We’ve all scrolled past the heart-breaking photographs on our newsfeed – of the distressed ‘boat people’ clinging onto their children, others holding on to whatever little belongings they have left. We read the headlines; ‘X number of people displaced’ and ‘Y number of people dead’ in a mass exodus. Black and white textured portraits of people with empty eyes and emaciated bodies of ‘victims’ and refugees splashed across publications. “I don’t like to think about the Rohingyas people, it’s too depressing,” comments my friend when I show her one of Kevin Frayer’s photographs published in The Guardian. But there’s nothing really to think about here. The images are gut-wrenching, yes, but the more you look at them they almost look unreal. It’s easy to get put off by them, close your tab and never think about it again. As Suchitra Vijayan writes in her critique of the photo-series, “These images evoke the past, but not the urgency of the present or its politics...the pain is photographed in all its flamboyance, that it is almost kitsch in its sensibilities. The aesthetics here completely reduces the politics of Rohingya exodus to ‘captivating’ theatre.”
Other than feeling sympathetic and grateful as we jump straight to comparing our privilege, what can we really do? “What can I, or any other person here at the office really do to better and alleviate this humanitarian crisis?” I asked Nirvair Singh over the phone. Having recently returned to the country after visiting the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar, I thought the photographer and visual storyteller would be the most appropriate person for me to pose this question to. “Helping would be to create another kind of awareness and perspective than this rut of Islamophobia and propaganda we’ve been stuck in. We’ve complicated it all. The ‘crisis’ is so large scale and there is just so many levels of it there is little we can really do, personally, we often forget that there are real people, humans here. It’s a slow process. There has been so much building up of this over the years, so this will also have a lot of levels and cannot happen in a day.”
From a man who’d spent close to 40-45 days travelling between camps in Sittwe and Mae Sot, across the three nations, staying there, talking to the people, really becoming one of them himself, I subconsciously expected a simpler answer – but there is no easy solution. Because Nirvair didn’t go there on a photography assignment, nor a humanitarian mission of any kind; for him, this was a personal journey into the camp life of not just the Rohingya community but close to 23 IDPs (internally displaced people) of Myanmar.
In Sittwe, he had a man guiding him through gaining the required permissions and took him around, but that didn’t last very long. Nirvair befriended Ali, a Rohingya college student who would not only be the pilot of his journey to come but also a relationship unforeseen. “Ali was from the camp itself and a college student that was chucked out because Rohingyas are not allowed to study anymore,” he said. Ali put him in touch with his brother based in Bangkok who had moved there and started a small business. Together they helped Nirvair plan the next steps and put him on a bus to Mae Sot where other Rohingyas are based.
Described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingyas are an ethnic group, primarily Muslims that were largely based in Rakhine. “Rohingyas have been living in Arakan [now Rakhine] from time immemorial,” stated the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation. Myanmar was administered by the British as a part of India during which time there occurred migration (at times forced) of labourers between these regions. Since the entire nation was ruled as one, it was considered an internal migration as per the Human Rights Watch, yet following Myanmar’s independence the government declared it as “illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingya,” as per their report. The community is now rarely cited by the government as ‘Rohingya’, instead tagged as illegal Bengali immigrants for whom there is no land, resources, sympathy nor support in their nation. The Rohingya people, like Ali, had lives before this happened, and this is something we forget past prescribing them a tag of victims and refugees. They don’t have any choice but to adjust to life in a refugee camp and carry on.
“When I went to Thailand the camps looked like they were a village almost, I passed right by it thinking the same, only having to come back later. These people had been living here for quite a while – these were people from all the IDP communities. A variety of religions coming and staying together on the common ground that they were all refugees from Myanmar living in Thailand,” he explains.
“One of the first incidents that happened was the rape of a Burmese lady by 3-4 Muslim men if I’m not mistaken,” he says. “Then the propaganda spread through the news. Following that there was a truck of about 10 Muslim men driving together and a whole mob attacked and killed them. This is perhaps one of the first incidents that happened where the public went against these people. The fire started somewhere, and I think it could be the news, the media itself. This one incident is still giving them business till now in that regions – just one perspective.”
Nirvair never took any photographs when he started visiting the camps and its people – “I didn’t just want to land up and stick a camera in their face like many of the other photographers that come and go. I didn’t want them to see me as just another photographer” – but would spend his days sitting there with the residents, talking about who they are, their likes and dislike;, absorbing the place and the atmosphere, seeing what the people were doing and what was happening around him. The busiest places that he saw were the market space and the mosque. As he’d walk through the camps lanes he sees the life around him, people’s routines were getting food, eating, and then doing nothing, he explained, this was pretty much what they had to do now.
