Photos of the Rohingya Crisis: The World Needs to See Them

By Mohammad Noyeem, as told to Aisyah Llewellyn before he was resettled in the US

WARNING: Some photos within the article might be graphic and distressing.

My family and friends in Burma and Bangladesh always send me pictures of what’s happening there. Sometimes I recognise the people in the photographs – they are my old neighbours. I’m from Shilkali (Chinkali) in Rathedaung Township and the situation is horrific. Now it has been burned to the ground and no one lives there anymore. I faced genocide in Burma. Monks used to stop the Rohingya on the road so they couldn’t go to school. Then they made us do manual labour for no money or food. I left in 2015 to travel to Indonesia when I was 15 but until today there is no good news for the Rohingya. The situation is not moving on at all. That’s why I want the media to publish the pictures I have on my phone.

My family always pushes me to share our story with anyone who wants to listen

I’m one of seven siblings and now my father, mother, brothers and sisters are in Balukhali Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. My father told me it’s important to show the situation to the world. It’s dire and the Rohingya are the most persecuted people in the world. My family always pushes me to share our story with anyone who wants to listen.

Most of the pictures I have on my phone come from my village of Shilkali. But many people outside Burma don’t know the story of my village which is why it’s absolutely important that they are published. I want the world to see what they did to us there. My family were still in Shilkali on August 25, 2017 when the Burmese military, security forces and Rakhine people secretly planned to attack our village. At exactly one o’clock in the morning when people were sleeping in their homes, they surrounded the village and started firing rocket launchers directly into the houses. People were running away as fast as they could. But many people couldn’t get out of their homes in time because they were sleeping. They died instantly inside their houses. Not everyone who came outside survived because they were shot when they tried to run. Many old people and children died because they couldn’t run fast enough. Around 150 people died that day, mostly women, old people and children as they were shot or perished inside their burning homes.

My father told me that the military targeted old people like the village chiefs because they were the ones who spoke some English. They knew that if they escaped they would be able to tell the world about the situation in Shilkali so they killed them first because they had more education. But now we have pictures we can also show them to people even if we can’t explain everything to them if we don’t speak English well. They tried to take the phones of many people in the village and they killed people who took pictures because they want to lie about what happened there. So now if we have pictures we will give them to anyone who asks us. As many as you want.

The people in Shilkali who survived, and my family, ran into the nearby jungle and stayed there for five days without food or shelter. They didn’t have anything to eat so after five days they came back to the village to get burnt rice. They saw that around eighty people had been slaughtered in a field. They purposely targeted people to kill them by shooting at them directly. Around 800 homes were burned that same day. Many people in the jungle were injured with multiple bullet wounds but no medicine was available so they died without treatment. My family travelled twelve days across the mountains to escape the brutal killing until they reached the Bangladesh border. My father told me they ate leaves and drank rain water to stay alive. Whenever I look at the pictures he sent me I remember the horror in Shilkali. I can’t forget it.

Now I will speak to anyone. Whoever wants to hear about the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Burma. I will send them all the pictures I have

My family are uneducated and they can’t speak English. When I first arrived in Indonesia in 2015, I didn’t even know the English alphabet. But I was able to study English every day and I can describe things that others in Burma and Bangladesh can’t. My family and friends know this so they asked me to speak for them. Now I will speak to anyone. Whoever wants to hear about the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Burma. I will send them all the pictures I have.

The problem is that the Burmese government want to shut this down. They have denied citizenship for the Rohingya for years and now they are doing everything else. Their plan is to eliminate the Rohingya from Burma. They call us Bengali and say it’s not our country. Our villages have been surrounded and attacked for years. From 2012 we couldn’t go out or travel around Burma easily. So for a long time we couldn’t tell our story and no one knew what was happening to us. Now people have escaped and we can finally tell the world. And now we have pictures.

I’m safe in Indonesia and I’m being resettled in Portland in the United States where I can study. I feel happy and lucky about that and I hope that one day my family can come and join me in the United States. Because of my situation of course I feel it is my job to share information about my brothers and sisters in Burma with the world. I feel I have a great responsibility. As Rohingya we must describe our detailed history to everyone.

In my dreams I want to study journalism and politics. I used to want to be a doctor but now I want to be a journalist so that I can write articles about the Rohingya. It is not just about what’s happening today. This genocide has been going on for years but it hasn’t been stopped. The world doesn’t have any good information about the Rohingya and the Burmese government lie about us all the time and say that there is no ethnic cleansing in Burma. But the pictures we have don’t lie.

The pictures my family and friends have sent me from Shilkali are horrifically shocking but it’s right that people need to know about them. If there are no pictures of the suffering of the Rohingya then it’s a problem. It’s good that we have pictures that show what is happening. We don’t see journalists as bad for the Rohingya, instead we venerate them for trying to help. We will describe the situation in Burma to anyone who wants to know, even our friends who don’t work for the media so they know the true story.

There are not many ways to tell our story if we don’t speak to some media. I use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to write about what is happening in Burma and also put the pictures my family and friends send me. There is not much I can do. But many other Rohingya can’t speak English well so they can’t do this. I talk to journalists and told my story to UNHCR when they processed my refugee application for resettlement in the United States. When the American government spoke to me they asked me if I killed anyone in Burma or if I beat people. They didn’t understand the situation and asked me if it was about religion or ethnic cleansing. But I am not scared to answer those questions. This is about genocide.

If people look at the pictures then maybe someone will stop what is happening in Burma. Then it will become peaceful again and I can go back

It’s difficult to hear that people don’t want to look at pictures of the Rohingya because they are upset. I don’t understand why they don’t want to see them. People should look even if the pictures are horrific and dire. I hear stories about what is happening every day from my family but pictures are better than reading about it. People can understand more easily. I think news articles about the Rohingya are better if they also have pictures. I feel sad if people think that the pictures are not real. Now there are pictures all over the internet about the Rohingya so you can see we are not lying. If you type in ‘Rohingya Genocide’ on Google now there are so many pictures of the things that the Burmese military and Rakhine people did to us. So that’s a very good thing.

If people look at the pictures then maybe someone will stop what is happening in Burma. Then it will become peaceful again and I can go back.

Read Aisyah Llewellyn’s reflections on the complicated ethical and professional dilemmas surrounding this story.

Update (21 September 2018): Read Aisyah Llewellyh’s follow up story on Noyeen’s life in Portland, Oregon.

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