Bericht von den Dreharbeiten in Bangladesh
Roland Wehap spent three weeks in Bangladesh, together with Manuela Hinterberger, documenting the fate of the Rohingya. Their images make up the film BURMA DISPLACED, a film about Burmese refugees. It is due for completion mid-2010.
With hindsight, you could say that Bangladesh doesn’t really rate as one of the “Top 5” tourist destinations in the world. But it is also true that we never really felt lonely there, something which is perhaps no surprise given the country’s population of around 1,000 people per square kilometer. After three weeks spent with people who, according to one study, are ‘the happiest people in the world’, we were forced to rethink our definition of ‘happiness’. At the same time, the fact that people are escaping to this very country, because it’s still a lot worse elsewhere, can border on the incomprehensible.
Around a little more than a year ago, we were traveling in Northern Thailand along the Burmese border, shooting images of Burmese refugees for our new film: “BURMESE DREAMS”. We visited legal and illegal refugee camps on both sides of the border, had endless conversations and listened to unbelievable stories of torture, war and human rights violations in Burma. The atmosphere was not good, but not hopeless. The people there still have dreams which they live and which keep them alive. They find support in Thailand from many NGOs, for instance, the Austrian Julia Maierhofer with her organization CHILD’S SMILE or the Southern Tyrolean, Benno Roeggla with HELP WITHOUT FRONTIERS, whose slogan ‘A Ray of Hope’ is symptomatic of the situation there: light at the end of the tunnel.
And now to Bangladesh. 460 US dollars GDP sounds abstract, 2 Euros for one day’s hard labour are already more concrete. In three weeks, we saw a lot of building sites in Bangladesh, but not one single digger. And why should there be one?
Manual labour is cheap here and there are plenty of people. Even Cox’s Bazar, in the far south of Bangladesh, near to the Burmese border, is booming. Huge complexes are springing up, destined to become a future kind of “Costa del Sol” for the Bangladeshi middle and upper classes. On one large building site, countless workers are digging about in the ground, equipped with hoes and baskets.
They are hired on the streets every morning at a crossroads in the middle of Cox’s Bazar. When we ask them where they come from, they answer elusively, “not from here” and we know they mean Burma.
On both sides of the border, a policy of ethnic cleansing has, for decades, been taking place. Whilst the Karen and Shan population on the Thai border receive a small amount of international publicity, it is very different here. One exiled Rohingya politician speaks of the “Silent Killing Fields”, since no one takes any notice of what is going on here. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Rakhaing State, a province in the north west of Burma, is flatly denied any rights of existence. The official interpretation of the Burmese Junta is that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh and they should kindly go back to where they came from.
We are traveling together with a photographer who works for the Rohingya news agency in Bangladesh. Together with him, we gain entry into an illegal refugee camp which has been formed on the edge of the official UN refugee camp.
It is estimated that around 20,000 people live here alone, under the most wretched of conditions, under plastic sheets, without clean drinking water or basic medical care. These are people who have less than nothing, and the stories they tell us sound like an instructions manual for ethnic cleansing. Most of the people are here because they are on the so-called “black list” in Burma, a list which makes any idea of return impossible. Prison, forced labour, torture and death – this is what awaits them back home. Before this, their lands were appropriated, their men were taken away for forced labour, their women and children were raped and their mosques were destroyed. Families were and still are moved to this region from central Burma to underline the dominance of the Bamar people, the largest ethnic group, to which the generals also belong. Whole model villages were created in this way. Murder in the name of the Buddha – that’s something new for our ears.
It is not permitted to marry here without official authorization, but within the strict Islamic tradition, children are not tolerated outside marriage. A marriage licence comes at an unrealistically high price which nobody can afford; something that is not strictly impractical, from the Junta’s perspective. Anyone who marries secretly without such a licence finds himself in prison. The only solution is escape to Bangladesh.
The Rohinyga people have been escaping to Bangladesh for 30 years. Twice there has been a huge influx of refugees. In 1978 there were 200,000 refugees and then again, between 1991 and 1992 there were a further 250,000 Rohingya arrivals.
Today, new refugees arrive every day. A lot of them live in the official UNHCR refugee camps, with official refugee status which gives them the right to basic services. However, the majority live clandestinely outside these camps. Quite a few achieved integration into Bangladeshi society, on a small, but illegal, basis. But their luck didn’t last long. The military offensive in 2002, “Operation Clean Heart”, robbed them of this basis and they found themselves once again, facing a similar fate to the one in their homeland, Burma: dispossessed and without rights. Return to Burma would have meant certain death for them, so instead, they settled in provisional camps, constructed from the waste products of society.
Now we are standing in the middle of such a camp and from all sides, people are streaming in to greet the “white angels”. White people represent some promise of help here. It’s not long before we are shown sick people, the looks on their faces are desperate and speak more than a thousand words. One father holds out his visibly critically sick baby to us and our reply that we can’t help because we are not doctors is a hard one to give. But the people quickly understand the reason why we are here: to film them so that they are no longer forgotten to the world outside. We shake so many hands. Again and again we hear the same thing: “Thank you for coming and for taking an interest in our fate!!”
And then they begin to talk. They tell nightmare tales of Burma, and of their hard lives here in Bangladesh. One woman asks me why I want to film her as she cooks; after all, she has nothing to cook, just a handful of rice once a day.
It’s too much to starve on, but far too little to live off. The men here work as daily labourers, from hand to mouth, often just for one Euro a day of hard labour. The women go to beg, but it is too little, especially for all the children. When we ask a father of seven why his wife is now pregnant with her eighth child, while it is evident that they already don’t have enough for everyone, he answers: “It’s Allah’s wish!”
There is a feeling of resignation over the camp, no individual initiative, just submission to their fate. The answer to our standard question, what they are dreaming abot is therefore not surprising. They don’t have any dreams, any visions or hope; they just want to live in peace. They do what their leaders do. If the leaders go back to Burma then they will follow them, if they stay put, then they will stay too.
A few days later in Chittagong, we meet the highest-ranking representatives of the exiled government. This is a group of honorable, older men, proper gentlemen. We are greeted kindly and according to Islamic tradition, entertained hospitably. We interview a few people, but become increasingly saddened. The feeling here is also one of resignation. They still dream of a Rohingya State in a liberated Burma, but deep down inside, they seem to have given up all hope of this.