“Last month was terrible,” says Rafiuddin Majhi, looking into the distance at the Arakan range across the border in his homeland that is no longer his country. As a teenager, he was forced to abandon his village in Myanmar. That was a quarter century ago, when he entered Bangladesh as part of the big Rohingya exodus of 1991-92. Now he makes a living off another exodus, triggered by a junta far more brutal, calling for a journey far more perilous. For the desperate souls amassed on the beaches of Myanmar, he is Charon, the proverbial boatman of Hades, vested with the power to ferry them out of hell, and return them back to life.
The river where the Majhi (Bangla for boatman) plies his trade is the Naf. It flows along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border until it meets the Bay of Bengal. For the Rohingya, it is the Styx that separates the world of the living from the realm of the dead. “On this trip to Myanmar, about half an hour after I reached the Naik-Kon Dia beach, I saw a helicopter approaching us,” Rafiuddin says. “There were about 2,000 people on the beach huddled together, like a ball of ants. Maybe they thought they were going to be bombed, I don’t know. Then the helicopter disappeared. Shortly afterwards, 30 men in uniform emerged from the forests.”
Rafiuddin speaks haltingly, with long pauses, giving his sister time to translate. “The soldiers isolated from the crowd five men with long beards. They marched them into the forest, about 100 yards from where we were. Then they beheaded the five men with machetes, one by one, in front of us, in front of the men’s families. The big crowd watched it quietly.” Though a Rohingya himself, Rafiuddin doesn’t betray much emotion: “I got down on my knees and prayed, but without covering my face, without moving my head or hands, as I didn’t want to attract attention. I closed my eyes and prayed for their quick and painless death.”
The bodies were dumped in the marshes. Fortunately, Rafiuddin was not targeted. “They saw me with a Bangladeshi boat and let me live,” he says. Once the soldiers left, the terrified multitude came alive. “Hundreds of women and children wanted to get on my boat at the same time. But I could accommodate only around 20. Who I can take on board and who I must leave behind is a complicated matter.”
Rafiuddin stops to take a phone call. After a tense conversation, in which the word ‘police’ comes up twice, he turns to me: “I am being hunted by the [Bangladeshi] police. I am counting on you to talk to them.”
The complicated matter
According to Human Rights Watch, in Myanmar’s Rakhine province, in the three coastal areas of Maungdaw, Rathedaung and Buthidaung, 288 Rohingya villages were destroyed by the Myanmar army between August 25 and September 25 this year. As of October 11, the Bangladesh government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) is estimated to have accommodated 536,000 Rohingya refugees, of which more than 50% were children. Men like Rafiuddin play a critical role in their safe arrival in Bangladesh. Based in and around Shahpori island, the final sliver of Bangladeshi territory where the Naf merges with the Bay of Bengal, they ferry the Rohingya 3 km up the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
I first meet Rafiuddin outside my hotel in Cox’s Bazar, on the road to Teknaf, a tiny coastal town on the Bangladeshi side. He looks ragged in a dirty, sleeveless vest, and his unruly stubble suggests he hasn’t shaved in weeks. “Let’s start,” he says, within minutes of our meeting.
He leads me up a steep road that leads into the forest behind my hotel. As we walk, he tells me a little about himself. He had come to Bangladesh from a village called Pirindaung in Rathedaung, near the sea. “We were not attacked, unlike the people who are crossing over now,” he says. “Our problems were different. We had to take permission from the state for everything — for marriage, for moving to another village, for fishing, for buying a goat or a cow. Even for the land, we needed permission from the local authority. Fed up, my father decided to leave.”
Since 1978, there have been five major exoduses of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The most recent one that began on August 25 is the biggest.
We reach the banks of the Naf in 20 minutes. The Arakans rise up on the other side of the river. Rafiuddin picks up the refugees from three of the half a dozen beaches where the Naf meets the sea. During August-September, he took his boat into Myanmar seven times, ferrying refugees back to Shahpori Island. But he cannot do that any more — at least not without risking imprisonment. “I have been charged with human trafficking,” he explains.
The Deputy Commissioner of Cox’s Bazar district, Md. Ali Hossain, says that they had to “discourage entry by boat” in view of the risks involved. Between August 29 and October 16, 26 boats capsized in the Naf river and the Bay of Bengal, costing 183 lives. Of them, 182 were Rohingya, half of them children. This is one of the reasons why in early October, the local administration banned “any entry by boat”. The land border, however, remains “completely open”, Hossain says.
