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Murder of Mohib Ullah leaves a void in Rohingya leadership

  • >> Golam Mortuja and Sankar Barua Rumi, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2021-10-02 01:05:02 BdST

A banner of “Going Home Campaign” appeared on the wall of Mohib Ullah’s office at a refugee camp in Bangladesh two years ago. It was a sign of hope for many in a generation of hopelessness. After the killing of Mohib Ullah, the most visible Rohingya, on Wednesday night, many refugees now ask if the path back to Myanmar is darkening again.

The wall of the office is now smeared with the Rohingya leader’s blood. To the refugees, the chairman of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights was a man who dreamt of returning home to Myanmar. His name gained prominence after he began to work for others who never knew what it was like to be a citizen of a country.

Persecuted and denied citizenship by Buddhist-majority Myanmar, around 400,000 members of the Muslim ethnic minority took shelter in Bangladesh over the past decades. More than 700,000 others joined them after a 2017 military crackdown described by the United Nations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Mohib Ullah, a leader of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, talks on the phone in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh April 7, 2019. Reuters

Mohib Ullah, a leader of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, talks on the phone in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh April 7, 2019. Reuters

Mohib Ullah’s group Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, or ARSPH, was founded in 2017 to document atrocities against Rohingya in their native Myanmar and give them a voice in international talks about their future.

The killing of the 48-year-old has ignited grief and anger in the camps, the world’s largest refugee settlement, where some residents believe the refugees, “who never want to return and have connection with the Myanmar authorities”, murdered Mohib Ullah after seeing “significant” progress in their possible repatriation.

They fear the dream of going home will fade with the killing of Mohib Ullah. Some refugees said Mohib Ullah’s group had held discussions with the anti-junta National Unity Government of Myanmar, which was formed after the country’s military ousted the democratically elected government through a coup in February. The anti-junta group supports Rohingya repatriation, according to Mohib Ullah’s followers.

Jamalida, a woman leader at the refugee camp, said Mohib Ullah called her on Wednesday just before his murder to inform her about a meeting scheduled for Friday. They were supposed to discuss repatriation and talks with the anti-junta group.

People gather around Mohib Ullah’s grave. Photo: Golam Mortuja

People gather around Mohib Ullah’s grave. Photo: Golam Mortuja

A ‘SHATTERED’ DREAM

On Friday afternoon, Lombashia camp was under tight security. Members of the Armed Police Battalion, or APBn, were guarding Mohib Ullah’s office, cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape.   

Mohib Ullah’s 7-year-old daughter Anwara sat on a chair next to the policemen. The girl with speaking disability was holding a stick. She would not let anyone in.

Many gathered around Mohib Ullah’s grave inside the camp after Friday prayers. Ansarullah, who was selling betel leaf, nut and cigarette there, said he has been hearing since he was a child that Mohib Ullah will return to their homeland with them all. The young Rohingya refugees now think if the killing of the leader shattered their dream of going home.

From the crowd, one Abdur Rahim started crying. “Mohib Ullah told us that we will return if our country recognises us like other Qawms (ethnic groups). Bangladesh had Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Rohingya needed a leader like him. Amid conflicts in this foreign country, many recognised Mohib Ullah as the leader who would bring us freedom. Now that he has been killed, we may have to spend the rest of our lives here.”

Nuruddin, 59, sat with a void look in his eyes. “Mohib Ullah wanted to return home with everyone. He said Bangladesh’s prime minister [Sheikh Hasina] held discussions in the United Nations. Mohib Ullah was also holding talks with many in our country [Myanmar]. He said we would not have to be here.”

“I am lost for words,” said Md Shafi. “Everyone liked Mohib Ullah. We never thought someone would kill him inside the camp,” said Jaheda Begum.

Mohib Ullah’s 7-year-old daughter Anwara sits outside his office after his killing. Photo: Golam Mortuja

Mohib Ullah’s 7-year-old daughter Anwara sits outside his office after his killing. Photo: Golam Mortuja

HOW THE ATTACK UNFOLDED

APBn personnel guard the camps in the daytime, but refugees said security measures vanish at night. It’s an open secret that gunmen lurk in the dark.

On Wednesday night, witnesses said, 15-20 men entered Mohib Ullah’s office with small arms like pistols or revolvers. They wore Lungi and used masks or towels to cover their faces. Some had caps.

The attackers then shot Mohib Ullah dead. To create a safe passage, they shouted – “police are coming” -- scaring the residents off into their shanties.

The gunmen then melted into the dark.

Mohib Ullah’s brother Habib Ullah told the media on Thursday that he and Mohib Ullah went to the office of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights after saying prayers at a mosque on Wednesday evening.

Mohib Ullah, chairman of the organisation, was talking to other Rohingya men about their repatriation to the Rakhine state in Myanmar. A former teacher, Mohib Ullah, 48, was from Sikder Para village in Rakhine’s Mongdu.

Later, Habib Ullah left Mohib Ullah’s office and went home. Gunshots rang out when Habib Ullah was eating dinner at home. Then he rushed out and saw 15 to 20 gunmen standing, with Mohib Ullah lying covered in blood. They targeted only Mohib Ullah.

Members of Armed Police Battalion whisk down a Rohingya man at the entrance of Lombashia camp. Photo: Golam Mortuja

Members of Armed Police Battalion whisk down a Rohingya man at the entrance of Lombashia camp. Photo: Golam Mortuja

Although the assailants covered their faces, Habib Ullah claimed he recognised some of them. They included Master Abdur Rahim, Lalu, Murshid and “other leaders of ARSA who reside in the camps”, according to Habib Ullah.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, had previously threatened to kill Mohib Ullah for working on the repatriation of the refugees, said his other brother Ahmad Ullah. This was the reason behind the deadly attack on Mohib Ullah, said his cousin Nurul Amin.

Two witnesses told bdnews24.com that the assailants were carrying “foreign pistols”.

Police, however, do not believe it. “The attackers might have used locally made arms. How would they get foreign arms?” said Kaqrtik Chandra Paul, sub-inspector at Ukhiya Police Station. He also claimed foreign bullets, available in the black market, can be used in locally made arms.

ARSA DENIES CHARGES, ONE DETAINED

ARSA, however, demanded accountability for the killing of the top civil society leader by gunmen, saying “criminals" were responsible and decrying "finger-pointing" after the death.

In a Twitter statement on Friday ARSA said it was “shocked and saddened” by the killing of Mohib Ullah. "It is time for bringing the criminals to account instead of finger-pointing with baseless and hearsay accusations," the group said in its statement, blaming the shooting on "transnational border-based criminals", but citing no evidence.

Rohingya refugees Md Yusuf and Md Shafi arrive to see Mohib Ullah’s grave.

Rohingya refugees Md Yusuf and Md Shafi arrive to see Mohib Ullah’s grave.

The United Nations and the United States have condemned the killing and urged a swift investigation by authorities in Bangladesh.

Violent men claiming affiliation to ARSA and other gangs rule the camps at night, refugees say, kidnapping critics and warning women against breaking conservative Islamic norms.

Police have detained a Rohingya man for his suspected involvement with the killing of Mohib Ullah.

The detainee, Selim Ullah, 30, is also a resident of Lombashia camp, said Naimul Haque, APBn commander of the camps.

[Additional reporting by Cox’s Bazar Correspondent Sankar Barua Rumi. Written in English by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]