Rohingya Crossings: Refugees of State Craft

Parsa Sanjana Sajid
June 7, 2017

A view of rape victim

[Image Credit: Ani Bashar. 2014. Courtesy: Flickr

Marked for ethnic cleansing and erasure in Myanmar, Rohingyas don’t fare much better once in Bangladesh, if they’re even allowed into Bangladesh. Although an estimated half-a-million refugees reside in the country, the government of Bangladesh has also frequently turned back fleeing refugees. Official statements of sealing the border abound as do ingrained xenophobic (fueled by ethno-nationalist feelings) sentiments against the refugees. Filmmaker and producer Shafiur Rahman is currently filming a documentary on Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Based on his initial conversations with the refugees, he made a short that is available here. Fragments spoke to him about his time making the film, the conversations and interactions he’s had with the refugees, and the institutional context against which their stories unfold. -PSS

Parsa Sanjana Sajid (PSS): Why did you make this film? What do you hope to accomplish with the documentary?

Shafiur Rahman (SR): I had no intention of making a film about Rohingyas. However last December 16, “Victory Day,” I was at a loose end in Cox’s Bazaar. I had gone there for a different project altogether and rather than spend the day lazing about, I took a drive to see for myself what the noise was all about in terms of Rohingya refugees pouring in from Myanmar. What I saw and heard unsettled me deeply. I live in Europe. I am familiar with images of Syrian and other refugees walking hundreds of miles along bleak roads, and setting up little shelters in woodlands and forests or holed up in some sort of detention camp. And here I was confronted with the self same imagery. And more than that, I could talk to them, and the men and women wanted to talk to me. I understand about 20 to 30 percent of the Rohingya dialect. But our exchanges were sufficiently intelligible for me to feel very unsettled. And so as a documentary maker I wanted to bear witness.

PSS: How hard or easy was it for you to shoot and generally make the film?

SR: There are some visible and some invisible barriers to filming in the camps, including dealing with gatekeepers. One just has to deal with them. For the 10 minute documentary, I shot with a simple consumer camera, a simple on board microphone, and with available natural light or the iPhone flash light in one scene in order to be as light and as inconspicuous as possible. That was a challenge!

PSS: Can you tell us about where you interviewed the Rohingya refugees? And their living conditions in these camps?

SR: In the various registered and unregistered camps – Kutupalong, Kutupalong Makeshift Camp, Leda Camp, Balukhali Camp1 – living conditions are atrocious. The environment is debilitating in very many ways.

PSS: Why did they want or agree to speak with you? What do they want from the film?

SR: I didn’t need to reference long involvement in Rohingya struggles or indeed anything to do with Myanmar. I may have made a blog post or two in the past about Rohingyas but that was years ago. I couldn’t tell them about my human rights work because it would not really make sense. Actually I didn’t need any credentials as such. I simply think people who fled such horrors want others to make sense of why it happened and want others to offer some kind of solace.

In terms of speaking to the women I interviewed, it happened quickly. I was interviewing Rashida outside her hut of plastic and straw. A painful interview where she described the slaughter of her 12-year-old daughter and how she was buried secretly at night. Inside the hut there was a meeting organized by an ACF (Action Contre La Faim) worker. She heard my questions to Rashida, invited me in, and suggested I might speak to the people inside. Once inside, she asked the assembled women, “Show this gentleman how many of you were assaulted.” Three hands went up from a group of about 20 individuals. She repeated her question, “Please tell him. He is a journalist. How many of you were assaulted?” They did not raise their hands but one by one they all stood up. It was an overwhelming moment. One of those moments when work is not work and you feel that you are witness to something inexplicable. I was taken aback. The interviews that followed were extremely difficult for my fixer/interpreter and for myself. What we heard, we should not have had to hear from the mouths of young teenagers. Teenagers who were three years younger than my own teenage son. Even as I answer your question now, three months since mid-January, I am transported to a very unsettling place.

PSS: Are there any recurring themes, events, recollections (there may not be) in these interviews you gathered?

SR: My question to them was specific. What happened to you? The recurring themes were violence and loss. From everyone. Without exception.

PSS: One of the girls interviewed, Tasmina, talks about not having enough to eat. There’s urgency to this statement and just getting the word out isn’t enough. Where does a film like yours exist in this situation?

SR: May I link this question with another question you asked about relief. They follow on from each other.

PSS: I want to think about relief as more expansive (beyond the development speak of humanitarian relief). There’s no relief, as in no space to be free from distress, for Rohingyas in Myanmar. But there’s scarcely any relief in Bangladesh, either. Rohingyas remain subject to perversities of statecraft and also to ultra ethno-nationalist sentiments in both countries. While working on this film, where and how did you specifically encounter these and did you see or experience any counter-pressures, any possibilities for surmounting such perverse effects and affects of nationalism?

SR: There is no relief. No space to be free from distress, as you say. We in Bangladesh treat them like bastards between citizens and outsiders. We seem to have for-gotten our own history. And as a result they are stuck in a limbo.

As I wrote in my proposal for the longer documentary I am shooting on Rohingyas, being labeled a “Rohingya refugee” carries immediate negative connotations in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi media dehumanizes them. They are looked down upon, viewed as unsavory beggars, smugglers, miscreants, low-paid-job-competitors, and just people who are generally in the way or even given to extremism.

Parsa, you asked me, “Any possibilities for surmounting such perverse effects and affects of nationalism?” Yes this is a necessity and this is something called culture. Do the conditions exist in Bangladesh for such a development? I am not sure. You are in a better place to tell me.

