Editor’s Note: Taimoor Sobhan is the multimedia specialist at human rights group Fortify Rights. “Capturing Their Genocide on Cellphones,” a new short film, features testimonies of Rohingya witnesses in Cox’s Bazar who filmed evidence of mass atrocities. The views expressed here are his own. Watch the film here, but note that it contains graphic images.
With a small generator, basic soldering equipment, small pliers, and a toothbrush, Anowar takes apart cell phones on a dusty desk in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.
A group of 20 refugees wait patiently to see him. They’re among the almost one million Rohingya who live in this sprawling makeshift city that last year rapidly became the world’s largest refugee camp.
“I don’t have a fixed income,” the self-taught repairman and Rohingya refugee says while fixing an old Nokia handset.
“Here, all are refugees. I take fees from the people who can afford it and work for free for those who can’t,” said Anowar, who only goes by one name.
Many of the phones he repairs were brought into Bangladesh from Anowar’s native Rakhine state in Myanmar, where more than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya – including Anowar – have fled violence since August 2017.
The cell phones are a precious lifeline that allow Rohingya to keep in touch with friends and family scattered across the camps. In many cases, all that remains from their lives in Myanmar is footage of their homes and villages stored on phones.
The devices, crucially, also contain videos and photographs that could serve as evidence in efforts to hold the perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable – many Rohingya used their phones to document the horrors that forced them to flee.
“Most of the people have pictures of injured people,” Anowar told me. “Some have pictures or videos of family members attacked.”
Anowar’s repair shop is one of many scattered around the camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. There is potentially a trove of visual data taking up valued space on people’s phones, or trapped in broken devices.
Preserving the data on these phones should be an essential task in the push for justice and accountability. Social media, video and photographic evidence can play a crucial role in bringing justice for victims of genocide and crimes against humanity.
In a ground-breaking case in 2017, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Mahmoud al-Werfalli – a commander in the Libyan National Army – who’s accused of murdering dozens of people in Benghazi.
The warrant, for attacks carried out between June 2016 and July 2017, is based largely on video evidence collected from social media. Also in 2015, a Swedish court convicted a Syrian national of war crimes based, in part, on video evidence posted on Facebook.
In a recent investigation, Fortify Rights exposed how Myanmar authorities systematically planned for mass atrocities against Rohingya civilians, which amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity.
These findings are consistent with a report by the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission published this week, which called for senior generals to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Dozens of Rohingya survivors and eyewitnesses told me and my colleagues about attacks by the military before and after August 25, and the evidence is captured on their phones. Footage includes burning houses, mutilated bodies, bloodstained soil, severed heads, mass evictions and displacement, and eyewitness testimonials.
This means there is a virtual sea of video and photographic evidence of crimes – potentially providing investigators with useful evidence to prosecute perpetrators.
Silenced by authorities
Myanmar’s military has repeatedly denied that it deliberately attacked unarmed Rohingya, and that what it terms “clearance operations,” were a response to attacks by terrorists.
However, refugees have repeatedly told journalists, human rights groups, and researchers that Myanmar soldiers massacred men, women, and children, razed hundreds of villages, and systematically raped women and girls.
The Myanmar authorities know the power of information, communication, and visual evidence and have done everything in their power to prevent Rohingya from accessing cell phones.
Rakhine State is not an easy place to own a mobile phone – at least not for Rohingya.
Rohingya say they risked imprisonment or worse for merely owning a mobile phone. “Whenever I saw the military, I would hide my phone,” said Mohamad Khaled, a 30-year-old Rohingya man from Taung Bazar, Buthidaung Township. “If any soldiers saw a mobile in our hand, they would either take it or arrest us or they would demand money.”
Mobile phones have also been among the items seized by military border guards as Rohingya fled.
Last year’s exodus followed previous waves of forced displacement of the Rohingya that date back to the 1990s – when Anowar, the phone repairman, first left Myanmar along with more than 250,000 other Rohingya.
He eventually returned, only to be forced to flee again during the recent violence.
“My dream? That we, including my mother and sister, are safe. We want to go back and regain our rights and we wish to live in peace,” he says.