With a small generator, basic soldering equipment, small pliers, and a toothbrush, Anowar takes apart cell phones on a dusty desk in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.
A group of 20 refugees wait patiently to see him. They’re among the almost one million Rohingya who live in this sprawling makeshift city that last year rapidly became the world’s largest refugee camp.
“I don’t have a fixed income,” the self-taught repairman and Rohingya refugee says while fixing an old Nokia handset. “Here, all are refugees. I take fees from the people who can afford it and work for free for those who can’t,” said Anowar, who only goes by one name.
Many of the phones he repairs were brought into Bangladesh from Anowar’s native Rakhine state in Myanmar, where more than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya — including Anowar — have fled violence since August 2017.
The cell phones are a precious lifeline that allow Rohingya to keep in touch with friends and family scattered across the camps. In many cases, all that remains from their lives in Myanmar is footage of their homes and villages stored on phones.
The devices, crucially, also contain videos and photographs that could serve as evidence in efforts to hold the perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable — many Rohingya used their phones to document the horrors that forced them to flee.
“Most of the people have pictures of injured people,” Anowar told me. “Some have pictures or videos of family members attacked.”
Anowar’s repair shop is one of many scattered around the camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. There is potentially a trove of visual data taking up valued space on people’s phones, or trapped in broken devices.