BANGKOK – Haresa counted the days near the moon, rising and falling over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler, trapped in such a space that she could not even stretch her legs, bled for weeks, weeks for months.
“People were fighting like fish swimming around,” 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, survivors said. Mrs. Hareza’s aunt died, then her brother.
Six full months after she boarded a fishing boat in Bangladesh, hoping traffickers would transport her to Malaysia for marriage, Ms. Haresa, who has the same name, and nearly 300 other Rohingya refugees have taken refuge in Indonesia. last month. Her 21-year-old sister died two days after the boat landed.
Expelled from their homes in Myanmar and killed in refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya boarded a dangerous boat to Malaysia, where many of the persecuted minority groups work as undocumented workers. Hundreds died along the way.
Most of those who are currently traveling, like Ms. Haresa, are girls and young women from refugee camps in Bangladesh whose parents have promised to marry Rohingya men in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia with Ms. Haresa last month were women.
“My parents are getting older, and my brothers are in their own families,” she said. “How long will my parents carry the burden of me?”
Because of the courtship of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a grass trimmer, Ms. Bibi’s parents found her a fiancé. She said she asked for details about the man, but none but his name was provided.
After spending more than six months at sea in an unsuccessful attempt to reach him, Ms. Bibi talked to Indonesia with her fiancé, who is far from the country. The phone call lasted two minutes. “He seemed young,” she said. That’s what she knows about him.
Ms. Bibi initially told the UN refugee agency that she was 15, but later changed her age to 18. Child marriages are common among the Rohingya, especially among the rural population.
Mostly stateless, the Muslim minority has experienced an apartheid existence in Myanmar with a majority of Buddhists. Over the past few years, waves of pogroms have pushed the Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where traffickers hunt down young and desperate refugee camps 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 strengthening of the borders of the coronavirus pandemic, sea travel became even more difficult. During the months of this year, boats loaded with hundreds of Rohingya migrants sailed the sea without finding a safe haven. Authorities in Thailand and Malaysia have repeatedly repulsed them.
Fishermen in Aces, on the edge of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few who greeted the Rohingya. The beaten trawler with about 100 refugees landed in June, followed by a larger boat on September 7.
“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region is responding to this humanitarian crisis on the brink,” said Indrika Ratvatte, director of the United Nations Asia-Pacific Refugee Agency.
The Bangladeshi government, fighting its own vulnerable population in a pandemic, has threatened to relocate thousands of Rohingya from camps on cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. The muddy island was uninhabited until the Bangladeshi Navy forced about 300 Rohingya – many of them women and children – to take refuge there this summer, when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended months later at sea.
Earlier this month, several Rohingya were killed in clashes between various gangs at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, which is considered the largest refugee settlement in the world. Some women say they risk using public toilets as little as possible for fear of sexual violence.
Shamsun Nahar, 17, said she was desperate to leave the camps, although she had heard stories of how dangerous the transition could be. Her father, a priest, found her a match, a man from the same village in Rakhine who works as a carpenter in Malaysia.
“I talked to him on a video call, and I liked him from all sides,” Ms. Nahar said of their brief courtship over the phone. “He was not too big, not too small. He looked good. “
Her fiancé had to pay $ 4,500 for the passage, Ms. Nahar said. The place she had occupied for months on the boat was near the engine, so noisy that she could not hear other people’s voices.
According to her, smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, beat them with plastic pipes. Food was served on a plastic sheet greased with leftovers from previous weeks, covering each food with a putrid odor.
“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and my fiancé,” Ms. Nahar said after arriving in Indonesia last month. “What happens next? I do not know.”
Although previous waves of Rohingya landing in Indonesia have mostly made their way to Malaysia, only a few of this year’s crossings have been able to reunite 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 orphanages in Rakhine were touched as best he could.
In 2014, Mr Shah paid smugglers to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia, a 28-day journey 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 a campaign of killings, rapes and forced relocations against the Rohingya of Myanmar.
From a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mr. Shah’s wife asked 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 called “very smart,” quietly saved the money he sent her from the builder’s job. In late March, she and her daughter boarded a fishing trawler tied, as they had hoped, to where her husband lived.
“I was very sorry that they left without my permission,” Mr Shah said.
When news of the massive drowning reached him, he assumed that his family had died at sea. But in June, Shah, 24, heard that a boat had landed in Indonesia. Scanning the crowd on video, he recognized his wife and daughter.
“I have never felt as happy as the day I learned they were alive,” Mr Shah said.
Other Rohingya in Malaysia have taken a second or third wife, he said. But he will not do it. Instead, he went to Indonesia to reunite with his wife and daughter. “I will follow one wife,” Mr Shah said. “She traveled this road, going through this difficult time for me.”