But the land border is both more difficult to access and more risky. The internally displaced Rohingya prefer to flee by boat, as eastern Rakhine is much closer to riverine crossing points. On the other hand, to reach any of the half a dozen crossover points on land, they would have to walk for about two weeks through a mountainous terrain manned by the trigger-happy Myanmar military.
Back in Rafiuddin’s two-room house made of mud and bamboo, two young girls watch us silently as we settle down. One of them hands me a cup of black tea and sits down between Rafiuddin and me. “I will be your translator,” she says. She is Rafiuddin’s youngest sister and was born in Bangladesh.
Rafiuddin tells me that he began life as a refugee by working as a boatman’s assistant, repairing and maintaining fishing boats. He graduated to Majhi (or the boat’s captain) a few years ago. In the last five years, especially after the 2012 pogrom against the Rohingya, he has ferried hundreds of Rohingya from Rakhine to Teknaf. “Initially it wasn’t that difficult to get them from Myanmar to Bangladesh. We often brought people without taking money, when we were informed that they were stranded on one of the beaches,” he says. As fishermen, it was also easier for men like Rafiuddin to navigate the river and the sea.
But things changed. Rafiuddin says that unlike in 2012 or even 2016, he no longer has any say in the refugees who get to board his boat. It’s all decided by a complicated money transfer process.
“I received only a third of my share for every passenger above 10 years, which is somewhere between 2,000 to 10,000 Bangladeshi Taka (₹1,500-₹7,800),” he says. Rafiuddin also claims to have accommodated women and children “without charging a Taka.”
“In August, we were making 2,000-3,000 Taka per passenger as there weren’t any restrictions. But now with the ban, we are charging 7,000-10,000 Taka for each adult,” he says. “But often, after landing in Myanmar, we find many children and older women. We do not charge them anything, and that is how the crowd in the boat swells.” Typically, the boat’s owner (known as the ‘Company’) gets 50% of the revenue, while the remaining 50% is split between the Majhi and his helpers, with the motorman and the assistant together receiving 50% of what the Majhi gets.
According to the United Nations, more than 800,000 refugees have arrived in Teknaf sub-district and Cox’s Bazar district since 1978. Many of the refugees, including Rafiuddin, regularly receive videos on their cell phones depicting the gruesome violence unfolding in the Rohingya villages in Myanmar. Rafiuddin starts showing me some pictures and videos. One shows a girl’s body, clad in a red blouse and orange skirt, lying on a blue and white sheet. “I saw this girl in Dong Khali in north Maungdaw,” says Rafiuddin. “She was desperate to climb on to my boat. But I had already left the shore. It was raining heavily and I soon lost sight of her.”
I tell Rafiuddin that I want to see first-hand what the Myanmar military is up to and ask him if he could smuggle me into Rakhine State at night. He looks at me as if I had said something outrageous. “I won’t do it even if you pay a lakh,” he says firmly. “It is suicidal.”
At the refugee camp
One morning, my area guide Shafique and I head north to Cox’s Bazar. This region, on either side of the Naf, has massive natural gas reserves. Many have linked the internal displacement of Rohingya to the discovery of gas, as the villages of the Rohingya Muslims sit atop a large chunk of the reserves in Myanmar.
Global experts such as Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, see a connection between “the (Rohingya) genocide” and the “discovery of large offshore gas and oil supplies” which has drawn the attention of “leading companies… from China, India, Australia and South Korea”, with some of them obtaining “exploration licenses from the State-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.”
The effects of the “genocide” are visible as we approach Unchiprang, a temporary refugee settlement between Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar. Half-naked children in tattered clothes and women in burqas without a face cover stand by the roadside. It seems as if each family has been allotted a tree to stand under.
The children come running towards our autorickshaw, whose windows are fortified with iron netting to keep the alms-seekers away from the passengers. At Unchiprang, the scene is so gloomy that Shafique, a regular visitor to these camps, calls up his home to find out if his children are alright.
The camp is a temporary shelter, set up in a forest area. A thousand trees were felled to make way for 8 by 10 ft tents made of plastic sheets. The shelters are on either side of the road in ankle-deep mud. The stench of human faeces is overpowering. Clean water and hygienic food are in severe short supply. Despite the best efforts of aid agencies and the RRRC, filth floats on stagnant pools around the makeshift shanties. We decide to spend the night somewhere in the refugee camp.
