State of Shock: Inside Bangladesh's "mega-camps" and the Rohingya Genocide


 © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos:    BANGLADESH. Shapurir Island. October 14, 2017. A family of Rohingya refugees rest by the side of the road after crossing the Naf River from Myanmar into Bangladesh aboard a boat.

© Moises Saman/Magnum Photos:    BANGLADESH. Shapurir Island. October 14, 2017. A family of Rohingya refugees rest by the side of the road after crossing the Naf River from Myanmar into Bangladesh aboard a boat.


“This was planned on every single level. This is a genocide.”

The Rohingya men, women and children of Myanmar are stateless. They are victims of appalling violence, displaced and exiled across South-East Asia, alone in the region and abandoned by the superpowers. 1.1 million of the Rohinyga refugees lie in a tiny pocket of Bangladesh in Katupalong-Balukhali refugee,  the largest refugee camp in the world. To put its sheer size into perspective, the refugee camps populations are now larger than many European cities such as Stockholm, Sweden's capital, and double that of several British cities including Edinburgh and Liverpool. 

The Rohingya Muslims left behind in Myanmar remain incarcerated by an apartheid-style system and those who have fled have faced state-sponsored terror and ethnic cleansing. Over a century since the Armenians were driven from Turkey by genocide and twenty-four years since the Rwandan genocide led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in 100 days, the latest acts of violence in August, 2017 against the Rohingya in Rakhine State shot by at lightening pace leaving the international community outraged and Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims in a state of shock.

On March 14th, 2018, I sat down with Emma Pomfret, a freelance writer, editor and senior media manager for Action Against Hunger UK to discuss her time in the Rohingya refugee camps with journalist Liz Ford from The Guardian covering mental health aid  work in Katupalong-Balukhali. With vast experience with Christian Aid and Save The Children, and considerable work on sexual-violence in war-zones and with a collection of poignant human stories and case studies on the Rohingya crisis (which have been published by The Guardian in collaboration with Liz Ford and photographer Tom Pilston throughout March), I sat down with her to discuss the Rohingya refugee camps and the wider consequences the horrific acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing would have for the Rohingya, Myanmar, Bangladesh and South-East Asia. 


COULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCES OF REFUGEES - MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN - YOU MET WHO ARE FLEEING MYANMAR’S MILITARY CAMPAIGN?


From the extensive interviews Liz Ford and I did in the camps in Bangladesh, the common thread through all the stories was that the people were expecting something to happen. There had been rumours in a lot of the villages. Everyone felt very shocked. They all said to me that they felt that they belonged in Myanmar, that they had been accepted, that Myanmar was their country. They were shocked by the brutality of the military and also the speed in which the attacks were carried out.

The nature of the operations were similar to those carried out in previous campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Soldiers would come very early, three to four in the morning, when everyone is asleep and surround the villages. The military and militias then divided up the men, women and children. They would murder the men by mass-execution, fathers, husbands, sons, brothers altogether. Sometimes the soldiers would use rifles, other civilians mentioned the use of rocket launchers and grenades or use low-tech weapons such as knives and machetes.

The women were very often systematically raped and killed. There were many testimonies from women from the same village who told us a few days before the attack the army had gone into the some towns bringing with them barrels of acid and once they had killed as many people as they could they would douse the bodies in acid to conceal evidence of mass-graves and massacres.

The fact that the United Nations investigators, humanitarians, and journalists are not allowed into these zones and the attempts by Myanmar’s government to conceal this points to a campaign of ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar’s government are saying that everyone they are killing are “terrorists” but we’re talking about children, women, the elderly, and young men (not every young man is a terrorist!). Most of the refugees fled and it took them a week to reach Bangladesh.

The majority of the Rohingya people are rural farmers. They had no idea where to go or what to do. The most harrowing aspect of the conversations with Rohingya refugees is when they speak about these atrocities, many are almost emotionless because they are so shocked and they are in so much trauma. The stories are devastatingly factual. Their faces don’t change, I didn’t see many people in tears, one or two people got angry, but most of the refugees looked dead behind the eyes., haunted by what they had seen in Myanmar.  


