The exodus: Bangladesh
K M Asad has been documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh since 2012 but has never seen anything like the events of this autumn. In the three weeks following 25th August, when the latest wave of violence flared up in the Rakhine province of Myanmar, almost 300,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh. The Myanmar military claimed it was engaged in a necessary security operation against Rohingya militants, but refugees able to reach the makeshift camps on Bangladesh’s south-eastern coast told horrific stories of mass killings, rapes and entire villages set on fire.
While the majority of refugees travelled to Bangladesh by foot, walking for days through dense jungle and paddy fields, those who could afford the fee, usually between $60 and $120, braved the choppy Bay of Bengal in rickety fishing boats.
Asad took this photo, above, of a Rohingya mother and her baby leaving a refugee boat for Shapuree Island at the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, where hundreds of boats arrived daily from late August onwards. “This woman got off the boat as soon as it was possible and ran the 20 feet between the boat and the land,” the photographer says. “She wanted to get help for her child quickly.”
The vast majority of Rohingya refugees who reached Bangladesh sought shelter at one of the makeshift camps in the Cox’s Bazar district. “I went to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to work because I wanted to know what’s going on,” says Asad, who has visited the area’s Balukhali and Thankhali camps on several occasions and continues to return on a regular basis. “The Balukhali camp (pictured above) was a particularly challenging environment – it’s very hilly, it’s very hot, there are no roads and monsoon rains caused flooding,” he recalls. Oxfam has stated that the flooding at the camps has slowed the building of shelters and the delivery of aid. “It was impossible to work in some parts of Balukhali,” says Asad. “Working in this environment was very tough.”
While shooting in the Bangladeshi border town of Ukhiya, Asad took the above photo of what is believed to be smoke rising from a burning village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. “I had heard that the Myanmar army were burning Rohingya homes and slaughtering them, and that the refugees left everything behind to save their lives and come to the shelter of Bangladesh,” says Asad.
Based on interviews with refugees in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch (HRW) have alleged that the Myanmar military committed crimes against humanity in the weeks following 25th August, when Rohingya militants attacked police posts, killing 12 officers. HRW alleges that the military responded with a brutal campaign of mass arson, killing, rape and looting, setting fire to hundreds of villages in the process.
Survivors of an apparent massacre in the Rakhine village of Tu Lar To Li told human rights researchers that Myanmar soldiers targeted children, including babies, brutally killing them in front of their mothers. The villagers also spoke of mass killings and gang rapes. These horrifying stories are consistent with those recorded by other human rights investigators working in the Bangladesh camps. The Myanmar government insists that it is fighting Islamist terrorists and that the Rohingya set fire to their own villages.
There were already hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, before the latest outbreak of violence. Approximately 250,000 refugees arrived in the early 1990s alone, when the Myanmar military was accused of committing atrocities. “As soon as people get off the boat they receive help from local Bangladeshi people,” says Asad. “This refugee boy [below] is arriving on a boat with his family’s few belongings. When people cross the Bay of Bengal they put their lives at risk. Many boats sank while crossing and many people died.”
There have been numerous waves of forced exoduses since the repression of the predominantly Muslim ethnic group intensified significantly in the 1970s. In 1982 they were stripped of their Myanmar citizenship by the country’s ruling junta and although democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi swept to power in a landslide election victory in 2015, the government’s hostility towards Rohingya has only hardened in the last two years. Its stance is unchanged: despite the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for many generations, the government believes there is no such ethnic group as the Rohingya and that they are illegal Bengali immigrants. The army, the authorities argue, is defending its land against an armed Muslim insurgency.
“This photograph [below] is of a Rohingya mother and her child in the Kutupalong camp,” says Asad. “It’s a very bad situation for mothers and their children in the camp. Pregnant women and new mothers are lacking in nutrition and cannot feed their babies.” According to Bangladeshi NGO the Inter Sector Coordination Group, over half the 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are suffering from malnutrition are children under five. There are more than 18,000 pregnant women in the camps. “Every day women give birth at the community clinic,” says Asad. “They will face greater health hazards if we fail to improve water and sanitation. Many women and children suffer from diarrhoea and skin diseases.”
“People all over Bangladesh as well as many national and international NGOs have come forward to help the Rohingya,” says Asad, who took this photo, above, of hundreds of Rohingya people entering Bangladesh after crossing the Naf River. “But this is a developing country. Bangladesh struggles to meet the basic needs of its own people and the Rohingya refugees are an extra burden.”
The Bangladeshi government and NGOs are struggling to cope with the enormous influx of refugees from Myanmar. It is a huge challenge to provide food, medical assistance, shelter, clean drinking water and counselling services to everybody who needs them. “New people were arriving the whole time I was there,” says Asad. “Trees are being cleared in the forest so new camps can open.”
On 22nd October the UN said that more than 600,000 Rohingya people had fled to Bangladesh since 25th August, far more than the 364,000 refugees who entered Europe last year. There are now believed to be over 800,000 stateless Rohingya in this underdeveloped region of the country. The Red Cross has described the scale of the crisis as “unprecedented”. The Bangladeshi authorities have announced the creation of one of the world’s biggest refugee camps, which they claim will house all the Rohingya arrivals. The government’s official position, however, is to eventually repatriate the Rohingya to Myanmar. On 23rd October, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the UN, Shameem Ahsan, said that the burden on his country had become “untenable” and the refugees must return home when it is safe to do so. The countries are engaged in repatriation talks.
“This has been such a painful experience for me,” says Asad. “I’ve seen with my own eyes how many persecuted and tortured people have died. The Rohingya issue is a big problem that needs a solution. We need to stop the genocide as soon as possible and find a way for them to return to their country peacefully and get their rights in society.”
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