An AP Reporter on Journalistic Empathy and Documenting Mass Rape in Myanmar

image via AP Photo/Wong Maye-E.

Last week, the Associated Press published a nightmarish story about the mass rape of Rohingya women in the Rakhine district of Myanmar. Kristen Gelineau, AP bureau chief for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, interviewed 29 Rohingya women and girls who had escaped to refugee camps in Bangladesh; the stories they shared detail a level of brutality and mass trauma that is nearly unimaginable. The similarity of those accounts, Gelineau reported, supports the UN’s claim that systemic rape is being used by the Myanmar military as a “calculated tool of terror.”

Over 600,000 Rohingya have fled the region since August, and Doctors Without Borders estimated that around 9,000 died between August and late September. Previous accounts of the ethnic cleansing being waged against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, by the Myanmar military have included entire villages burned to the ground, the violent murder of infants and young children, gang rapes, and mass executions. The government issued a press release last December calling alleged sexual assaults against Rohingya women “Fake Rape.”

After I published a blog post about her story, Gelineau reached out to me in response to a Jezebel commenter who questioned whether the Rohingya women featured in the story really understood how widely their accounts would be shared. The answer, of course, is that they did, and they wanted their stories to be heard—but since the process of reporting out a story like this often remains opaque to readers, I wanted to speak with Gelineau more about the survivors she interviewed and how the story came together. How do you report on something this devastating? How do you conduct your reporting with empathy, and in a way that preserves survivors’ dignity, autonomy, and—in this case—physical safety?

“In a lot of the cases, I’d sit down with the women and explain who I was, and they would just start talking very quickly, like a rush of words, it would just come pouring out of their mouths with such urgency,” Gelineau told me. “At certain points I literally had to pause them and just say like, ‘Okay, you need to breathe, you need to breathe.’”

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.


JEZEBEL: What prompted this story? What propelled you to cover this?

KRISTEN GELINEAU: So, I’m based in Australia, but I cover issues throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and the Rohingya crisis is something that I wanted to do a story on for a while, especially after the August 25th exodus began. I was planning a reporting trip anyway to Bangladesh, and I was just trying to decide what to focus my time on. I was doing what every journalist does; I was talking to a lot of different aid workers and human rights researchers and other people who had been working in these refugee camps, and they kept telling me over and over again about these women they were coming across with these gut-wrenching accounts of being raped by Myanmar’s security forces. And that’s not new in and of itself—there’s a long history of Myanmar’s military being accused of sexual violence against ethnic minorities—but what was different was the volume of accounts, and the people I was talking to were really struck by how pervasive these stories were. The stories also sounded like they had a lot of similarities in terms of how the assaults were carried out.


Around the same time, the UN was reporting similar findings. And of course, the Myanmar government was essentially dismissing the accounts as lies; the military is saying, oh we’ve done an internal investigation and concluded that these rapes never happened. So, I decided that I wanted to go to Bangladesh and talk to Rohingya women myself, and see if in fact there was a volume of rape accounts, and if there were, whether there were any patterns or similarities to the accounts that would indicate that they were systematic, as the UN had suggested, as opposed to isolated crimes of opportunity. So that was the pitch that I gave my editor, and she was very supportive.


I went for two weeks, and initially I thought it might be very difficult to find women who had been raped, and then I thought that even if I did find them I might have a difficult time convincing any of them to talk about it. There’s a huge amount of stigma attached to sexual assault in the Rohingya culture. But in fact it was just the opposite—there were just so many women and girls with these accounts, and it became very clear very quickly that there were distinct patterns to these stories. So I ended up interviewing 29 women and girls who said they were raped by Myanmar security forces. I interviewed them separately; they came from various villages in Rakhine state, they lived spread out amongst the various camps in southern Bangladesh, and yet despite all that their stories were very consistent.

How did you find the women you interviewed? What was that process like?

I worked with a few very talented fixers. These were people that lived in the region, both Bengali and Rohingya, who know the terrain, know the different communities. There was one fixer in particular who is a member of the Rohingya community who’s lived in Kutupalong, which is the main refugee camp, since she was a child. She was really instrumental in not only helping me find these women but also helping to explain to the women why I was there, why I wanted to hear their stories, and why I thought it was important that the world also heard their stories. She really helped me to earn the women’s trust and also to put them at ease, because it is difficult for anyone to talk about these types of experiences, particularly with somebody they don’t know and who comes from an entirely different country.


You reached out to me because you saw a comment on my blog post that questioned the potentially re-traumatizing impact of your reporting on the women you interviewed. What do you do to try to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and is there a kind of script that you refer to, or that you have your fixer refer to?


