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The Rohingya, Burma’s Forgotten Muslims by James Nachtwey

By Hannah Beech

July 10, 2014

Sittwe, a drowsy town in western Burma, is a shattered place. I was first here five years ago, back when ethnic Rakhine Buddhists sold vegetables next to Muslim Rohingya fishermen. At the time, a Buddhist abbot and a Muslim cleric blessed me in whispers, as both spoke out against the repressive junta that had ruled Burma — also known as Myanmar — for nearly half a century.

Today, Sittwe, like much of the surrounding state of Rakhine, exists in virtual apartheid. There are no Muslims at the market. Their mosques have been bulldozed, even though one state official in late 2012 told me with a smile that nothing had been destroyed, nothing at all. Did he think I could not see the rubble, with torn pages of children’s prayer books underfoot? Evicted from their homes, more than 140,000 Rohingya now live sequestered behind checkpoints. Diseases fester in these crude camps. In June a top U.N. aid official who traveled to Rakhine said she had never before “witnessed [such] a level of human suffering.”

The U.N. estimates that 86,000 people, mainly Rohingya, have fled by boat in the two years since clashes erupted between the majority Buddhist and Muslim populations. In the 1980s, the all-Buddhist military junta stripped most Rohingya of their citizenship, claiming that they were recent immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. But many Rohingya have lived for generations in Burma. The country is now ruled by a quasi-civilian government praised by the West for its reforms.

Its treatment of the Rohingya — as well as some other Muslim minorities — could be considered close to ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, as these stark photos by James Nachtwey show, conditions worsen in the Rohingya camps spread out across the salt flats of the Bay of Bengal. The Buddhist abbot in Sittwe, who so inspired me that I brought my children to meet him, speaks now not of the government’s failings but of his hatred of Muslim hordes. A town like Sarajevo, once of two faiths, has cleaved beyond belief.

Hannah Beech is TIME’s China bureau chief and East Asia correspondent.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues. His last essay for the magazine documented Syrian refugees at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. 

More than 140,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have been forced to live in camps, where disease and despair have taken root. Abdul Kadir, 65, who has a severe stomach ailment and malnutrition, is cared for by his wife in one of the camps. James Nachtwey for TIME

Relatives weep at the funeral of a woman who died at 35 of a stomach disease; she left five children behind. James Nachtwey for TIME

 A mourner weeps as she sits by an internee’s coffin. The Rohingya lack medical care since most NGOs are now barred from the camps. James Nachtwey for TIME

Two men are seen mourning at the funeral of a woman who died from stomach disease. James Nachtwey for TIME

 Internees in one camp operate brick kilns to earn money. Adults are paid about $2 a day; children, half that amount. James Nachtwey for TIME

Thek Kay Pyin, 7, is among the Rohingya Muslims interned in Rakhine state, on the northwest coast of Burma. He is seen here working at a brick kiln where he earns $1 a day. James Nachtwey for TIME

Children working at a brick kiln where they earn $1 a day. James Nachtwey for TIME

 Workers at a brick kiln are seen tossing bricks: James Nachtwey for TIME

At the camp, mourners are seen at a funeral for a 16-year-old girl who drank poison. James Nachtwey for TIME
Suffering in the camps continues unabated. James Nachtwey for TIME

Children learning the Quran at a madrassa in one of the camps. James Nachtwey for TIME

A child suffering from malnutrition in one of the camps is held by its mother. James Nachtwey for TIME
At a government-run hospital in Da Paing, a mother watches over her 45-year-old son Abdul Salam, who suffers from diabetes. James Nachtwey for TIME

A child suffering from stomach worms with her mother at a pharmacy waiting for treatment. The owner of the pharmacy is neither a doctor nor a pharmacist but does his best to help people. International NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders have been expelled from the camp by the government, leading to a soaring crisis in health care.  James Nachtwey for TIME

Malnutrition among the camps’ children is commonplace. In June a top U.N. aid official who traveled to Rakhine said she had never before “witnessed [such] a level of human suffering.  James Nachtwey for TIME
Fishermen tend their nets before going out into the Bay of Bengal to fish, one of the main sources of food and livelihood for the Rohingya. James Nachtwey for TIME

A blind beggar on railway tracks between two IDP camps.  James Nachtwey for TIME

A boy using an umbrella as a sun shield jumps across a drainage canal behind a row of latrines at Baw Du Pha camp. James Nachtwey for TIME