February 26th, 2020
'It began with an interview with a woman called Rashida'.
Through the eyes of a documentary maker and photographer
The Journey Rohingya women by Shafiur Rahman
NB: Shafiur's work will be exhibited in The Glass Tank during the Festival
I had no intention to document the Rohingya crisis. It all happened unexpectedly - without plans and without finance! I was in Cox’s Bazar in December of 2016 on a project unrelated to the Rohingya. I happened to be there on the 16th of December a national holiday in Bangladesh. The day is a remembrance of when, forty five years earlier, the painful liberation war of 1971 had ended. A genocide had unfolded the previous 9 months and finally the nightmare had come to an end for the Bangladeshis. Today, that day is known as “Victory Day”. I had nothing to do on that particular day, and so I decided to take a drive to see “what the fuss was about” with the Rohingya pouring in from Myanmar.
What I saw and what I heard deeply unsettled me.
Though I was born in Bangladesh, I live in Europe. I am familiar with the haunting TV news imagery of Syrian and other refugees, walking hundreds of miles, with their children in tow, along bleak roads and across borders of barbed-wire. I had been to The Jungle in Calais. I had myself filmed desperate refugees in Libyan prisons, and in Italian and Maltese detention camps. And yet in December of 2016, in the cold of Bangladesh’s winter, I was completely unprepared for what I saw and I was overwhelmed.
Naturally, as a documentary maker, I wanted to bear witness. The next month, in January 2017, I travelled to the camps again. And I have done so over two dozen times in the last 36 months! The January trip was even more shattering and transformative.
It began with an interview with a woman called Rashida. We were outside her hut of plastic sheeting and bamboo poles. It was a painful interview and in it she described the slaughter of her 12 year old daughter. She recounted how the body of the dead child had to be retrieved secretly at night and then buried quietly. Her eye was still black where one soldier had hit her. She looked distraught. Inside her hut, I met adolescent and young women who had all survived massacres and had been raped. They spoke to me on camera and they insisted they would speak without the veil.
From this group of women, I started to document the lives of six of them over a period of six months. And indeed I have remained connected with them over the last three years. During this time, all manner of personal disasters unfolded for these young women. One was trafficked. One was raped. One got married to an abusive husband. What was clear was that Bangladesh was a refuge only in name. For young refugee women, the camps are unsafe. I vividly remember the moment I asked some of them what they would like me to buy for them as a little token of thanks. I couldn’t believe the answer. They wanted a burqa. Without the burqa even going to the toilet was difficult for them.
I was beginning to despair about finding anything redemptive in my entire experience. I was beginning to think that these women will never get over the deaths of their loved ones and/or their own personal trauma. There was no therapy for them. No family support - because they were all dead. Nothing. Yet over time they showed a resilience and energy that surprised me. For the mothers in the group, I could see that the endurance and the will to survive perhaps came from their love for their children. For the unmarried young women, I can only conjecture that it came from healing together and helped in some small way by a sewing collective which promoted togetherness and gave them some hope.
When people started to learn about their suffering, they wanted to help. A sewing machine was purchased and delivered to one of the women and then another, and then several more. In time 80 women had sewing machines and they taught each other how to use them and started to make some clothes.
Their sewing provided income which gained them some amount of control over their lives. One young woman who was under pressure to marry someone not of her choosing was able to say no because she had become the breadwinner of the family.
Now something truly inspirational for anyone to witness is how these women are finding hope through creating clothes together. That these women could ever smile again after what they have lived through is difficult to believe but see for yourself.
web site: www.srdocs.net
Testimony Tailors: testimonytailors.com
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Throughout the semester members of the student committee will take turns to write a blog. It might be about organising the Festival, it might be about something else they are doing in or away from Brookes, it might be thoughts on our theme of home. Check in regularly to find out!