Book Review: 136 I am Rohingya by Saiful Huq Omi
“Myanmar recognises the members of 135 ethnic groups as its full citizens. The Rohingyas are not included. They are number 136,” one reads on the first few pages of this tome — hence the title 136 I am Rohingya.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur for the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (2008–2014), starts his foreword (dated 08.02.2017) by stating: “The Rohingya community is facing dramatic human rights abuses and a systematic attempt to deprive them of their identity. This is an undeniable truth and we are obliged to denounce it categorically.” I must admit I’m not sure whether to “denounce it categorically” is sufficient or should be regarded as the proper reaction to the crimes against humanity committed in Myanmar. Why does the international community not interfere?, I wonder.
Tomás Ojea Quintana describes this well-done tome as “an art and type of communication that is born from the artist’s sensitive, creative and professional eye, and penetrates in the deepest fibres of our humanity. It is time to end the focus on grammar and give way to the experience of photography. There, we will find ourselves confronted by the penetrating look of the Rohingyas, and from there we will be able to see ourselves.”
The reason why photographs are (often) more apt than words to help us understand the world is that photographs make us feel for they convey emotions. “Understanding is a feeling”, Robert Adams once penned. And, the photos in this work — all in black and white — are impressive. The Rohingyas are shown on sea and on land, posing for the camera and being caught unawares, playing games and building a temple, in the daytime and in the nighttime.
Photographer Saiful Huq Omi, born in 1980 in Bangladesh, founder of the photography school Counter Foto, is also a filmmaker, educator and activist. His first encounter with the Rohingya took place in 2008 in a refugee camp, he writes, but doesn’t mention where. “I was not prepared for what I saw and heard. My findings shocked me. The stories of persecution, rape, abduction, abuse, forced labour, displacement and killing were horrible. But perhaps no less horrible was how lonely the Rohingyas appeared to be. Other communities and nations who have faced similar deprivations and denials have had friends who stood with them. It felt however, that in the wide-open world of Allah, there were no true friends of the Rohingyas. Nobody cared … or at least, not enough.”
He took photographs, spoke and gave lectures around the world in order to bring attention to their plight. He was like under a spell and felt he was becoming one of them. After ten years, he decided to go back home again but then “hell came to North Rakine State”. In August 2017, “the most extreme phase of the genocide had started.” And, Saiful Huq Omi did what he could. “My live video blogs on Facebook began to reach millions. I was photographing, shooting my film and deep down inside, I was screaming with anger.”
Needless to say, “stories of persecution, rape, abduction, abuse, forced labour, displacement and killing” are difficult if not impossible to visually document. The loneliness of the Rohingyas however can be photographed — and Saiful Huq Omi does that convincingly. What I also thought very well done were the informative captions (not all photos come with captions though) that can be found at the end of the book for they make once again clear how complex the stories behind photographs often are.
136 I am Rohingya
by Saiful Huq Omi
Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam 2018
Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.