'Your son is alive': rare joy for Rohingya
Last month, the Sunday Morning Post told the story of Akhtar Hossain, a 20-year-old Rohingya languishing in a hospital in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. More than 300 of his shipmates perished on a nightmare voyage after being expelled from Thailand in a powerless barge. The Post tracked down Akhtar's family to a remote village in Bangladesh, where journalist Shaikh Azizur Rahman broke the news to them that their son was alive.
It was at the end of a three-day journey that we finally pulled up outside the Rohingya village of Boroitoli, located by the picturesque Naf River that divides Myanmar and Bangladesh in this region. A group of young men led us to a bamboo-walled, straw-thatched house at the end of a dusty alleyway.
A white-bearded Rohingya man was repairing a fishing net in the entranceway of the humble shack. He got up and looked calmly at my face for a moment before introducing himself as Noor Hossain.
A woman emerged, sensing the presence of an unusual visitor.
'Akhtar Hossain is my son ... have you brought any news about him?' she asked chewing nervously on the edge of her scarf, anxiety in her eyes.
I quickly placed my laptop computer down on the fishing net and switched it on before turning to Akhtar's mother, Julekha Begum.
'Yes. Your son is alive.'
The couple clutched my hands tightly and stared straight into my eyes, trying to gauge if this stranger's words could be trusted.
'Here is the evidence,' I said. I called up a photograph of Akhtar that was published in the Sunday Morning Post in January.
The image was of a gaunt young man sitting on a hospital bed in Port Blair, capital of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Julekha slapped her face and her chest in relief. 'Yes, it's him ... I cannot believe that Allah has kept you alive, Akhtar,' she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
She hugged me tight. 'Some nights I dreamed that he had returned ... now my dream is going to be true,' she said, before collapsing into the lap of another Rohingya woman, Akhtar's mother-in-law.
Akhtar's teenage bride, Sanjida, and their uncomprehending three-year-old son Rohan joined us in front of the computer, along with Akhtar's two sisters. Tears welled in their eyes as I scrolled through other photos of Akhtar, taken in the hospital so far away.
Then the mood changed as I arrived at a photograph showing an emaciated group of Rohingya lying on a beach in Thailand after their arrest by the Thai authorities. I told them how some Rohingya had been towed out to sea in unpowered boats by the Thai military, then cast adrift.
Sanjida asked if Akhtar had been through the same ordeal.
I explained what I knew - that he had been held captive in Thailand, where he claimed to have been abused by his guards, before he was abandoned at sea with about 400 other young men. I told how they ran out of food and water and three-quarters of them died before the rest were rescued by the Indian coastguard on December 27.
'It must have been very hard for him,' Sanjida said as she sobbed and covered her face under her head scarf. Akhtar's 16-year-old sister, Fatema, said she had been against her brother's boat journey from the beginning, but he had not listened to her.
'My father almost stopped eating when we heard the news that so many of them died last month,' Fatema said.
Noor Hossain said he could not believe that someone would come from a foreign country to bring them the news that Akhtar had been saved.
'I have not eaten or slept well for one month. Tonight I can finally sleep in peace,' he said as he held my hands, tears in his eyes.
The February 7 scene in Boroitoli came at the climax of a three-day search through dozens of villages and towns in southeast Bangladesh, in an effort to trace the family of Akhtar, the young man I interviewed from his hospital bed in Port Blair last month.
Illiterate and still suffering from his ordeal, Akhtar could provide me with just his father's name and 'Boroitoli in Cox's Bazar district' as his address.
As I began my search for Akhtar's family, I first went to Bangladesh's most well-known Boroitoli - a cluster of a dozen villages, 160km north of Cox's Bazar.
Accompanied by local residents, I travelled through every village, showing pictures of Akhtar in a day-long search. No one recognised him. But the residents provided a fresh lead - more than 100 men from Khutakhali, another village cluster 50km away, had departed for Malaysia since November.
The next day I arrived in Khutakhali, and news of the journalist carrying pictures of the missing boat- people spread.
Local leaders arranged to show my laptop pictures in gatherings of anxious relatives in each hamlet. I showed a range of photographs obtained during the course of the South China Morning Post's investigation into the treatment of the Rohingya. Some showed men being processed on the Thai island of Koh Sai Daeng, their fate unknown. Others showed boatloads of survivors as they were rescued in Indian waters.
Five men were identified by ecstatic relatives from a photograph of a January 9 rescue in Indian waters that was eventually published in the Post last week. Those men were now believed to be in Indian custody in the Andamans. It was not clear when or if they would be allowed to return - but at least they were alive.
But I could provide no comfort to most of the desperate villagers, out of touch with their menfolk for months and fearing the worst. Women broke into sobs and moans as they scoured the photos in vain for the glimpse of a loved one.
Refusing to give up, relatives pressed copies of missing boat- people's identification documents into my hands, hoping that somehow I could locate them. Soon, the documents of more than 100 missing men of Khutakhali were collected for me.
In the evening, at a football ground in Khutakhali, people gathered for a meeting to discuss the risks involved in heading to Malaysia by boat. As the photos of the emaciated boatpeople in Thailand were shown on my laptop, village elders urged the young men present not to take such a risky journey, no matter how desperate they were to earn money for their families.
'The picture of the half-dead skeletal men lying on the beach gave a shock to many, but it was needed to dissuade our young men [from taking to the seas],' said Giasuddin, a young village leader. Giasuddin has begun a campaign against the human traffickers who prey on the young men with dreams of work in Malaysia, but without the means to migrate legally.
Parveen Akhtar, a Khutakhali housewife, was horrified by the photos. 'My husband was planning to take the trip next season because he does not earn enough as a salt field worker. We have four daughters to marry off in the next few years [who will each have to be provided with dowry].
'That frightening picture [of the men lying on the beach in Thailand] is enough to stop us dreaming of money from Malaysia. I shall never allow my husband to take such a trip. The risks are too grave,' she said.
The meeting had been fruitful - perhaps it had even helped save some lives. But I was still no closer to finding Akhtar's family.
Then, a local truck driver said he knew of a small Rohingya village by the name of Boroitoli, by the side of the Naf river, 60km south of Cox's Bazar. The next day I followed his directions, which brought me to the home of Noor Hossain and Julekha Begum. My journey was complete.
'You must have taken lots of trouble to trace us,' Julekha said as I made my farewells. 'I am grateful to you and your newspaper.
'We are poor and this fowl is for you. Please accept it.'
Akhtar Hossain is among a group of 49 ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshi men who have been approved for deportation from the Andamans back to Bangladesh. He is expected to arrive home next month.