Giles Duley

Galleries: Rohingya Refugee Portraits, Bangladesh. 2009

It was barely dawn, yet within minutes of arriving, we had a line of the sick outside our makeshift studio. One by one they patiently waited to talk to us, the situation growing more desperate as the numbers grew.

Due to their unofficial status, The Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong have no access to medical support. Denied access to the nearby UNHCR camp, and turned away by local hospitals, the 25,000 refugees suffer from a multitude of illnesses and diseases. Respiratory tract infections, skin diseases brought on by the living conditions, malnutrition, cancer, mental health problems; all go untreated. They suffer in a hopeless situation.

"Do they understand I'm not a doctor?" I asked the leader of the local committee.

"They know,"he replied, "but for now a photographer is all they have. At least you can show people."

Interviews by Cyrus Shahrad

Fatima 10, with her brother Noru.Noru has skin infections caused by malnutrition.
  
Noor Islam, 60Blind in one eye.Noor and eight members of his family share a small mud hut thatched with sticks and leaves, which he built with his own hands on floodplain that surrounds Kutupalong and which he knows will be destroyed when the monsoon arrives. Food is scarce - he eats two bowls of rice a day - though his main concern is water: those in the official camp want to charge him for use of their sanitary pump wells, meaning that he and many like him drink water milky with stagnation from a handful of makeshift bucket wells around the camp.
  
Mohammad Hussein, 4Facial tumour possibly cancerousOur translator recognises young Mohammad as soon he sits down with his mother.
     
  
Siddique Hamad, 80 and Saidoul Amin, 18Sidique is suffering from respiratory and heart problemsSiddique Hamad is brought to us by his grandson. We worry they think our makeshift studio is in fact a surgery. Explaining we are not doctors, Saidoul begs us to take a picture regardless - it is
  
Nur 20, with son.He has severe malnutrition.
  
Emamin, 35.Emamin appears young for his 35 years, his upper body lean and muscular from his labours, yet his eyes display the death-numbed weariness of a trench soldier as he describes his family's sufferings in Burma. He says that his sister was kidnapped by the Nasaka, the Burmese border police, and died while in custody; his family was never given any explanation, nor was the body returned to them for burial despite coutless requests. Soon after, his wife died from illness. Emamain refused to give up, throwing himself into his work and toiling on his field with renewed determination, but when the government occupied his land he knew it was time to leave.
     
  
Fir Ahamad 30, and his brother Noor, 40.Fir suffers from an unknown illness causing severe joint painWith the upper body of a wrestler and a diamond-shaped knife wound on his chin, Noor carries his younger brother into the interview and lowers him gently onto the cracked plastic chair, an action that causes Fir to wince and whimper with pain. The wasting disease that has reduced him to a bag of fragile bones first began to take hold in Burma, where Fir was working as a forced labourer.
  
Kismotara, 4.Unknown illness and malnutrition.Kismotara's father is baffled as to what exactly is wrong with his daughter, but she suffers regularly from fits that have all but robbed her of the power of speach. He is terrified of the effect this will have on her education, though he knows it may be a moot point given that no school in the area would give an unregistered refugee so much as a second glance. He admits this wasn't what he'd expected - he left Burma under the misguided notion that he would be welcomed by his fellow Muslims in Bangladesh - but says that the only thing that could possibly make him consider returning home would be the advent of democracy, something he believes he is in no danger of seeing soon.
  
Abdul Shukur, 23.Eye infection.Abdul's accident happened less than a month ago. While labouring in a paddy field not far from the camp, a grain of rice popped into his eye. The pain was overwhelming, but when he travelled to the hospital in Cox's Bazar he was turned away for being an unregistered refugee. He lost sight in the eye soon after, and can no longer open it without peeling back the lids with his fingers; he does so to reveal an eyeball almost entirely without colour and weeping with infection. He says he doesn't mind much - he can still technically work - but the partail blindness has made him unsteady on his feet, and last week he fell and broke his arm which means he can't return to the rice fields for several weeks. Asked if he feels strange returning to the job that lost him his eyesight, Abdul simply shrugs.
     
