While reporting on the Myanmar army’s recent violence against the Rohingya, I listened to the stories of dozens of refugees. Many of them showed me the physical scars of the traumatic events—half-healed puncture wounds from shrapnel, scarified exit holes from bullets, or the petal-soft pink flesh of recent burn—as evidence. A surprising number asked me to touch the results of the violence, as if seeing the wounds wasn’t enough. It was almost unbearably intimate to have someone take off his shirt or roll up his jeans to reveal a bullet hole.
Just as tragic as the physical scars were the mental scars I encountered. As I interviewed several refugees, including a 14-year-old boy who told me he saw his mother raped by soldiers and then found his father’s charred corpse in the ruins of his torched house, it became clear to me that their minds had been wounded as much as their bodies: the narrative logic of their stories was jumbled, and they lapsed into catatonic silences for long periods or blurted non-sequiturs. Their fellow refugees told me their suffering had driven the victims mad, though they also often confirmed the outlines of their stories. As a journalist, I knew their tales of the mentally affected refugees were too suspect to use in my articles, but I also wished that I had a better way of capturing the spiritual trauma that had been inflicted on them. A physical scar I could memorialize with my camera, but the mental scar was invisible—and, ironically, almost by definition, rendered itself an unreliable witness to its own suffering.