In the early months of 2006, award-winning photojournalist Greg Constantine made his first trips to the southern fringes of Bangladesh. He was there to document the Rohingya community – hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees from the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state – part of an unfinished, eight-year project entitled Nowhere People, a collection of photographs of displaced and stateless people from around the world: Kenya, the Ivory Coast, the Ukraine.
But it was the images of the Rohingya, who the UN have expressed are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, that were seared into his memory, and he returned to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh eight times.
The result of his time spent there is Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya, a poignant, black-and-white collection of photographs accompanied by moving interviews and narratives from his subjects.
For nearly half a century, Myanmar endured a stifling military dictatorship with one of the world’s worst human rights abuse records. Ethnic minorities were treated severely, and after a 1982 Citizenship Law passed, the Rohingya in Burma were denied the most basic of citizenship rights: banned from travelling outside of their towns, education, owning land and even restricted from marriage, compelling swathes of the community to flee into neighbouring states.
“The landscape for the Rohingya has shifted over the time I’ve been working on this, but for the worse. It’s an incredibly difficult story to keep documenting, incredibly sadder each year.
“Over the past few years it hasn’t necessarily been their statelessness which has taken me back there to photograph again and again, which was the original purpose. It has been what I have seen, that I think this is one of the most extreme cases of human rights abuses in the world, and until very recently it has been an incredibly under-reported story, that’s why I have continued,” he said.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a report condemning the Myanmar government’s treatment of the Rohingya people. It stated ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity had been committed, with more than 125,000 Rohingya displaced since violent attacks on the community in Rakhine state in May and October last year.
The report highlighted the October attacks, the deadliest of which, on October 23, killed 70 Rohingya – including 28 children- in Yan Thei were coordinated by government officials, Buddhist monks and an ethnic Rakhine nationalist party.
Last month, religious riots in the central Myanmar village of Meikhtila killed 43 people and left more than 12,000 Muslims displaced.
But Constantine said he was shocked and thought it was tragic that attention had only focused on the Rohingya since the bloody 2012 attacks.
He visited Rakhine state in the aftermath of the attacks, and recalled an “apartheid-type segregation.”
“I wanted to document the displacement, violence and the complete razing and destruction of these people’s property.”
There were moments the photographer felt unnerved in Bangladesh - he was chased out of refugee camps, followed, and questioned.
“I never felt physically in danger though This is a story governments don’t want people to know about. We’re at a point now where... Burma is, I guess you could say, opening up, and there becomes a point where the government cannot control what kind of information is coming out of the country like it could years ago.
“But I also met with many of the Rakhine leaders and, you know, there is this very real level of discrimination and racism from a lot of the political parties on the Rakhine side that I found shocking,” he said.
On another trip to northern Rakhine in February, Constantine remembers a young Rohingya man pining for his home, yearning to go back there “more than anything.”
“He [had] lived in a Muslim quarter in Sittwe. I had to tell him the whole area had nothing left... His eyes… He was shocked, he came to the realisation that there was nothing left for him to go home to. I think that’s really symbolic, not just of Rohingya in Rakhine or within Burma but also in Bangladesh, there is nothing for them to go home to.”
Constantine’s book has garnered critical acclaim and was named a 2012 Notable Photo Book of the Year by PDN Magazine in the US and formed part of exhibitions in London, Canberra and Brussels. On May 9, the photojournalist will present his book, which is now available at Monument Books, and more recent work on the Rohingya community in Myanmar facing race based violence, at Meta House on Sothearos Boulevard.
A family photograph
“I took this image in early 2009. It’s a photograph set on a bench in a makeshift teahouse in a refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. On this trip, I had heard about an entire village of Rohingya that had fled en masse . . . roughly 100 families . . . from the north of Rakhine state in Burma to Bangladesh one or two months prior. I had always been trying to find a big group of people leaving at one time – most of the people I had met had crossed over in small groups.
“This family all lived in one area of the makeshift [refugee] camp, they were a bit more developed and had a bit more [in their home in Rakhine state] than other Rohingyas I had met – businesses, homes. In talking with them, I heard why they all left at the same time, over three days, which led to conversations of policies of Nasaka [security forces in the north of Rakhine state]. One of these is to have really tight control over family networks, who lives where, through a registrar. They come and take photos – this is one of those. Nasaka monitor these and if there are any discrepancies, there will be huge consequences for that family. These people felt their lives were threatened and they fled. I go back to this community every time I go back. They still wear their longyis [a wrap around skirt worn by men and women around Burma] now, those things that identify them as people from Burma.”
Pregnant in Bangladesh
“I met Nur [above] in the summer of 2009. She lives in an area in southern Bangladesh in a makeshift camp with several other women. She left Burma because the Burmese authorities denied her and her partner the fundamental right to get married and have a family. Her family said to her: for you to have some kind of normal life, you are going to have to leave us and go to Bangladesh. That’s what she did. When I took that picture she was about six months pregnant, with their first child. If she had fallen pregnant in Burma and the authorities found out there would have been huge problems. Forced abortions are sadly very common for Rohingya women in northern Rakhine– they are so afraid that the authorities are going to find out they are pregnant and are driven by that desperate fear. I don’t want to say I see hope in this photo, but a part of me believes there is an expression in her face…it’s as if she is able to now breathe freely. I got this sense when I talked to her, she knew she still had lots of problems, eking out a living in terrible conditions, no medical care, no clean water, awful flooding, no clean water...but at least she has room to breathe now, if that makes sense.”
