Dilek Mermer - Myanmar

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 latter.

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 another country.

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 instruction.

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.