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‘Pray for us’: Eyewitnesses reveal first clues about a missing boat with up to 200 Rohingya refugees


PIDIE, Indonesia (AP) — 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 AP 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.


TEARFUL GOODBYES

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.


THE BOATS COME TOGETHER

The boat Jubair and his family were on was chugging across the sea, carrying 180 Rohingya bound for Indonesia. It was overloaded, but the engine was still working.


Days into its 1,800-kilometer (1,100-mile) journey, the passengers on Jubair’s boat spotted another vessel bobbing in the waves. It was Kajoli, Ansar and Samira’s boat — their engine was broken, water was seeping in and the passengers were panicking.



Those on Jubair’s boat worried if they got too close, the people on the distressed vessel would jump onto their boat, sinking them all, says one of Jubair’s fellow passengers, Rujinah, who goes by one name and who was on board with five of her children.


Their fears were not unfounded. As Jubair’s boat drew nearer, between 20 and 30 people began preparing to make the jump, says Zakir Hussain, another passenger.


The captain of Jubair’s boat shouted at those on the distressed vessel to stay put. Then he asked for a rope so he could tie the two boats together. The captain told the other boat’s passengers he would tow their vessel behind his, and they would search for land together.


According to Hussain, their captain also issued a warning: “If you try to jump into our boat, we won’t help you.”


What happened next is disputed.


Around the same time, Shukkur, the father of Kajoli, says his nephew made a call to the captain of Kajoli’s boat and was told by the captain that he and his family had left the distressed vessel and were on the boat that came to their rescue.


However, the survivors interviewed by the AP in Aceh either denied that happened or said they didn’t see it.


Tethered together, the two boats began moving through the water. And then, two or three nights later, a vicious storm crashed down on them. Pounding waves throttled the boats, destroying the engine on Jubair’s vessel.


Now, in the dark, they were both helplessly adrift.



TRAGEDY STRIKES

It was then, the passengers on Jubair’s boat say, that the ropes between the two vessels were severed. No one says they saw how it happened — but what they did see was the other boat drifting off to their right.


Over the howling wind and churning surf, Jubair could hear the passengers on the other boat pleading for their lives.


“They were crying and shouting loudly, ‘Our ropes are broken! Our ropes are broken! Please help us!’ But how could we help?” Jubair says. “We would die with them.”


The other boat drifted farther away, the passengers say, until it vanished from view.


On Jubair’s boat, people began to wail.


“They are also Muslim. They are also part of our community,” says Rujinah. “That’s why our people were also crying for them.”


THE RESCUE

For days, Jubair and his fellow passengers languished at sea, their food and water gone. Eventually, a plane spotted them, and a Navy ship arrived, delivering food, water and medicine. The passengers say they don’t know which country sent the rescue vessel that towed them into Indonesian waters and then left when their boat was close to land.


That’s when their captain and another crew member fled the vessel on a small fishing boat, Jubair says. Abandoned, the exhausted passengers worked together to guide the battered boat onto the beach, where they have spent their nights sleeping under tarps. They wash and drink from a nearby stream.



Facing an increasingly hostile reception from locals, they have no idea what their future holds in Indonesia. But at least, they say, they are alive. They hope the passengers on the other boat are, too.


“I feel very sad for them because we were in the same situation, and now we are safe,” says Hussain.


“We are just praying for that boat to find land and for the passengers to stay alive.”


THE AGONY OF THE UNKNOWN

Weeks have passed, and the families of those on board the lost boat have heard nothing. Ann Maymann, the UNHCR’s representative in Indonesia, urged regional governments to launch a search.


“Here you have hundreds of people that are obviously distressed at the best and, at the worst, they are not even distressed any longer,” Maymann told the AP. “Those nations in this region have fully capable and resourced search and rescue capacities.”



The governments of regional countries that the AP reached out to either did not respond to requests for comment or said they were unaware of the boat.


Meanwhile, a familiar feeling of dread has crept into Bangladesh’s camps, which mourned the loss in 2022 of another boat carrying 180 people that an AP investigation concluded had sunk.


Fatima struggles to sleep as she waits for news of Ansar, her little brother. One way or another, she says, they just want answers.


One night, Fatima says, Ansar came to their mother in a dream and told her he was on an island. The family believes he is alive, somewhere.


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


His agony echoes throughout the camp’s crowded warren of shelters.


“Many parents,” he says, “are screaming for their children.”


 

Associated Press, 2023

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