Graham Fink is a guitarist, singer and songwriter in the Los Angeles-based indie-rock band Milo Greene. This fall he visited Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to witness the Rohingya humanitarian and refugee crisis that’s being described as ethnic cleansing. Here, he shares his experience and some of the Rohingya’s very troubling and moving stories that were shared with him.
I’ve never been to a developing country. The last half of my life has been spent touring in rock bands and making records, most recently with my band Milo Greene. It feels like I’ve traveled the world for a decade, but most of that time has been spent in vans or green rooms – dingy motels or highway rest stops. Aside from the hour you get to spend onstage each night, tour can be fairly isolating from the outside world. I’ve tried to do some good, working at a camp for homeless youth, collecting unused band merchandise and donating it to shelters, and lately organizing political community action meetings and fundraisers, but it’s always been safe and easy. It’s always been close to home.
Earlier this year a friend of mine who works with the non-profit Every Mother Counts, which supports global maternal health initiatives, began telling me about The Hope Foundation and their collaborative efforts to address the current Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — and the almost 1 million refugees in Bangladesh. Through her, an opportunity arose to assist renowned photojournalist Josh Estey while he documented the healthcare being provided in the refugee camps and I jumped at it. Milo Greene had finished recording our new album and didn’t have any touring plans at the time, so I bought some mud boots and booked a flight, hoping I might help raise awareness and learn something by diving in.
In addition to assisting Josh, I was also there to collect stories from refugees and the volunteer doctors and midwives working around the clock to provide them healthcare. The first thing you notice in rural Bangladesh is that when you’re a tall white guy, people stare at you like you’re from Mars. There’s no hostility, it’s just pure curiosity. I think everyone should have to experience that in life — being ogled as the ‘other’ — especially tall white guys. And then you get to the camps. I knew I was in for heartbreak, but nothing can prepare you for the magnitude of a single sprawling camp housing 250,000 people. Nothing can prepare you for seeing a boy with his spine bent like a horseshoe after being thrown to the ground by a Myanmar soldier. Nothing can prepare you for hearing the stories first hand.
A bit about the crisis: As of October, almost 1 million Rohingya — a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar — had fled their homes around the country, escaping rape, murder and brutality at the hands of the Burmese military to take refuge in the small seafront city of Cox’s Bazar in the neighboring country of Bangladesh. These refugees have had to travel on foot for many days before reaching Bangladesh. Most of them are sick from mental and physical stress, starvation and injury, and a huge population of them are mothers, some of whom are pregnant or have very small children. It is being described as ethnic cleansing, but the government of Myanmar is denying the crisis, instead suggesting the Rohingya might be burning down their own villages and murdering their own communities. The families I met and the bullet wounds on their bodies suggest otherwise.
“We’re taking the brain,” our translator Rakib said. I looked at him, puzzled, and he asked the refugee we were interviewing to clarify. Mohammed Salim was 52, but he moved like he was 80, with a fragility in his limbs often reserved for much older men. “The Myanmar military came one day and rounded up all the educated people in the village. Someone asked what they were doing and a soldier said, ‘We’re taking the brain.’ Then they killed them and took some of the young girls away, too.”
Most Rohingya have little to no formal education, so it’s a significant distinction in their community. As for the young girls, Mohammed could only guess their fate, but several other refugees told us they witnessed young girls raped and murdered by groups of soldiers. He continued, “Three days later the military came back, surrounded the village and started shooting for four hours.” He told us his village in Maungdaw had a population of 5,000, but only 600 or so survived.
The Myanmar government insists it’s only going after terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, but it’s a hard narrative to buy into given the Rohingya rebellion’s small numbers and the military’s indiscriminating attacks. How could the population of an entire small village — innocent children among them — all be terrorists and terrorist sympathizers? Given the government’s violent history with the people, the claim is especially dubious.
One man we saw had a finger chopped off years ago, well before the current crisis, just for trying to leave his village. His friend told us that the Rohingya used to have citizenship cards, but in 1982 their validity was revoked. Then the military went from family to family, taking photographs so they could identify each member and later issued identity cards to show that they weren’t citizens. As the grandson of Jewish immigrants I find it hard not to draw comparisons to yellow stars. After violence broke out between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012, the Rohingya were forbidden to leave their own villages, so that they could be completely contained.
There are also financial reasons Myanmar would want to remove the Rohingya: There is a wealth of oil and gas resources buried beneath their land. Massacre is a quick way to eliminate inconvenient populations and to ensure that those who flee will never come back. Forgive my repetitive over-simplifications, but as an American, I can’t help but think of our own bloody origins.
Probably the most heartbreaking stories we heard were those of the children, both alive and dead. Mohammed Alam, an 18-year-old whose facial expression never changed from grim stoicism, was one of what he estimated to be 150 survivors from his village, Tula Toli, which used to have a population of 8,000. He showed me a picture of a man, a woman and five small children. “This is my uncle and his family. Besides him, they are all dead.”
Near the rice distribution at the entrance to one camp, we were drawn to an adorable little girl with a flower print umbrella in her right hand and her left arm hanging out of a sling. Ten-year-old Showkat Arar had broken her arm crawling to safety with her mother and little brother, while her father and older brother were executed. It took her five days to reach the camps before she received any medical attention.
Pregnant women are another particularly vulnerable group within the camps. We heard stories of a dozen or more babies born during the exodus, in forests or marshes near the border. Romida Begum, 25, was nine months pregnant with a 1-year-old baby in her arms. Tears cascaded slowly down her cheeks as she told us she didn’t know if her parents were alive or dead and that her nephew had been shot in the head before her village was destroyed. We waited outside the Hope Foundation’s maternal care tent while another 25-year-old, Amina Begum, gave birth to the clinic’s first baby, a boy. Just a month earlier, she arrived in Bangladesh after making the grueling trek from Myanmar while eight months pregnant.
The clinics are some of the only glimmers of relief in the camps, where the population has grown well beyond 700,000 with new arrivals every day. Children are immunized for hepatitis and treated for worms and abscesses. Doctors wrap bullet wounds sustained while families ran from the Myanmar military as their villages were set ablaze. Pregnant mothers are provided midwives and safe, clean spaces to receive treatment.
With the help of the Bangladesh army and several NGOs, the refugees have built an impressive infrastructure in the camps, with makeshift bamboo bridges above waterways and sandbag staircases ascending to endless rows of tents in the hills. In spite of everything, the children laughed and smiled, and the women managed to allow gentle grins as we showed them their photographic portraits.
On the flight home I typed up the notes I had taken in a small notebook that I usually use for lyrics. With time to sit and reflect, the horrors of the stories overwhelmed me in a way that I had somehow sidestepped amidst our frenetic pace in the camps. As a songwriter, my goal is to create music that makes people feel something, but I didn’t know how to translate the severity of this experience musically. How do you write a pop song about ethnic cleansing? How do you craft a chorus about children being murdered in cold blood?
Next year our album will come out and I’ll go back to my career in music, but I’ll continue to draw attention to this crisis. There is still no permanent solution, as Bangladesh cannot indefinitely house a million new residents who arrived basically all at once. And we can’t all go to the other side of the world to distribute rice and build huts. But we can realize that we are all connected and that we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. Dozens of NGOs on the ground providing health care, food and supplies to the Rohingya. Whether it’s donating, spreading the word or simply taking the time to learn about what’s going on — you can make a difference. These are the faces of genocide.