Life in a Buthitaung jail

Mohammad arrived in Bangladesh after spending two years and three months imprisoned in Buthitaung. He was arrested two weeks before the violent events of August 25th, 2017. He was a member of a group traveling from Maungdaw to Buthitaung to buy cows. He and the other travelers were arrested for violating restrictions on Rohingya people’s mobility. 

Mohammad says there were 1,700 people in the jail when he first went; 200 were later transferred to the Kyauktaw jail in central Rakine State, and around 250 people had been released since his arrival. “By the grace of Allah, I was released and I am back with my family now,” Mohammad says. “I want my other prison brothers to be released. For six months I was shackled and did farm labor in a chain gang. My prison brothers are still in that situation. We had food two times a day including boiled meat five times a week. It wasn’t very good, and some people couldn’t stomach it. There was no torture, it was just very uncomfortable.”

An attempt to resettle back at home

Mohammad says that nearly all released Rohingya prisoners try to come immediately to Bangladesh after their release, though he briefly tried to rebuild his life in Myanmar in anticipation that his family might soon be able to repatriate and join him. 

Myanmar authorities hand prisoners over to immigration officials upon their release. These officials then pressure them to take the NVC. Mohammad received an NVC card and was given a letter to take to the Na Sa Ka Sector 9 commander’s office in his home village tract in Buthitaung. The commander asked him if he would stay in Myanmar or go to Bangladesh. Mohammad replied that if things remained peaceful, he would stay there. He also visited the UNHCR office in Maungdaw to seek additional advice and assistance, and was given 90,000 kyat (50 USD) to invest toward rebuilding his life.

Mohammad then returned to his home village to open a small shop. There were once 130 Rohingya households in his village, but after the 2017 refugee exodus, only 30 were still living there. He found it scary to live amongst such a small and dispersed population of fellow Rohingya, as the new circumstances left people unable to protect themselves. “I was very scared. Sometimes groups of Rakhine youth were still coming around to Muslim villages to threaten people,” he recounts. “The authorities kept warning us that Al-Yaquin [the term often used by Rohingya people to refer to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgent group] was going to attack again soon. I was afraid. I had hoped to be able to call for my family and bring them back home with me, but after I assessed the situation I realized that it was still not good.”

After only six weeks back in his home village, Mohammad fled. “I was trying to run a small business – a small shop,” he says. “But I couldn’t. The authorities accused me of having my relatives visit me from Bangladesh and said they were opening a new investigation against me. This was a completely false accusation.”

The journey to Bangladesh

Mohammad describes his eventual journey across the border. “I traveled to Bangladesh with three other people, also prisoners, who were released within 15 days of me. We each only knew that the other was scheduled for release because our names had all been posted on a signboard in the jail. We contacted each other and discussed whether we should stay or flee.” The men decided to flee together and reunited to make the journey. “We came by walking through the mountains, carrying rations. We camped in the jungle and reached the border within four days, because if we had traveled by car we would have been questioned at the checkpoints.”

“In a rural area of Maungdaw that we passed through, we met with some people to whom we each paid 15,000 kyat (8 USD),” Mohammad continues. “They brought us to Unchiprang on the Bangladesh side of the border by rowboat. An old Bangladeshi man offered to protect us in exchange for a 2,000 taka (23 USD) payment. He helped us stay safely in a fishery compound. We spent the night there, and in the morning he put us in a car headed to Kutupalong, where the refugee camps are located.”

When Mohammad was in jail, he had received a letter his parents sent through ICRC with their contact number. He committed the number to memory, repeating it to himself along his journey. He called my father when I reached Kutupalong. “My father came to receive me – he didn’t know I was on the way. We were all very happy.” When Mohammad was arrested, he and his wife had two-month old twins. By the time he saw them in the camps, they were nearly three years old. They are just starting to get to know Mohammad, who says he has been focused on belatedly settling into his new role as a parent. 

Pondering the future

Like all new parents, Mohammad now finds himself contending with a new set of considerations, and is trying to devise a way to earn a livelihood. “I am wondering if I can get a job here, how I will support my family. I was a basic Arabic teacher in Myanmar. I studied up to the 10th grade in a famous madrassa in Maungdaw. But there are no vacancies for religious teachers in the madrassas here in the camps.”