In every interview, I started out by explaining to the women who I was, why I was there, why I was writing this story, and who might read it. I was very clear—I told each women and girl that this story has the potential to be read by hundreds of millions of people across the world, that the AP is the world’s oldest and largest news organization, we have a big reach, so your words will be seen by the rest of the world. I’m very sensitive to the fact that there are some benefits but there are also pitfalls that survivors face when they choose to speak with me, and in this case, my usual concern about that was amplified quite a bit, because these women could face literally life-threatening consequences for speaking out. They’re all worried that if they go back to Myanmar, and it’s known that they speak publicly about these things, that they could be killed or their families could be killed.

And yet despite that, they all agreed to talk to me—and it wasn’t a matter of me pushing them. They wanted to talk. This was the first opportunity that most of these women had to tell anyone in any detail about what they had been through. They’re in a daily fight for survival in these camps. Every day they’re trying to find food for themselves, food for their children, to find shelter that doesn’t flood every time it rains. So they don’t have time to even really process or talk about these things. In a lot of the cases, I’d sit down with the women and explain who I was, and they would just start talking very quickly, like a rush of words, it would just come pouring out of their mouths with such urgency. At certain points I literally had to pause them and just say like, “Okay, you need to breathe, you need to breathe.”


So they very much wanted to be heard. They very much wanted the world to know what happened to them. We talk all the time as journalists about giving voice to the voiceless, right, and the Rohingya women, you need to understand, they are among the world’s most voiceless populations. They are very isolated, they are largely ignored by the rest of the world, their government has essentially called them liars. So I just said to them, look, I’m here to listen to your side of things, to hear you out and to share your stories. I have a quote in my story from this one woman I was talking to, and she spoke about this in a very eloquent way—she had suffered through an awful rape, her husband had been killed, she had to leave behind her home and make this excruciating trek to Bangladesh with her young daughter, she’s barely surviving in the camp. So when I asked her, do you want to talk about what happened to you, and is it okay if I tell people about this, she responded with a very enthusiastic “Yes!” And the reason for that, she said, is that “I’ve lost my husband, I’ve lost my country—I have nothing left, all I have left are my words.”

And that really summed up the feeling of most of the women that I talked to.

You’ve reported on a lot of natural disasters and other crises, the Virginia Tech massacre—when you’re interviewing people who have been through something this horrible, is it hard to be a reporter in that moment? How do you manage your desire to reach out as a fellow human being and provide words of comfort?


Yeah. I mean, if you read the story you can see very clearly how heart-wrenching the accounts—I mean, heart-wrenching doesn’t even sum it up, they’re gutting. They’re just soul-crushing stories from these women, and the suffering endured by them is almost beyond comprehension. I am a human being, all journalists are human beings, and there were certainly points during the interviews where I began to just despair. Especially towards the end; once you’ve heard 29 of these stories your head is filled with such misery. You know, I think the idea that journalists should be these cold unfeeling robots is so outdated and ridiculous. You cannot write stories like this unless you can empathize with your subject. Or you certainly can’t write them well.

That doesn’t mean that you lose your journalistic objectivity, it just means that, you know, if I’m feeling upset while listening to somebody’s grief, that’s okay. I’ll give you a good example—so you’ve probably seen the really haunting image that my wonderful colleague Maye-E Wong captured of the woman F’s tear-filled eyes. It’s a haunting image, so at that moment, as Maye-E was taking a picture of her eyes, she was tearing up, I was tearing up, our translator was tearing up. We’re journalists, but we’re also humans. And I think that’s fine.


Edna Buchanan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Miami Herald crime reporter, she’s always been one of my journalistic idols. She’s seen like 5,000 dead bodies over her career, she’s covered the most horrid crimes you can imagine, and she was asked once, hasn’t this made you jaded? And she said that it was in fact the opposite, that the job had made her more sensitive. She said something like, you cannot grow callouses on your heart. And I completely agree with that.

For me, I think the hardest story to read might have been from R, the 13-year-old.



When you interviewed her, did she seem to be processing things differently than the others because she was so young? How did you manage that interview with, essentially, a child?


That was difficult. I mean, when I was talking to some of the younger girls—R was the youngest—I first of all made sure that their mothers sat in on the interviews as well so they would have a bit of a support system. R and her mother were close, and her mother was actually quite keen to have her daughter talk about it, because she was obviously quite upset that this had happened to her daughter, and R was actually keen to speak as well. But yes, there were certain points during the interview with her where she was too embarrassed to talk about certain aspects of the rape in front of her mom, like the pain of the assault and the more graphic details, so for that part of the interview her mother stepped out of the tent to give us a bit of privacy. But yeah, I think with her, we went through it very slowly, step by step, and we took our time and there were certain points where she just kind of needed to breathe. It was really helpful that I had that wonderful fixer with me, who was a Rohingya woman as well and she was quite comforting for R.

