 2017. Jamalida arrived in Bangladesh two weeks ago, after fleeing across the Myanmar border with her children and, at that point, 87,000 other Rohingya refugees. Her husband was killed by the Myanmar military, whose soldiers then proceeded to gang rape her. When she eventually finds the strength to speak to me again, the 25-year-old says that after the assault, a group of foreign journalists came to her village and interviewed her and other surviving members of the community.
That night, after the reporters left, the military returned, enraged that she had spoken to the media about what really happened to her. This time they cut the throat of the man who had translated for the media and went door-to-door hunting for Jamalida. Failing to find her, they placed “Wanted” posters with her photograph up around towns across the district. For five days, she and her two children hid in the bush as they made their way to Bangladesh.
As she recounts her story, it makes me wonder if sometimes our work as journalists does more harm than good.
The Rohingya crisis is a story that I have been documenting since I first arrived in Bangladesh as a 22-year-old novice photographer in 2010. Routinely described as the world’s most persecuted people, these Muslim residents of a majority Buddhist nation were denied citizenship and basic rights and opportunities. Since 1977, over a million have emigrated to neighboring Bangladesh, where life often hasn’t been much better. I can remember wandering through the dusty lanes of Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh, and being overwhelmed by women begging me to find their husbands, who had been imprisoned by the local authorities for attempting to find work outside the camps. When I moved to Dhaka permanently in 2013, I made several more trips to the Rohingya camps, where I covered everything from daily life to sexual violence to the 2015 trafficking crisis, when hundreds of refugees were left stranded at sea by human traffickers.
By the time my plane from the country’s capital touched down in Cox’s Bazar in January 2017, everything was changing, and quickly. According to news reports, 87,000 people had fled to Bangladesh after October 9, 2016, when the Myanmar military launched an offensive in response to supposed Rohingya insurgent attacks. New camps were sprouting up and thousands of new tents were being pitched in Kutupalong, extending back into what had been forested hills just a few weeks prior. Refugees told me stories of having their beards lit on fire; of whole families being burned alive and massacred; of young girls being gang raped in front of their mothers. For weeks I played a cat and mouse game with the local Bangladeshi mafia, who threatened my translator and me just for being there. Bangladeshi border guards detained me several times for photographing the refugees who were pouring across the border. At the time, I couldn’t imagine the situation getting any worse.
When I returned in September 2017 for Getty Images after a Myanmar military crackdown in response to an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group, Cox’s Bazar was unrecognizable to me all over again. I drove down the main street and saw thousand-strong crowds of refugees sleeping out in the open, shielded from the relentless rain only by flimsy pieces of plastic. Pregnant women were giving birth on the roadside, or in the middle of the mud. Whenever my car stopped, we were swarmed with women and children who clawed at my arms and clothes and begged for a bit of food: for anything at all. There was no coordinated NGO effort and ordinary Bangladeshis had started opening their pockets, driving down from Dhaka with trucks full of clothes and food. Unfortunately, their kind-hearted efforts often added to the disorder, and the distributions would turn into violent stampedes. On several of these occasions, refugees were killed. The scale of the crisis and desperation was unlike anything I had ever seen, and the chaos was difficult to put into words—or, in my case, even into photos.
As the challenges increased, I began to believe in my role again. One day I was shooting on Shah Powrir Dwip island, one of the primary landing points for the refugees. The military was still burning villages in Myanmar, and plumes of dark smoke would drift toward the sky, creating an apocalyptic backdrop for the more than two dozen fishing boats crowded with new refugees that arrived on our little stretch of beach over the course of eight hours. Skinny and shell-shocked, the refugees climbed out and collapsed on the sand before moving on toward the camps. They’d walked for days through the rain and mud without food or water to reach the boats that would take them to safety—and yet throughout the day the only aid that arrived was from a small group of Bangladeshis who came with bananas and a few water bottles. I suddenly felt the full weight of my responsibility as a journalist to let the world know what was happening.
As the influx of refugees slowed to a trickle and word began to spread, NGOs began to establish their presence and some semblance of an infrastructure took shape. Still, that weight remained heavy on my back. I began to focus on some of the lesser-told—but no less important—stories in the camps. While there are many obstacles that come with working as a female photojournalist, in South Asia I have been given access to many worlds that are off limits to men. This story was no different. The Rohingya culture is deeply conservative, and when the curtain is drawn back on a village of widows, or I’m invited into a child bride’s bedroom, it’s not just a matter of being able to tell female-focused stories more powerfully or empathetically than my male colleagues: It’s often a matter of being able to tell them at all.
Of all the stories I’ve listened to, the most painful to hear are those of the rape survivors. The assaults on them were coordinated, and several of the women described the same scene: a group of five or six of them gang raped in front of their families, before the military set the house on fire with the women still inside. My translator and I fought back tears as one woman called Dildar described having to crawl past the burning bodies of her children to escape. I asked another survivor, Minwara Begum (no relation to Jamalida), why she was allowing me to photograph her and tell her story. “They did these things to us, they raped us, I’m not afraid to talk about it,” she said. “I don’t feel ashamed to tell the world. I want justice, but I know the world cannot give me justice. If there’s anyone who could give us justice, it would have happened a long time ago.”
Over the course of the eight years I have spent covering this story, I have consistently felt the simultaneous possibilities and limitations of the change we can affect as journalists. The story of the barbaric and inhumane Myanmar oppression of the Rohingya has been reported by journalists for decades, yet burning villages in Myanmar can still be seen from Bangladesh. A Rohingya friend wrote on my Facebook page the other day: “I don’t think the world is doing enough for us.” I would have to agree.
Still, I remain hopeful about the transformative powers of journalism. Maybe our work can’t change the world, but I have seen firsthand the change that it can make in the lives of some. The stories and photographs that have emerged from this influx of refugees have resulted in international condemnation from human rights groups and governments around the world. Hundreds of aid agencies have come together to provide medical services, donate food, give support, and deal with the logistics of setting up the equivalent of a city overnight.
A few months after first interviewing Jamalida in January, I ran into her again in the middle of the same camp. There were tears in both of our eyes as we embraced, and I saw that she looked, well, if not happy, then at least healthy. Holding her head high, she told me that her children were in school, that she had found part-time work with an NGO and was receiving mental health support. Then she paused. Recently a delegation from Myanmar had visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh and she had been recognized in the street, she said. Her former tormentors confronted her, asking why she was spreading lies about their country. They interrogated her about how long she intended to continue struggling and starving in the camps before she decided to return “home.” My stomach flipped. As journalists, our work had gotten her into trouble again. Her face was so recognizable by this point that the Myanmar officials had even found her in Bangladesh.
With my heart in my mouth, I asked her whether she regretted speaking to the media in Myanmar and Bangladesh. “No, not for a minute,” she said. “I want to hold these criminals accountable, I will never back down.”
Allison Joyce is a Boston-born photojournalist with over a decade of experience working in the United States and internationally. She is based in Bangladesh, frequently covering the terror against the Rohingya people. She also covers breaking news and human rights stories with a special focus on gender issues.