“But they do get together, they do laugh, and talk about every other guy that’s a new face over there, and this was what the camp feeling was for me. There were times when I interviewed people and they’d share incidents when they lost a beloved and they’d break down. After that they cheer up, they offer you coffee, they also laugh, they also cry. It’s a give and take, and at the end of the day, I’d show them their pictures that I’d taken. I tried to keep a very humanistic approach to what I was doing, kept them involved. I’d show them all the other pictures as well like, ‘Here look, there is this light, this is where a little girl is looking out, think of it as a metaphor for home and light comes in when there’s darkness around’. It’s basically how you’d teach and talk to a kid. That’s how I felt towards them and I feel it’s one way of helping them feel better, it’s as basic as talking, sharing and making them feel lighter.”
People that have gone through something this traumatic, been witness to bloodshed, violence and lost loved ones, yet still have the ability to pick themselves up are held in the highest esteem for me, personally. It couldn’t have been easy for Nirvair to walk away from them after almost a month’s time spent there. Of all the faces and so very many people that he met, Ali shines through as a friend that stayed with him and the beautiful relationship they built. “We’d travel together on a scooter, he’d take me places, to smugglers and hospitals, we’d chill, smoke and just talk. You just reach this kind of place with people that come unplanned into your life somehow and you just have to catch them,” Nirvair muses. Another face he can’t seem to forget is a young Rohingya girl. “She was pretty young,” he says. “I’d be sitting having coffee early morning with my friends and she would just come out, look at me and then run away, and I would have the same shyness because there, I’m just a person, not a photographer. I was like anyone else there after a point, I’m just a Rohingya there.”
“One day I was sitting in a camp and there were these two ladies combing my hair and making braids. I don’t know what happened in that moment, something happened and this was the first time that I was sitting at the door and they kept looking at me laughing and then I just broke down. I realised that this is how it feels perhaps for them all the time; sitting here, with people just looking at you cry. I was crying like a baby till my friend came made it better like ‘arrey chai le ke ao arrey dil par lag gaya isko!’” The moment struck a deep chord with him, taking him back to his own grandmother who came as a refugee from Pakistan during the time of partition. She would tell him stories about the time, the violence and bloodshed she along with her family had witnessed. “It’s a repetition of the same crisis that’s been happening for the longest time. So going back to my earlier point, that girl was definitely some i’ll remember,” he chuckles, moving away from his family’s dark past. “I really wanted to get a photograph of her, so I went to her house but I couldn’t just ask them ‘Hey! Can I take a picture of your young daughter?’ without coming off as creepy so I asked for a family photograph. When everyone was called out I saw that there were actually two girls, they were twins and I didn’t know which one was which!” he laughs.
When we talk about people that don’t have a voice of their own, nor access to any platform to make their opinions get heard it is a difficult task. Difficult because you need to draw a line between speaking for them and about them, more importantly, what you need, and what Nirvair and I agreed everyone could do a whole lot more of is sensitization. That is something he says he has definitely taken away from this entire experience. “If I were to look at a cat on the street before this experience and after, the same visual would be very different and much more sensitive now. I would look at the journey of anyone or person more closely...over here, in Myanmar and its surrounding places that house Rohingya what we need is the same. Going to schools and talking about these peoples and their lives realistically because it is at this level that discrimination starts – telling kids that Muslims are like this and that, and they’ll pretty much be moulded into holding that perspective growing up. This way the next generation would at least be freed of some of the negative mindsets that are so ingrained into their elders; I don’t think it’s really possible to change theirs now, it’s become so natural and too inborn.”
As our conversation draws to an end Nirvairs deep connection to the places and people that he met are clear. For him, theirs is not a story of victimhood but one of surviving in the face of persecution, continuing (however difficult it is) to hold their heads up and survive when everything they’ve known as their own – their homes, their possessions and land – are taken away; they are The Landless Kings. Nirvair concludes, “I definitely got just a little taste, a small experience of what it would have been like for my grandmother and her family, and how they travelled. She’d tell me her experiences during partition, sights of blood and loss around them along their travels. It gave me the understanding that like my family was also like this at one point in time like the Rohingya are now, and we’re lucky enough to be sitting here and looking at it from a distance.”
[These photographs have been published with permission from Nirvair Singh. They cannot be reproduced without explicit permission, and any such illegal use of these images is in violation of copyright terms.]
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