This peculiar quest began seven months ago in New Delhi, India. Something about the image of a 15-year-old Rohingya girl, Rahima, in a New York Times article titled I am struggling to survive: For Rohingya women abuse continues in the camps resonated with me.
She seemed deep in thought or perhaps despair. Her face was covered by a black niqāb not in piety, but almost in embarrassment and shame. She was hiding the apple of her cheek which had tooth marks of a Burmese soldier who had bitten into her flesh. The soldiers had kept her captive in a jungle and raped her all the while smoking methamphetamine to sustain the torture. They left her to die, but she somehow made it to Bangladesh. No one else in her family was “lucky” to escape.
I had an urge to meet her and write about her, but not an article of her travails. God knows there are enough heart wrenching accounts of atrocities on Rohingyas. I wanted to create a story of hope, healing and reconciliation through the medium of dance. It felt important to tell her story, not because of its barbarism or tragedy, but because Rahima could represent the struggles and hopes of millions of refugees. It could humanise them in ways that only stories can.
Her poignant image landed me in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and I moved from shanty to shanty in search of Rahima.
The cost of authenticity
What business does a fiction writer, without any organisational accreditation, have in such a setting?
Every modern humanitarian crisis inevitably attracts anti-social elements such as radicals, traffickers and profiteers. Moreover, the upcoming national election in Bangladesh makes Rohingyas presence a powder keg. The active role of Bangladesh’s army, no less than elite Rapid Action Batallion, demonstrates high-level security concerns. The entry to the camps is restricted to known aid agencies and trusted local partners. Through repeated and random checks, any foreigner without accreditation is detained and questioned. I didn’t have any authorisation and well-wishers advised me against the visit.
Despite that I travelled from India to Bangladesh to experience the ground reality. I spend the next two days lobbying in Dhaka with senior Bangladeshi bureaucrats, academics and journalists for facilitating access. Their advice ranged from practical to ludicrous. I even thought of going to the camps on my own. An acquaintance connected me to a local who could help.
“The intelligence agencies are keeping a tab on me, but don’t worry I will get you inside,” said one local businessman boasting of his political connections and affinity towards Indians. I was deeply uncomfortable, but this was my only realistic option on the penultimate day of the planned visit.
A well-wisher staked her reputation and arranged a meeting with a senior and thoughtful aid agency executive. I made my case and promised to steer clear of every possible pitfall- political, social, security and economic.
My belief and sense of idealism was challenged by this two-day long ordeal. I emptied my bucket of goodwill and favours. It made me question the necessity of my trip. As a fiction writer, data collection is not central to my work. I can take creative liberties denied to researchers. A voice in my head disagreed with this assessment. Deep down I knew this field visit was worth every trouble and inconvenience. All great stories are rooted in authenticity. No cost is too high for this ideal. On Wednesday morning May 16, I reached Cox’s Bazar airport, in search of Rahima.
Rohingyas are always running
It’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the conditions at the camp. Rohingyas live in threadbare shanties kept together by no more than a few pieces of log and a tarpaulin. The stench of excreta in the open fields, summer heat, sweat and despair of more than half a million people with no sense of identity or legal standing lands a heavy blow on your conscience.
I saw young girls and old men take hurried steps up hilltops carrying 10 feet long logs on their shoulders. All with the intention of making their huts resilient to impending rain and flashfloods. Be it political persecution or ecological hazards, Rohingyas are always running.
I tried to help a young boy lift the logs up the first few stairs to his hilltop hut. This utter feeling of helplessness and grief made me shudder.
A torrential rainfall next morning made it difficult to continue the search. The path turned muddy and slippery with waste and soil flowing down the slopes. Mohseena, the translator, and I waded from house to house in search of Rahima. Rohingya women are confined indoors and married young to prevent Burmese soldiers from harassing them. This legacy of isolation continues in the camps and made the search even more difficult.
We moved from one community kitchen to another; one woman and child friendly centre to another to hear their stories. They covered their face, conscious of the presence of a man. They are not used to expressing themselves, but almost every story started and ended with extortion, loss of family members, rape or murder by the Burmese army.
An elderly woman recalled the loss of her husband. I asked the old lady about one happy memory at the camp and she responded: “Right after our marriage, I cooked a meal for him. He complained to me that it didn’t have enough salt. I think about those days and miss him.”
Another woman made an extravagant hand gesture and said, “Lohinyas” (machine guns) when I asked her why she left her three daughters behind in Burma. She was only able to find one daughter and son. So she came to Bangladesh with them and now she worries about their future.
Many Rahimas in the camps
A young mother sat inside her shanty putting a baby girl to sleep on a swing made of rickety wood. She married a young man in the camp and gave birth to her daughter 10 months ago. Her name was not Rahima, but she was a beautiful young woman with a shy smile. She was visibly struggling with baby care. I felt concerned about the thin piece of wood that held together the swing in which the baby was resting.
“What is it like being married, having a baby and living on your own?” I asked.
“It is overwhelming; I am trying to make sense of it,” she said. When we requested to take her picture, she first asked her husband for permission and then used a niqab to cover her head.
The five daughters of one Rohingya doctor peaked at me from a small hole in their one room shanty. The doctor told me how the girls missed home and kept asking: “Why are we staying her for so long? When are we going to go back?” He didn’t know how to respond.
I didn’t find Rahima in that melee, however, I came across many shy girls, young wives, hapless mothers and exhausted old women. This crisis has taken its toll on everyone. I discovered that there are many Rahimas in these camps – all of them with a tragic past, in desperate search of redemption and meaning.