They stand among the ramshackle surroundings of their new lives, staring intently into the camera. For a handful of the estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled across the border from Myanmar to overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, this is a rare chance to tell their stories.
Dispassionately and with a matter-of-fact delivery at odds with their testimony, they recount what they say are the horrors that have led to their present situation.
One man, Mawaha Nurul Kamal, holds up a list of people from his village he says were killed by the Myanmar military, and how they died. It is a thick sheaf of pages. As the village imam, he says it was his responsibility to keep the record.
Another, Ammad Hossan, says that he witnessed the murder of one- and two-month-old infants.
Myanmar’s military has repeatedly denied that it has deliberately attacked unarmed Rohingya – despite a senior UN official saying the crisis has the “hallmarks” of genocide. Instead, the authorities insist that it only targets Rohingya militants, mostly from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group, that have launched deadly attacks on police posts.
“There is no evidence that Myanmar soldiers committed any human rights violations in their response to the ARSA terrorist attacks of 2017,” Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told CNN earlier in August.
“We have recently formed a new independent commission, which will investigate alleged rights abuses in Rakhine State including rape. We will treat any case in accordance with the rule of law.”
‘Who’s talking with them?’
For Karen Jungblut, Director of Global Initiatives at the Shoah Foundation, who has conducted several of the Rohingya interviews, it is important that Rohingya are given an opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words.
“Everybody’s talking about them, but who’s talking with them? How do we make sure that they are part of the conversation?” she says.
Around 100 interviews have so far been conducted, part of a sprawling initiative by the USC Shoah Foundation.
The project has previously recorded oral accounts from Holocaust survivors, as well as testimonies from the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide, the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the Armenian Genocide and the Guatemalan Genocide, and now its eye has turned to eastern Bangladesh on the one-year anniversary of this – the latest, and one of the largest – flights of humanity from persecution.
Among the tales of murder and rape are vignettes of the humiliations that many Rohingya say they have had to endure.
One man holds up registration photos he says were taken by the military – they rounded us up and put signs around our neck like cattle, he says. The families themselves were forced to pay a fee for the photograph, and fined if there were any new additions, or anyone missing. A fine of 15,000 kyat (around $10) was levied if there was a death in the family, he says.
Jamela Khatoun, a mother of 10, alleges that her children were denied an education because of their ethnicity and religion. Still, though, she says she yearns to return to the place that the Rohingya insist is their rightful homeland.
“We would be happy to if we were able to live in Myanmar as citizens.”
That refugees are able to tell their stories, in their own words, is of paramount importance, argues the foundation’s director, Stephen Smith.
“Testimonies provide personal insight that are not possible to appreciate from documents or new reporting. They allow the individual to explain what happened … providing agency at a time when their lives have been stripped of the right to their own personal independence,” he says.
The importance of audio-visual testimony is also essential to understanding the often subtle, insidious nature of genocide, which often only receives media coverage at the point of “its most vicious climax,” he says.
“Genocide and crimes against humanity often only appear in the public eye when it becomes lethal. However, the initial impact is rarely lethal. Genocide is a long slow process which results in mass murder.
“When collected en masse, testimonies provide a collective voice and enough historical data to support other sources in a quest for what happened.”
Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar
Record of the past
Oral testimonies are of particular significance when it comes to the Rohingya – with all official communications in Rakhine State historically recorded solely in Myanmar’s official language of Burmese, there is no standardized written form of the 200-year-old dialect that the Rohingya speak.
“Education and literacy rates are very low among Rohingya communities,” says Jungblut. “It’s an oral/verbal language. So oral history and verbal communication is extremely important.”
Conducting the interviews is challenging, she admits. When your job is to listen to hours of suffering, “it’s a difficult place to be in. You leave and you want to scream to the world, how can we be complacent about this?” she says.
But they are potentially valuable markers – a way for the witnesses to finally tell the story of their community’s oppression, in their own language.
Their details, Smith says, could hopefully provide scholars and investigators with source material to determine the nature and specificity of alleged wrongdoing.
“When the killing stops, genocide is not over. The traumatic impact of genocide continues on in the lives of those who survived.”