BANGKOK – Haresa counted the days by the moon, waxing and waning over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler, crammed into a space so tight that she couldn’t even stretch her legs, bled in weeks, weeks in months.
“People struggled like they were floating fish,” Ms. Haresa, 18, said of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.
Dozens of bodies were thrown overboard, some beaten and others starved to death, survivors said. Ms Haresa’s aunt died, then her brother.
Six full moons after she boarded the fishing boat in Bangladesh in hopes that human traffickers would take her to Malaysia for an arranged marriage, Ms Haresa, who bears a name, and nearly 300 other Rohingya refugees took refuge in Indonesia last month. Her sister, 21, died two days after disembarking the boat.
Banished from their homes in Myanmar and crammed into refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya have taken the perilous boat trip to Malaysia, where many members of the persecuted minority group toil as undocumented workers. Hundreds of people died along the way.
Most of those currently on the trip, like Ms Haresa, are girls and young women from refugee camps in Bangladesh whose parents have promised them in marriage to Rohingya men in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia last month with Ms Haresa were women.
“My parents are getting older and my brothers are with their own families,” she says. “How long will my parents bear the burden of me?”
Thanks to the twinning of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a lawn mower, Ms. Bibi’s parents have found her a fiancé. She asked for details of the man, but none were provided other than his name, she said.
After surviving more than six months at sea in an unsuccessful attempt to reach her, Ms Bibi spoke from Indonesia to her fiance in a foreign country. The phone call lasted two minutes. “He looked young,” she said. This is the extent of what she knows about him.
Ms Bibi first told staff at the UN refugee agency that she was 15, but later changed her age to 18. Child marriage is common among the Rohingya, especially among rural populations.
Mostly stateless, the Muslim minority has been subjected to an apartheid-like existence in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. In recent years, waves of pogroms have pushed the Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where human traffickers prey on young and desperate refugee camps, along with their families.
The flow of people has increased since 2017, when more than three quarters of a million Rohingya fled an ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar. With the coronavirus pandemic tightening borders, travel by sea has become even more difficult. For months this year, boats loaded with hundreds of Rohingya migrants have drifted at sea, unable to find safe refuge. The Thai and Malaysian authorities have repeatedly pushed them back.
The fishermen of Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few to have welcomed the Rohingyas. A battered trawler with around 100 refugees landed in June, followed by the larger boat on September 7.
“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region responds to this humanitarian crisis at its doorstep,” said Indrika Ratwatte, director for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations agency for human rights. refugees.
The Bangladeshi government, grappling with its own vulnerable population amid the pandemic, has threatened to relocate thousands of Rohingya from camps to a cyclone-prone islet in the Bay of Bengal. The silty island was uninhabited until the Bangladeshi Navy forced around 300 Rohingya – many of whom were women and children – to shelter there this summer, when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended after months. at sea.
Earlier this month, several Rohingya died in clashes between different gangs in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, considered to be the largest refugee camp in the world. Some women say they venture as little as possible to use public latrines for fear of sexual violence.
Shamsun Nahar, 17, said she was desperate to leave the camps, even though she had heard the stories about how dangerous the crossing was. His father, a religious man, found him a match, a man from the same village of Rakhine who works as a carpenter in Malaysia.
“I spoke to her on a video call, and I liked her from all angles,” Ms. Nahar said of their brief phone call. “He was neither too big nor too small. He looked good.
Her fiance had to pay $ 4,500 for her passage, Ms. Nahar said. The place she occupied for months on the boat was near the engine, so noisy she couldn’t hear other people’s voices.
The smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, beat them with plastic pipes, she said. Food was served on a plastic sheet smeared with leftovers from previous weeks, enveloping each meal in a putrid smell.
“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and my fiancé,” Ms. Nahar said after arriving in Indonesia last month. “What’s going to happen next? I don’t know.”
Although the previous waves of Rohingya who landed in Indonesia have mostly been to Malaysia, only a few of this year’s crossovers were able to bond with their families or future husbands.
When Naemot Shah married his wife, Majuma Bibi, he was 14 and she was 12. The roofs of their childhood homes in Rakhine touched each other, he said, as close as possible.
In 2014, Mr. Shah paid smugglers to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia, a 28-day trip that nearly killed him, he said. His daughter was only six months old when he left. Three years later, his family fled to Bangladesh after the Burmese army campaign of killings, rapes and forcible displacement against the Rohingya.
From a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mr. Shah’s wife begged him to pay for her and their daughter to join him in Malaysia. Knowing how risky the trip was, he refused.
But his wife, whom Mr. Shah described as “very intelligent”, quietly saved the money he sent her from her job as a construction worker. At the end of March, she and her daughter boarded a trawler to, they hoped, where her husband lived.
“I was very upset that they left without my permission,” Shah said.
As news of the massive drownings reached him, he thought his family had died at sea. But in June, Mr. Shah, 24, learned that a boat had landed in Indonesia. Sweeping the crowd on video, he recognized his wife and daughter.
“I have never felt such happiness as the day I found out they were alive,” said Mr. Shah.
Other Rohingyas in Malaysia have taken second or third wives, he said. But he won’t. Instead, he traveled to Indonesia to find his wife and daughter. “I will stick to one woman,” Shah said. “She traveled all this way, suffered this difficult time, for me.