WHAT IS THE SITUATION TODAY IN THE DISTRICT OF COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH? WHAT ARE THE CURRENT NEEDS OF REFUGEES?


Altogether there are 1.1 million people in Cox Bazaar. 300,000 Rohingya refugees were there who had fled in previous years. The Rohingya Muslims have been marginalised in Myanmar but the situation has never reached this scale before. Kutaplong is the world’s largest refugee camp, it is a mega-camp. It has overtaken Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees and Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda as the world's largest. It is bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. It is bigger than a small city. 

There is a language barrier in Bangladesh (the Rohingyas speak Ruáingga) and the Rohingya's culture is very traditional. The men would go out to work and bring in the money, while many women of we met had never left the home villages. The upheaval of the mass exodus on the Rohingya cannot be underestimated.  

There is no sanitation, there is very little shelter or water and law is absent in areas of the camp due the absence of police and security. As a result it can become very dangerous at night due to criminality, smuggling and trafficking.  It was stiflingly hot. The risk of disease and malnutrition is very high in the camps and one of the health workers we spoke to said he had never seen anything like the state the Rohingya children were in when they arrived at Cox Bazaar. Even when they arrive, they are not safe. There are multiple malnutrition screening programmes for children under five and there are estimates that in the next twelve months 50,000 - 60,000 children will be born in the refugee camp due to high birth rates meaning health concerns for the Rohingya population will only increase overtime.

Monsoon season is also approaching meaning that most of the camps are under threat due to their location. Deforestation and soil erosion has occurred and the tents are stacked on top of each and dug precariously into the hill-side. When it rains, and it will rain for several months solid, the hurricane winds and flooding will destroy these shelters. They are talking about expanding the camps into the national park where the elephants and wildlife are. Ecological damage has already been severe. 


MANY CHARITIES AND NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (ngoS) ARE SUPPORTING REFUGEES SUFFERING FROM TRAUMA, COULD YOU DESCRIBE SOME OF THE WORK THEY DO TO HELP THEM?


“Trauma levels are extremely high and the cases are increasing every day because people are still crossing the border.”

Psychological first aid as they call it is one of the four pillars of any emergency response. The first is food, the second is clean water, the third is shelter, and the fourth is mental health. For example, if you are so stressed that you are unable to eat there is little point of having a programme to provide food if they won't eat or if they are too traumatised to leave their home. Some agencies are delivering food to people's homes to resolve this. The trauma levels are very high and the cases are increasing because people are still crossing the border. 

Action Against Hunger, for example, has over 100 counsellors in the camps. They go to different areas of the camp to identify those in most need of counselling. Some people attend group sessions where they can talk about and share their experiences together. Some people are referred to one to one counselling.

For example, there was a little boy, Gora Mir, 12 - he was separated from his mother and sisters when they fled Myanmar last year - who had a terrible machete wound to the neck would be referred to a one to one session and psychiatric therapy In terms of trauma, I do believe there are different needs. Men and women have equal needs and need separate counselling. For women, many of them have been raped or sexually abused. Some believe that two percent of men have been raped and there is no support whatsoever for them in the camps. These male rape figures are very large for a refugee camp of over a million people.  


WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF NOT ADDRESSING TRAUMATISED ROHINGYA MEN’S MENTAL HEALTH?


First of all, the needs of men are different to those of the women. The men, particularly in a patriarchal society in Myanmar, are conditioned from a very early age to think that they must protect and provide for their families. The Director for Counselling for Action Against Hunger told me that there is nothing worse or more traumatic for a man to watch their family being killed or abused in front them and not being able to anything about it. 

I spoke to an 18 year old boy who was tied to a chair as he watched his sisters getting raped. The men are more fearful for their lives as they are being targeted, particularly younger ones in an ethnic cleansing campaign. Fighting aged men are the first to die. For many of the men, particularly in this society, it is very difficult to be emotionally honest, cry in front of others and to talk to people about it. It is why these sessions are so important because it gives the men a sense that they aren't the only ones suffering and they can share their feelings and stories. 

