COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — More than 400,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have poured into Bangladesh since the latest wave of violence exploded in their nearby home of Myanmar last month.
The crisis has drawn global condemnation, with the United Nations and human rights groups calling on Myanmar to end what they describe as a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The Associated Press’ South Asia news director, Bernat Armangue, is part of an AP team in the refugee camps documenting the crisis. Armangue, a photographer who covered global stories from the Arab Spring to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, shares his thoughts on some of the images he has taken of the unfolding calamity:
A Bleak Procession
Shortly after we arrived, we started driving down to the area where we knew refugees were arriving in Bangladesh. There was a moment, looking across the rice fields, that I could suddenly see a line of people crossing, like a long snake moving. We stopped the car and started walking through muddy fields. There were so many people crossing the border. Families. A lot of parents. Fathers and mothers holding their children. Children carrying babies. All of them were covered in mud, and some were carrying these huge sticks attached to baskets and plastic bags, which held their belongings. The most shocking thing was to realize that in some of these plastic bags and baskets were not belongings, but elders and children who could not walk by themselves.
A Difficult Crossing
In those first days, so many people approached us. They asked questions, which I couldn’t understand and couldn’t answer. They had gone through hell, and you could see it. The skin of these babies was so cold, because they were wet and had crossed through creeks and rice fields and gotten rained on. But some of the babies, their skin was hot because they probably had fevers. Some people were barely covered, almost naked. I just remember that everyone was so exhausted. They could barely carry themselves.
Fires and Frustration
One day when we were driving near the border, we saw a bunch of fires burning on the Myanmar side. We stopped and I started taking pictures. The frustrating thing, as a journalist, is that you cannot cross (the border). We know something terrible is happening on the other side. We can see it. But we can’t go there. You feel so close, but there’s nothing you can do.
Scenes of Desperation
The main problem in the beginning was that so many people were arriving. No one knew where to go, or where to get food. Bangladeshi trucks were stopping on the side of the road, and you’d see waves of people running to get whatever they were distributing. At one of (these scenes), I saw people grabbing bags of puffed rice and rice was falling to the ground. One Rohingya man had stuffed a bag (of rice) under his tiny shirt, and he was trying to protect it like it was a treasure. It was an act of desperation.
Old, Sick and Too Weak
At one food distribution point, an old man with a beard walked toward me. He was super fragile and thin. He came to me searching for some kind of help, and I walked him inside the food distribution center. He received this 20-kilogram bag of rice, but he could not carry it. And then he started looking at us, like what do I do now? Somebody from the United Nations helped him sit down, and soon we had to leave to cover something else. But I kept asking myself, is someone going to help him? Is someone going to steal his food? He was old and weak and alone. It makes you feel helpless. And then you think about all the others you haven’t seen or spoken to.
What do People Need the Most?
In some parts of Cox’s Bazar, you just walk through abandoned clothes that are spread in the mud, all over. Some of it has been left behind because people are settling into new camps, and so they only took what they needed. Some left it because it was given by volunteers. But they are also leaving it behind because what these people need most is not clothes, but food, clean water and medication to stop fevers and diarrhea.
The Things They Carried
I took one image of a woman holding a photograph of her family. It had been taken by the government of Myanmar as part of a census operation. It was an official document, but for them it was a treasured family picture, a memoir of loved ones. What was striking is that one face was scratched out, and we don’t know why. The woman holding the photo said it was her daughter, and that she was the only member of her family who still had not crossed into Bangladesh. In that moment, I understood that this family that we thought was together was not. There are so many questions. … But there is a moment when you have to stop asking questions.
When Everything Changes
One day we were driving and suddenly saw this rickshaw passing by. We were told that a woman had stepped on an explosive that blew off her right leg. The rickshaw was stuck in the mud, and they had to pull it out. You see how people are in shock; you see how their life is just going. At such a time, every second counts. It was just another thing the people fleeing had to go through. You’re almost there, almost to the border, and suddenly at the last minute, everything changes. It just adds to the feeling that things are out of control.
They Are Going Through Hell
We visited a hospital in Cox’s Bazar where a boy was lying on a broken mattress, on the floor. His father told us he had been shot in the chest by (Myanmar) soldiers when they were fleeing their village. When they were running away, they lost track of the rest of the family, including the mother. And so this was what this father was left with. You could see from the boy’s eyes that he was almost gone. We don’t know what happened to him. We don’t know if they found the mother. To me it just showed how unknown the future is for these people. That is what the Rohingya population is facing right now. They are going through hell.
How Does it Compare to Other Conflicts or Crises You Have Covered?
It’s massive. It’s just massive. Its 400,000 people — 400,000 walking dead. We don’t know how many people have died in Myanmar … but we see the people who have survived and nobody knows for sure what will happen to them. Things like the earthquake in Nepal (in 2015), that was another huge tragedy. But that was a natural disaster … and there is not much you can do about it. But this, this is politics. This was the result of human action and human decisions.