A humanitarian seeks better conditions abroad

Hirul worked with an international NGO in Northern Rakhine State from 2007 to 2010 after graduating with an LLB degree. During his studies, he knew that, like other Rohingya students, he would probably never receive his physical diploma, but he didn’t care. He was there primarily because he wanted to learn. 

After resigning from the NGO, Hirul spent 2011 to 2016 in Saudi Arabia. He then flew to Bangladesh, where he spent ten days before being arrested when he crossed the border back into Myanmar. He was released in late 2019 after serving three years of a five-year sentence.

Hirul explains why he left a good job, his wife and two young children to migrate abroad. “I wasn’t expecting anything good out of life in Myanmar. I was employed in a furniture shop during the time I resided in Saudi Arabia.” He says his decision to leave Myanmar was more about finding freedom than due to financial considerations: “I had a similar salary there to when I worked with an NGO in Myanmar.” 

Hirul lived with other Rohingya people, old friends. They didn’t invite him to go to Saudi Arabia. He went alone and of his own accord, but had reached out to some contacts. At first he worried about how he could get a job and live well there, but soon met up with a friend in Mecca and lived with him. The friend helped him find a job and showed him how to make phone calls to his family. There was still limited Internet in Myanmar in those days.

Hirul’s intention was to save up some money for a few years, then arrange for his family to come to Bangladesh and help them get established there. He thought this would be a way for his family to live safely and happily. He sent a portion of his earnings to his wife every two or three months. In addition to my wife and kids, my mother depended on this income as well, as I have no elder brothers to help support her while I was away.”

A change of plans as reasons for hope arise

Hirul was saving up money steadily, and thought he would be able to eventually achieve his goal of bringing his family to Bangladesh. In 2015, the NLD came into power and, like people all over Myanmar and the world, Hirul was hopeful that Myanmar would progress into a more peaceful era under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Observing from a distance from Mecca, Hirul believed that the intercommunal violence that had swept Rakhine State and other parts of the country in 2012 was a relic of the past. He was optimistic that change would finally come. 

“I thought things were going to get better in Rakhine State. Things seemed more peaceful, so I decided to try to build my family’s life in Myanmar after all. I called the sector commander in charge of my area, and he agreed to allow me to return to our family home. But it was going to cost me a large sum of money – 5,000,000 kyat (2,830 USD). And he said I would have to go to jail for six months. I thought about it, and really felt that the situation would continue getting better. Most educated people believed the same after the NLD government came into power. It was a difficult decision. I was quite worried. It was hard to get clear about what I should do. I knew there was a chance that the situation could deteriorate again in the future, but I went for it. I talked with a friend who advised me that yes, six months is ok, because after that I would be able to live peacefully with your family. So I came. This was in May 2016.”

The impact of conflict on a prisoner’s sentence

The conflict took a turn for the worse while Hirul was in jail. He heard secondhand reports about how the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police check posts in a wave of insurgent violence that was met with a brutal crackdown by Myanmar security forces. Without explanation, Hirul learned one day that his sentence had been extended from six months to five years. He was greatly distressed, and asked the court officer why it had been changed. The only answer he received was that the change was “because of the situation.” After plying the officer for more information, he was finally told, “If we jail people for only six months, more will be willing to come back to Myanmar from Bangladesh, because serving six months is too easy.” Many people had fled across the border due to the October 2016 violence, and Hirul believes that prisoners’ sentences were extended as a way for authorities to make the refugees afraid to repatriate. 

The jail conditions were decent, he says. Representatives from the ICRC, tasked globally with undertaking prison checks in conflict zones, visited every six months to monitor the conditions. He felt safe, and found the Rakhine and Burmese guards to be respectful. Due to his professional skills, Hirul was given a clerical job as a registrar in the prison office. 

He recounts the corruption he was forced to witness in this role. “I was involved in filing the paperwork to enroll and release prisoners. I have a Law degree, and I realized that in Myanmar judges have full power. There is no jury. The legal system is extremely weak. There is no accountability. The families of many prisoners never find out what happened to their loved ones.”

Awaiting release, but not finding freedom

He didn’t have any contact with his family by phone, and could only receive and send messages when the ICRC representatives conducted their infrequent visits. His daughter, now 18, says she didn’t trust the letters. “I didn’t believe it was really him writing them. But my mom always believed it, so I kept some hope. Finally he notified us that he would come.” In the end, Hirul’s sentence was released from prison in October 2019, after serving more than three years. He initially went to stay with a friend in Maungdaw, but says he never planned to stay in Myanmar after learning that his family had become refugees in Bangladesh. Like over 700,000 other Rohingya, they fled across the border in August 2017.

Hirul did not find crossing the border too difficult or dangerous, but it was expensive. “I had to pay 700,000 kyats (397 USD) to cross the check post to come here. I borrowed the money from a friend. Now I am in debt to him. I need to find work and start repaying it.” Hirul arrived at the camp in early January 2020 after being separated from his family for over nine years. On the day he arrived, his son came to meet him in the Balukhali market and showed him the way to the family’s tarpaulin shelter. “I didn’t recognize him,” Hirul remarks. “He was 6 when I left and he is 16 now.”

He says he felt safe upon arriving at the camp, but was dismayed to see the living conditions: “I always envisioned that my family would one day reunite in a peaceful home and village one day, but we are here instead.” Every Rohingya person and the members of the Government of Myanmar should get training on peace building and justice. Our problems are due to people’s ignorance and illiteracy. People are uneducated. Because of this we don’t get any opportunities for the situation to improve.