It was 2012. We’d been assigned
to travel to Bangladesh to document the persecution of Rohingya Muslims as they
attempted to escape violence in neighboring Myanmar, but nothing could have
prepared us for the poverty we found.
I’d done my research. I knew that
Bangladesh was poor, but once there, was shocked to see whole families
scrambling to wash themselves and their clothes in dirt puddles in the streets.
All around, everything stunk of fish - they were hanging from trees, from
lines, all drying, clearly in an effort to prolong the shelf life of what
little food the people had for as long as possible.
Getting entrance to the Rohingya
refugee camps proved difficult. There were official camps in which aid workers
were allowed, and unofficial, which no one could enter. We wanted access to the
We’d travelled with an NGO as
Bangladesh didn’t grant press cards to visit the camps – particularly to
countries such as our own whose aid organizations are seen as particularly
sympathetic to Rohingya. With the help of a guide we travelled in a van, our
cameras and video equipment hidden from view, and whenever government soldiers
stopped us – sometimes every half hour – we’d pretend to be tourists from
On approaching the camp in the
southeastern Bangladesh coastal area of Cox's Bazar, we parked up half an hour
away. There, we waited for a sign from those helping us in the camps that the
Bangladeshi officials had gone and it was safe to enter.
And then a call, a rush to get
inside, and it was a race against the clock.
We could only stay for half an
hour out of fear of being arrested – just enough time to take photos and talk
to a few of the Rohingya interned, to struggle to try and understand their
sadness, the horrific conditions from which they’d fled, and the non-too
comfortable conditions in which they now live.
People stayed ten to a room,
often a solitary curtain that hung in a corner the only thing to offer women
any privacy. In the center of the camp was a mosque, from which we were told
the children were educated, learned the Koran and were given early religious
With each photograph, I forgot my
own problems, and focused on the subject, ever aware that every image may in
some way improve our understanding of their plight.
When some of the Rohingya women
saw me and learnt where I was from they were moved to tears. Some hugged me
while the eyes of others shone with joy and hope.
I tried not to get emotional, but
it is so difficult not to get carried away when people kneel in front of you
begging for help. All I could think of was to not just try and find a way to
help one or two of them, but each and every one.
As the sole female member of the
Anadolu Agency group, I found it far easier to communicate with the Rohingya
women and children. The guide helped. He spoke Turkish and English, while
another had gone to university in Turkey. With husbands often away trying to
find food and water, the wives are often left for large periods of the day to
fend for their family alone. I was invited into their homes, where they talked
of their difficulties, and allowed me to take photos in their living areas.
Despite their hardship, it became
obvious that they maintain tremendous dignity and strength of their own, as
they guard their families, cook, clean, and prepare for their husband’s return.
As our group moved around, we
were constantly aware that we were being watched, but by travelling with one of
the humanitarian organizations that contribute aid to the camps, we were able
to maintain our cover.