Some years back, a friend of mine won a literary prize. We celebrated.
Some days back, my colleagues and I were told we had won the Editor & Publisher Eppy Award for our news feature on life in the Rohingya camps – sharing the top global prize with CNN’s coverage of illegal executions in El Salvador. We are still not quite sure how to react.
As journalists, this is a major validation of our work. But as our work involved writing about a million people displaced from their homes, about widows and rape victims now queueing up for rations and umbrellas, and about children who head households because their parents have been killed, it seems odd to celebrate.
To donate and contribute to Rohingya refugees and Rohingya students, please go to www.allmercy.org
On Aug 25, I received a WhatsApp message from Rohingya activist Mohd Eliyas, who sent me video clips of thousands of displaced men, fists raised, observing the first anniversary of the day death and massacre visited them in their villages in Myanmar. Since then, he has kept me informed of protests being organised against the barren hillocks of the camps, speeches demanding citizenship and, with a personal burst of pride, sent a photo of his child on a rented horse on a beach.
Any moment of joy is worth cherishing. But in the months since we returned from the camps at Cox’s Bazar, little appears to have changed.
Perhaps the more sensational numbers that have defined this crisis in the eyes of the world have been given an update. The latest report by a consortium of international researchers says that 25,000 Rohingya were murdered in late August last year – not 10,000 as estimated earlier. It says that 19,000 women were raped. And from these numbers, the world tries to gauge the scale of the tragedy.
The numbers may be accurate or inflated. Our focus was very different.
We wanted to know about the lives – the half-lives, as we later learnt – of the survivors in the Kutupalong mega camp in Cox’s Bazar. And we wanted their stories unfiltered.
To understand the history of the conflict and the situation on the ground before we left, we spoke to Mr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, former Bangladeshi foreign minister who is now attached to the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. We also called five international journalists who had visited the camps and spoke to embassy and aid agency officials. Each told us that language would be a problem.
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