Walking the Line Between Covering a Rohingya Refugee Story and Changing It

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On Aug. 29, the day before I traveled to Bangladesh, I stood in my new apartment in Bangkok — where I’d just moved to begin work as The Times’s Southeast Asia bureau chief — surrounded by boxes of possessions I did not need or even remember that my family owned: too many glasses for liqueurs I do not drink, mildewed paperbacks, Legos chewed by the dog.

Two days later, I stood in a creek near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, as a never-ending column of barefoot humanity trudged through the water. Many people carried nothing but babies too traumatized to make any noise.

Other Rohingya, who had only a few moments to prepare before the Myanmar military burned down their houses, balanced bamboo poles on their shoulders, heavy with sleeping mats, water jugs and solar panels.

I thought about what I would take from home if I could only grab a few things: some antiques, perhaps, photos not on the Cloud, and all-important documents.

Most Rohingya, however, have been rendered stateless by the Myanmar government, which seems to be using a Rohingya militant attack on police posts and an army base three weeks ago to justify a campaign to rid the country of this long-persecuted minority.

Their licenses, diplomas and other paperwork mean nothing to officialdom. Besides, you cannot eat documents. Live chickens and bags of rice are more sustaining.

Noor, shivering and taking shallow breaths, was convinced he was dying. I’m no doctor, but having covered conflict, I knew his condition was grave. We had a car and could take him to a clinic. Maybe reporters aren’t supposed to change the story, but this was not one that I wanted to end with yet another Rohingya death.

Noor refused to go. He had fled without his wife. One of the last things he heard from his village was the screams of women dragged away by soldiers and vigilantes. Noor had no idea if his wife had been raped or killed.

The morning of the day we met, he had finally heard that she was in another refugee settlement in Bangladesh. She might come by the next morning.

So Noor bought tarp and bamboo. He lashed them together. The effort drained the little energy he had left, but he wanted to make a home for his wife.

He could not bear the idea of going to the hospital without seeing her again.

My Bangladeshi colleague, AKM Moinuddin — who speaks a language very similar to Rohingya and helped with translations during the week I was there — pleaded with him. The photographer Adam Dean suggested that Noor would be more useful to his wife alive than dead.

A crowd formed, as it invariably does in a refugee camp. Dozens of people concurred: Noor should not die here, slumped in a mud puddle. An imam showed up and exercised his authority.

We put Noor in our car and rushed to the clinic.

“Mother, mother,” he repeated, as his eyes rolled back in pain. “Mother, mother, help me.”

Half an hour later, he disappeared into the clinic. I did not see him again.

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