When AP Australia correspondent Kristen Gelineau, Singapore photographer Maye-E Wong and New Delhi video journalist Rishabh Jain entered the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh that are sheltering Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, they did not need to coax the women they found to talk.
Accounts of cruelty, violence and rape at the hands of Myanmar armed forces poured out of the survivors.
After only one week in the camps, Gelineau had interviewed 27 women and girls to gather evidence that Myanmar’s armed forces had carried out a pattern of sweeping, systematic rape across Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Joined by Wong and Jain during her second week in the camps, the team revisited several of the women Gelineau had interviewed to capture haunting photos and video. Gelineau and Wong then interviewed two more rape survivors, bringing to 29 the number of women struggling to survive in squalid conditions who were desperate to tell the world what had happened to them. The images of their tear-filled eyes, peering out over brightly colored headscarves, conveyed a depth of suffering almost impossible to describe.
For their searing account in words, photos and video, Gelineau, Wong and Jain have earned the Beat of the Week.
Since the exodus of Rohingya residents from Myanmar began last summer, there had been persistent stories about gang rapes of women and girls. The AP team wanted to prove that armed forces had been carrying out these atrocities. Gelineau asked the women to describe their attackers in detail and to identify the patches worn on the uniforms of the assailants. Each survivor was interviewed and re-interviewed over hours and days to obtain a textured view of their lives and what had happened to them, including in some cases witnessing the murders of husbands and children.
AP's reporting, funded with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, clearly pointed to the Myanmar armed forces as culprits. Although the women were at different refugee camps, and interviewed separately, one after another told essentially the same story. It was exhausting to report their accounts both physically and emotionally – conditions in the camps are difficult, and the victims were highly traumatized. Finding the women meant hiking a long way each day in the sweltering heat through streams of human excrement. Gelineau and her translator, Nafeesa, initially pushed themselves too hard and Nafeesa ended up hospitalized for three days with a raging fever and severe dehydration. Nevertheless, they persisted, with Nafeesa insisting the doctors release her so she could continue helping Gelineau speak with the women.
But as Gelineau later told an interviewer for Jezebel, the website geared toward women, any pain she felt hearing the survivors’ stories was nothing compared to what the women had lived through.
“I’ve lost my husband. I’ve lost my country. I have nothing left. All I have left are my words.” – N, who says she survived a rape, and hopes that someone will listen.
Before starting, Gelineau would carefully explain to the women how vast an audience the AP reporting would reach, so that they could give an informed consent to be interviewed. Rather than being daunted, the survivors were eager for their plight to be known. As one woman told Gelineau, “I’ve lost my husband. I’ve lost my country. I have nothing left. All I have left are my words.”
Unsurprisingly, the stories were read and viewed all over the world – with engagement on the first day topping 2:26 minutes. The Huffington Post listed it as a top story and called it “a horrifying must-read.” Axios AM also listed it. MSNBC and Jezebel interviewed Gelineau. Her personal tweet was retweeted over 1,300 times. Mark Ruffalo, Marco Rubio and Martina Navratilova were among those who tweeted links to it. Meanwhile digital strategies manager Natalie Castañeda added more context with a video, narrated by Gelineau, for the package on the AP Images Spotlight blog.
One reader was so devastated by the stories that she wrote and sent Gelineau a poem about it. The package also had impact – the U.S. State Department told AP it now is investigating the crimes, and the human rights group Equality Now asked to cite the story in an application to the UN Security Council for prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Gelineau says she has never received so much response on any story.
For their sensitive, empathetic reporting of the suffering inflicted on 29 Rohingya women and girls who endured rape and humiliation before being forced to flee their homes in Myanmar, and for touching consciences worldwide through eloquent storytelling, Gelineau, Wong and Jain share the week’s $500 prize.