KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh — Just after 2:30 a.m. on a humid night, Mohammad Ismail was walking his wife to the latrine when he felt a gun pointed at his head.
The men had been saying for weeks they were coming, he later recalled. Now, dozens were swarming around him, smashing their feet into his back.
“You,” the men said, stuffing his mouth with cloth, “have been making life hard for us.”
Six years after the Myanmar military conducted a genocidal campaign against its Rohingya Muslim minority, a wave of violence is sweeping through the camps in southeast Bangladesh where nearly a million Rohingya have sought refuge. Rohingya militant groups that once targeted the Myanmar military have turned against each other, their disagreements escalating into brutality amid the camp’s isolation and desperation.
Abductions and armed robberies have surged. Radical groups have proliferated, imposing a reign of terror after dark. In the warren-like encampment, where families are crowded into thin, tarpaulin shelters jammed along narrow alleyways, every shriek and every gunshot has rippled through the community.
Worst of all, refugees say, have been the targeted killings of community leaders and those branded, like Ismail was, as Bangladeshi government informants. At least 40 refugees were murdered in 2022, authorities say, though many in the camps say the actual number is far higher. Workers at a local morgue said that at times they have received multiple bodies in a single night, many of them mutilated and caked in mud.
As the victims — often young, educated men — have been buried one after another, international and Bangladeshi agencies have failed to stem the violence, according to interviews with dozens of refugees, documents and photographic evidence of killings. Warnings of imminent attacks have been ignored. Appeals for relocation have gone unheard. The Rohingya, already one of the most persecuted populations in the world, have been left by the agencies charged with protecting them to face violence by themselves — yet again.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the leading aid agency at the camps. But ensuring their security is not within UNHCR’s mandate, said country director Johannes van der Klaauw. “Ultimately, that is their responsibility,” he said, referring to the Bangladeshi government.
Shahriar Alam, second-in-command at Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, scoffed at the idea that his country needs to be doing more. Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion (APBn) is the agency responsible for ensuring the security of the Rohingya camps, and its commanders say they’ve now gotten the violence under control.
But higher-ranking officials acknowledged in interviews that security forces are still overwhelmed. Militant groups are smuggling in weapons from Myanmar, which has fallen into civil war. Barred from seeking a future in Bangladesh and unable to return to Myanmar, more Rohingya are being pushed toward radicalization. “The situation,” Alam admitted, “is worsening by the minute.”
The futile search by Ismail and his family for protection exposes what happens when the world looks away from a humanitarian crisis of this severity. By the time Ismail was abducted in September, one member of his family had already been killed. By the end of the year, three others would be dead.
That night, Ismail said, people watched through gaps in their bamboo and tarpaulin shelters as attackers dragged him to the bottom of a denuded hill. Some knew him — a soft-spoken, bespectacled 24-year-old who dreamed of becoming a teacher. Many knew the men. None would exit their shelters.
Before they blindfolded him, Ismail saw the attackers pass forward knives, machetes and pipes. In seconds, both his kneecaps would be shattered. He strained his throat to beg, he said, but his words came out muffled.
“Please,” he told them, weeping, “I didn’t do anything.”
A new threat emerges
Ismail had felt fear like this before.
He was 18 when soldiers burned his village in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, forcing him and the rest of his family to flee west. They trekked for seven days in monsoon rains, he said, eventually crossing the Naf River into Bangladesh.
After the exodus, several Rohingya insurgent groups that warred with Myanmar security forces in Rakhine set up bases in the refugee camps. Ismail had heard about the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) — how they’d sometimes turned their guns against their own, forcing Rohingya men to fight or die. Ismail didn’t believe in their methods, he said, but didn’t see them as a threat. He settled into life as a refugee, got married and found a job with a U.N. agency that paid a small stipend.
Then in February 2021, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, crushing for many Rohingya the hope of ever returning to Rakhine. Despair, then anger, boiled over in the camps, culminating in the killing of Mohib Ullah, a prominent Rohingya activist. His family said ARSA had assassinated him for becoming too influential. An ARSA spokesman denied it.
As militant groups began hunting other community leaders, called Majhis, one of Ismail’s cousins was tagged as a government informant.
Mohammad Hossain, 27, had a job reporting to Bangladeshi bureaucrats which shelters needed to be repaired, including those that had been damaged by miscreants overnight. In October 2021, he filed a police complaint, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post, saying a criminal group had tried to kidnap him. In subsequent letters, he listed the names of those who had been intimidating him and pleaded for authorities to intervene.
“I cannot communicate with my family or live in my shelter,” he wrote, “because the accused might suddenly attack.”
Bangladeshi officials stamped his letters “received.” Six months later, Hossain’s bloodied body was found in a dirt field where children play soccer. He’d been stabbed to death, eyewitnesses told Ismail, in broad daylight.
Rohingya refugees often choose not to participate in investigations into violent crime, police say. But when Hossain died, Ismail said he did everything he could to cooperate. He shared Hossain’s notes with law enforcement; he wrote letters in English and in Bengali to UNHCR; he circulated photos of Hossain’s body, trying, he said, to keep the case alive.
No justice would come of these efforts. Ismail, however, would be punished for attempting to seek it.