Backbone of the community
“These women come from the same village [as the family described on page seven]. All three refused to divulge the whereabouts of their husbands, who were wanted by the authorities and were in hiding, to Nasaka. They told me when the authorities came, it was just women and children in the village. Sixteen of these women – including the women in the photo - stood their ground, refusing to speak, and were marched into a shrimp pond where they were forced to stand up to their necks in water for eight hours. Mud was thrown at them, they were forced to look into the sun, they were verbally and physically abused. When Nasaka left, they were helped out by other women, and returned to find their homes locked up - that was the trigger for them to decide to leave for Bangladesh and become refugees. As with most societies in the world, the women are the backbone to communities.
“This was taken on my very first trip in 2006. I was walking around a particularly awful refugee camp, one of the worst I’ve seen, it doesn’t exist anymore. I ran into this man and found he had left [Rakhine state] in 1992 because he was severely beaten during forced labour, causing blindness in one eye. He had been an unrecognised refugee since then. Over the years I saw people with emotional and physical scars of abuse. Nasaka have been the main perpetrators of most of the human rights abuses against Rohingya, they are notorious – forced labour, arbitrary land seizure, physical abuse, extortion, heavy taxation. The denial to get married. This camp was on the banks of the Naf river and the highway, you couldn’t miss it, all of a sudden thousands of people would appear in these camps on the side of the road. So getting access in was easy. Getting access to the sites now is becoming more and more sensitive. I have another image of this camp, of an old lady and her grandson. I don’t know what happened to either one of them, [it was] just one of those moments, I’d spent several days in there and the picture presented itself. It is quite telling, I think. Her and the child’s expressions are of complete and total exhaustion. And what’s tragic, is most young kids that age never have that expression.
In the shadows
“You now have several generations of Rohingya kids who are living as unregistered refugees. These kids receive no education at all, are living in squalid, overcrowded conditions. Seven to ten family members living together in that small wooden hut – and it’s tiny, mach smaller than it looks as I used a wide lens. The light’s coming in and then there are the grid-like bars in the background - people can read into that photograph any way they want. It is one of my favourites; I’ve always loved it for a number of different reasons, as painful as it is to sometimes look at it. It was a very interesting and special time being there in that small hut. [It was] such a crappy, small space, to think seven to ten human beings could sleep in that – just shocking. The family were there, that’s the mother with the long, black hair on the left of the frame. I told the woman what I was doing and asked if I could come in and they agreed. I found my place in a small corner in their hut and stayed there for half an hour, I just lingered around until the photograph created itself. I was there long enough so that she started to go about her everyday activities, and they’re the situations where some of the best photographs are born, where you just blend into the shadows a bit. Those situations make really honest images, which is what I strive for.”
“These communities find ways to exist every day. What I’ve tried to do with this project is not just show the hardships…hopefully people go away after seeing these pictures having a much greater appreciation for the ability of the Rohingya community to find a way to exist day to day to day. This was taken in southern Bangladesh of men working in a salt field during 2006. They are exploited labourers, but they have to find a way to feed their families. That was why I took that photograph. It projects exploitation but at the same time you don’t particularly know where these guys are, and the cracked dirt underneath their feet is quite symbolic. They have, regardless of where they place their feet, no homes, no security. I’d met others: bonded labourers. What people don’t appreciate [is that] in southern Bangladesh the Rohingya play a crucial role in the economy of any number of different sectors- back-breaking jobs… fishing, construction, agriculture, salt fields, all huge industries in southern Bangladesh. Because they are beyond the protection of laws they are thrown into some really horrible situations. Trapped into debts, never able to pay it off, sucked into a cycle of exploitation.”
Mother and father
“This was taken in late 2009, right when the first few stories about the Rohingya boat people started to break, with the Thai authorities towing Rohingya boats back out to sea and cutting them loose to an uncertain fate. Instead of going to Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand, where many of these people were trying to get to or were even in hospitals, I decided to go back to Bangladesh to photograph and hear the stories of the people that had been left behind. This is a mother and father whose son had paid smugglers to get him on a boat from Bangladesh to Malaysia. Their son had been gone for six weeks already and they hadn’t heard from him. At that time a lot of people in his situation were going missing or hadn’t been heard from. Two years later, in 2012, I was back in Bangladesh, sitting in a makeshift teashop talking to some Rohingya men when all of a sudden that father walked up and I recognised him immediately, the same exact eyes. I couldn’t believe it and asked my translator if he remembered me and he did. I’d always wondered what the fate was of his son, so I asked him. He hadn’t. You can read into that any way you want, but for most Rohinya who make it to Malaysia, their family members somehow find out about it eventually.”