In 2006, some 12,000 stateless Rohingya lived on a small sliver of marshland on the banks of the Naf River outside of Teknaf in southern Bangladesh. Mud was everywhere. The air was thick due to the thousands of people confined in such a small space sharing the heat and humidity. Sick Rohingya lay underneath flimsy scraps of tarps hung over bamboo frames. The adults knew how awful and unacceptable the situation was. What was most disturbing was that the children did too. No human should be forced to live such an undignified existence.
These were impressions I had over 11 years ago during my first trip to begin photographing the stateless Rohingya. The men and woman I met shared stories of forced labor, restrictions on marriage, arbitrary seizure of land and property, of extortion, denial of the freedom to travel to find work, religious persecution, humiliation and the menacing grip of the Burmese authorities (known at the time as NaSaKa, a border security force which was abolished in 2013) who controlled, regulated and manipulated almost every aspect of daily life.
They were tactics enforced and perpetrated systematically by the government on a daily basis in a country then under total military control – tactics meant to strangle the life out of the Rohingya community. Each Rohingya I met then said life in Bangladesh was better than the abuse and fear they lived with back home in Myanmar. Access to northern Rakhine state in 2006 was – as it is today – nearly impossible, and because of that, I constantly asked myself, ‘If life is worse than this place — this hellish sewer the Rohingya live on in Bangladesh — what must life be like back in Myanmar?’
From 2006 until 2012, the stories Rohingya shared with me gave a window into the abuse they endured in Rakhine, particularly those living in northern Rakhine. In 2012, the world got a closer look at the harsh environment the Rohingya had been fleeing from for so many years; the charred remains of Rohingya neighborhoods in the city of Sittwe after violence erupted during the summer of 2012. The destroyed mosques. The total absence of Muslims in Sittwe, Mrauk U and other towns where Buddhists and Muslims had previously lived together. The virulent racism and hate speech from ordinary citizens, government officials and Buddhist monks who denounced the very existence of a community called the Rohingya in Myanmar. And the apartheid-like segregation and isolation of nearly 140,000 Rohingya into internment camps throughout Rakhine state.
This year, I returned to Bangladesh after the Burmese military launched a ‘scorched earth’ campaign against Rohingya in the Rakhine. More than 600,000 desperate people have been forced to abandon their homeland, leave almost all of their belongings and possessions behind and flee into southern Bangladesh. Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been destroyed by the Burmese military and Rakhine Buddhists. The sheer number of Rohingya sharing the same desperation and suffering in Bangladesh is epic in size and scale. Desperate and traumatized Rohingya were everywhere: Sitting on sides of the road for miles. In the forest. In unused buildings. In mosques. Huts built of black plastic and bamboo rest on dirt shelves dug into hills and span the horizon.
When it rained, it was miserable. When it didn’t rain, the sun beat down on everyone with an intensity that was inescapable. The sounds of children, crying or playing, and the sounds of wet coughs seemed to be heard in every corner. Each Rohingya has a story to share. Stories of mass killings. Stories of the use of rape as a weapon of violence. Stories of torture. Each of those stories, whether told by a father, mother, grandmother, wife or child is wrapped in loss, abuse and trauma.
“Because we don’t have citizenship we are like a fish out of water, flapping and unable to breathe. If we were given citizenship in Burma [Myanmar], we would be like that fish you catch and then throw back into the water where he belongs. We are still out of water, and when a fish is out of water, he suffocates to death.”
Violently evicted from their country, the Rohingya had completely transformed the topography of a vast area on the southern tip of Bangladesh. The landscape reeks of a makeshift existence that will scar the lives of generations of Rohingya to follow, and will, more than likely, last for years, if not decades, as past atrocities against the Rohingya have shown.
Over the past 11 years, I have traveled to Bangladesh and inside Myanmar 13 times to document the plight of the Rohingya. As time passed my work became a visual account of ‘slow violence’, where the work from each trip, when sewn together, helped show how the tactics enacted over that period, combined with those of previous decades, led to the near destruction of a community. The repercussions of statelessness have been at the heart of this outrageous treatment.
This week marks the third anniversary of UNHCR – the United Nation’s refugee agency – launching iBelong, a global campaign to try to eradicate statelessness by 2024. The Rohingya are the largest stateless community in the world, yet there seems to be no meaningful solution in sight to ease their plight. Protracted statelessness fueled by decades of racism and intolerance is a vital component within the 50 years of calculated policies that have now led to the Rohingya essentially being evicted from the country they call home – to an even more desperate and desolate place, where they will never be permitted to belong.
With Rakhine nearly empty of Rohingya, I am reminded of something a Rohingya man named Jafar said to me in Bangladesh back in 2009. “Because we don’t have citizenship we are like a fish out of water, flapping and unable to breathe. If we were given citizenship in Burma [Myanmar], we would be like that fish you catch and then throw back into the water where he belongs. We are still out of water, and when a fish is out of water, he suffocates to death. We have been out of water for such a long time and we are suffocating. We are suffocating to death.”
Sadly, his words are more relevant now than when he spoke eight years ago.
The photos accompanying this article were taken with the support of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Museum.
For more of Greg’s work on stateless people around the world, see: www.nowherepeople.org