In the Afterlife of Genocide

Since August 2017, over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh.[i] While Bangladesh is a densely populated country and major site of ecological crisis, the government has announced plans to build the world’s largest refugee camp there.[ii] The following is a photo essay compiled by two members of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). They arrived in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh in September 2017, during the most recent exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine State.

The observers worked closely with an Islamic charity called the Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organization (MAPIM) and gathered extensive testimonies of murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing from the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camps, Sardar Hospital in Cox’s Bazaar, and various “zero points” where Rohingya have been crossing into Bangladesh.[iii] Unlike the United Nations Security Council, which has accused the Burmese government of ethnic cleansing, the Islamic Human Rights Commission has formally characterized the persecution of the Rohingya as a genocide.

There are two main types of Rohingya refugee camps: makeshift camps and government-operated camps recognized by the Bangladeshi state. The former frequently spring out of the latter, though it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins, as refugees frequently set up new camps adjacent to existing ones. Since the upsurge in violence against the Rohingya in August 2017, the makeshift Kutupalong camp and surrounding camps at Ghumdum, Balukhali, and Thangkhali have swelled rapidly and merged into one another. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) refers to this collective settlement as the Kutupalong-Balukhali expansion site. The pictured favela consists of hundreds of improvised homes that offer little protection from the environment. When it rains, water floods the camps, making it impossible for refugees to sleep on the dirt floors of their dwellings. These homes are equally uninhabitable when it is warm, because the plastic roofing covering most of them absorbs heat very easily.

Rohingya carrying their belongings over harsh terrain. Many Rohingya refugees are forced to walk through sites clustered with landmines in order to reach safety. This group crossed the border and arrived on the shores of Bangladesh at 4 am. They are fortunate compared to the nearly four thousand Rohingya stuck at the border of Myanmar.

Many Rohingya refugees use boats like these to cross the Naf River. They pay smugglers a fee of about £40 per person in order to fare the dangerous journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh. These smugglers, however, frequently overload boats in the hopes of earning a larger profit. Hundreds have drowned as a product of such boats capsizing. Other Rohingya cannot even attempt the perilous trip to Bangladesh, as they cannot afford to pay the smugglers.

Hundreds of refugees have crossed into Bangladesh using this makeshift bamboo bridge built by Friendship, a Bangladeshi non-governmental organization. This precarious bridge has served as a replacement for the one that preceded it, which collapsed under heavy rains. The Myanmar border lies across the water.

Until the recent influx of refugees, most villages along the Bangladeshi border with Myanmar were very quiet places. Now, village roads are so densely crowded that it is difficult to walk through them with ease; many people have died as a result of trucks running over or falling on top of them. A number of Rohingya have also died at the hands of the local population of wild elephants, which occasionally stampedes through the area and tramples those in its path. In response to these factors, the Bangladeshi army has evacuated many makeshift camps along the roadside. In this photo, locals are building brick roads in order to make the reception of humanitarian aid more efficient. The extant roads are very narrow and unable to accommodate both vehicles and the masses of people walking beside them. Further, frequent rain leaves them too muddy for travel. As a result, the most needy areas along the Bangladeshi border remain deprived of an already limited amount of aid.

Pictured here are donated packages of food in transit. The scarcity of food and the severe disorganization of its distribution frequently give rise to brawls between refugees. Because not every camp has access to aid, recent arrivals to Bangladesh sometimes walk for 10 to 20 days before acquiring food. Many refugees are also forced to sell their belongings in order to purchase food. Others – most frequently those with no possessions to sell – turn to sex work. Since the Bangladeshi army assumed control over food distribution, every charity and humanitarian aid organization has had to work through it in order to disburse aid.

A humanitarian aid organization and Bangladeshi locals set up this madrassa for new refugee arrivals. Both locals and refugees take great care of such ad hoc facilities. Although Rohingya refugees are largely illiterate, nearly all can read and recite the Qurʾan.

Most dwellings in Rohingya refugee camps appear like this on the inside. Many women and girls avoid venturing outside of these makeshift homes to avoid being kidnapped by traffickers or local criminals. In this sense, the immediate threat of sexual violence is present in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. The child in the photo did not own any clothing.

The living conditions in most refugee camps are unsanitary. Because there are few toilets, people relieve themselves wherever they can locate privacy. As a result, when it rains, water and feces flood the camps. Many of the children who are exposed to these unhygienic conditions are naked and barefoot. While international development organizations like Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) have been building toilets (though few in the West would recognize them as such), these facilities are shared between literally thousands of people.

This elderly man was beaten by the Burmese military so severely that he has not been able to stop shaking since. Medical experts have suggested that his nerve endings may be damaged. The vast majority of Rohingya refugees who survived the journey to Bangladesh have severe health complications. However, the local hospital is very small and can only accommodate a small fraction of the injured.

This photo is from Sadar Hospital in Cox’s Bazaar – a town on Bangladesh’s southeast coast. The child’s legs were burnt by Burmese soldiers; one is also broken. The hospital is full of children with broken limbs and women recovering from rape. Most had to walk on foot for 10 to 15 days in such physical conditions before reaching the Bangladeshi border.

[i] “Bangladesh: Rohingya refugees must not be relocated to uninhabitable island,” Amnesty International, November 2017.

[ii] Alan Taylor, “The Rohingya in Bangladesh: The Fastest-Growing Refugee Emergency in the World,” The Atlantic, October 2017.

[iii] These accounts will be submitted as evidence to various international bodies including the International Criminal Court (ICC).