If there wasn't any counselling or trauma control at all, it is a big leap to say that it would lead to radicalisation in camps, however it certainly contributes if left unaddressed. However, we have young men, middle aged men, young boys who are not working and have nothing to lose. In any rebellion,  if you have nothing to lose, are marginalised (as Tutsis were in Rwanda), have no job, no money and no sense of identity,  the risks of wanting revenge inevitably increase. Therefore, introducing simple techniques such as stress control, anger control, and breathing techniques (similar to yoga) help manage men who are very angry go along way to countering these risks. 

In terms of consequences of not addressing the men's mental health in the camps, I think it will lead to a higher caseload of mental health issues, suicides (it is very difficult to get information on suicide rate, but we believe it is higher amongst men then women), self-harm and substance abuse which is already happening in the camp.  Some people who managed to flee escaped with money, however many people of them are spending it on alcohol, toxic substances and drugs. The longer this goes on, the longer people stay in the camps, the more likely that domestic violence, crime and violence will occur. 


YOU RECENTLY COLLABORATED WITH LIZ FORD ON NGOS TREATMENT OF MALE REFUGEES TRAUMATISED BY VIOLENCE AND DISPLACEMENT. DO YOU THINK CONVERSATIONS CONCERNING MENS' MENTAL HEALTH - MUCH LIKE SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST MEN - HAVE BEEN OVERLOOKED IN WAR-ZONES?


Yes I do. I think there is an assumption that men can cope even when they are on the frontline whether they are teenagers or older. The brutality of war-zones cannot be underestimated. The situation of addressing men's mental health and PTSD is getting better, for example cases are being treated for men and women returning from Afghanistan or Iraq. There are many articles in the media on PTSD talking about the impact of war, but when conflict is happening in real-time - particularly in developing countries - when soldiers and civilians are in the moment or stuck in a prolonged emergency, conflict or crisis, it is very difficult to address. To overlook the needs of men in humanitarian crises is to ignore the needs of half the world population and it is an issue which must be addressed urgently. 


WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO THE HUMANITARIAN CRISIS & THE ATROCITIES COMMITTED BY MYANMAR’S MILITARY?


If  you look at the situation in Syria or Yemen where atrocities are rampant, where we're not getting involved militarily, it seems clear there is little chance of the British government getting directly involved in the crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar if we are not involved in the Middle East. The perspective of many NGOs based in Bangladesh is that the United Nations is being very coy with the Myanmar government. It is very typical of Western governments to avoid involvement in these sorts of events when they are happening. It was a very similar situation to the genocide in Rwanda. There is no political and economic gain of getting involved and people are afraid to say genocide as it would mean all the other mechanisms of the Geneva Convention would click into gear and this would mean international powers would be obligated to intervene.  


IN DECEMBER 2017, THE FINANCIAL TIMES PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE TITLED ‘ROHINGYA PLIGHT IN BANGLADESH RAISES FEARS OF RADICALISATION’. DO YOU THINK THE REFUGEE CAMPS COULD BECOME INCUBATORS FOR EXTREMISM IF THE CRISIS IS LEFT UNADDRESSED OR IS THIS ISSUE OVERSTATED?


 I think it is overstated, it plays into the hands of the Myanmar government who will play on the narrative on the refugee camps being a haven for terrorists. It will give them more reason to forcibly repatriate them. Are the Myanmar government not radical in themselves by conducting state-sponsored terrorism? 

Any refugee camp, particularly one with a million people in it, faces the risk of a few individuals radicalising. Unless the collective trauma experienced by the Rohingyas is not addressed in a small way then these risks increase further. Tensions are extremely high in the camp already and people are very worried about their future, the refugee camp is like a prison camp. Most of the people in the camps are women and children, as is the case with most refugee camps. There is always going to be an element of radicalisation, however I think this will be a very limited percentage of people. Most people are just frightened. 


THE ROHINGYA CRISIS HAS BEEN CALLED “A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF ETHNIC CLEANSING” WHILE OTHERS SAY IT BEARS THE “HALLMARKS OF A GENOCIDE”. FROM PERSONAL TESTIMONIES YOU HAVE GATHERED, WHICH DO YOU BELIEVE THE ROHINGYA’S PLIGHT IS AND WHY?


