My Terrifying Trek Across Borders, Rivers and Jungles to Find My Wife

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“If I had been caught, I would have been arrested and beaten.”

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As told to Maroosha Muzaffar

In 2013, Muhammad Kabir, a Rohingya Muslim in Myanmar, was released after five years in prison. He was just 16 miles from his home in Maungdaw, in Rakhine state, where his wife and four children still lived — or so he thought.

The day I was released from jail in Buthidaung, I took the jungle route home. I could have taken the main road, but I was scared of seeing the Myanmar police. They weren’t kind to Rohingya Muslims, and I’m a Rohingya Muslim. A journey that could have taken me just an hour or so on a bus took me eight or nine hours through the forest.

I had never before been away from my wife and children, and it had been so long since I’d seen them. The journey was exhausting, but I was happy that I could finally be with them. My parents also lived with us. We had our property, houses, everything in Maungdaw. But when I reached home, exhausted, I saw only my father. My mother had died while I was in jail. And my wife and children were gone.

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This picture, taken from the Maungdaw district in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, shows Rohingya refugees gathering behind a barbed wire fence in a temporary settlement.

Source YE AUNG THU / Contributor/Getty Images

I felt like life was not worth living. It had been better in jail. My wife, Nesaro, was gone. My children, who I love more than life itself, were gone. Without them, I didn’t want to be home. When I was in jail, the police had harassed my wife and family. I used to work as an activist for a local nonprofit, and the police framed me and threw me in jail. No one in my family was allowed to visit me, not even my wife. But I learned later that the police used to call my wife to the prison at odd hours to harass her. That was why she decided it was better to leave the country with our children. Rohingyas are treated very poorly in Myanmar. Nesaro had been gone for two years when I got out of jail, and I had no idea she had left.

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Myanmar soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint in a rural road near Maungdaw. 

Source AFP Contributor/Contributor/Getty Images

Life in Maungdaw village was always full of fear. We never knew what the police would try to do to us. Now the United Nations has called the treatment of Rohingya an ethnic cleansing, but it has been going on for 70 years. We bore the brunt for years before it was international news. Nesaro had paid someone to take her and the children to India, to safety.

 

I had nothing left in my life. I didn’t know what to do. Eleven days after my release from prison, I decided to join Nesaro in India. My father didn’t want to leave our property.

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Top: Rohingya Muslim refugees crowd on a berm while waiting to be allowed to proceed after fleeing over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh at the Naf River. Bottom: More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have flooded into Bangladesh to flee an offensive by Myanmar’s military that the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” 

Source Kevin Frayer/Stringer/Getty Images

A few other men and women from my village joined me. We walked from Maungdaw to the border village of Teknaf about 55 miles away. There I swam across the Naf River to cross into Bangladesh. If I had been caught, I would have been arrested and beaten. Once we crossed, we had to be extra careful not to let the locals know we were Rohingya. There’s discrimination against us in Bangladesh too. But because we look a little similar to them and can speak the language, some helped us. It took us a week to cross the country, by bus and on foot. A man charged us 1,000 Burmese kyat [about $.65] to be smuggled across the border into India. I had to borrow the money. I promised I’d pay it back once Nesaro and I were reunited.

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Muhammad Kabir traveled almost 2,000 miles to be with his wife and children.

Source Maroosha Muzaffar

I was so tired. After almost 2,000 miles, I just wanted to go to sleep. At the Old Delhi railway station, I searched for a pay phone. On a piece of paper, I had my wife’s phone number. I called it, and two young Rohingya boys who were in touch with Nesaro came to pick me up at the railway station. They took me to the shantytown where Nesaro and our children were living. When I saw her, it was like I got my life back. And I could finally rest. It was all worth it.

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