At a rescue center in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Hatemon Nesa clings to her 5-year-old daughter Umme Salima while she weeps. After being stranded at sea for several weeks on a boat with little food or water, their faces appear gaunt and their eyes look depressed.
Nesa stated, “My bones were visible and my skin was rotting off.” On that boat, I thought I would perish.
Nesa also weeps for Umme Habiba, her 7-year-old daughter, whom she claims she was compelled to abandon in Bangladesh because she was unable to pay the traffickers more than the $1,000 they demanded to transport her and her youngest child to Malaysia. She stated, “My heart is burning for my daughter.”
Around 200 Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority, including Nesa and Umme Salima, set out on the perilous journey in late November from Cox’s Bazar, a sprawling refugee camp in Bangladesh home to approximately a million people fleeing alleged genocide by the Myanmar military.
However, shortly after departing, the engine failed, resulting in a month-long ordeal at sea in an open-topped wooden boat, surviving solely on rainwater and three days’ worth of food in what was supposed to be a seven-day journey.
Nesa said she saw starving men bounce over the edge in a frantic quest for food, however they stayed away forever. Additionally, she witnessed a baby die after being fed seawater.
The passengers’ families and aid organizations pleaded with governments in a number of nations to assist them over the course of the following weeks, but their cries were ignored.
The boat was then rescued in Aceh on December 26 by Indonesian fishermen and local authorities, according to the UNHCR. Only 174 of the approximately 200 people who got on the boat survived; approximately 26 of them either perished on the boat or are believed to be missing at sea.
The agency’s Asia spokesperson, Babar Baloch, stated that the number of people fleeing has returned to pre-Covid levels after a lull during Covid. Last year, approximately 2,500 Rohingya escaped Cox’s Bazar on unseaworthy boats, of which as many as 400 perished, making 2022 one of the deadliest years in a decade.
He stated, “These are literally death traps in which you end up losing your life once you get inside.”
‘We are starving. We are dying here’
On November 25, Nesa and Salima started their journey from the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where Salima said her children couldn’t go to school and she had no hope for their future.
Nesa claimed to have brought approximately two kilograms of rice with her on the trip; however, shortly after the boat left the port, its engine failed, and they began to drift.
“Starving with no food, we saw a fishing boat close by and attempted to go close,” she expressed, crying as she reviewed the frightfulness. ” We tried to swim close to that boat by jumping into the water, but we couldn’t.
The UNHCR reported that the boat was observed close to India and Sri Lanka in December as it floated aimlessly in the Bay of Bengal. However, the organization stated that those nations “continuously ignored” its calls for intervention.
The Indian and Sri Lankan Navies have been contacted by CNN for comment, but the company has not responded. The Sri Lankan Navy released a statement the previous month stating that its crews had made a “strenuous effort” to rescue another boat carrying 104 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, many of whom were women and children.
Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, Nesa’s brother, shared an audio clip with CNN on December 18 of a harrowing phone call he received from one of the refugees on Nesa’s boat.
According to the recording, the man said over the satellite phone, “We are dying here.” We haven’t eaten in between eight and ten days. We cannot eat.”
Nesa said the boat’s driver and one more group part hopped into the sea to track down food, however they stayed away forever. ” She stated, “I think fish in the sea ate them.”
Nesa remarked, “The rope snapped as others on the boat tried to pull them back in.” Twelve other men entered the water while holding onto a long rope attached to the boat in an effort to catch something to eat. They were unable to get back on the boat.
According to Baloch from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), despite the fact that all nations are required by international law to rescue individuals in distress at sea, prompt action is not always achieved, particularly with regard to the Rohingya refugees.
Baloch stated, “I think everyone will agree that as human beings, we have the responsibility you want to save one life in distress, let alone hundreds of people dying.” To save these desperate people, nearby states must take action. It must be an activity which is in coordination done by and large by every one of the states in the locale.”
A dubious future
Nesa and Umme Salima were two of the 174 wretched survivors who were captured on video setting foot on land for the first time in weeks at the end of December. Some of them fell to the ground immediately, too weak to stand, on an Aceh beach.
They are among the fortunate ones; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that another 180 people are dead and presumed to be lost at sea on a different boat since early December, when the occupants stopped communicating with their families.
In spite of the fact that the survivors from Nesa’s boat are currently receiving medical attention in Aceh, it is still not clear what will happen to them in the coming days, weeks, or months.
The UNHCR claims that Indonesia does not have a national refugee protection structure and is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.
If a person is able to “return in safety and dignity,” the UNHCR will begin looking for one of a variety of solutions for refugees, such as voluntary repatriation or resettlement to a third country.
After fleeing decades of systematic discrimination, widespread brutality, and sexual violence in their home country of Myanmar, the group of passengers has lived for years in overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe refugee camps in Bangladesh. This marks the beginning of a new chapter for them.
Baloch of the UNHCR stated, “Stateless and persecuted, these Rohingya refugees have known little peace.”
He added that the international community must do much more for the persecuted group, whose suffering is on a scale that most people cannot comprehend.
There is still hope for Nesa that she will one day be reunited with her other daughter.
“I was going to bite the dust (in Bangladesh),” she said. ” Allah has given me a new life; my children ought to receive an adequate education. All I wanted was that.