Internet Hut Offers Connection for Reunions and Ransoms

In a hut in western Myanmar, displaced Rohingya Muslims connect to everyone from loved ones to those holding them captive.

In this teeming camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar, it's easy to overlook the internet huts. The raw emotion they generate is much harder to ignore.

The huts have bamboo walls, thatched roofs and - most importantly - dusty laptop computers that allow Rohingya to reestablish contact with relatives who have left on boats for Thailand and Malaysia. The internet connection comes via cellphones jammed into the cobweb-strewn rafters.

Smoke from the camp's cooking fires seeps in through the flimsy walls. Sound drifts out just as easily, obliging callers to share their personal dramas with everyone nearby.

What emerges is an intimate portrait of the Rohingya, a mostly stateless people living in often grim conditions in Myanmar, where many consider them illegal immigrants. The huts also provide an insight into the human traffickers who profit from the boat-people and the families they leave behind.

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Salima talks to her husband, son and daughter, who are all being held by traffickers abroad. She has to pay $600 and they discuss how to raise it. Later, she shouts at the trafficker himself.

Traffickers each year ferry thousands of Rohingya to Thailand, where they are routinely held for ransom in remote camps near the border with Malaysia. Freedom costs $1,200 to $1,800 - a fortune for most Rohingya living on a dollar or two a day.

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Rohingya people, some crying, video-chat with a big group of their relatives in Bangladesh, from an internet hut in Thae Chaung village.

In the camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims, residents frequent bamboo "internet huts" where they can communicate with relatives who left the country, escaping violence. Some arrive safely, while others are held hostage for ransom by human traffickers at jungle camps in Thailand or Malaysia.

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Norbanu, 60, speaks with her daughter's boyfriend, who is now in Indonesia. He has broken his promise to send for her, Norbanu tells him, so she will now marry off her daughter to another man.

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Muhammad Ali and his cousin wait for a call to get through to Muhammad's son in Malaysia. The call never went through. Operators of the huts charge customers 10 cents a minute to talk to relatives who have left Rakhine State by boat to seek work overseas.

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Sohidar, 25, a Rohingya mother of four, enjoys an internet reunion with her husband Muhammad Shamin, 30, who works in Malaysia. Her face is smeared with a traditional Burmese cosmetic paste called thanaka.

"Whatever happens, whatever anyone does, don't get into any fights," Sohidar warns him. "Don't worry, don't worry," he replies.

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A trafficker is demanding $1,400 to release Rahana's 12-year-old son. Rahana (above), who like many Rohingya women goes by a single name, has already sent $1,100, but the trafficker wants the balance.

Rahana is allowed to talk briefly with her son. Usually, after an initial "proof of life" call, traffickers do not let relatives speak until paid in full.

A man answers the Malaysian number Rahana calls. "Let me speak to my son," she tells him. A few seconds pass. Then a small voice says, "Mum?"

Rahana's eyes fills with tears and her jaw trembles. She quickly composes herself.

"I will send the money," she tells the boy. "Then they will let you go." After the call, Rahana is dazed and fretful. "My son told me he was sick," she says. "Whenever he eats, he vomits."

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Noor, 28, jokes with her husband Muhammad Rafiq, 35, while their son Noor Kaidar listens. Rafiq has been working in Malaysia for 10 months; this is the fifth time they've spoken during that period.

"Don't send us more money," Noor urges him. "Make sure you have enough to buy clothes for yourself first. "Can I kiss you?" asks Rafiq. Noor laughs, "There are other people here. Think about what you say."

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Thae Chaung was a fishing village until 2012, when ethnic Rakhine Buddhists drove thousands of Rohingya from the nearby city of Sittwe. Religious violence in Rakhine State that year killed at least 200 people and left 140,000 homeless.

Today, Thae Chaung is a grimy, overcrowded camp. For most residents, a boat to Thailand is the only way out.

— Reuters

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