In the middle of the night in a town in south-eastern Bangladesh, a Rohingya boy is found bound and blindfolded and dumped in the marketplace. He is pale and skinny, but he is alive. And nearly four months after he went missing, that is enough for his parents.
In April, Mohammad Faisal vanished from Kutapalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh where he lived with his family. His parents feared their boy, aged about 13, had been trafficked onto a fishing vessel, or perhaps worse.
Child trafficking has become common in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. The largest refugee camp complex in the world is home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who live in temporary settlements after fleeing violence in 2017 that drove them from Myanmar and left thousands of Rohingyans dead. Trafficked girls may end up in a life of prostitution, boys in forced labor; many are transported to India. But Faisal’s story was stranger than that.
Back in April, his mother Khurshida Begum says her neighbor’s daughter and her husband, a Bangladeshi citizen, visited her home, a tiny shelter made of bamboo poles and plastic sheets. The husband, called Kamal Hosan, allegedly offered to take Faisal on a day trip to the market. “I let them go,” says Begum. “I just wanted my son to have the chance to get out of the camp for a moment.”
Instead, he disappeared without a trace.
Begum says shortly after Faisal’s disappearance her family received a phone call. The voice on the other end said he would return their son, but for a price: 1,000 taka – about $12 US dollars.
For Faisal’s parents it was an easy decision that came at a steep cost. In order to raise the money to buy back their son’s freedom, the family sold their entire three-month ration of rice. They transferred the money, but the perpetrator didn’t hand over their son, nor did they provide a location to find him.
Begum looked for outside help, but it’s an uphill battle for Rohingya to have their voices heard. Getting information out of the sprawling camp often proves to be a challenge. Rohingyas need special permission to leave Cox’s Bazar and, because the Rohingya are technically stateless, there’s no guarantee the Bangladeshi police will file a report.
In July, the CNN Freedom Project traveled to Cox’s Bazar with the Kulczyk Foundation, a non-profit group focused on providing equality for disadvantaged women and girls, to report on Begum’s story. CNN followed her desperate search, witnessed the bureaucracy standing in her way and listened to the fierce advocates who had supported her.
Begum started by speaking to community advocates at the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR) inside the camp. Legal advocate for women and children Wahida Idris, director of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), took up Begum’s case in June.
After taking down Begum’s testimony, Idris followed Faisal’s mother back to her home to confront the suspect’s Rohingya wife about Faisal’s disappearance. But Idris says the pregnant woman offered little information, despite seeing Begum’s pain. The lawyer recalled how the woman said her husband worked on a trawler at sea, but didn’t know where he could be located. She said they could kill her, the police could put her in prison, and still she would not be able to help.
A police report was filed but the case cooled. With little in the way of leads, the prospect of returning Faisal home began to look grim.
When CNN left Cox’s Bazar in early July, Faisal was still nowhere to be found. Then on August 21, Begum’s months of silent prayers were answered.
Her husband Laal Miah received a phone call with Faisal on the other end of the line. A man had found him in the marketplace and looked after him for the night. The following morning, he drove Faisal down the long, narrow road connecting the town to the refugee camps, where Miah reunited with his son. Faisal had light marks on his wrists and around his eyes, but was otherwise physically unharmed.
Still little is known about what happened to Faisal in captivity. He told CNN that Hosan led him to a room, tied him up and left him there in the dark for more than three months. Faisal did not see him again. Occasionally, a small boy would bring him food. Faisal is unsure why he was let go.
“Faisal’s case is unusual,” says Idris. “He’s lucky to be alive. In most cases, traffickers either sell or will kill victims.”
Bengali media reported Hosan, identified by police as a member of a pirate gang, was killed in an alleged gunfight with police on August 20. Hosan’s wife inside the camp confirmed his death to CNN. CNN has requested to see Hosan’s death certificate.
For Begum, that matters little. Arms wrapped tightly around her eldest son, she is only willing to let go long enough to wipe away the tears of gratitude. “I want to thank everyone who helped bring my son back to me. I have no words in my vocabulary but you all will be in my prayers.”