Eyewitnesses reveal first clues about a missing boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees

PIDI, Indonesia (AP) — Their screams and sobs could be heard as the rickety boat surfaced in the vastness of the Andaman Sea. There were small children and babies on board the boat, as well as their parents who were pleading to be saved.

were passengers ethnic Rohingya Muslims who had fled mass violence and widespread starvation in refugee camps in Bangladesh, only to find themselves adrift with a broken engine. For a moment, it appeared that their salvation had come in the form of another boat carrying Rohingya refugees that had come alongside them.

But those on board the other boat – which was itself filled to capacity and had begun to leak – knew that if they took the distressed passengers aboard their ship, she would sink. And everyone will die.

They wanted to help, but they also wanted to live.

More than 1,500 Rohingya refugees have fled Bangladesh in rickety boats since November. in the northern province of Aceh in Indonesia - Three-quarters of them women and children. on Thursday, Indonesian Officials spotted five other boats Approaching the coast of Aceh.

With so many Rohingya attempting to make the dangerous border crossing in recent weeks, no one knows how many boats failed to make it through and how many died.

This story of two boats in distress at sea - one rescued, the other missing - was told to The Associated Press by five survivors of the ship that washed ashore.

It provides the first clues to the fate of a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees that has been missing for weeks. On 2 December, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, proposed a Urgent message about two boats in distress And urged countries to search for them.

But in the case of the boat that is missing, it appears that no one has searched for it.

From a brown, trash-strewn beach near where they staggered ashore on Dec. 10, survivors told the AP about their harrowing journey and the painful decisions they made along the way.

“I remember feeling that together we would perish. We will drown together. Together, we will drown,” says Muhammad Zubair, 31, who along with his three children, wife and brother-in-law were among the 180 people on board the boat who were rescued.

tearful goodbye

The story of the missing boat and its passengers begins the same way most Rohingya boat journeys do – with tearful goodbyes in sweltering shelters in camps in Bangladesh, where more than 750,000 Rohingya fled in 2017 following widespread army attacks in their homeland Myanmar. Had run away.

At one of those shelters, Noor Fatima held her 14-year-old brother, Muhammad Ansar, forcing herself to hold back tears as the boy began to cry along with the rest of his family. She knew that she had to stay strong so that she would not fear the journey ahead.

Ansar was the only son of the family – the only son to get an education and a job in Indonesia. They hoped that someday he would earn enough money to support them in the camps. There were few options: Bangladesh has banned camp residents from working, so their survival is entirely dependent on Food rations, which were reduced this year,

Increasing hunger and increased gang violence due to ration cuts led to the latest exodus from the camps by sea.

It was November 20, and Ansar was visiting with several relatives, including his 20-year-old cousin, Sameera Khatoon, and her 3-year-old son. As her brother left, Fatima told herself that several other boats had reached Indonesia safely. Surely he would also wish to do so.

The next day, Sameera called Fatima's family and her father and told them that they were on a boat. “We're on our way,” she said. "pray for us."

Abdu Shukkur didn't know that his bright and bubbly 12-year-old daughter, Kajoli, was planning to escape the camps until a smuggler called him and said he was taking her by boat to Indonesia.

Shukkur begs the smuggler to leave Kajoli behind, but her friends are leaving on a boat, and she wants to go with them. Later he received a call from Kajoli herself, when she was already on board the ship.

He could only pray.

boats come together

The boat on which Zubair and his family were traveling was carrying 180 Rohingyas to Indonesia. It was overloaded, but the engine was still working.

A few days into the 1,800-kilometre (1,100 mi) journey, passengers aboard Zubair's boat saw another ship tossed in the waves. It was Kajoli, Ansar and Sameera's boat - their engine was broken, water was leaking and the passengers were panicking.

The people on Zubair's boat were worried that if they came too close, those on board the distressed ship would jump onto their boat, causing them all to drown, says Ruzina, one of Zubair's fellow passengers, whose name is A. And who was on the ship with her five people. Children.

His fear was not unfounded. Zakir Hussain, another passenger, says, as Zubair's boat came closer, 20 to 30 people started preparing to jump.

The captain of Zubair's boat shouted to the people on board the distressed ship to stop. Then he asked for a rope so that he could tie the two boats together. The captain told the other boat's passengers that he would tow their boat behind his ship, and they would search for land together.

According to Hussein, their captain also issued a warning: "If you try to jump into our boat, we will not help you."

What happened next is disputed.

Around the same time, Kajoli's father Shukkur says his nephew called the captain of Kajoli's boat and the captain told him that he and his family had left the distressed ship and were on a boat that had come to rescue them. . ,

However, survivors interviewed by the AP in Aceh either denied it happened or said they did not see it.

Both the boats tied to each other started moving in the water. And then, after two or three nights, a fierce storm fell upon them. The strong waves suffocated the boats, destroying the engine of Zubair's ship.

Now, both of them were wandering helplessly in the darkness.

tragic attacks

The passengers on Zubair's boat say that then the ropes between the two ships broke. No one says they saw how it happened – but what they did see was that the other boat was drifting to their right.

Amidst the strong wind and sea waves, Zubair could hear passengers on the other boat pleading for their lives.

“They were crying and shouting loudly, 'Our ropes are broken! Our ropes broke! please help us!' But how can we help?” Zubair says. "We will die with them."

Passengers say the second boat moved away until it was out of sight.

People started cheering on Zubair's boat.

“They are also Muslims. They are also part of our community,” says Ruzina. "That's why our people were crying for them too."


Zubair and his companions remained stranded in the sea for several days, their food and water exhausted. Eventually, a plane spotted them and a Navy ship arrived, delivering food, water and medicine. The passengers say they do not know which country sent the rescue ship that took them to Indonesian waters and then left when their boat was close to landing.

That's when their captain and another crew member fled the ship on a small fishing boat, Zubair says. Abandoned, the exhausted passengers worked together to tow the damaged boat to the beach, where they spent their nights sleeping under tarpaulins. They bathe and drink from the nearby stream.

facing one Increasingly hostile reception from local people, They have no idea what their future holds in Indonesia. But at least, he says, they're alive. They hope there will be passengers on the second boat as well.

"I feel very sad for them because we were in the same situation and now we are safe," says Hussain. "We are just praying that the boat finds land and that the passengers survive." Let it be done."

pain of the unknown

Weeks passed, and the families of those aboard the lost boat knew nothing. Ann Meman, the UNHCR representative in Indonesia, urged regional governments to begin the search.

"Here you have hundreds of people who are clearly at best upset and at worst, they're not even upset anymore," Mayman told the AP. "Those countries in the region have fully capable and well-resourced search and rescue capabilities."

Regional countries contacted by AP either did not respond to requests for comment or said they were unaware of the boat.

Meanwhile, a familiar sense of dread has settled into the camps in Bangladesh, which is mourning the loss of another boat carrying 180 people in 2022. The findings of the AP investigation were sunk,

Fatima struggles to sleep while waiting for news from her younger brother Ansar. Somehow, she says, they just want answers.

Fatima says, one night Ansar came in her mother's dream and told her that he was on an island. The family believes that he is alive somewhere.

Shukkur also had a dream about his daughter Kajoli, but his boat sank in it. He believes that his little girl and all his companions are dead.

His suffering echoes in the crowded shelters of the camp.

"Many parents," he says, "are screaming for their kids."


Gelineau reported from Sydney; Tarigan reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.


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