A homicidal attack
The morning call to prayer ended a sickening wait.
Ismail’s family had spent hours looking for him when, at daybreak, someone said they’d found a mangled body at the bottom of a hill. Ismail’s father, Kefayet Ullah, 60, ran to the scene. There was a clearing in a field of bushes, Ullah recounted, where Ismail lay screaming. Ayat Ullah, Ismail’s older brother, and his brother-in-law, Mohammad Yasin, waded into the overgrowth to retrieve him.
“Homicidal attack,” a member of Doctors Without Borders scribbled onto a patient referral form when Ismail was brought into one of its facilities at 7 a.m. “Near amputation of (L) arm above elbow joint and left leg above the ankle joint (L).”
Ismail survived. But he wasn’t meant to, he said. In the weeks before and after his attack, at least a dozen other refugees were hacked to death with machetes like the ones that took off his limbs.
The medical and security infrastructure of the camps struggled to cope. Doctors Without Borders, the lead medical provider, said its facilities were designed to treat diseases like scabies and dengue fever, not traumatic injuries. It doesn’t have staff to provide complex orthopedic or surgical care.
Before it was assigned by the Bangladeshi government to ensure the security of the Rohingya camps, the APBn had served mainly as a riot police force, tasked with dispersing large crowds. Many of its 2,000 or so personnel in the camps are fresh out of basic training and ill-equipped to combat militant groups, said Syed Harun Or Rashid, battalion commander.
More significantly, Rashid said, the APBn does not have the authority to investigate crimes. Its charter, set by politicians in the capital, Dhaka, allows personnel to make arrests but not to launch formal investigations to root out gang leaders and put them in prison.
The APBn sometimes refers cases to the local police district. But that agency was overwhelmed long before the Rohingya arrived. For most of the slayings referred to them last fall, said Police Chief Mahfuzul Islam, the district has yet to process post-mortem results. Even when police submit investigation reports to court, these cases can be tossed out by judges who don’t want to — or who don’t know how to — adjudicate cases in which the parties are stateless refugees.
“There’s a capacity issue” in the criminal justice system, said the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Alam.
But others say it’s not just a question of resources. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that APBn personnel have been extorting refugees and falsifying evidence to detain innocent people. The police agency denied those allegations.
After Ismail was discharged from the hospital, Ullah and Yasin, his brother and brother-in-law, brought him again to see authorities, where he emphasized that the people who hurt him would be back. APBn personnel told him not to worry, Ismail said. The agency assigned staff to keep an eye on his family, but it “wasn’t possible” to station someone at their shelter overnight, said Mohammad Saifuzzaman, Rashid’s deputy.
So when a mob returned to Ismail’s family’s shelter several weeks later, no security personnel were there. Ismail’s parents hid him under a blanket and sacks of rice. He heard screaming, he said, then gunshots.
Yasin, 30, died on the spot. Ullah, 40, was transported to a hospital, where he bled out.
APBn personnel arrived more than an hour later, Ismail said.
“Yes,” Saifuzzaman said, nodding as he remembered the incident. “It took us much time.”
Followed by fear
Three months after the killings, Ismail sat in a windowless shelter lit by a dusty bulb. Unplugging his phone, he scrolled through new voice messages from unknown numbers. They always said similar things.
“You’re an animal.”
“You better stop talking.”
Before Ullah and Yasin were even buried, militants killed another of his cousins, 26-year-old Mohammad Zoshim, Ismail said. He recently moved his immediate family to a new shelter that he hoped would be safer. But he said the men would find him sooner or later.
In response to reporters’ questions, UNHCR declined to discuss Ismail’s case, saying only that the agency provides legal support to crime victims and sometimes relocates refugees facing extreme safety risks. UNHCR leaders said Bangladeshi security forces must ensure that their personnel have the training to weed out criminals and stamp out violence.
Alam praised the efforts of the security forces, saying APBn personnel have been maimed by the same militants terrorizing the Rohingya. Bangladesh spends $1.2 billion a year on the camps in Cox’s Bazar, and has maintained its commitment even as wealthier nations have slashed their contributions. It is international apathy, not anything else, that’s letting Kutupalong become a cauldron of extremist violence, he said.
It’s unclear whether the descent into violence will jeopardize the Rohingya’s hopes for a better future. Alam suggested it might. “Why do you think no one wants a boat of Rohingya refugees now?” he asked.
When reporters visited the camp earlier this year, residents came up to describe abductions and assaults, their eyes darting as they whispered about who they thought was responsible. Children said they slept with bags of their belongings, scared their families would be next. “Maybe it’s better to have been killed by the military,” one imam said sadly, “than to be killed by your own people.”
Ismail felt this acutely.
One morning, after sharing his experience with reporters over several days, he weighed again the risks of speaking out. He wanted to be identified, he said quietly, and to have his photo taken. His father looked at the floor. His mother, listening from behind a curtain partition, buckled into tears.
Ismail straightened his posture for a photo. As his eyes softened behind his glasses, he looked, for a moment, like the teacher he’d always wanted to become.
“I’m not scared anymore,” he said.
“Let the world see.”
(c) 2023, The Washington Post