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Their faces haunt me, they loom closer now

Anjana Sankar (Ground Zero)
Filed on September 26, 2017 | Last updated on September 26, 2017 at 09.30 pm

I saw a tiny glint of hope in the eyes of refugees when they spoke to me. Did I imagine it?


After an exhaustive five-day coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, I am all set to fly back to Abu Dhabi. As I wait at the airport, energy sapped, I am relieved that my life in the UAE is just a few hours away. The miseries, the suffering, the stench, the dirt and mud. No more.

But then, away from the pressure of deadlines and Facebook live, I recollect the faces I have left behind. Those haunting faces of despair. They loom even more closer now, their desperate voices echo in my mind.

The ten-year-old girl who had landed alone on the shores of Teknaf scared and helpless.

The 16-year old who broke down in front of me when she described how she was sexually assaulted by Myanmarese soldiers. The three siblings who were huddling under a tiny tarpaulin tent on the roadside with no one to fend for them. The 65-year old asthma patient who had just arrived at one of the make-shift settlements in Balukhali, his frail figure crumbling. The destitute woman who was wailing because her two-year-old child was sick and lay listless on her lap.

They were many. Each was a story for me. A colour copy. A mood piece. An exclusive! Like all other journalists on the ground, I too was busy moving from one camp to another looking for victims to talk to. The more gruesome their tales, the more professionally fruitful the day seemed. In a squalid overcrowded tent in Kutupalong, a 17-year-old wept uncontrollably. Her father had died two weeks ago. He was tortured and killed by the army. I zoomed in my camera, capturing her agony. I had my questions ready. She had her answers, too. The girl just let me do my job, without expecting anything in return.

A young girl, hardly seven, kept nudging me when I visited her camp in Lede. She wanted money. Her eyes were pleading, hoping I would have something to offer. Instead, I asked her whether she could speak to me. She did. Later, when I wanted to reach into my pocket and give her some money, my guide stopped me. I would get lynched by the mob if I did.

In 2015, I had seen similar heartrending sights in Nepal when I journeyed through the Himalayan country to cover the earthquake that had displaced thousands. I was shocked and shaken by the devastation of a natural calamity. But this was different. It was man made. Still, I saw a tiny glint of hope in the eyes of refugees when they spoke to me. Did I imagine it? Was it simply gratitude that someone had stopped by and asked about their plight? Their own people, the teeming masses, all in dire straits, are too consumed with their own plight to think about another. They have their own hunger and pain to take care of. They have grown immune to someone else's suffering. Their hope is that the rest of the word will come together to save the Rohingya.

Many seemed to believe that we, journalists, were their saviours. People thanked me. They offered me food at unregistered camps. They said they are grateful that we have come to Bangladesh. I understood then why they do not protest when countless journalists invade their privacy. As for me, I will soon go back to my air-conditioned car and my comfortable house. But for the hundreds I have met, every day is an endless fight for survival. There is no expiration date on their misery, on their homeless state.

While they continue to live in their squalid camps, waiting endlessly for aid, fighting disease and epidemics, I can only hope that some of my stories - written, filmed, photographed - the recorded evidence of their suffering will make a difference. Some good will come of it. Or will it?

- anjana@khaleejtimes.com





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