“What about Yaba?” I asked Elijah (name changed).
Elijah and I had met on the very first day that I stepped foot in Kutupalong — the largest of the Rohingya refugee camps near Bangladesh’s port city Cox’s Bazar. Soon I’d begun carrying sweets from the city for his children while he insisted on buying me endless cups of tea.
Our discussions would often wander well beyond that which could be reported. Speaking a mishmash of Bangla, English, and Chittagongese, the talkative man soon became a source of many stories about his people and their lives before and after the genocide in Rakhine state, across the border in Myanmar. Every time he had a story he couldn’t prove, he’d grin ear-to-ear, showing off his betel-stained teeth, mocking me for being too uptight.
But that evening he didn’t smile. The mention of Yaba made him agitated.
“Ya…ba?” he repeated the word with a wrinkled forehead, pretending not to understand. “What’s that?”
“Yaba,” I repeated — not taking my eyes off of his. “WY, R7, Champa… the stuff that comes in from across the border. Do you know people in the camp who work with those? Can you arrange a meeting with some of them?”
He vehemently refused any knowledge of the drug. He was a good Muslim, he insisted. He wouldn’t touch such a thing.
Besides, none of the residents of the camp were allowed to exit the gates manned by the armed officers of the Bangladesh Border Guards. So how could he know what was happening outside?
I backed off, made peace with a round of tea and cigarettes and left the camp for the day soon after.
On the way out of the gate, my driver, who’d overheard the conversation, called Elijah a bloody liar who was putting on an act.
“If the Rohingyas don’t know about Yaba who does? My pop-in-law?” he swore in his rough Chittagongese dialect.
Elijah’s denials and the driver’s crass generalizations notwithstanding, it’s been an open secret for many years now that Bangladesh’s cities are awash with red methamphetamine pills that come in from Myanmar. And denied of any other legal means of earning a living, the Rohingyas — especially women and children — have been working as willing and cheap drug mules.
But things seem to be moving beyond just the ferrying of drugs from the camp to the cities. The quantity of stock being moved has increased. As the trade has gathered speed, the first threads of territorial violence have begun emerging inside the camps.
In February 2018, a team of undercover officers of the Bangladesh Coast Guard went to the Nayapara Rohingya refugee camp in Teknaf.
Positioned on the banks of the Naaf river — which is both the international border between Bangladesh and Myanmar and the busiest drug route of the region — Nayapara was reported to be receiving and distributing several hundred thousand pills every day.
Posing as buyers, a team led by Lt. Commander Faizul Islam went to the house of Mohammed Sadique, who lived in the H block. Sadique had emerged as the leader of the Nayapara cartel and the plan was to arrest him at the time of the exchange.
But Sadique did not emerge from his home.
Instead, several other men jumped the coast guard team, attacking them with sharp weapons and taking away their cash. The encounter resulted in two officers receiving grievous knife wounds.
The botched operation led to an obvious question: how did the men in the Rohingya camp know there would be a raid and come suitably prepared? Were they already big enough to have informants in the armed forces?
“Yaba is big — very big,” Rashed Didarul of Nongor, an NGO headquartered in Cox’s Bazar, explained. His organization runs a rehab clinic and almost all of its residents are Yaba addicts. “There’s not one village in the country that has been left unaffected by the drug.”
Yaba started off as a party drug, a fix for the rich urbane of Dhaka. It gained popularity through the vibrant music scenes of the city. But then the supply and prices stabilized and now it’s a drug everyone can afford.
While traditional substances like nicotine, alcohol, and cannabinoids continue to make up the biggest share of addictions among the Bangladeshi population, Yaba has been the fastest growing drug in the past decade.
According to a report published by the National Institute of Mental Health, Dhaka, in 2016, 42 percent of addicts seeking treatment in rehabs and hospitals across the country were hooked on Yaba. Since many addicts are polysubstance — meaning they use more than one — in gross consumption figures, Yaba ranks third in a list topped by tobacco, followed by alcohol tied with cannabis at second place.
“Financial year 2007-8 is when Yaba began jostling for space alongside heroin — then the top narcotic,” Khurshid Alam, an assistant director at the Department of Narcotics Control in Dhaka, explained. “But within a year — that’s FY 2009-10 — it was booming and we knew this drug was here to stay.”
There have been many contributors to the growth of Yaba.
Until the early 1990s, Myanmar’s largest narcotic export to Bangladesh was opioids, mainly heroin. But heroin was phased out in favor of methamphetamine and its derivatives. By the late 1990s, Myanmar began moving away from opioid production to methamphetamine. It just made better business sense.
Opioid production was regularly affected by fluctuations in global opium crop prices, international drug policies, and conflicts. Yaba, on the other hand, is a synthetic cocktail of caffeine and low grade methamphetamine flavored with vanilla and colored bright red. The production process is stable and results in a steady distribution line and controlled prices.
