There’s a pull, almost a compulsion, to seek out the horrors when going to the locus of mass atrocities or genocide—especially when your purpose is to bear witness. Perhaps it’s the shock value or newsworthiness these tales bring; perhaps it’s the deep need to see for yourself or somehow corroborate the tidbits of inhumanity you piece together from afar.
I personally felt this obligation—to uncover the underbelly of genocide and its aftershocks—when I ventured in March to the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. I was there on behalf of Jewish World Watch (JWW), where I serve as director of advocacy and grant-making, and my reasons for traveling were threefold: to assess the situation on the ground, for the purposes of informing our advocacy work and educating JWW’s constituents; to visit JWW’s existing projects in the region, including the construction of 50 monsoon-resistant shelters; and to identify new prospective partner organizations with which we could expand our on-the-ground presence.
I anticipated that informal education, vocational and support programming for women and community-building initiatives would likely be the focus of our engagement in the camps moving forward. But once I actually reached the refugee camps, I was surprised by how drastically the pendulum inside of me had swung.
That visit squeezed out the most vivid, abominable details. The investigative instincts of my background as a human rights attorney took a back seat in Cox’s Bazar, particularly when an existing partner complained that many outside entities visiting the camps had re-traumatized these women by urging them to tell and retell the dark barbarism to which they had been subjected at the hands of genocidal henchmen. What I quickly realized is that even with the large-scale murder, rape, pillage and destruction aside, the current exile and plight of the Rohingya is enough in and of itself to warrant international concern and action.
The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority group in Myanmar—a majority Buddhist nation completely controlled by a military and security apparatus known as the Tatmadaw—have been persecuted as dangerous, illegal immigrant interlopers for decades, despite having lived in Rakhine state for generations. Even prior to the August 2017 crackdown that unleashed unfathomable levels of evil against their community, and triggered a mass exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingya had no legal citizenship status. They were, and remain, stateless, homeless and status-less. They are now in a foreign land that doesn’t want them, pining to return to a homeland where they would face near-certain annihilation.
Even while living in this intractable state of limbo, the Rohingya women, in particular, remain warriors—upholding their families and communities inside the camps, striving with every molecule of their beings to move their people from merely surviving to thriving.
Obtaining and preserving testimonies remains important work—for purposes of memory, understanding, education and countering impunity—but JWW’s role in the humanitarian aid space goes beyond that. The cornerstone of our work with communities impacted by mass atrocities or genocide is to identify strategic opportunities to support them in moving forward—empowering potential local change-makers with skills and tools so that the refugees themselves may reclaim ownership over their lives and futures. Another part of what we do is “guerilla humanitarianism,” bringing lifesaving aid to last mile areas otherwise unreachable by traditional aid mechanisms.
I must admit to being somewhat flattened at first by the heaviness of the Rohingya predicament, with no truly feasible resolution in sight. Challenges continue to manifest: Invisible barriers including trafficking, child marriage, the threat of relocation to a disappearing and inclement island in the middle of the sea and a remorseless homeland still at war with otherness and doing nothing to facilitate safe, voluntary and dignified return all make the existential crisis of how to soldier on that much more difficult.
Signs of trauma cling to my sisters. I think of the young woman with perpetually wet eyes, whose husband was slain right in front of her, straining to hear a radio program while isolating herself in a room, separate from the group of friends finishing each other’s sentences while their babies crawl across their laps. I remember the lone baby girl, sitting, sobbing, in the middle of a huge puddle of red mud while the rain poured down on her, no family in sight. I saw little girls prying open a piece of fence to catch a glimpse of a school lesson they cannot attend.
These images are permanently emblazoned on my memory. They are very much real, but I cannot stress enough that they do not represent the full picture.
Shamila, for one, won’t let these vicissitudes of daily life in the camps get her down. She ventures out every day to collect vox pop—the voice of the people—for radio programs she helps produce on issues ranging from chicken pox to refugee registration to gender-based violence, which are then broadcast to listening groups throughout the sprawling camps. Despite having her education cut short by the Tatmadaw’s genocidal rampage, she hones her craft as a citizen journalist and brings the power of information to countless refugees. Her broadcasts unite groups of women every week in small, dark huts—building communities of support. The information she’s providing quite literally saves lives.
“They talk of human rights,” Shamila told me while we sat close to each other in her family’s makeshift shelter, the rain beating down on the roof fashioned of plastic sheeting and cardboard. “We are human—but where are our rights?”
There’s also the little girl in Grade 3 with scars all over her neck, the origin of which I shall never know but can only imagine, reaching her arm up higher than anyone else in class, her eyes flickering with the right answer, her soul filled with the mere opportunity to learn against all odds. She had bright lipstick on, and her eyes were lined in kohl, a means of self-expression which some of the youngest girls have adopted in the camps. Her classroom is papered with colorful drawings of the kind of life Rohingya children deserve—lush green palm trees, bright cottages, smiling families.
Yasmin didn’t hesitate for a second, in the middle of a women’s sewing training center, to ardently demand better lighting, a fan to ward off the enveloping heat, a toilet on the premises and equal pay for trainees and teachers alike. Despite finally having somewhere to go and something to do—the vocational center, where she creates uniforms for schoolchildren in an affiliated informal education program—Yasmin wants more.
“A neighbor found me and practically carried me over the border,” Yasmin tells me. “My back still hurts terribly.” After losing her father at the hands of the Tatmadaw and nearly dying herself, she doesn’t think she should obediently accept just anything offered to her—which is what many women in the camps feel obligated to do, either because of cultural expectations or mere desperation.
Yasmin doesn’t shyly titter and express blanket gratitude, although she is by no means ungrateful. She is fierce. She is honest. She is unwilling to acquiesce. She believes she deserves more. And she’s absolutely right. They all do.
There is boundless, seemingly insurmountable need in these camps—stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see. There is listlessness and bleakness and no good answer to what will happen to these people. But I also witnessed remarkable drive and resilience. Fearless women who speak out against the indignity and give voice to their community rather than accept a status quo that means no home, no identity, no opportunity—indefinitely.
What they want is so simple, it shocks the conscience to comprehend how hard their needs are to obtain: something to do with their time; potable water; education for themselves and their children; a way to make just enough to support their families’ basic needs; a plan for going home or joining Bangladeshi society (for most, either option will do); acknowledgement by the international community of what they’ve been through and the perpetual state of not-knowing and statelessness that currently defines their plight; and justice for all they’ve been through, all they’ve lost. Justice so that this doesn’t continue happening to countless other women in persecuted minority groups throughout Myanmar—including the Kachin, the Karen and the Shan.
The most vulnerable absolutely deserve more attention and specifically crafted interventions, but the truth is that every woman I encountered during my week in the camps is a fighter. Each one was a hero. The mere act of having to flee your birthplace purely because of who you are is horrific and traumatic, and that’s something each and every one of the Rohingya women have had to cope with. They are all survivors.
I connected to these women not through their trauma, but through our shared humanity—through their willingness to let me into their hearts and share their needs. These are the voices we should bring home. Their boundlessness and unsinkability is why I and JWW continue to fight each day to stop the scourge of genocide. They are my heroes and my friends—and with JWW as the vehicle, we will tirelessly strive to help their needs be met and their dreams realized.
Join JWW in the fight on behalf of the Rohingya women, and all survivors of genocide and mass atrocities, at jww.org.