“But Sadaullah wants to meet now,” says Shafique. Sadaullah has used the boatman’s services as a paying client, to transport his sister and her four children from Myanmar. He is expected to throw some light on the monetary aspect of the process that eases the passage for the Rohingya. We head to Teknaf town and meet him at a cheap restaurant where everyone is busy with lentil soup and white bread. Sadaullah looks a little like Amitabh Bachchan of the 1970s. Introducing himself as a “part-time doctor,” he begins by dispelling any notions one might have of this being “human trafficking”.
“The humanitarian agencies, the government, the police and the press will call it human trafficking. But my mother collapsed in shock when my sister called up to say that they were in Go Zon Dia beach in Myanmar, and had exhausted their stocks of food and water. I had no option but to smuggle them in via the river route,” he says.
Sadaullah had to locate a Company willing to place a boat on water, especially during a fishing ban, and then negotiate for a rate he could afford. He finally settled on a verbal contract to pay 42,000 Bangladeshi Taka for 12 persons. “But I did not have the money. So I told a relative in Saudi Arabia to fund the trip. He agreed.” The money did not arrive on time. Sadauallah was asked to stay put at the ‘Company’s office’ on that fateful night of October 10.
“Meanwhile, the boatman arrived at Go Zon Dia beach. But before letting my sister and the kids board the boat, he called the Company to ask if the money had been transferred to his account. It hadn’t. He threatened to leave with others who could pay on the spot as it was getting dark and the Myanmar military was around,” recalls Sadaullah. Desperate, Sadaullah called many for help.
Finally his wife managed to arrange the funds. “I still don’t know how she did it,” says Sadaullah. “The money was transferred through bKash, a popular digital money transfer service. Only after the Company and the boatman were satisfied that the funds had been transferred were my sister and her kids allowed on board.” A few hours later, when Sadaullah met his sister at Shahpori Island, 25 years after they parted, she fainted. “She never thought she would reach Bangladesh by crossing a rough river by the sea,” he says.
Private humanitarian networks
Sadaullah explains that he basically tapped into a well established “private humanitarian network” with people in Europe and West Asia, which clandestinely arrange for money to fund the transfer, mainly of women and children, from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
The network has a handful of volunteers who pay the Company and arrange the boats. The money bypasses the established banking networks and uses the route of Hundi or alternative remittance. The volunteers are paid the money in Bangladesh on the basis of instructions issued by the person who is funding the boat trip from outside Bangladesh. Senior police officials said that they were aware of such “engagements” but could not do much about it.
“I won’t call it money laundering or trafficking. It is a humanitarian effort by conscientious people at a time when the whole world has failed the Rohingya,” says Sadauallah. He, however, does not deny the risk involved in a boat ferrying three times its capacity of passengers.
Sadaullah’s concerns were evident on a trip from Gholapara in Shahpori Island to a large Madrassah, the Jameya Ahmadia Baharul Uloom. In a circular patch of land east of the madrassa lies the largest burial ground in Shahpori.
As we reach, students of the seminary are lowering a body into the earth. One of the teachers at the madrassa, Master Jasimuddin, shows us a photograph on his phone: the body of a young man, probably in his mid-20s. According to Jasimuddin, the body was recovered from Naf river after a boat capsized on October 9. “He is the one we are burying now,” he says.
“Another woman and five children died in the same accident. But their bodies had been recovered earlier,” says Md. Ibrahim, another teacher. A couple of British journalists want to know if there are similar photographs of children, preferably with the bodies “floating on water.” Ibrahim wasn’t sure.
“The main problem is that there are no boats in Myanmar to bring the refugees. Any boat that brings the refugees to safety has to leave from Bangladesh. If the boats are disallowed, then the people stranded on the beach will die as the Myanmar military will not allow them to enter the mainland by crossing the Arakan range,” says Faisal Alam, a human rights activist.
A day later, Rafiuddin calls me, his fourth call in five days. He is disappointed that I did not talk to the police. “I am on the run for rescuing people. No one is ready to help me and now you are also leaving,” he complains.
For Rafiuddin, it is going to be a long and difficult winter. So long as there are cases of “trafficking” against him, he can neither visit the river for fishing, nor visit Myanmar to transport the stranded Rohingya. There are many like him on Shahpori Island.