Charges against the French aid worker held in Bangladesh since December have been dropped. But how did he end up there?
Paris, France – Kamdem Tchantchuing was taking his mother’s car to a mechanic in Paris when he received a phone call from his brother Georges. Their younger brother, Moussa Tchantchuing, had been arrested in Bangladesh, where he frequently travels as a humanitarian working with Rohingya refugees in the region.
“I thought it was impossible,” said Kamdem, 31. “I had just spoken to [Moussa] two days before and he was fine.”
But social media posts by the NGO Moussa worked for, Barakacity, confirmed the arrest. News began to spread that the Bangladeshi authorities were investigating Moussa over alleged links to “terrorism”.
It was 18 days later, after his family and Barakacity had launched a massive #FreeMoussa campaign, that Kamdem was able to travel to Bangladesh, arriving in the capital, Dhaka, and then travelling 360km south to the city of Cox Bazaar, where Moussa was being held in solitary confinement.
The #FreeMoussa campaign helped to raise the funds Kamdem and a close friend of Moussa’s, Rachid Boulsane, needed to pay for the journey.
“It took days of going back and forth between the prison authority and the French embassy before we were finally able to see him,” Kamdem recalled. “He had lost so much weight and was wearing the same clothes for weeks.”
Fear of the unknown dominated their 45-minute reunion, during which Kamdem says they were surrounded by six policemen, including the prison chief, and a Bangladeshi intelligence agent.
“We spoke about how he got arrested, [and] the conditions he was kept in, in prison. We also had some letters from many friends for him to read. He had to read them during our visit because he was not allowed to keep them,” Kamdem said.
‘A sensitive soul’
Rachid, a 28-year-old engineer and volunteer aid worker, described Moussa as “a sensitive soul”.
The two have been friends since they met in Paris in 2009 while distributing food to the homeless. They launched their own humanitarian organisation, Au Coeur de la Precarite (At the Heart of Precarity), in the same year. But it was two years later that it really began to take off.
Rachid recalled how, on a cold evening in January 2011, he received a concerned phone call from Moussa. He’d just seen an 80-year-old couple sitting on the floor of a train station in Paris with all their belongings scattered in front of them. They had been evicted from their apartment and their French visas had expired after they’d returned to Morocco for a prolonged visit to take care of their recently orphaned grandchildren.
Moussa and Rachid decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign that would allow them to put the elderly couple up in a hotel for a few months while they took care of the paperwork to renew their visas and social security numbers. Eventually, when the couple decided to return to Morocco to take care of their grandchildren, Moussa and Rachid raised the funds for that too.
The two continued their work helping members of the Roma community, drug addicts and the homeless in Paris – donating food and clothes, organising medical care and, sometimes, simply providing friendship.
Moussa’s mother, Justine Tchantchuing, recalled returning home one day to find their apartment, storage room and even their small bike garage packed to the brim with food. It was intended for the Roma, Moussa told her.
“To tell you the truth,” the 56-year-old nurse reflected, “I have raised my kids practically on my own and I am someone who always gives without looking. I think Moussa took this from me and took it to another level.”
But it was only after his arrest, she said, that she really came to understand just how much Moussa had helped people.
“I began receiving dozens of letters and social media messages, and was even being stopped on the streets by people and families telling me stories about how Moussa helped them.
“I met this girl who told me that Moussa had been paying her regular visits in the hospital for over a month. Another person, a homeless man, would tell me how Moussa had given him food. I even received a phone call once from someone trying to explain how Moussa had helped them, but they didn’t speak French well so I couldn’t properly understand,” Justine said.
“It was after these letters, these videos and messages of support posted online began pouring in that I saw the extent to which he touched people’s hearts. They told me to be proud of my son.”
In 2013, Moussa and his fellow volunteers with Au Coeur de la Precarite decided to visit different countries during the month of Ramadan to partake in volunteer work. They gave food to homeless people in the UK, visited hospitals in Belgium, distributed flowers on the streets of Barcelona and bags of rice in Niger and gave bikes to children and canes to the blind in Morocco.
Working with the Rohingya
In September 2013, Moussa was hired by the Paris-based NGO Barakacity, becoming their Asia project manager, with a particular focus on the Rohingya.
He met with other organisations – the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), United to End Genocide, Burma Campaign UK, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch – as well as other activists working with the Rohingya, and was invited to talk about their plight at the UN.
During his first trip to Bangladesh, in 2014, he learned that he would need a government-issued permit to meet the Rohingya refugees there.
“We were told from the start that we were not allowed to enter the Rohingya camps because we need to wait between six months to a year to get government approval,” Moussa explained.
“What you have to understand is that the topic of the Rohingya, in Burma [Myanmar] as well as in Bangladesh, is a taboo subject and it is usually very pejorative.”
Arrest and imprisonment
It was during his fourth visit to Bangladesh that Moussa was arrested – on December 22, 2015.
He wasn’t on an official mission with Barakacity but was instead in the region helping another France-based NGO, Salsabille, scout for potential projects.
