Jeffrey Gettleman is seasoned more than most when it comes to international injustice, humanitarian aid and reporting on the world’s biggest disasters.
A foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and Pulitzer Prize award-winning author, Gettleman has covered everything from “genocide in Sudan, to children being blown apart in Iraq.” He’s rushed into earthquakes, hurricanes, civil wars, international wars and famines.
He calls himself “a specialist in despair.”
Though he’s seen and reported on just about everything, Gettleman reveals in a recent New York Times article the one interview that stopped him dead in his tracks.
“I was standing near the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, where half a million Rohingya people, probably one of the most unwanted ethnic groups on the planet, fled after government massacres in Myanmar,” he writes.
It was there where a young woman named Rajuma shared “one of the most horrible” experiences Gettleman had ever heard, which he relays in his piece titled “My Interview With a Rohingya Refugee: What Do You Say to a Woman Whose Baby Was Thrown Into a Fire?“
Similar to the dozens of other witness accounts Gettleman had heard in the area, Rajuma told the journalist that Myanmar government soldiers had stormed her village in August. They burned down all of the houses and separated the men from the women before then proceeding to execute each of the men.
Then they raped the women.
Her story was the same as every other witness, except for one detail that shook Gettleman to his core.
Before the soldiers raped Rajuma, they violently snatched her baby boy from her arms. Then they threw him into a fire, where the baby screamed for his mother as he burned to death.
It’s a scenario that hurts to even imagine. But Rajuma lived it.
Sitting here writing this, I can’t imagine what was going through Gettleman’s head as those words came out of the translator’s mouth.
“It was very difficult to bring that interview to an end. As we parted ways, what was I supposed to say?” he writes, recalling his loss for words.
A refugee in Bangladesh, with no social class or value to society, Rajima doesn’t have access to the help we might suggest for someone in the developing world.
“There were no psychotherapists around and I knew she was headed back to a plastic tarp held up by bamboo poles with nothing to do but think about those moments that I had asked her to conjure up.”
Gentleman says the overwhelming sense of helplessness he felt in that moment was something he’s experienced hundreds of times.
“I wanted to give her every dollar in my wallet. Or hug her. Or punch someone in the face. This is the worst part of being a journalist: feeling helpless. Not only is there nothing you can do about the horrors in front of you, but in most cases there’s only so much you should do. We are recorders, witnesses, not aid workers. Of course, if Rajuma were bleeding in front of me and needed my help, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it. But that wasn’t the situation here; her baby was dead and she would be traumatized forever.”
Gettleman says he left her with the only words he knew to say: “Ami dukkhito,” Bengali for “I’m Sorry.”
The pain and darkness of this world is temporary. Jesus promises that whoever believes and is baptized in the spirit will be saved. And further, our souls will live with him in paradise, where there is no more hurt, no more pain and no more injustice.
But until then, we have been called to be the hands and feet of Jesus upon the earth. As members of the body of Christ, we have a duty to serve our brothers and sisters.
Jesus spent time with the sinners and the outcasts. He witnessed to those who did not know Him and provided for those in need.
I imagine Rajuma is a reflection of someone Jesus would have spent time with. A forgotten woman in a forgotten land with the weight of unfathomable heartache and pain resting on her shoulders.
We have the power to help people like Rajuma right where they’re at. If you’d like to help Rohingya refugees just like her, you can donate through the International Rescue Committee.
Read Jeffrey Gettleman’s full New York Times article here.