'We are always missing you': Torn apart by violence, Rohingya families connect through letters

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON, July 13 (Reuters) - Inside a bamboo shelter on Bangladesh's eastern coast, 58-year-old Sait Banu held a dog-eared note from her husband. "If you find a good match for my daughter Una Jamin, you can arrange her wedding," he urged her in the letter.

"Don't worry, there is no problem in jail."

The message, sent from a prison hundreds of miles away in Myanmar's Rakhine state, was the first Sait Banu had heard from her husband since he was arrested in an army sweep last August that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, including Sait Banu and her nine children, to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

During weeks of violence that the United Nations has called "ethnic cleansing," soldiers killed, raped, and arrested thousands of Rohingya, survivors and human rights groups said. Myanmar denies the allegations.

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Rohingya families connect through messages
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Rohingya families connect through messages
Sait Banu sits at her bamboo shelter with her children at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, holding a letter she received from her husband imprisoned in Myanmar, June 28, 2018. Picture taken June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Zeba Siddiqui
A volunteer of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society Bangladesh walks in the rain to call for the Rohingya refugees who have missing relatives in Myanmar or other countries, in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh July 4, 2018. Picture taken July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Roshan Begum, a Rohingya refugee, wipes her eyes after hearing the news that her son has been found in Buthidaung prison in Myanmar through trace message request program of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society Bangladesh, at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 3, 2018. Picture taken July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society collect trace message requests from Rohingya refugees who have missing relatives in Myanmar or other countries, at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 3, 2018. Picture taken July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Ayesha Khatun, a Rohingya refugee, receives replies to her trace messages from her husband and son jailed in Sittwe prison in Myanmar, at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 5, 2018. Picture taken July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Jamila Khatu, a Rohingya refugee, breaks into tears as her son in Malaysia has been traceless for eight years, at designated point of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 4, 2018. Picture taken July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rohingya refugees who have missing relatives in Myanmar or other countries, come to a point designated by Bangladesh Red Crescent Society to place trace message requests, at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 3, 2018. Picture taken July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Oli Mian, a Rohingya refugee who has found his son in Buthidaung prison in Myanmar through trace message request program of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, is seen at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 3, 2018. Picture taken July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Bangladesh Red Crescent Society staff at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh take down messages to be sent to the refugees�family members in Myanmar June 28, 2018. Picture taken June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Zeba Siddiqui
Bangladesh Red Crescent Society staff at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh take down messages to be sent to the refugees�family members in Myanmar June 28, 2018. Picture taken June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Zeba Siddiqui
Rohingya refugees who have missing relatives in Myanmar or other countries, gather at a place designated by Bangladesh Red Crescent Society to request trace messages at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 3, 2018. Picture taken July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Bangladesh Red Crescent Society staff at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh take down messages to be sent to the refugees�family members in Myanmar June 28, 2018. Picture taken June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Zeba Siddiqui
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With entire villages razed and thousands believed dead, Red Cross workers say many of those stuck in Myanmar prisons have been desperate to know if their families made it to the safety of refugee camps in Bangladesh. And those on the other side of the border, unable to go back, told Reuters they are equally keen to know if their loved ones had survived.

Scraps of paper carried between prisons in Myanmar and the camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross are a rare source of hope for families torn apart by the largest and fastest refugee influx in the region in the past twenty years, the refugees say.

More than 1,600 notes have been gathered from the Bangladeshi camps since August, the Red Cross says. About 160 have been delivered to jails in Rakhine and the replies sent back to Bangladesh.

Reuters saw copies of seven notes, provided by Red Cross officials and hand-written on forms bearing the letterheads of Red Cross organizations, but could not independently verify their authenticity.

The letters often serve as the first proof of life of loved ones. They also include snippets of family news.

"I've been imprisoned for three years. Please don't worry for me," one letter from a Myanmar jail reads.

"We're always missing you very much, and I know you're also missing us," reads another one sent from the camps in Bangladesh to a Myanmar jail.

"Please send a picture of everybody. I would be so happy to see you all. Give news of the children," a Rohingya man detained in Myanmar asks in a February letter delivered to his wife in the camps in Bangladesh.

"HOW IS MY FAMILY?"

When Sait Banu's husband was arrested in their village in northern Rakhine one morning last August, she was not told why the police were taking him. "They arrested 50 men from my village that day," she said. It took place only days before Rohingya insurgents struck 30 police posts on Aug. 25.

Spokesmen for the Myanmar government and police did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment on the arrests or on ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses against the Rohingya, which they have denied in the past. They also did not respond to requests for comment on the exchange of letters.

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Reuters wins Pulitzer for photography documenting the Rohingya migrant crisis in Myanmar
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Reuters wins Pulitzer for photography documenting the Rohingya migrant crisis in Myanmar
Mohammed Shoaib, 7, who was shot in his chest before crossing the border from Myanmar in August, is held by his father outside a medical centre near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Betel leaves cover the face of 11-month-old Rohingya refugee Abdul Aziz whose wrapped body lay in his family shelter after he died battling high fever and sever cough at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh in Teknaf, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017. Picture taken November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Hamida, a Rohingya refugee woman, weeps as she holds her 40-day-old son after he died as their boat capsized before arriving on shore in Shah Porir Dwip, Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
An exhausted Rohingya refugee woman touches the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
The remains of a burned Rohingya village is seen in this aerial photograph near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine State, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
An exhausted Rohingya refugee fleeing violence in Myanmar cries for help from others crossing into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Bodies of Rohingya refugees, who died when their boat capsized while fleeing Myanmar, are placed in a local madrasa in Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Rohingya siblings fleeing violence hold one another as they cross the Naf River along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox?s Bazar, Bangladesh November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Rohingya refugees are reflected in rain water along an embankment next to paddy fields after fleeing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Smoke is seen on the Myanmar border as Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
A security officer attempts to control Rohingya refugees waiting to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
Rohingya refugees try to take shelter from torrential rain as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
People gather under heavy rain around bodies of Rohingya refugees after the boat they were using to flee violence in Myanmar capsized off Inani Beach near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER
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Myanmar has said it has arrested 384 Rohingya on suspicion of links to the Muslim militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) since last August.

More than 2,700 people were detained in prisons in Rakhine state's two main jails - in the state capital Sittwe and Buthidaung in the north - according to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, although it does not say how many of them are Rohingya.

Min Tun Soe, a spokesman for Myanmar's prisons department, declined to say how many people had been arrested on accusations of ties to ARSA and said that only those formally charged were kept in the jails.

With no idea where her husband had been taken, Sait Banu was forced to escape without him. "They shot and killed people, so we fled," she said, referring to Myanmar security forces.

In December, Red Cross volunteers near her shelter called on refugees who wanted to write to their families. She had heard from relatives that most men from her village had been sent to Sittwe prison, so she gave her husband's name and other details. Red Cross staff in Myanmar later traced him to Sittwe prison.

ONLY SON ALIVE

When Yuzana, 30, a field officer for the Myanmar Red Cross, visited the jail in February, she faced anxious questions from Rohingya detainees. "They thought I'd met their families," she said. "They asked me: "How is my family? Do you know where my wife is?"

The Rohingya language does not have a written form, but some of the refugees speak Burmese or English. In Bangladesh, their messages are taken down by Red Cross volunteers in English, often through a translator, while those from the prisons in Rakhine are in Burmese so they can be read by the censors.

Because Myanmar censors all communications in and out of the jails, the letters are limited to family news. Rohingya cannot write about last year's violence or why they were arrested, Red Cross officials say.

Min Tun Soe, a spokesman for the Myanmar Prisons Department, said it was normal practice to censor communications in the prisons.

"We have to check whether the information written in the letter affects the security of the prison or not," he said.

On a recent afternoon, a volunteer for the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society - a Red Cross-funded organization – at the Zadimura refugee camp read out a list of 16 Rohingya men found alive in Buthidaung jail.

Among the refugees who quietly gathered around him was Oli Mian, 70, hoping to hear the name of his 35-year-old son, Mohammed Rashid, who was arrested in 2016.

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Children impacted by Rohingya crisis in Myanmar
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Children impacted by Rohingya crisis in Myanmar
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, walk after they received permission from the Bangladesh army to continue their way to the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Balukhali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugee sits with her baby while waiting to receive humanitarian aid after arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugee baby, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, sleeps on his mother's shoulder while waiting to receive humanitarian aid after arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, queue to receive humanitarian aid while arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee girl, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, waits to receive humanitarian aid at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, crawls under a barbed wire during her walk to the Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, rest while they wait to receive humanitarian aids at Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, rest while they wait to receive humanitarian aids at Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee boy sits on the ground at Tang Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee girl poses with a chicken at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 17, 2017. Picture taken October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Mohamed Hares, an 8-month-old Rohingya refugee, receives treatment for a lung infection at the Red Cross emergency hospital near Kotupalang refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A still unnamed four-days-old Rohingya refugee baby who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, waits with his mother to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Rohingya refugee baby who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, sleeps with his mother on a field as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, sleep on a field as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees arrive to the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river after crossing the border from Myanmar, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar wait to be let through after they were forced to walk back by Bangladesh border guards, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 16, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A 7 months old, malnourished Rohingya child cries as she lies on the floor at her family shelter in Kutupalong, refugees camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Hamida, 65, a Rohingya refugee, who fled from Myanmar a day before, reacts after she along with other newly arrived refugees, spent a night waiting to be allowed to walk to a relief centre in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl queues to receive food at a camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border last night ride on the back of the truck that takes them to a camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child lines up to receive an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A daughter of Ansar Ullah, a Rohingya refugee who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, is carried in a basket by her father after thousands of newly arrived refugees spent a night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. Ansar Ullah, who said his village in Buthidaung region was attacked by Myanmar military, carried his two daughters in baskets for eight days as he and other refugees were making their way to Bangladesh. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Nd Rashid, a 28-year-old Rohingya refugee who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, waits for medical attention after spending the night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees walk in a rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee man hols his child as he swims to cross Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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When Oli Mian heard his son's name, he couldn't believe it. Only when it was read out again and the family details were confirmed he realized this meant his only son was alive. His eyes welled up with tears and he walked with his wooden stick back to his shelter to tell his wife.

"If my son was here, I wouldn't have to stand in the long relief distribution lines for hours to get food," he said, as tears fell onto the wrinkled hands folded on his lap.

"I'll write to him that I want to hear his voice," his wife Roshan Begum said, also fighting back tears.

"I'll tell him his parents are alive."

(Additional reporting by Shoon Naing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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