From hope to horror: one refugee's story
Sent to sea in hulk by Thai soldiers, teen tells of beatings, torture and jettisoning dead
His carers at the hospital in Port Blair say that 18-year-old Akhtar Hossain often stares out to sea, through the window near his bed. Tears well in his eyes.
Nearly a month after his rescue, Akhtar, a Muslim Rohingya, is still suffering the terrible effects of his ordeal. He can barely walk. For 14 days, he and hundreds of fellow members of the Myanmese minority drifted in a powerless vessel after being towed out to sea by Thai soldiers.
Conditions on board were hellish. They ran out of food and water on the second day. There was no shade from the blazing tropical sun. Around him, his shipmates died, some from starvation and thirst, then scores of others - drowned or eaten by sharks as they tried to swim to shore.
When the Indian coastguard boat Varad at last pulled alongside the craft on December 27, the crew found the ungainly hulk on the brink of sinking. Its planked-wood hull was filled chest-deep with a fetid mix of seawater and human waste.
Akhtar's testimony recalling the voyage was delivered in Bengali and Arakani.
'The sun was beating down,' he says. 'Some people fell asleep and did not wake up the next morning. We found their bodies had turned stiff. Some senior people said the dead should not be on board because their sight would demoralise others.
'I saw four bodies being dumped before my eyes within the first five days. One man sitting next to me died leaning against me. I had to drop his body into the water. It was horrifying.'
Akhtar said that in November he, his 19-year-old friend Farid and 410 other Rohingyas from Bangladesh and Myanmar piled onto four boats, paying 30,000 taka (HK$3,450) each to an agent. They set sail from Cox's Bazar bound for Malaysia, via Thailand, to join the illegal migrant workforce. They were provisioned for a three-week voyage.
After two weeks - Indian intelligence transcripts of interviews with survivors indicate the date to have been December 5 or 6, but this seems uncertain - the flotilla stopped at what they took to be a Myanmese beach to rest (80 per cent of the journey is down the Myanmese coast). There they were surrounded by uniformed soldiers.
'They made us lie on the sand without shirt, with our face down and hands tied. Because of the hot sand most of us tried to resist the order and wanted to sit down. I was also crying and tried to lift myself up when I was kicked by a soldier. They kicked and beat all of us and gestured to fire at us if we did not listen to their command. We all cowered in fear,' Akhtar recalled.
He said the soldiers detained them on the beach for days before transferring about 250, including Akhtar, to a jungle-clad island. Investigations over the past month by the South China Morning Post have revealed that the soldiers were Thai and the island was Koh Sai Daeng, the site of a secret detention camp for Rohingya boatpeople.
'On the island we were tortured. We were not given any roof on top of us. Day and night we stayed on the sand. Many cried, 'Allah, what sin have we committed that you have made us face this torture?' Many were beaten with the guns and they cried in pain with bruised and broken limbs,' Akhtar said. He estimates they spent two weeks on the island; the Indian intelligence transcript suggests it was likely 10 days.
Akhtar's allegations of beatings and 'torture' are also contained in the intelligence transcript.
One day, the soldiers brought other Rohingya to the island too, and from there, the soldiers began loading all 400 or so onto a large wooden craft, which had not been part of their flotilla. The soldiers then towed it out to sea.
'Four men, who were very weak and were crying, resisted. With their hands tied they were thrown into the water. Then they left us in the middle of the sea with 100kg of rice and about 200 litres of drinking water, after destroying our boat engine. From the second day we had no food or water,' said Akhtar.
'We did not know where to go. The senior boatmen told us it was impossible for us to return to Bangladesh by just paddling the crippled boat.
'Hungry and thirsty people were crying loudly, begging relief from Allah. Many were beating their chests and crying. It was frightening. I was also crying and praying to Allah to somehow guide us back home.
'On the fourth day, no one had the energy to paddle. Some people were shouting, 'Allah you are most powerful, our creator, please help us return to our families, we are in the middle of the sea and we cannot drive our boat'.'
Akhtar stopped counting at day six. 'I lost track of day and night. Sometimes I woke up and found the number of people on the boat was reducing,' he said.
One fateful night, they sighted an island in the distance.
The delirious, emaciated men began to praise Allah. Then, many jumped into the sea.
'People began jumping into the water and swimming towards the island. I was terribly hungry and thirsty, and I had no energy to swim. With a few others who were dead or almost dead I stayed on the boat. One day later I was rescued.'
It was December 27. The survivors had been drifting at sea for at least nine days, seven of them without water or food.
Akhtar's friend Farid, the youth with whom he began a journey full of hope, was not among them.
'My friend Farid is dead. I had no idea that the journey to Malaysia could be so dangerous. I hope the Indian government will send me to Bangladesh soon. I shall work in Bangladesh now and never venture to Malaysia again,' Akhtar said.
'More than three-quarters of us died. Allah has kept me alive. It's a miracle to me. I have to live the rest of my life as a good Muslim. Allah will definitely help me in Bangladesh.'
Akhtar is now anxiously waiting to return to his parents and siblings in the village of Boroituli in Bangladesh.
POSTSCRIPT: Of the 412 people who began the journey, only 103 survived. Eighty-eight were rescued on the barge. Eleven swimmers reached land, from where they were rescued, while two were plucked from the water by the coastguard. Miraculously, two other men who drifted or swam to Little Andaman Island made their way to the town of Hut Bay. There, they were eventually arrested working for a local contractor.
This is an extended version of an interview originally published last week in The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi. Shaikh Azizur Rahman is a freelance reporter for both the Sunday Morning Post and The National. Additional reporting by Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle