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I'm ashamed to be from a country whose leader spews hate towards refugees: Allison Joyce

Sehar Qazi | Updated on: 3 February 2017, 14:44 IST

Allison Joyce is an American photojournalist who got her start covering Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. However, since then, the Boston-born photojournalist has spent the bulk of her time travelling the world to cover social issues and news.

One of her more recent projects took her to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. These camps are home to thousands of Rohingya refugees who languish in squalor, having been driven from their homes in Myanmar due to communal violence.

While she originally intended on a more general story, documenting the suffering of the Rohingyas in these camps, the tales of brutality against the Rohingya women made her alter her plans. The result was a photo series chronicling Rohingya women who'd been raped by Myanmar state forces.

Joyce's simple and sensitive treatment of the photos, coupled with the women's brutal testimonies resulted in a story that lingers in the memory. A distressing reminder of the atrocities being committed in the world at large.

Speaking to Catch, Joyce talked about how the story came about, her experiences with the refugees and the ongoing Rohingya crisis. These are the edited excerpts:

SQ: Did you go to the Rohingya camps with this particular angle in mind, or are these portraits of rape survivors an angle that started to emerge when you were doing a more general photo story? Is rape a common narrative among female Rohingya refugees?

AJ: I went to cover the story as a general hard news piece, taking photos of the crowded camps and new arrivals. I was so shocked though as I talked to the refugees, almost all of them mentioned the Myanmar military raping women and young girls in their villages.

One of the camp leaders in Balu Kali camp directed me over to a makeshift house, one afternoon, with refugees that had just arrived a day before and he, very loudly, in front of a crowd of people, said, "They were raped! Four of the women were raped!" It happened to so many women in many many villages, it's public knowledge.

Jamalida Begum is seen in her makeshift house that she shares with 6 other refugees on January 20, 2017 in Kutalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Jamalida Begum came to Bangladesh 15 days ago from Hadgudgapara village in Myanmar. 2 months ago the military came to her village, killed her husband and burned her home to the ground with everything she owned in it. The next morning the military surrounded her village. The next morning the military surrounded her village. 'They dragged me and the other women to the yard and beat us. I was screaming and begging Allah to save me. The military screamed 'Where is your Allah now? He's not saving you!' 3 men dragged her to the bush, pointed a gun at her and said 'If you resist, I'll shoot you' then took turns raping her until she lost consciousness. A few weeks after the rape, a group of foreign journalists came to her village and interviewed Jamalida and other rape victims. That night the military came to her village and cut the throat of the man who helped translate for the journalists. The soldiers went door to door with Jamalida's photo looking for her, and neighbors ran to warn her. She ran away and for 5 days she took shelter in the bush and in different houses until she fled to Bangladesh. She says that every night she has nightmares about the Myanmar military. 'I have flashbacks when I hear loud noises. I've heard that the military has made big posters of my photo and they're still going door to door looking for me. I'll never be able to go back. If I go back, they'll kill me. I will never go back. Sometimes I'm scared that they'll find me here.' Over 65,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since October last year, many speaking of extrajudicial killings, rape and arson allegedly perpetrated by the Myanmar military. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

SQ: How hard was it to find these women and how long did this series take? Did you face any obstacles to doing the piece? How were you able to get them to open up to you and share their stories?

AJ: I spent two days covering six survivors. I was lucky to work with a fantastic female fixer who knew of a few women who were open to telling their stories. There weren't many obstacles.

The Myanmar military severely limits the access of humanitarian groups and independent journalists into the conflict areas, so, in fact, many of the survivors seemed eager to share their stories.

SQ: Your treatment of the photos is very simple, there is no visible grittiness in any of them. Was this a conscious decision and why?

AJ: These refugees have been through horrors that most of us can't even conceive of; seeing their loved ones tortured before their eyes, fleeing from village to bush to village, hiding in ponds and rivers for days at a time, surviving by eating leaves. The only conscious decision I made is that I wanted to portray them with dignity.

Nurjahan poses for a photo in her makeshift house that she shares with 6 other refugees on January 20, 2017 in Kutalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Nurjahan, who came to Bangladesh 15 days ago, is from Nerebil village in Myanmar. She says her life in the village was happy until 2 months ago when the military attacked her village. 5 soldiers came to her house and tied her eyes with a scarf. 2 soldiers took turns raping her in front of her daughter., After 15 minutes she lost consciousness, and when she woke up they were gone and her young daughter was crying beside her. A few days later her husband was killed by the military, and she got word that the military had murdered a man who worked as a translator for foreign journalists interviewing rape survivors, and that they were looking for one of the survivors who dared to speak on camera. She decided it was time to flee to Bangladesh. She hid in another village for 3 days until she made her way to the Naf river which separates Myanmar from Bangladesh, and paid a boat to take her across, where she made her way to Kutalapalong refugee camp. 'I lived in Burma for 31 years but I never saw this sort of thing before. The past three months things have become horrible. I still talk to my family in Myanmar all the time. They told me that the military came again today and set my uncle's beard on fire.' she says 'When I close my eyes at night to go to sleep I become terrified that the military will come again. I haven't slept well since I came here.' (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

SQ: The Myanmar government often denies reports of violence against the Rohingyas. Based on your interactions with the refugees, how dire would you say the situation is? What other horrors are they subjected to?