With the women that I featured in the main story, I went back and talked to them multiple times—so each of these interviews with the 29 women lasted in general between 1 to 2 hours, but with the three main women that I featured I went back several times, because I needed to double-check, triple-check, quadruple-check certain facts and get additional details. And with R, the second time I went to her we spent a lot of time just sort of talking about other things beyond the rape, like, what do you remember about your life, tell me a bit more about growing up in Rakhine. And there’s two reasons for that—one, that helps me to build a wider profile of the person for the story, it helps the reader connect with them, that’s why I put in a little detail about her missing her chickens. That might seem so small, but you put that in and somebody in America is reading the story and they think, I don’t know these people, I can’t connect with them, they’re half a world away. But everybody knows a little kid that loves a pet.


So that was one reason, but also just because I wanted to let her talk about normal girl things, you know? She was talking about the clothes that she missed... you just kind of sit and have a chat. With a lot of the women, I spent some time after the interview just sort of hanging out. With F, she was quite lonely, and I talked to her three different times, and one day we were leaving and she said oh, would you please stay and eat some rice with me? And obviously I’m not going to eat her rice, but I was happy to stay and sit with her because she was so lonely, and we just talked about regular things, things that she missed about her life in Myanmar. So yeah, you just try to give them time to be a human and to be normal.


What were some of the things she missed?

Actually, that was in my original draft, but because the AP has tight space restrictions, a lot of it got cut. R really missed her best friend, this other 13-year-old girl—they were quite close, she really missed her. A lot of these women and girls, the area where they are from is very lush and a lot of them had a lot of fruit trees, so R was talking about missing her mango trees, her pomegranate trees. And her mum used to make these really delicious pickled mangoes, and she really missed that, because all they had to eat now was rice, it was just rice, rice, rice, it gets very boring.


She talked a lot about the chicken, the chicken was very special to her because it produced a lot of eggs and the eggs would hatch into these little chicks and she would play with the chicks. She missed the house, the house was a beautiful big bamboo structure, it was very airy and bright, surrounded by a lot of trees, and now she’s living in this tiny sweltering tent in absolute squalor. She missed being amongst her peers, people that she knows; she went to Arabic school and she missed that. So, you hear some of that stuff and it really does just break your heart.

With F, obviously she misses her husband, because he was killed right in front of her. She misses her parents, who were also killed, and her brother, who’s gone missing. She misses even the little things, like the mud floor of her house, because she smoothed it out so perfectly. She was like, I just miss all of the love that I put into my home—a lot of these women spoke of the pain of losing their houses, those homes were very special to them, that’s really all that they had that’s of enormous monetary value to them. With F, her big sister built that hut for her and she’d only been there a month, because she was a newlywed. That was a really special home, so to see it burned to the ground was really gut-wrenching for her.


That’s so devastating. I had another question about something that came up a few times in the story, particularly with K, the woman who was nine months pregnant whose husband ran away when the soldiers came. Were you finding that women in these situations were often left to fend for themselves or shamed by family members?

In terms of the men running away, I know some people were like, oh my god, why did these men all run? That’s very common, first of all, just because in previous attacks by the military, the men were usually singled out for the worst abuses. So the men and older boys had learned over the years that if the military comes in, they run. And the women in many cases can’t, either because they’re pregnant or they’re watching the young children in the house, or they just didn’t think that they would be targets. But in this case, they said that they were. So with K, her husband ran with the older children, and when he came back, like it says in the story, he blamed her for the attack—he said, you should have run, it’s your fault, why didn’t you run? And she said, I was nine months pregnant! My feet are swollen, I can’t run anywhere. And yet at the same time, he was actually very supportive of her speaking to me about what happened.


Shame is a huge problem when it comes to sexual assault in the Rohingya culture. And we actually had to be quite careful about that in terms of trying to keep the interviews as private as possible, particularly with the unmarried women, if word were to get out that they had been raped, it could impact their chances of ever getting married. And trying to find privacy in a sprawling, chaotic, overcrowded refugee camp is a very difficult thing to do, so my fixer would often stand guard at the opening of the tent and try to shoo people away. We’d often tell others in the vicinity that we were just talking to the women about “women’s issues,” just to protect them from any sort of shaming, but yeah, it is a problem, and that’s one of the reasons that so few of the women have sought out any sort of medical treatment or care, because they’re afraid to go and tell a doctor they’ve been raped.

