Sometimes you can see the smoke of Myanmar’s burning villages from across the border in Bangladesh.
For Muslim Rohingya who have fled their predominantly Buddhist country, it’s a reminder of the violent crackdowns they faced. Since late August, half a million Rohingya have escaped Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh.
Myanmarese militia burned their homes down. They’ve tortured and killed men. Raped women. It’s part of a campaign of oppression that this population, often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority,” knows all too well.
This crisis is different, says Tommy Trenchard, a British photographer and writer who has been documenting the Rohingya in refugee camps across southern Bangladesh since September. Trenchard has covered the battle to liberate Mosul from ISIS, the early days after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, and the Ebola outbreak. But what he’s seeing in Bangladesh is “tougher than usual. Just the number of people who have lived through horrific events.”
Attempts to reach safety across the border in Bangladesh have also proven dangerous. Last week, a boat carrying Rohingya refugees capsized, drowning dozens who couldn’t swim. Rohingya fleeing on land have encountered mines planted by soldiers, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
And once the Rohingya arrive in Bangladesh, the refugees face an uncertain future. “Bangladesh does not want to keep them and Myanmar does not want them back,” says Trenchard. The refugees he is meeting are focused on “just getting by one day at a time.”
The 29-year-old photojournalist spoke to NPR from the Bangladeshi port town of Cox’s Bazar. In our conversation, he describes muddy camps, people searching for food and what it’s like to photograph in the chaos. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A U.N. report says that more than 65 million people from countries like Ethiopia, Sudan and Syria have been displaced around the world. What makes this refugee crisis different?
One thing that sets this crisis apart is the speed at which it developed. A month ago, there were already a few hundred Rohingya in Bangladesh from previous migrations. But in the last month alone, there have been 500,000. It’s taken a while for aid agencies to catch up with the scale of what’s happening here. Pretty much all the refugees arriving in Bangladesh are having to build their own shelters, from bamboo and plastic sheeting.
Who are some of the people you’ve met?
There was one woman I met whose husband was so badly beaten by [Myanmarese] soldiers that he lost his mind. When I met her, her husband was tethered by a rope to a stick. He was behind her, just lying motionless on the ground. The poor woman was distraught that her husband no longer recognized her or her children. He wouldn’t eat. She had taken him to the doctor but the wait was so long, they had to come back.
These heartbreaking stories of brutality seem common.
A lot of extreme cruelty. There was a man [named Bashir Ullah] I met as he got off the boat. He arrived about a week ago. His wife was suffering from tuberculosis and she could barely walk. He was supporting her as they made their way ever so slowly along this long space of land that connects the port to the mainland.
Did people you met appear to feel relief to be in Bangladesh or were they mourning at having to leave their homes in Myanmar?
There is definitely a sense of relief that they are in a place that is safe, safe at least from the kind of dangers they faced in Myanmar. [But] even though they did suffer a lot in Myanmar, home is home. They miss simple things, like their fields and cows and chickens — all the things they couldn’t bring with them.
How are Bangladeshis receiving them?
There has been a huge outpouring of support from local Bangladeshis — people from all over coming together and pulling together donations to drive down in trucks to where the refugees are living. Handing out all of these things that are really very needed.
At the same time, you have these other people who are doing their best to take advantage of the crisis. As soon as the refugees arrived, shopkeepers doubled and then tripled the prices of bamboo and plastics that people needed to build shelters. The boatmen who bring the refugees across from Myanmar are charging $120 a person, which pretty much strips these people of the last of their assets.
As the Rohingya crisis starts to get more coverage in the media, how can photographs make a difference?
One example perhaps is the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who was found on a beach in Greece. That kind of photo triggers huge foreign policy changes in a day.
What do you do when people in the camps, particularly malnourished children, ask you for food or help?
Sometimes [I] help out with their taxi fare to hospitals or a little money for another round of medicine. Little things like that. I try to do what I can, though it’s never enough.
Sasha Ingber is a multimedia journalist who has covered foreign affairs, science and culture for such publications as National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine and Smithsonian. Contact her @SashaIngber