Working for the last three decades, photographer Mahmud Rahman, who has also around 10 publications to his name, has earned renown for capturing snaps on the struggles of minority communities and people on the fringes. This year, the struggles of the Rohingya people of Myanmar have caught the attention of the world, as they continue to escape persecution in their native land and seek refuge in Bangladesh. Mahmud Rahman has witnessed their sufferings firsthand as he captured the exodus on his camera over the initial two months, when the situation was perhaps at its lowest point. He already has organized exhibitions highlighting the plight of the Rohingyas, and has bigger plans going down the line.
Personal Testimony of a photographer
“Their harrowing tales remind me of my family’s own past,” said Mahmud Rahman. “My father escaped persecution in Assam in 1967 and we ended up in Dhaka under a mango tree where a crow greeted me with its dropping. Our family – my parents and 5 children between the ages of 2 and 9 – survived the mighty Brahmaputra journey, the deceits on the road, and starvation in search of safety.”
There are more than 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world, according to the UN refugee agency, and the Rohingya crisis is the fastest growing in the world. Indeed, the Rohingya crisis is one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has ever seen. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) estimates that at least 7,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence that began last year. Gross human rights abuses including sexual violence, torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and razed villages, are also widely reported. The exodus started late August last year and Rahman travelled to Ukhiya on September 20 to understand the plight of a disenfranchised and displaced minority.
“I had my first encounter with Rohingya families landing at Shah Porir Island on Sept 25th, a month after they first began arriving in Bangladesh. This was the entry point while crossing over the doijaa
(sea) dividing Bangladesh and Myanmar. Some families told me they walked for days and reached the edge of the water only to encounter the boatmen charging them ‘an atrocious amount’ to carry them to safety but, with no possibility of turning back, they ‘had little choice’ but to pay the steep fees,” recalls Rahman.
There are more than 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world, according to the UN refugee agency, and the Rohingya crisis is the fastest growing in the world
He continues, “Watching Rohingya mothers dragging themselves with their many children (my mother had 5 children at that time), I was reminded of my family’s journey a few decades back. We were lucky that we all survived and found a home in Dhaka, the capital city. But, what the Rohingya suffered is incomparable to my family’s experience.”
The magnitude and brutality of the Rohingya’s violent expulsion stands out as amongst the worst cases of mass atrocities in modern history. UN officials have called it “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” and denounced the Myanmar military’s actions as “acts of genocide.” It is estimated that almost a million men, women, and children (more than 80% of the entire Rohingya population) from Myanmar have now found shelter in the camps in Teknaf and Ukhiya. While in far fewer numbers compared to the initial rush, Rohingya arrivals continue today.
Tales through photography
Mahmud Rahman is shocked at how the term ‘Rohingya’ is fast becoming a racial slur around the country, especially among the youth. Remarks such as Oi beta Roinga
is not uncommon today, but even when said playfully, it demeans the people who are undergoing a desperate struggle to save their lives and honour, according to the photographer.
During the two months following the initial couple of months documenting the massive influx, Rahman devoted himself to prepare for exhibitions. The first exhibition was held at the Bangkok Cultural Center, where he met over 4,000 visitors, explaining the sufferings of the Rohingya in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. As they went through the photos, visitors struggled to hold back their tears. Some even delayed or cancelled their vacation plans to Myanmar. The second exhibition was held at Dhaka University during a seminar.
Among countless others, Rahman’s photos tell the story of Noor Fatema, who lost her 2 year-old daughter of “fever and swollen throat”. The parents and the child had to face frequent rain during their journey to Bangladesh. It also tells the story of 10 year-old Mohammad Mia, who was suffering from a bullet wound, the other bullets killing his elder brother and father. The Rohingya have many stories to tell, of their delights and plights, but for now, their only objective is staying alive.
His main target group are the youth, aged below 30 years, among whom he aims to raise awareness about the intense suffering of the disaster-struck ethnic minority, enabling them to grow empathy for the group
An ambitious plan
Mahmud Rahman is planning of a country-wide photo exhibition tour exhibiting his photos and ensuring that the human side of the Rohingya’s do not get lost beneath the debris of jokes and slangs. His main target group are the youth, aged below 30 years, among whom he aims to raise awareness about the intense suffering of the disaster-struck ethnic minority, enabling them to grow empathy for the group. However, the financial and logistical requirements is immense. According to Rahman, each show outside Dhaka will cost between Tk50,000 to Tk80,000, depending on the logistical and publicity requirements. However, the more shows that can be held in one go, the more cost-effective the whole initiative will be. He has received assurances of help from a few friends and organisations , but it will take the contributions of more than a few to help make the event a success. The photographer will train an exhibition manager who will be a part of the tour, interacting with people and documenting the visitors’ reactions. There are volunteers who are ready to help. Rahman welcomes anyone who may want to sponsor the grand, ambitious, and yet necessary project.