Months after coverage of their displacement has died down, thousands of refugees still face difficult conditions
The mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of oppressed Rohingya from Myanmar last year made international headlines as the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Six months later, the plight of the ethnic minority has largely fallen off the front pages, despite the fact that there is no end in sight for the nearly 690,000 people displaced by the crisis.
For decades, Rohingya have faced discrimination and persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. They began fleeing in August 2017, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base, and Myanmar's military responded with a violent crackdown. The Rohingya were forced to escape to neighbouring Bangladesh, and an eventual return to Myanmar is a distant hope for them.
Canadian photojournalist Renaud Philippe recently travelled to Bangladesh to document life in the Rohingya refugee camps. Amidst the hilly, sprawling and crowded camps, Mr. Philippe saw endless evidence of trauma against the long-oppressed minority. But he also witnessed the Rohingya experiencing new-found freedoms: the opportunity to play sports, listen to music, and practise their religion. These are their stories.
A young Buddhist in a military uniform arrived in Ms. Khatun’s village, where there were 360 families. All of them were arrested. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and the younger villagers were beaten up. Her 25-year-old brother and two of her nephews were shot dead in front of her. “He did not do anything to deserve that. Just because he was Rohingya.” The soldiers burned many people alive, including women and children. She said they burned their houses and belongings, setting everything on fire.
Ten soldiers came towards the villagers and ordered 25 young women, including Ms. Begum, to come with them. The soldiers would do “what they wanted with the girls.” She was raped, beaten and left for dead.
After the attack, Ms. Begum fled to Bangladesh. On the way she met another woman with her child, who joined her for the journey. At the border, they saw many other Rohingya waiting to cross and realized that what happened in their village wasn’t an isolated incident. Everyone has similar stories.
Mohammad recounted how, one day, soldiers ordered them to stay in their homes all day and night. A few days later, on Aug. 26, 2017, the soldiers returned and started firing at people. A bullet struck his pelvis, and he passed out. His brother-in-law carried him to the forest, where he remained unconscious. They hid for 12 days.
The Bangladeshi military and border security forces found them and called a Doctors Without Borders ambulance. Mohammad was brought to the hospital in Kutupalong. He was then transferred to another hospital in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where he was treated for a month.
Mohammad can no longer walk or control his bladder. He had no memory of what happened from when he was shot until he got to the border and was treated by Bangladeshi doctors. He only regained full consciousness after 10 days at Chittagong Hospital.
Ms. Khatoon arrived in the camp on Aug. 6, 2017, having seen her whole family – parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts – killed before her eyes in Myanmar.
Everyone fled when soldiers entered her village of 3,000 Rohingya residents. Survivors from her family hid in the forest without food for 11 days. The soldiers came back to round them up and fired into the crowd. Her 20 relatives died as they tried to run away. She managed to flee with her husband, two daughters and son.
Ms. Khatoon said her life is much better in the Bangladeshi refugee camp. She feels free in the camp, compared to life in Myanmar, where Rohingya are constantly under threat from the military.
Mr. Sobhi said the military approached while he was in the field. Others around him started to run away, but he didn’t see the soldiers. “They did not say anything, they just shot me from behind.”
Mr. Sobhi remained on the ground, left for dead with bullets in his leg. After the soldiers left, the others came back and took him to be treated by Rohingya medics, as it was too dangerous to go to a government hospital.
For two weeks, Mr. Sobhi received care from fellow Rohingya but did not see any improvement in his health. The pain remained and his whole leg became infected. His family paid two men to carry him across the border to Bangladesh. He spent two months in a Chittagong hospital, where his leg was amputated. After his operation, he returned to his village in Myanmar and stayed there for two months. When the soldiers returned again, he fled to Bangladesh.
Renaud Philippe is a photographer based in Québec City.