By Jeffrey Gettleman
October 19, 2017
As I walked out of the refugee camp, my phone rang. The instant I said hello, my wife could hear it in my voice.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I just finished the worst interview of my life,” I said.
I was standing near the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, where half a million Rohingya people, probably one of the most unwanted ethnic groups on the planet, fled after government massacres in Myanmar. I had just said goodbye to a young woman named Rajuma and watched her — a frail figure in a red veil — disappear into a crowd with one of the most horrible stories I had ever heard.
I’ve covered genocide in Sudan and children being blown apart in Iraq. I’ve been dispatched to earthquakes, hurricanes, civil wars, international wars, insurgencies and famines. As foreign correspondents, this is what we do; rush into the world’s biggest disasters. In 20 years of doing this, I’ve become a specialist in despair.
But Rajuma’s story stopped me.
She told me (and everything she said was consistent with dozens of other witness accounts) that Myanmar government soldiers stormed into her village in August and burned down each house. They separated the men from the women and summarily executed the men. Then they raped the women.
But before raping her, Rajuma said, the soldiers snatched her baby boy from her arms and threw him into a fire. The baby was screaming for her as he burned to death.
We were sitting together in a hut with a translator, the three of us hunched over on little plastic stools. As Rajuma started sobbing, my forehead creased and I got angry at myself.
“Why am I putting her through this? Is anybody going to want to read something so awful? I don’t even want to write this story.”
Helping the Rohingya
A partial list of aid groups working to ease the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
I think I’m becoming the opposite of numb. Each tragedy I’ve covered, each loss I’ve absorbed, has rubbed away a little more of the insulation we all create, or were born with, that keeps the ills of the world safely away. After years of this work, I don’t have much insulation left. Now when I go off on assignment, I’m all nerves.
Even before I met Rajuma, I could barely keep it together. My first day in the refugee camps, watching Rohingya men try to remain dignified as they were herded into lines to wait for a pack of glucose biscuits, made my eyes sting.
I was shocked but soon learned that for decades the Rohingya have been walking around with bull’s-eyes on their foreheads. Scapegoated like the Jews in Nazi Germany, called insects like the Tutsis during Rwanda’s genocide, they are Muslim people in a Buddhist land, dehumanized by their own government and made easy prey.
So I started thinking: If we don’t cover this, that’s even worse. That would be a further injustice, a further insult to the Rohingya’s humanity. It would be like telling Rajuma that the world couldn’t be bothered about what she suffered.
It was very difficult to bring that interview to an end. As we parted ways, what was I supposed to say? In our culture we might say she should “see somebody.” But there were no psychotherapists around and I knew she was headed back to a plastic tarp held up by bamboo poles with nothing to do but think about those moments that I had asked her to conjure up.
I wanted to give her every dollar in my wallet. Or hug her. Or punch someone in the face. This is the worst part of being a journalist: feeling helpless. Not only is there nothing you can do about the horrors in front of you, but in most cases there’s only so much you should do. We are recorders, witnesses, not aid workers. Of course, if Rajuma were bleeding in front of me and needed my help, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it. But that wasn’t the situation here; her baby was dead and she would be traumatized forever.
I stood up and lamely shook her hand and said the only thing that felt close to right:
Of the few Bengali words I learned, those were the ones I used the most. I said them to dozens of Rohingya who lost everything.
Sometimes, it’s the only thing to say.