I mean, out of the 29 women and girls I talked to, I think only maybe three or four had gone to see a doctor, and I think only two had actually told the doctor that they were raped. The other two just said, “I’m in physical pain,” because they were just too ashamed to say those words out loud. One woman I talked to hadn’t even told her husband that this had happened, I was literally the first person she was talking to about this.


So I wanted to ask a question about you, broadly—how did you learn how to do this? How did you learn how to report these kinds of stories?

I went to Boston University, and I studied journalism there. They have a really fantastic journalism program, it’s very hands-on, and I was very lucky to go there and have these wonderful professors—I remember my first day of class, the [professor] said, okay, welcome to News Writing 101, go to the courthouse and find me a story. And we were all like, uh, what courthouse, how do I do that, what are you talking about? And he goes, figure it out. And so it was very much just chucking you out to go and figure out how to do the job, learning on the fly, and they were very good about teaching us the types of questions to ask and how to structure stories and how to come up with ideas, so that was a good training ground.


Between my junior and senior years at BU I wanted to do an internship, and I was also really obsessed with living in Australia, I’d always wanted to come to Australia since I was a little kid, so I was like, well, why don’t I do both? I contacted an internship agency in Brisbane, and said, can you find me an internship anywhere in Australia? And they did, so I came down and worked at a little newspaper in Sydney, and I loved it. I loved figuring out how to put a story together and talking to people about their lives, I thought it was so much fun, and I loved Australia. So I went back to finish my degree and ended up moving out to Seattle and I was just applying everywhere, I think I probably got over 100 rejections, and one day I happened upon an article online and I thought, oh, the Associated Press, I hadn’t even thought about applying to them! They’ve got a bureau in Australia, so I’ll just get a job here and they’ll transfer me there and it’ll be super easy.

It was not that easy, but I ended up getting hired by AP in Seattle to cover the legislative session down in Olympia. So that was back in 2002, and then they kind of bounced me all over the country for the next six years. I was in Cleveland then back in Seattle then in Richmond, Virginia, and when I was in Richmond, that’s where I started working with one our really good writing coaches, and they taught me the tools of what I needed to do in order to write narrative—you need to become a sponge for every single detail, fill up a billion notebooks, and then craft it bit by bit. And so I started writing narratives then, and I focused a lot of my energy on crime narratives, because crime was my beat in Virginia, and something I feel passionately about covering. Sexual assault is an issue I’ve been covering since the beginning of my career, I think it’s an issue that doesn’t get enough attention—it finally is these days, but it’s something I’m always happy to write about. So it was sort of just learning on the fly, and you start to get a kind of rhythm to it, and I was lucky to work with some really fantastic editors and coaches over the years who have helped me hone the craft.


Yeah, there are some lines in your story that really stuck with me—I think one of the reasons that R’s hit me so hard was this line about her scraped knees, because you think about the kind of scraped knees that other 13-year-old girls have, just from playing outside and being a kid. It was really beautifully written.

Thank you. I’m lucky, I work with a lot of really talented people at the AP, and since it’s such a big organization there’s always someone that you can ask for help. I just asked a lot of questions and tried to practice as much as I could. Even when I was writing short little stories about some bill that was passing in the legislature or whatever, I’d try to find a way to incorporate a little bit of narrative writing into it, get those really intimate details in there. Because those are the stories that people connect with. No one is going to pay attention to a story if there isn’t a human element that they can connect with, so I’m always trying to find that in my writing.


Yeah. Speaking of that, and you touched on this a few minutes ago, but the #MeToo moment—as exciting and necessary as it is—has been draining for a lot of people, just the never-ending deluge of awful stories. But I imagine your experience reporting this story about the Rohingya women is quite a bit more intense, and quite a bit more draining. How do you process it? How you prepare yourself to have these conversations?

I mean, it’s hard, it is difficult, there’s no way around it, it’s hard to listen to these stories, but the whole time that I am listening to these women I am very cognizant of the fact that these women are the ones that are very bravely choosing to share their story with me, despite how painful that must be for them. So I’m always very aware that any sadness I might be feeling while listening to them is nothing compared to the pain that they’ve been through, there’s just no comparison. And I’m very aware that I’m lucky to be able to bear witness to this type of pain, and to be able to communicate this pain to the rest of the world.


Like I said, the Rohingya women, they do not have that option. They don’t have access to the internet, most of them don’t have telephones, they have no way to tell you what happened to them, and they are trusting me to do that for them. And so I feel really honored by that responsibility, and so any time I start to feel like, oh, I can’t listen to another one of these, I think, no, I must listen to another one of these, it’s important, I have to tell people what is going on, that is a journalist’s job. So, yeah, you go in thinking I’m doing this for an important reason, and you just kind of hang onto that in those moments where you despair for humanity.

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About the author

Ellie Shechet

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.