As Hope Fades, Rohingya Refugees Search for the Missing


COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh—The last time Nabi Hossain saw his older sister, they were running through rice paddies to escape machine-gun fire from a Myanmar military ambush.

Somewhere in the chaos, he says, they got separated.

Now at a refugee camp in Bangladesh with tens of thousands of other Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Mr. Hossain spends many of his days shuffling down red-dirt roads, searching for his sister and hoping she too made it across the river that separates the two countries.

“Maybe she is in Bangladesh and I haven’t found her yet,” Mr. Hossain said, his rubber sandals caked in dirt. He doesn’t have a photo or any possessions to identify her—just a description: older, but still vigorous and full of laughter.

Some seven months after the start of a campaign by the Myanmar military against Rohingya villages caused nearly 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh, tens of thousands remain missing or unaccounted for.

A study by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights found that more than 43,000 Rohingya children in Bangladesh’s sprawling camps are missing at least one parent. Others lost children, siblings and cousins.

The questions over their fates—and widespread complaints that Myanmar isn’t helping account for them—are adding to tensions as the two countries negotiate a plan to resettle some of those who fled.

Myanmar regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship even though many have lived in the country for generations. The U.N. says the Myanmar campaign bears the hallmarks of genocide, but the Myanmar military says it is a justified response to Rohingya terrorism.

Human-rights organizations say that rather than help tally the dead, Myanmar is bulldozing sites of alleged massacres to hide its actions. Amnesty International released satellite photographs it said showed Mr. Hossain’s village, known as Oper Fare in the Rohingya language, burned to the ground.

Myanmar has “done absolutely nothing to help unite separated families—it’s a completely heartless approach from the government,” says Mark Farmaner, director of activist group Burma Campaign U.K.

Myanmar’s government says it hasn’t bulldozed sites to conceal alleged crimes, but instead is building new villages for eventual returnees.

Zaw Htay,

a spokesman for Myanmar’s top civilian leader,

Aung San Suu Kyi,

said it won’t be possible to account for the dead and missing until Rohingya refugees are repatriated, because only they know for sure who among their communities is gone.

Melissa Dumignard, a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, said her organization is working to connect separated family members, but progress has been slow because there is no official list to work with.

Other refugees in Bangladesh have tried finding people on their own by word-of-mouth among the camps, which stretch across the Bangladesh hills, with tens of thousands of huts. At first, they set up booths with speakers so mothers could call out descriptions of missing children, while makeshift mosques helped spread messages.

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Kemal Hossain, a Rohingya refugee who set up one of the booths, estimates he helped reunite several hundred families—about half the cases he encountered. But he shut his booth in February as successful cases became rarer.

“I think they’re not alive—it’s already many months,” he said of the people still missing.

Nabi Hossain, who is not related to Kemal Hossain, said he isn’t giving up yet.

A farmer with a scraggly beard, he attributes his persistence to the bond he and his sister developed after their mother died. His sister, Samaruk, who like many Rohingya goes by one name, was older and helped raise him when their father went to work the fields during the day, he recalled.

She bathed him and brushed his hair in the morning. At the end of the Ramadan month of fasting, she’d give him gur pitha, a sugar-and-vermicelli pastry.

“She gave me both a sister’s love and a mother’s love,” he said.

When violence erupted in their village last September, security forces swept in and shot several villagers, Mr. Hossain said, including Ms. Samaruk’s only child, a daughter. Surviving family members—including Mr. Hossain’s wife, their children and Ms. Samaruk—fled along with hundreds of other villagers.

As villagers approached the Naf River that forms the border with Bangladesh, they were ambushed by the Myanmar military, Mr. Hossain and his son said. With bullets flying, older people fell behind.

Mr. Hossain’s son came back to find them a few hours later during a lull in the fighting. But Mr. Hossain had become separated from his sister, and Ms. Samaruk and her husband couldn’t be located. With soldiers closing in, remaining family members decided to forge on, in the hope they would reunite in Bangladesh.

“This is my guilt,” Mr. Hossain said. “When people see the military, they just run fast to save their lives.”

Mr. Hossain said he understands it’s unlikely he’ll find his sister in the camps. Still, he sold gold earrings his wife owned for $120 to help fund the search.

On a recent trek through the Kutapolong refugee camp where he lives, he spotted some older men resting under a yellow tarpaulin for shade and asked whether they had met anyone resembling his sister or her husband.

“Anyone from Oper Fare?” he asked.

The men shook their heads. One man said he’d seen Mr. Hossain before, asking the same questions months earlier.

“We’ve all lost someone,” the man said.

Write to Jon Emont at

Appeared in the April 9, 2018, print edition as ‘Rohingya Seek Loved Ones as Hope Fades.’

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