The best of the meth stock was shipped to Thailand, where Yaba became the go-to party drug. The inferior stock made its way to Bangladesh.
As of today, Yaba retails between 250 to 300 Bangladeshi taka (between $2.96 and $3.55) per pill. In a country where a can of lager in a bar costs 500 taka, choosing meth as the drug to get high is a no brainer.
Yaba is a good product for dealers and distributors as well. The post-landing price in Teknaf or Cox’s Bazar is a mere 30 to 50 taka per pill with an upwards of 20 percent discount if bought wholesale. The massive markup that the pill gets by the time it reaches the big cities ensures good margins for everyone involved in the chain.
“It’s also logistics,” Alam continued. “Yaba pills are just so convenient to carry. Easy to store, easy to transport. You could pack it in regular prescription pill packing as well. And even for the consumer it’s so much cleaner to take a pill than to do something elaborate like injecting. Now everyone from students who want to stay up nights, to sportsmen, rickshaw pullers and factory workers are taking them regularly. It drives sleep away, it makes you work better — an entire cloud of myths surrounds the consumption of Yaba and it’s making its way deeper and deeper into popular parlance.”
The Bangladesh government has become increasingly secretive about data pertaining to the drug trade. But going by the documents independently accessed for this investigation, Alam’s assertions ring true.
Pills are clearly what the young Bengalis like the most.
Seizures of illicit stocks of the prescription drug Diazepam rose by a staggering 1,065,208.33 percent between 2014 and 2015. The growth of Yaba pill seizures in that same time period was nearly 40,000 percent. In 2016 seizures dipped across the board, according to data viewed by The Diplomat, but remained higher than in 2014.
“The Rohingyas are a group that are in the right place and the right time,” an officer in the Bangladesh Border Guard said, on condition of anonymity. His unit had been recently decorated for fending off a Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) assault. The BGP were said to be providing cover to a group infiltrating the international border on the densely forested Kawang-Singpa route.
“The meth trade is booming and the Rohingyas are the only ones crossing the border,” he continued. “Join the dots!”
The drug trade is already spawning a violent drug war between the state and the dealer-distributor network. In keeping with the “zero tolerance” approach declared by the Ministry of Home Affairs, increasing numbers of crossfires have been happening across the country.
The two principal armed offensive units in Bangladesh are the Rapid Action Battalion (affiliated with the military) and the Counter Terrorism Center (civilian police affiliated). Both have overlapping duties of tackling both drug crimes and fighting Islamist terrorism, have next to no judicial or legislative overview, and have been known for frequent use of lethal force.
Bangladesh is already reeling under a spell of extrajudicial killings that have resulted from the war on Islamist terror front. With the opening up of the Rohingya-drug theater, the body count is likely to grow much bigger.
In fact, within the first six months of 2018, unconfirmed reports put the number of people killed in the crossfire at several hundred.
“It’s true that we have a zero-tolerance model — the minister for home affairs has himself announced as much,” Alam said of his narcotics control department. “But we aren’t an armed unit. We take the help of the RAB and the police as and when need arises. What else are we to do? In the last raid we conducted, we underestimated the target and ended up walking into a group that was armed.”
Given the international nature of the Yaba trade and the limited resources at his disposal, his department is a member of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“We work with the DEA of America very often,” Alam said when asked about how intelligence gathering works in their office. “In fact, our last major raid was conducted based on intelligence inputs from them. We’ve signed a bilateral agreement with India following which they launched operations to raze illicit labs making other stuff (mostly cocaine) along the Indo-Bangla border.”
But Myanmar has refused cooperation.
“We’ve met them many times and they say they’ll cooperate — but they just don’t put it down on paper — they just don’t sign anything.”
Rashed of Nongor agreed, with the hypothesis that Myanmar is using the Rohingya to ferry their products across the border.
“I can’t prove it but it’s clear as daylight that members of the Rohingya community are the ones crossing the international border back and forth — albeit with the involvement of corrupt officers in the Bangladeshi force.”
“Look, I can see the Rohingyas slipping deeper and deeper into the drug business every single day,” Rashed stressed. “For the first time, ever, I have Rohingya addicts at my clinic. Eleven in all. The UNHCR people brought in nine and the two others were brought in by their families.”
Addiction to Yaba is not widespread among the Rohingya. They ferry the stuff, but aren’t consumers themselves. Moreover, most of them are frankly too poor to afford such addictions.
“But keep in mind that’s not true for everyone,” Rashed cautions. “The meth trade is putting easy cash in their hands and it’s not surprising that the Yaba story is taking this turn.”
At the time of filing this story, reports were coming in about the arrest of six drug peddlers leading to a haul of over 3,000 Yaba pills. Among those arrested, two were children who had ingested bundles of the pill covered with scotch tape. They were residents of the camp cluster at Kutupalong.
The reporting of this story was made possible with a grant from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.