“You are surrounded by sadness. I could find beauty in nothing.”
The boats usually arrived at night; it was safer in the dark. Occasionally they came during the day when the situation seemed urgent enough to risk being fired on by border guards on the Myanmar side, or when a window for safe passage opened up. Most came to the southern tip of Shah Porir Dwip, an island at the point where the Naf River flows into the Bay of Bengal. The water can be rough, and when a boat with Rohingya refugees capsized there was no search party or rescue effort, just a matter of waiting for the bodies to be washed ashore.
The anonymity is tragic. Kevin Frayer first arrived in this part of Bangladesh in mid-September 2017, a few weeks into the crisis. The Rohingya were fleeing their homes in Myanmar, seeking safety across the river that is the border. By then, there were half a million men, women and children with no rights who spoke of being driven from their homes, victims of fire and rape.
The Rohingya are Muslim, while the population of Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist and refuses to accept them as citizens. Constant friction flared into a conflagration in August 2017 when a militant Rohingya group attacked police and military posts. The government responded with a scorched-earth campaign; satellite images show hundreds of Rohingya villages burned to the ground. For the United Nations, it is a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing, and Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been pilloried for defending the government.
Frayer’s work, compiled over two extended trips to Bangladesh, endeavors to show the crisis in both scale and intimacy, to reveal the suffering and exhaustion of the long, cruel, and chillingly silent journey of the Rohingya.
As boats reached the shore in Bangladesh, there was a scramble to get people out: babies were handed over carefully so as not to be dropped in the water, the elderly were lifted and carried, and others, so weak, exhausted and overwhelmed, just simply collapsed. What was striking was the silence. Sometimes there was sobbing, or a baby crying, but it was usually almost total silence.
Typically, new arrivals would sit on the beach and rest; there was no coordinated reception, but occasionally locals would come. The refugees walked on their own towards the village and madrasas where local charities gave them food, shelter and a little money. They would stay no more than one day, then board another boat to take them to Cox’s Bazar, an area once known for its tourist resorts, where, after walking along the road carrying whatever belongings they had, they reached the refugee camps. The makeshift camps are sprawling and miserable, and are now a permanent feature of the landscape.
They have grown at a staggering rate, by a few hundred or sometimes a few thousand a day. People live between bamboo poles and tarpaulin “walls,” and aid organizations have constructed latrines and dug wells for drinking water, but the sheer number of people makes it a challenge to maintain proper sanitation and stave off disease. The monsoon rains are heavy and frequent, soaking the ground, turning it into mud.
Bangladesh now has more than one million Rohingya refugees. Kevin Frayer depicts them with dignity and grace, and conveys the enormity of their plight.