Reporting on the Rohingya crisis carries with it layers of complexity that often go unnoticed by the public at large. The violence faced by the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar government is just one part of what the community endures.
“I haven’t received any food aid in two months,” an angry Haliz Ahmed told me outside his home in Bangladesh’s Balukhali-Kutupalong settlement.
It’s the kind of problem you grow accustomed to hearing while spending significant amounts of time in what has been described as the largest refugee camp in the world. More than 585,000 Rohingya refugees now live there - each one has a story, filled with tragedy and distress.
As journalists on the ground we seek to tell as many of these stories as we can. But we also look for “angles” and “themes” through which to frame them. When Haliz complained about his rations he provided that prism - food aid and hunger, I thought.
Alongside Murad and Shahin, local journalists I was working with, we asked Haliz more questions. Why hadn’t he received the aid? Had he complained to authorities?
But little did we know where this was heading. When we asked the majhi - or community leader - why the man hadn’t been getting food aid, he told us Haliz had been recently divorced, and it had been decided within the community that the woman would get most of the food.
Before we knew it, the majhi, named Zafor Alom, was leading us through the depths of Kutupalong to meet Haliz’s former wife, Sofiya Khatan.
Upon arriving in Sofiya’s new neighbourhood, Zafor introduced us to his counterpart there. The two had worked together to resettle Sofiya after the divorce. Everything was moving so fast, and within minutes we were in Sofiya’s hut, watching her break into tears as she recounted the harrowing final months of her marriage.
After fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh last year, she said Haliz started taking Yaba - a drug prevalent in the Rohingya settlements. She begged him to stop, but said her pleas were met with violence.
“When I said [not to take Yaba] he started to beat me and threatened me, ‘If you say it again I will divorce you.’...When I said something [again] he slashed at me with a knife, gave me a divorce and threw me out of our home.”
Sofiya pointed to her arm where she says Haliz cut her. At this point there were eight people were in the hut - the two majhis, myself, Murad, Shahin, Sofiya and her two sons, one from a previous marriage. A crowd of people, also largely male, had also gathered outside to see what was happening. Zafor shooed them away.
I felt bad. Who were we to have brought this unwanted attention upon her after everything she’d endured?
Already feeling guilty, we felt it would be culturally inappropriate to ask her to roll up her sleeve to show us a scar. But she pointed to a mark near her left eye where she says he also attacked her.
“He slashed me so bad I could have gone blind.”
As others have noted, stories in the Rohingya camps can be difficult to verify. This one was becoming particularly complex, and when we stumbled upon it we also lacked something crucial to digging deeper - time. The deadline we’d set to return to the city of Cox’s Bazar had already passed, and before long, I’d be leaving Bangladesh altogether.
But as I left Sofiya’s hut, I was torn about what to do next. Part of me wanted to confront Haliz about what we’d just heard. Clearly there were gaps in his story.
Still, I was hesitant. What if talking to him invited some sort of retaliation against Sofiya? The majhis seemed to have productively dealt with the situation. Sofiya was thankful and feeling safe in her new home. Why risk upsetting that balance?
Zafar Alom though, said it wouldn’t be a problem. And as we headed back to Haliz, we decided we’d just talk to him about food again before potentially broaching the alleged violence. To our surprise, we didn’t have to.
“I beat my wife,” he readily admitted while talking to us, saying his anger was fueled by her talking to a friend of his too much for his liking. I was stunned by his open declaration.
“Sometimes she walked around with him, chatting. One time I told her not to chat with him. ‘If you are my woman you won’t do it again…She’s my woman, why does she need another man? She can talk with me."
Haliz didn’t admit to using a knife or taking yaba. But did he not think it was wrong to hit her?
“She’s living in the wrong way. If I beat her she’ll live in the right way,” he said.
I was floored by his bluntness. As we did with Sofiya, I asked Murad and Shahin to make sure he understood we were journalists, planning to write what he said. He got it, but kept talking. I struggled to process everything. An hour earlier I’d been pursuing a story about food aid - somehow it was now about domestic violence.
I wondered what I should do with what I’d been told. As shocking as Haliz’s words were to me, I recognised I was probably not the first journalist to whom someone has admitted committing an act of domestic violence.
I also knew this story was not an isolated incident. The tragic irony of people fleeing a brutal crackdown is that violence can then often be perpetuated within the community in microcycles.
As of February 25, there were 5,586 reported incidents of violence against Rohingya women in Bangladesh, and humanitarian workers say such acts are unsurprising given what the community has endured.
Still, as we drove back to Cox’s Bazar, I felt strongly that I needed to write about what I’d heard. Did I also have a responsibility to bring the admission of a man beating his wife to authorities though? Or was it not my place as an outsider to interfere in a situation community leaders had already found some sort of solution for?
The majhis seemed to have the situation under control - Sofiya no longer appeared to be in imminent danger now that she was living separately from Haliz. But shouldn’t Haliz be held accountable in some way for his actions? I knew I wouldn’t be able to verify whether he slashed her with a knife, but wasn’t him admitting that he beat her bad enough?
Within 24 hours I left Cox’s Bazar. I recounted the story and my questions to a humanitarian worker sitting next to me on the plane who expressed doubts that alerting authorities would serve a purpose - “What will they do?” she said.
When I got back to India, I told others about the situation. It didn’t seem like anyone really knew what exactly the “right” thing to do was.
Eventually, a representative of a major humanitarian agency told me I could pass some information along and they could look into it. But the person also noted there was probably little more that could be done because Sofiya had already taken matters into her own hands by going to the majhis. The fact that the Rohingya don’t have legal status in Bangladesh meanwhile, made any notions “accountability” for Haliz in an already backlogged court system unrealistic.
Knowing few positive steps could be taken, I wondered if there could actually be unintended negative consequences for Sofiya if outsiders became involved. I decided it also was important to go through all my material again and make sure I’d fully understood the story before figuring out how to proceed.
Language, after all, is among the biggest challenges while reporting from Cox’s Bazar, and by the time I heard a refugee’s story, it had often been translated from two or more dialects. It’s an imperfect process. And our second conversation with Haliz was particularly confusing - at one point we even thought Haliz was alleging that Sofiya hit him (that wasn’t the case).
Some time later, while going through it all, I called Murad to ask him if he could fact-check something with the majhi. While he’s was at it, I suggested he might also inquire about Sofiya and Haliz. Murad soon called back with unexpected news.
“The majhi says they’re back together. They’re living together again.”
Shocked by yet another twist in the story, I found myself wondering if I should have done things differently. It seemed Sofiya had reconciled with Haliz out of her own free will, but surely she had been safer apart from him?
Perhaps, I thought, she would have been better off if I’d sent information along earlier. But it’s also clear from my conversations with others that doing anything differently wouldn't have necessarily led to a better outcome - or what a better outcome even is.
I write this not to make myself feel better about the situation, but to demonstrate the complexities of reporting on a crisis so layered and deep.
Though the Rohingya are of course people like you and me, the lives we live may as well be on different planets. As journalists we can easily parachute in for a week or two to try share their plight with the world. But if anyone thinks they can easily understand or involve themselves in what they’re living, they’re only fooling themselves.
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