Their trip began in Myanmar. From there, the rest of the team decided to head back to France but Moussa stuck to their original plan and continued on to Bangladesh.
Once there, he spent a day visiting schools to learn about their operations, in the hope of establishing a school for Rohingya refugee children with the help of a Bangladesh-based NGO, Pulse Bangladesh.
The following day, Moussa was arrested at a checkpoint by local police, who confiscated his passport and belongings.
“There is nothing illegal in what I did, nothing. I hadn’t even gone to any Rohingya camps when they arrested me. I really don’t understand,” Moussa explained by telephone.
“I was immediately thrown into solitary confinement,” he said. “First, I was accused of being contradictory in my statements, then all of a sudden I was being suspected of plotting to commit terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.”
The contradictory statements he stood accused of revolve around his name. Before converting to Islam, Moussa was called Puemo Tchantchuing. He adopted his new name after his conversion, but as it isn’t legally possible to change your name in France, his birth name still appears in his passport. The Bangladeshi police accused him of falsifying his identity.
Adapting to life in prison was difficult for Moussa.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, which is the most difficult thing; being in the unknown. None of the prison guards understood me, none even spoke English. And then there is the difficulty of the cell itself, which is full of lizards, cockroaches, and hundreds of mosquitos. The shower and the toilet were one and the same. I slept on the floor without a roof over my head, and it was so hot. I say slept, but for one full month I didn’t sleep at all. It was a battle with the mosquitos every night.
“The only thing I had with me in prison was my Quran. It was a time for me to reconnect with this book and a means for me to get closer to God,” he explained, adding that he also began fasting from dawn to sunset every day.
After eight days, a representative from the French embassy visited Moussa in prison.
“It was thanks to the mobilisation and solidarity campaigns on social media, where a petition had been created to apply pressure for my release, that the government really got involved,” Moussa said.
“I found out from the consul that something was happening on social media, but I really realised its magnitude when an English person I had never met came to visit me in prison. He was working for an NGO and was visiting Bangladesh, and he decided to come and see me in prison. He also came during my hearing and even brought me some clothes at one point.”
Celebrities, rappers and intellectuals drew attention to the case and called on the French government to do all they could to help free Moussa, while #FreeMoussatrended on Twitter and an online petition calling for his release was signed by thousands of people across the world.
And in his home town of Montreuil, a northern suburb of Paris, Mayor Patrice Bessac hung a portrait of Moussa on the wall of the town hall. “Montreuil mobilises for the liberation of Moussa,” it declared.
“We put up the portrait in solidarity with him, his family, those close to him and all those mobilising for his freedom,” Bessac explained. “This is to affirm that Montreuil will never abandon one of its children. This is a man who is paying for his humanitarian engagement with his freedom. We won’t take the portrait down until he is back in France, with his family and friends.”
Moussa had been held since December 22, 2015. On January 11, 2016, a court hearing was held and Moussa’s release was ordered. Two days later, when his lawyers went to pick him up, they learned that the release order had been cancelled by the magistrate. He remained in prison until March 1, when he was released awaiting a final verdict in his case.
Since March, he was forced to remain in Cox Bazaar, where he rented a small flat, while his hearings were repeatedly postponed.
Then, on July 24, a court ordered that all the charges against him be dropped.
“The Bangladeshi government has been doing everything in its power to expedite the case of Mr Moussa,” Farhana Ahmed Chowdhury, the first secretary at the Bangladeshi embassy in France, told Al Jazeera. “But developing countries often have slower mechanisms that cause the legal procedure to move a lot slower.”
Chowdhury explained that the border region with Myanmar was a “high-security” area and that, by travelling there on a tourist visa, Moussa had raised concerns.
But in a Facebook post announcing that the charges against him had been dropped, Moussa drew attention to their plight and insisted he would continue to try to help them because, he wrote, “a free man is first of all one that is not scared to pursue his ideals”.
“When the verdict was announced, my family and I were so happy,” Kamdem said. “My mum screamed with joy and my sisters as well. As for me, it was a great relief and so much pressure taken off.”
Helping Bangladeshi street children
Moussa did not let his time in Cox Bazaar go to waste. As he waited for his court appearance, he also befriended a group of street children. At first, he would buy them dinner. Then he gradually began to arrange activities for them, taking them to the hospital when they were sick and visiting their families.
He has now teamed up with Pulse Bangladesh and together they are planning to refurbish the NGO’s former offices to house the street children in, as well as to provide them with regular meals and a free education.
But it hasn’t been easy. Moussa first had to convince the children’s parents to allow them to go to school rather than spend their days on the streets begging for money.
“Our first job was to promise the parents that if they allowed their children to go to school, they would receive scholarships, which the parents can use to pay for their housing and food,” Moussa explained.
With the help of several friends in France, he launched a social media campaigncalled Bani Street, which raised more than $75,000 in under three weeks. They hope to reach $300,000 to fully fund the new housing complex.
“This trial that I have been put through these last several months will only have a meaning, have served a purpose,” Moussa concluded, “if I am able to use this time wisely to help other people.”