AJ: The situation is incredibly dire.There were new refugees fleeing into Bangladesh every single day that I was working in the camps. They had chilling stories to tell.

More than one described the Myanmar military attacking their villages and going into the midwife's home and shooting mothers with their newborn babies on sight, raping 8-year-old girls in front of their mothers, shooting and killing men at random and cutting their bodies into 4 pieces in front of the whole village.

It isn't stopping or slowing down, but this is nothing new. The Rohingya have been fleeing into Bangladesh for years and years. These new refugees are fleeing to camps like Kutapalong and moving into houses next to second generation Rohingya. These atrocities have been happening for a long time and the world sits by and watches. History will rightly judge us harshly for allowing this to happen unabated.

Nojiba poses for a photo in her makeshift house that she shares with 14 other refugees on January 20, 2017 in Kutalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Nojiba came to Bangladesh 2 months ago from Delpara village in Myanmar. She describes a happy life living in Myanmar until 3 months ago when the military suddenly started coming to her village, beating, killing and harassing people. 'I felt scared, I prayed and read the Koran, hoping to feel better. I lived in a constant state of fear.' Nojiba says 'The day before I fled to Bangladesh the military came again to our village. They found the place in the bush where I was hiding with other women and girls. They took the young girls into nearby houses and beat and raped them. I could hear their screams. One soldier put a gun to my head and said 'Let's go'. I started screaming and fighting back and 3 men dragged me to a room in a nearby house. They held a gun to my head and two soldiers took turns raping me for an hour.' The next day she and her family decided it was time to flee to Bangladesh. They had to walk all day to the Naf river that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh. 'My whole body hurt. I thought that I couldn't keep walking, I felt weak.' They paid a boatman to help them cross the river and they finally made it to Kutapalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. 'We don't have enough to eat here, but at least we can sleep well and it's safe enough that my children can leave the house.' She has been getting mental health counselling from Doctors Without Border and says that 'I want to move past my sorrows. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

SQ: Tell us more about these refugee camps...

AJ: There are two kinds of camps, registered and unregistered. There are about 30,000 registered refugees in Bangladesh, and they receive support and aid from the government of Bangladesh and UNHCR. Their houses are well made and their streets are wide and tidy. They haves NGO-supported schools for their children.

Unregistered refugees, it's estimated that there are 5,00,000 in Bangladesh, receive nothing and their precarious status puts them at risk. They seldom approach the police to report crimes or visit hospitals, fearing that they will be discovered, arrested, and possibly returned. Their status leaves them with little options to earn a living, other than fishing, rickshaw pulling, or working as day labourers in fields, where they are often paid much less than their Bangladeshi co-workers.

Their camps are densely packed and incredibly crowded, with as many as 14 people sharing one makeshift house. There are many NGOs working hard to provide them with as much as they can, but the conditions and crowding leave them at risk of disease.

SQ: Is there some set up within the camps to provide counselling and support to these women?

AJ: Action contre la Faim and MSF, and possibly other NGOs, provide group as well as one on one counselling to women and children.

Jamalida Begum is seen in her makeshift house that she shares with 6 other refugees on January 20, 2017 in Kutalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Jamalida Begum came to Bangladesh 15 days ago from Hadgudgapara village in Myanmar. 2 months ago the military came to her village, killed her husband and burned her home to the ground with everything she owned in it. The next morning the military surrounded her village. 'They dragged me and the other women to the yard and beat us. I was screaming and begging Allah to save me. The military screamed 'Where is your Allah now? He's not saving you!' 3 men dragged her to the bush, pointed a gun at her and said 'If you resist, I'll shoot you' then took turns raping her until she lost consciousness. A few weeks after the rape, a group of foreign journalists came to her village and interviewed Jamalida and other rape victims. That night the military came to her village and cut the throat of the man who helped translate for the journalists. The soldiers went door to door with Jamalida's photo looking for her, and neighbors ran to warn her. She ran away and for 5 days she took shelter in the bush and in different houses until she fled to Bangladesh. She says that every night she has nightmares about the Myanmar military. 'I have flashbacks when I hear loud noises. I've heard that the military has made big posters of my photo and they're still going door to door looking for me. I'll never be able to go back. If I go back, they'll kill me. I will never go back. Sometimes I'm scared that they'll find me here.' (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

SQ: Do you feel this story has changed you in any way?

AJ: I wouldn't say that the story changed me in any way.But, as an American, now was an especially difficult time to be working on this issue. Every day we have to hear this disgusting, bigoted, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and now new policy, from our president.

I wonder how any of these refugees that I photographed could possibly be any threat to people in my country? They had land, homes, jobs, cattle, family, love, and lives in their country before they were uprooted, and many of them told me all they wanted was safety and security in Myanmar so that they could go back.

No one chooses to flee across a river or dangerous borders from their homeland unless they are forced to. One woman told me "All I want is food, clothes, and peace and I will be happy." Deep down we are all the same and I'm so ashamed to be from a country whose leader is spewing hate towards these people.

Allison Joyce (Allison Joyce/Facebook)
First published: 3 February 2017, 14:44 IST
 
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