Traces of war

By Rohan Radheya

3 February 2015

Burmese refugees, art and the trauma of war.
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Can photographs alone transmit the stories of war and trauma. Photo: Rohan Radheya

Can photographs alone transmit the stories of war and trauma?
Photo: Rohan Radheya (See the full gallery.)

In late 2008, after spending some time in central Thailand, I had to make a trip across the border to Burma to renew my visa. My visit to the border town of Mae Sot introduced me to the plight of Burmese refugees who are victims of one of the longest ongoing conflicts in the world – a brutal war that was fought in the remote jungles of southern Burma for nearly half a century.

The Burmese junta systematically and violently targeted ethnic minorities in different parts of Burma for decades. Most ethnic minorities started organising their own rebel movements to fight the repression of the Burmese army. The Burmese soldiers burned down villages, raped women, and kidnapped and recruited younger children into their ranks. They made it a custom to surround entire villages with landmines to prevent the fleeing villagers from returning to search for their loved ones.

Among the victims of the war were thousands of Burmese children who had grown up during this period, many of whom were traumatised by the violence. I had covered the lives of ethnic Burmese children as a photojournalist in Burma’s Karen and Shan states, and the border areas in Thailand, and found that most clinics in these places offered limited medical help. Mental health care was almost non-existent. Most of them had no choice but to live on with their traumas in silence and uncertainty.

I spent some time thinking how to best tell their stories. Could photographs alone work or were there ways in which the children themselves could represent their inner lives? At Farmhouse School, a local school for ethnic Burmese refugees in a remote border area, I collaborated with the school board in introducing the school children to paintings. We spent hours watching video tutorials on painting, and in the end, we asked them to make paintings based on their experiences and recollections of their lives. They could choose between different colours and were restricted from seeing each others’ work in the process. All of them ended up using shades of red and other darker tones – colours that have been shown to trigger neurophysiological responses in patients of trauma. To highlight this effect, I have digitally accentuated the red and darker colors in some paintings with thermographic, infrared and neon filters.

There are currently around 130,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand, spread over 9 refugee camps in the northern parts of the country bordering Burma. Since the new Thai junta took office on 22 May 2014 under the leadership of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta, in consultations with their Burmese counterparts, has announced possibilities of the repatriation of the refugees. However, they have not said when.

~ Rohan Radheya is a photojournalist based in The Hague, Netherlands.

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