I think the difference between genocide and ethnic cleansing are marginal and very similar in some aspects. It is definitely ethnic cleansing. There is no reason why these people are being targeted other then their ethnicity and religion. Acts of genocidal violence are also evident. There are stories of new-born babies being thrown into fires, rape, mass-graves, mass-executions and families and friends being murdered in front of each other. Hate speech has been prevalent for quite some time in Myanmar and the Rohingyas have been persecuted since the end of the Second World War. This exodus may have been sudden, but this act was engineered and has been coming for a long time.

No one knows how many people have been killed. However, there are satellite images showing that the Myanmar government are concealing evidence by bulldozing mosques, mass-graves, schools, villages, building military bases on top of homes, and burning and dissolving bodies in acid. Everyone knows what is happening.  Everyone is telling us the same stories in the refugee camps.

There were also previous acts of violence and xenophobia which has culminated in full-fledged ethnic cleansing and genocidal atrocities. For years before August, 2017 there have been pogroms and practice-runs for killing Rohingya Muslims. In Myanmar, most people regard the Rohingyas as sub-human and a boy was telling me about how they were being marginalised at school because of their ethnic and religious background. At every single level, Rohingya men, women and children were targeted. This was systematic, this was pre-mediated on every single level.  They are geographically isolated, they are economically and politically excluded and are denied basic healthcare. This is a genocide. 


WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON THE BANGLADESHI GOVERNMENT’S PLAN TO REPATRIATE ROHINGYA REFUGEES? WHY IS REPATRIATION HAPPENING?


The chances of the Rohingya returning to Myanmar are very slim and this will cause a major diplomatic crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In terms of plans, they are everywhere. The Bangladesh doesn't know what to do. There are rumours of the Myanmar government building what would effectively be concentration camps in industrial areas of the country and put men, women and children in deplorable conditions where they would starve to death and/or suffer. 

Some are saying that the Bangladeshi government will follow a crazy plan. There is an island , Basanchar Island is being touted as a new home for the Rohingya Muslims in the Bay of Bengal. This island is near uninhabitable, floods every year, it is very difficult to grow crops there and would be placed under armed guard. It would be a very similar situation to the Manus and Nauru islands in Australia. Piracy and abuse would be rampant. It's a very dangerous place. How would they encourage all the Rohingya refugees to move there voluntarily? How are you going to remove a million people without bringing in the army? Repatriation to Myanmar is a bleak prospect and the island is a bleak prospect. The Rohingya are stateless. 

The refugee camps, despite lack of sanitation and awful conditions, are relatively safe. There are fears that the police and army could come in and there are rumours and fears of what the Myanmar government will do next. Nobody will go back. The other option is that the Rohingya refugees are integrated into Bangladeshi society. However this is difficult. If you marry a Rohingya, a Bangladeshi will lose there citizenship under a 2014 law which forbids Bangladeshi citizens and Rohingya refugees from marrying.  It would be easy for a Rohingya Muslim to assimilate into Bangladeshi society if they escaped the camps (there is little difference between language and religion). 


IN THE LONG-TERM, HOW DO YOU SEE THE ROHINGYA refugee CRISIS IN MYANMAR & BANGLADESH PLAYING OUT?


These are the two main concerns. Where are the Rohingya going to go now and are they going repatriated by force or voluntarily? It is a very difficult situation. There is little chance the Rohingya men, women, and children will return to Myanmar unless it is safe. The Director of Operations at Action Against Hunger told me that If they forcibly repatriate the refugees they will come back. 

There will have to be an agreement whereby the Rohingya Muslims are integrated into Bangladeshi society. There are still thousands crossing the borders, but there will not be a repeat of the August exodus. More people will arrive in Bangladesh, the stories do not get any better. Instead of slaughtering the Rohingya as we saw in August, the government may starve the rest out of the country. The chances of returning are very slim and I do believe that this will cause a major diplomatic crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the near-future, if not a regional crisis. 


Matthew C.K Williams