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Photographer Documenting Rohingya Crisis Describes The Images That Stayed With Him

Oct 21, 2017
Originally published on October 21, 2017 11:20 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The stories out of Bangladesh are horrific - hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar walking in flight from their homes without food, often assaulted by rape and torture; many have had to swim for their lives to find safety. Some of the most powerful images are now reaching around the world. You can see some of these pictures on our website taken by a British photographer and writer Tommy Trenchard, who spent time with refugees earlier this fall. He's now in Iraq and joins us by Skype from Erbil.

Mr. Trenchard, thanks so much for being with us.

TOMMY TRENCHARD: Thank you.

SIMON: Obviously, we're going to talk about some images that will be hard for people to hear about.

What are some of the images that stay with you, both the ones you captured and the ones you can't get out of your mind?

TRENCHARD: There are a lot of scenes that stay with you. One was of a woman I met in a hospital in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh who had been beaten by the Myanmar military. They had come to her home, set it on fire. And when she fled, they were waiting for her outside and slammed her in the ribs with a rifle butt, cracking several of them, I assume. I met her two weeks after this in her hospital bed. And she was in immense amounts of pain. She had a newborn baby in the camps. And she had no idea whether this baby was even still alive, whether it was feeding without her. There are so many stories of extreme cruelty.

SIMON: You have a photo that I can't get out of my mind of people clustering around a food distribution center in Bangladesh. The people are so famished, you're inevitably reminded of photos from concentration camps.

TRENCHARD: That photo was taken in the early stages of the crisis before the international aid agencies had had a chance to catch up. The speed at which this crisis escalated this was such that for a long time, there was very little infrastructure waiting when the refugees arrived. There was no organized food distribution system. And so in order to get enough food, the refugees would chase these food trucks mostly driven by Bangladeshi volunteers. And the scenes in the early stages of this crisis were ones of desperation.

SIMON: Do you feel that the world is turning away?

TRENCHARD: I don't feel that the world is turning away because the aid has really stepped up. And there are now a lot of people on the ground providing water and food and shelter, which was not the case at the beginning. I personally feel that perhaps more could be done to - more pressure could be put on the Myanmar government to try and stop this at the source in Rakhine State, where there is extreme hardship and violence going on against the Rohingya.

SIMON: I would despair of us thinking of the Rohingya just as refugees without knowing anything about their lives before we get to know them in your pictures and the scenes of suffering. What do they talk about in their old lives? What do they miss?

TRENCHARD: Most of the people I talked to were very conflicted about their former lives in Myanmar. It's important to remember that this crisis is not a new thing. They have been facing persecution for decades. And their lives were not easy even before this latest outbreak of violence that's driven them into Bangladesh. But however hard it was, people still miss some of the basic comforts of home. They miss their livestock. And people have lost everything. It's hard to put into words how much these people have lost.

SIMON: Tommy Trenchard, photojournalist joining us on Skype from Erbil, Iraq - thanks so much for being with us.

TRENCHARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.