PSS: Arraying evidence, records, and witness testimony are how the human rights world operates. But there is a limit to their usefulness. That is, without the political will no amount of evidence can mitigate these atrocities. If “documents” are necessary to the extent that that’s how we put pressure on offending parties, to be able to wield the evidence still requires more action than just being aware of knowing about these atrocities. What kinds of action do you think we need at this moment?

SR: I recently went to a stunning exhibition by photographer Gideon Mendel. His work was on the Calais Refugee camp, famously called The Jungle. I have been to The Jungle myself. As I walked around Gideon’s exhibition, I freely admit I found it very emotional. It was not just the objets trouves that made up the exhibition which affected me but also some lines of text which I found in one of the panels. The text reminded the viewer of the “failure of photography – and of art more generally – to cause anything but the tiniest ripple on the surface of our collective disengagement.” It reminded the visitor the Jungle had

attracted many cameras. In its final months, it is awash in lenses. Journalists, TV crews, government workers of various descriptions, NGO staffers, human rights activists, independent filmmakers, artists: all determined to document the demise of Western Europe’s most notorious refugee camp. Images of Calais splash across the front pages of newspapers and flood the web. In waves, exhibitions are planned and photo books go to print.

So the writer was reminding us and challenging us that despite all the photography and filming and documentation – what had we actually achieved?

In defense of my profession, we do still need to bear witness. But I am painfully aware of the shortcomings of this. In further defense of our limited scope and methodology, I will say that if I do more than simply bear witness, I will be accused of creating fake news or being an agent provocateur.

If by bearing witness I can humanize this word “refugee” then I feel I have done my job if not “my bit.” To be able to claim I have done “my bit” requires something more. And I guess that means solidarity with all its attendant obligations. But let’s not underestimate the act of bearing witness. If Rohingya history is to be recovered we need to adduce the history of the violation of women and its multiple meanings, both material and metaphorical. This is why I am humbled by these testimonies I have recorded. By narrating their stories to me, they are directly charging me to bear witness. Additionally, I need to bear witness to how the self same women, and all their charges and relations are doubly punished in the refugee camps of southern Bangladesh, just out of earshot of the tourist playgrounds of Cox’s Bazaar.

So to answer your question, I need to bear witness to Tasmina’s hunger first and foremost. And then…

PSS: The other issue with testimony is that frequently human rights practice wants witnesses to be perfect victims and perfectly victimized. There’s something reductive and very dangerous about such (implicit) demands placed on individuals and communities like the Rohingyas already subjected to violence. Tactics such as portrayal of Rohingyas as Islamic extremists work in a world where victimhood is the only way to claim humanity and then that victimhood has to be scrubbed clean of any blemishes; otherwise you lose your claim. As a filmmaker, how do you address or challenge that?

SR: There is no value in doing that. I think documentary makers feed off unevenness and contradictions. For example, for the longer documentary I am currently shooting, I keep hearing stories of husbands abandoning their wives, especially stories of raped Rohingya women having been abandoned by their husbands. Why would I try to obscure that? The brutality of their experience did not end in Maungdaw, Myanmar. It persists. And patriarchal relations are part and parcel of that.

Some of the Rohingyas want armed struggle. Others don’t. All these divergences and differences or indeed blemishes if you want to put it that way add to their human story. The idea is not to make people feel sorry for Rohingyas by extolling their victimhood. That is not my job.

PSS: Are you in touch with those you interviewed? What has happened to them since you shot them in video?

SR: I am very much in touch with them. I have been following them for six months. Or at least I intend to. Let me see if funding allows that or not.

When I went back to the UK after interviewing them for the first time, I was deeply troubled by their traumatic stories. I spoke to a clinical psychologist informally and tried to get a handle on how to continue filming these women and not be overwhelmed by their experiences. And secondly, and far more importantly, how not to inflict harm or add to their trauma by asking them questions about their recent past.

But yes I can honestly say that I have never been affected as much as I have been covering this story. I have seen the devastation during Rana Plaza, the dead and the dying. I have also seen horrendous conditions in migrant detention camps in Libya. I have heard heart-breaking testimony from trafficked Bangladeshi workers in Italy. However, hearing stories of these Rohingya women shocked me and moved me viscerally beyond my other experiences.

What has happened to them? Lots of things have happened to them since the film went up in February. One of them has disappeared. We fear she was trafficked. Two of their husbands have gone walkies. There’s daily struggle to simply survive, for food, for other necessities. Too weak, they struggle to stand in long queues for medication at MSF (Medecins Sans Frontières). They miss their dead and missing relatives. But they are moving on. When I first went back to the UK after interviewing them I was stuck with the images I had taken of them and the stories they had related. As if that was their entire universe. And of course this affected me. And as I edited the material I kept replaying the same stuff compounding my discomfort. But life isn’t like that. When I saw them the second time, new concerns and new priorities had taken over [for them] as they eked out their lives as refugees. They were not replaying their violation. That gave me a glimmer of hope and made me think they will rise above the long reach of their violent memories.

And that is why I think it made sense for Tasmina to show her face and her fragility and to raise her small voice.

[Image Credit: Ani Bashar. 2014. Courtesy: Flickr]

Interviews Rohingya Crossings: Refugees of State Craft

About the Author: Parsa Sanjana Sajid

Parsa Sanjana Sajid is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Fragments Magazine. ##




Posted in Rohingya

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: