By: Poppy McPherson/IRIN

Mohammad Selim disappeared the night in May that Cyclone Mora tore through the Rohingya refugee camps on Bangladesh’s west coast. But it wasn’t the storm that killed him – his was one of a handful of recent murders blamed on gangs vying for power over the camps.

Selim was snatched while walking home from his father-in-law’s hut. He had been examining the wreckage after the storm ripped through shelters housing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled persecution and violence in neighboring Myanmar.

A few days later, the family got a call. His mother, Jamila Begum, told IRIN what happened next.

“It’s me. It’s Selim,” said the voice on the line. He said he was being held by men who had killed another refugee.

“I’m going to die!” he said. “Please forgive me! Forgive me for everything!” After several days, children found a body in the river.

“I was thinking, ‘It’s my son. It’s my son,’” said Begum, her heavy-lidded eyes filling with tears. The body was decomposed, but she could tell it was Selim. His hair and penis had been hacked off. 

Days later, the body of Mohammad Ayub, another resident of Kutupalong camp, was found with his throat slit and his hands tied behind his back. A third man, Mohammad Shafi, known as “Boli”, was also killed. The violence is said to have continued, with kidnappings reported as recently as this month.

A July report by the Inter Sector Coordination Group, a multi-agency body formed to coordinate aid efforts in the camps and chaired by the International Organization for Migration, warned of the “deteriorating security situation”, citing a “surge” of incidents.

Refugees and aid workers have told IRIN that there’s a struggle for control over the camps, and the humanitarian supplies flowing into them, following an influx of refugees fleeing Myanmar. 

Some suggest the victims, several of whom were community leaders, were targeted by gangs that have developed a mafia-like hold in the camps. Some say the victims were resisting demands. Others say they were murdered by vigilantes angry about corruption in the aid supply. Still others believe the gangs are fostering panic to enforce their control.

“I think it is more or less because of money,” said one senior Cox’s Bazar-based aid worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.  

Living in fear

Whatever the reasons behind the killings, the effects are obvious: a climate of fear and confusion. Kutupalong is awash with rumours about masked men terrorising residents after dusk.

“At night, sometimes we hear the sound of gunfire,” said an elderly woman, Reyhana, who like many Rohingya goes by one name.

Home to almost 80,000 people, Kutupalong is a vast maze of dark, sweaty shelters patched together from bamboo and tarpaulin. Naked children clamber across planks balanced over raw sewage. Recent arrivals carve out space beside people who fled Myanmar in the 1990s. Generation is heaped on generation, the legacy of decades of persecution in Myanmar.

Continue reading at IRIN, a humanitarian news service reporting independently from the frontlines of crises