  
Salma Khatoo 25 and Mohammad, 6.Mohamed is mentally handicapped.Salma recalls the journey from Burma as the most difficult experience of her life. She was heavily pregnant - she had decided that she had no desire to bring a child into such an oppressive country  - and her husband fell ill in the days before their depature, his body  so racked with such sickness as they trampled through the jungle that she thought he would die on several occasions. Mohammad was born soon after they arrived at Kutupalong, but quickly began to display physical abnormalities. He is now completely unable to walk, and their unregistered status means they can expect no help from the local hospital, though Salma is optimistic that the doctors at the makeshift Medecins Sans Frontieres clinic may be able to assist him.
  
Kamal Hussein, 30.Crippled leg.His gnarled walking staff lends Kamal a wizardly aspect that belies his having seen barely three decades. He explains with unexpected good cheer how the shattered leg that drags uselessly in the dust behind him was incyrred in a beating from the Nasaka, who he says came across him collecting bamboo in the jungle and decided to punish him without explanation. He says that making his way around the camp is extremely difficult, but that life here is a
  
Rojim Ullah, 20.Epileptic and with skin infections.Rojim appears genuiely nervous as he describes the recent increase in tensions between refugees at Kutupalong and Bangladeshi locals from the surrounding towns.
     
  
Ayesha Begum, 85.Ayesha's eyes remain unmoved as she describes the fate of her only son, who ran from Burmese security forces when they tried to arrest him, he was hit so hard on the back of his head with a rock that he suffered permanent brain damage. He spent a few days in hospital before members of the Nasaka appeared at his bedside, charged him with 'resisting arrest' and dragged him to a Burmese prison despite the fact that he could barely feed himself. Ayesha knew at that time that she had to leave the country, though not a day goes by that she doesn't pray for her son. Does she hope to see him again?
  
Mohammad Zaker, 60.Heart condition.Mohammad tells his stories in whispers, constantly looking over his shoulder to ensure he is not being overheard. One day, he says, while he was out working as a forced labourer on a government construction site, policemen came to his house and raped his daughter, so brutally that she was told she would never be able to bear children. Not even such unspeakable trauma could erode his daughter's beauty, he says, and soon after they arrived at the camp, a Rohingya rickshaw driver from the Chittagong Hills asked for her hand in marriage. Mohammad couldn't refuse, though tears fill his eyes as he describes the conflict over whether he should have told her suitor of what happened in Burma. He didn't and the husband still has no idea he will never hold his own children.
  
Asia Begum 55, and grandson Min Ara, 7.Min has suspected jaundice and liver problems.Young Min Ara's ear still bears a smear of black marker pen from the previous day, a sign he queued with thousands of other children in the sweltering heat to see a handful of Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors administering innoculations against measles and polio. His grandmother, Asia, weeps when she recalls the trouble they had marrying off their daughter, Min's mother - the Burmese government expects the impoverished Rohingya to pay for pricey marriage licenses - only for the husband to be then arrested for failing to turn up to a forced labour camp. He remains in a Burmese jail to this day, and the family anxiously awaits news of his release so that he may join them in the camp.
     
  
Mohabieh Hamed, 11.Unknown mental illness, including seizures.
  
Dolu, 75, with grandson, Mohammad, 5.Blind in both eyes.Dolu arrives with her grandson.
  
Mahabieh Hamed, 11.Suspected cancerous growth.Mamabieh is clearly unsettled by the attention when her father virtually drags her infront of us and whips away the dirty rag that she uses to hide her disfigurement, but she answers our questions calmly and politely, her girlish voice filled with a sweetness that is in stark contrast to the physical and emotional weight of her tumour. Her father built their home on the outskirts of the camp to avoid unnecessary contact with other refugees, but still Mahabieh says that she is followed by hushed mutterings and accusatory eyes whenever she ventures out to use the toilet or collect water from the well; she has no friends, and even manages occasionally to incur the wrath of her own family due to her inability to sleep without snoring loudly.
     
  
Shariat, 65.Severe respiratory disease.His chest heavingly ominously, Shariat manages to stand unaided while his portrait is taken, his mouth forming the name 'Allah' over and over again, even when his voice is too weak to articulate it.
  
Samira, 16, with her mother Rohimehatu, 48.Samira is paralysed with an unknown illness.
  
Sab Meheras, 100.While most Rohingya consider the question of their age with a moment's pause before seeming to pluck a figure from thin air, Sab smiles as tells us with some certainty that she reached 100 last year. She wears the century well, struggling to walk without aid, but sharp and articulate in her responses to our questions, and considering her situation with an insight bordering on the poetic.
     
  
Zarina, 7.Orphan.