PIDIE, Indonesia (news agencies) — Their screams and sobs could be heard from the ailing boat soon after it emerged into view amid the vastness of the Andaman Sea. Crowded on board were tiny babies and children, alongside mothers and fathers begging to be saved.
The passengers were ethnic Rohingya Muslims who had fled surging gang violence and rampant hunger in the squalid refugee camps of Bangladesh, only to find themselves adrift with a broken engine. For a moment, it appeared their salvation had arrived in the form of another boat carrying Rohingya refugees that had pulled up alongside them.
But those on board the other boat — itself overloaded and beginning to leak — knew if they allowed the distressed passengers onto their vessel, it would sink. And all would die.
They wanted to help, but they also wanted to live.
Since November, more than 1,500 Rohingya refugees fleeing Bangladesh in rickety boats have landed in Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh — three-quarters of them women and children. On Thursday, Indonesian authorities spotted another five boats approaching Aceh’s coast.
With so many Rohingya attempting the dangerous crossing in recent weeks, nobody knows how many boats did not make it, and how many people died.
This account of two boats in distress at sea — one was saved, the other vanished — was told to The Associated Press by five survivors from the vessel that made it to shore.
It provides the first clues into the fate of the boat carrying up to 200 Rohingya refugees that has been missing for weeks. On Dec. 2, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, put out an urgent message about the two boats in distress and urged countries to look for them.
But in the case of the boat that remains missing, it appears no one searched.
From a grey, trash-strewn beach near where they staggered ashore on Dec. 10, the survivors told the news agencies of their harrowing journey and the agonizing decisions made along the way.
“I remember feeling that together, we would be finished. Together, we would sink. Together, we would drown,” says 31-year-old Muhammed Jubair, who was among the 180 people on his boat to be rescued, along with his three children, wife and brother-in-law.
The story of the missing boat and its passengers begins the way most Rohingya boat journeys do — with tearful goodbyes in sweltering shelters in the camps of Bangladesh, where more than 750,000 Rohingya fled in 2017 following sweeping attacks by the military in their homeland of Myanmar.
In one of those shelters, Noor Fatima clutched her 14-year-old brother, Muhammed Ansar, forcing herself to hold back tears as the boy began to cry along with the rest of their family. She knew she had to stay strong so he wouldn’t fear the journey ahead.
Ansar was the family’s only son — the only one with a shot at an education and a job in Indonesia. They hoped he would someday make enough money to support them in the camps. There were few alternatives: Bangladesh bans camp residents from working, so their survival is entirely dependent on food rations, which were slashed this year.
Worsening hunger caused by the ration cuts and a spike in gang violence sparked the latest exodus by sea from the camps.
It was Nov. 20, and Ansar would be making the trip with several relatives, including his 20-year-old cousin, Samira Khatun, and her 3-year-old son. As her brother left, Fatima told herself many other boats had made it safely to Indonesia. Surely his would, too.
The next day, Samira called Fatima’s family and her father, telling them they were aboard the boat. “We are on our way,” she said. “Pray for us.”
Abdu Shukkur didn’t know his bright and bubbly 12-year-old daughter, Kajoli, was planning to flee the camps until a trafficker called him and said he was taking her by boat to Indonesia.
Shukkur begged the trafficker to leave Kajoli behind, but her friends were going on the boat, and she wanted to go with them. He later received a phone call from Kajoli herself, when she was already on board.
All he could do was pray.