FEATURE: Nowhere to turn

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - The millions of people who have fled Myanmar and Syria in fear of violence are the subjects of a poignant and powerful photo exhibition in Bangkok

The stirring plight of refugees across the globe – the Rohingya of Myanmar, the tens of thousands displaced by wars in Syria and Cambodia – is movingly documented in the photography exhibition “Exodus Deja Vu” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Displayed on the curving walls on the third to fifth floors are 77 images of people dislocated from their lives and homes in Syria, Bangladesh, Cambodia and other places, forced to cross borders into foreign lands and eke out dire existences in temporary camps that all too often become permanent.

The images are the work of seven photojournalists of various nationalities, who bear witness to unfolding tragedies in a world increasingly given to nationalism and wary of foreigners. 

“The touring exhibition aims to raises awareness about the current crises involving refugees around the globe,” says curator Patrice Vallette. “We hope these powerful images will speak loudly about this serious humanitarian issue.”
Conflict and persecution have forcibly displaced more than 65 million people around the world, it’s noted in the exhibition, and nearly half of them are children. 

“The tragedy touching Syria now is reminiscent of refugee crises of the past, such as in Cambodia in the 1970s and more recently in Myanmar,” Vallette says.

Canadian Greg Constantine and Thailand’s Suthep Kritsanavarin focused on the calamity of the Muslim Rohingya, producing anguished black-and-white photos of the “nowhere people” being treated as beings less than human.

Constantine captured the waves of Rohingya refugees feeling from Myanmar into Bangladesh last year, a massive volume of people forced into lives of desperation in jam-packed camps.

They are unsure if or when they will be able to return home, and even should the invitation come, they are fearful of returning to the threat of torture, rape and death at the hands of the Myanmar military and anti-Muslim vigilante groups. 

“My years of photographing the Rohingya [since 2006],” Constantine says in the show’s catalogue, “still represent only a small window and a slice of time within decades of similar abuse.

“With nearly 75 per cent of the Rohingya community pushed out of their homeland, I am reminded of something a Rohingya man named Jafar said to me in Bangladesh back in 2009. [He said,] ‘Because we don’t have citizenship, we are like a fish out of water, flapping and unable to breathe. If we were given citizenship in Burma, we would be like that fish you catch and then throw back into the water, where he belongs. We are still out of water, and when a fish is out of water, he suffocates to death. We have been out of water for such a long time and we are suffocating. We are suffocating to death.’

“Sadly, his words are more relevant now as they were years ago.”

Suthep has been watching the Rohingya since 2008, often using a drone camera to capture overviews of the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where most of the refugees lived, and at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, where most are now encamped. He’s also shot imagery of the far less-publicised Rohingya camps in Aceh, Indonesia, and Thailand’s Ranong province. 

One aerial shot taken in Cox’s Bazaar offers a glimpse of what has become the largest refugee camp in the world, with more than 700 000 people enduring harsh living conditions and near-starvation.

In Ranong in 2009, Suthep took pictures of Rohingya men showing the scars of brutal beatings inflicted by Burmese navy officials after the boat they trusted to carry them to better lives was stopped in the Andaman Sea. They spent two weeks in detention before being sent back to sea, bound for Thailand, with the warning that they’d be killed if they returned to Myanmar.

UNCHR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, says there were 99,956 refugees in nine camps in Thailand as of December, most from ethnic-minority communities in Myanmar and mainly Karen and Karenni.

Harassed and endangered in their homeland, they’ve been crossing the border for more than 30 years, and thousands of babies born in the camps in four provinces along the frontier have grown into adulthood there, having never seen their country of origin. 

“The Rohingya crisis is the most serious issue in Southeast Asia, with nearly 700,000 refugees having flocked to Bangladesh in the last four months, joining 300,000 others already there,” says Alistair Boulton of UNHCR. 

“There are now nearly a million Rohingya living temporarily in Bangladesh. It’s the worst situation in the region and the fastest rise in a refugee population since the 1990s.”

The best solution, he says, would be for the Myanmar government to recognise the Rohingyas’ fundamental rights.
Syrian photographer Issa Touma was already shooting street life in Aleppo before the current momentous multinational conflict began. It’s his hometown. 

People seemed lively and cheerful in his pre-2012 images, but the war has virtually emptied the city. The buildings that remain standing are pockmarked with bullet holes. The fighting has greatly affected the younger generation, with kids fond of “playing soldier” – when not sitting sullen and sad. 

Malaysian Rahman Roslan pointed his camera at Syrian refugees in the Idomeni camps in Greece in 2016, where they’d been sheltered for months after Macedonia closed its border, barring migration further into Europe. 

Russian Sergey Ponomarev watched the great northerly exodus across the Mediterranean in 2015. His pictures were taken on the Greek island of Lesbos and on the boundary lines separating Croatia from Slovenia and Hungary from Serbia. Some of the shots show bloodied refugees attempting to dash across the frontiers.

Frenchman Roland Neveu’s award-winning series “Years of Darkness”, about the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, has been seen before in Thailand. The guerrilla triumph drove tens of thousands of Cambodians to the Thai border.

“I never imagined then that the events of 1975 would come to be labelled as ‘the Asian Holocaust of our time’,” Neveu writes in the catalogue.
Coskun Aral, a Turk, was in Iraq in 1991, when streams of citizens fled to the slopes of snowy mountains to escape Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and the “shock and awe” of Desert Storm. Their destination was Turkey. 

They were Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmens and Assyrians, walking an enormous distance in debilitating conditions. “Many lost their lives,” Aral says. “I saw mothers and fathers carrying the dead bodies of their children. 

“I hoped that I’d never witness such suffering again. Yet it’s 2016 and the suffering has never ended. The deja-vu of exodus remains the same, every now and then.”

Supported by UNHCR, the French Embassy, Asylum Access Thailand and Amnesty International Thailand, the exhibition seeks to create “a unified picture of people speaking different languages and leading different lives, but sharing the same human rights”.

The exhibition on the fifth floor also displays the belongings of refugees from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia and Palestine who immigrated to Thailand.

Piyanut Kotsan of Amnesty International Thailand acknowledges that Thais tend not to be “fond of helping refugees” and blames it on a lack of understanding. 

“So we’re also doing public activities, both online and offline, to encourage more conversation about refugees and why they need our support.”

- The exhibition “Exodus Deja-Vu” displays at the Bangkok Art and Culture from February 6 to 18. It travels next to Berlin, Munich, Paris, Geneva and Toronto.
- Asylum Access Thailand will host a discussion on “Alternative Living for Immigrant Children” on February 15 at 6pm on the fifth floor. 
- Learn more on its Facebook page, and about the exhibition at “Exodus Deja-Vu” on Facebook and at www.BACC.co.th.