Rohingya refugees in Indonesia: Mother remembers the horror of month at sea

Aceh, Indonesia

Hatemon Nesa weeps as she clings to her 5-year-old daughter, Umme Salima, at a rescue shelter in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Their faces seem gaunt, their eyes sullen, after drifting for weeks at sea on a ship with little meals or water.

“My skin was rotting off and my bones were visible,” Nesa mentioned. “I thought I would die on that boat.”

Nesa additionally cries for her 7-year-old daughter, Umme Habiba, who she says she was compelled to go away behind in Bangladesh – she couldn’t afford any greater than the $1,000 the traffickers demanded to move her and her youngest little one to Malaysia. “My heart is burning for my daughter,” she mentioned.

Nesa and Umme Salima have been amongst round 200 Rohingya, members of a persecuted Muslim minority, who launched into the damaging voyage in late November from Cox’s Bazar, a sprawling refugee camp in Bangladesh crowded with round 1,000,000 individuals who fled alleged genocide by the Myanmar army.

However quickly after they left, the engine reduce out, turning what was purported to be a 7-day journey right into a month-long ordeal at sea, uncovered to the weather within the open-topped picket boat, surviving solely on rainwater and simply three days’ price of meals.

Nesa mentioned she noticed ravenous males soar overboard in a determined seek for meals, however they by no means returned. And she witnessed a child die after being fed salt water from the ocean.

Because the weeks wore on, the passengers’ households and help companies pleaded with governments in a number of international locations to assist them – however their cries have been ignored.

Then on December 26, the boat was rescued by Indonesian fishermen and native authorities in Aceh, based on the United Nations refugee company (UNHCR). Of the 200 or so individuals who boarded the boat, solely 174 survived – round 26 died on the boat, or are lacking at sea, presumed useless.

Babar Baloch, an Asia spokesperson for the company, mentioned after a lull throughout Covid, the numbers of individuals fleeing are again to pre-Covid ranges. Some 2,500 boarded unseaworthy boats final yr for the journey, and as many as 400 of them died, making 2022 one of many deadliest years in a decade for Rohingya escaping Cox’s Bazar.

“These are literally death traps that once you get in … you end up losing your life,” he mentioned.

Nesa and Salima’s journey started on November 25 from the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, the place she mentioned her youngsters couldn’t go to highschool, leaving her with little hope for his or her future.

Nesa mentioned she had carried round two kilograms of rice for the journey, however shortly after the boat left the port, its engine died and so they began drifting.

“Starving with no food, we saw a fishing boat nearby and tried to go close,” she mentioned, crying as she recalled the horror. “We jumped in the water to swim close to that boat but in the end, we could not.”

The rickety wooden boat that carried Hatemon Nesa and her daughter, Umme Salima pictured in  Aceh province, Indonesia.

Throughout December, because the boat bobbed aimlessly within the Bay of Bengal, the UNHCR mentioned it was noticed close to India and Sri Lanka. However the company mentioned these international locations “continuously ignored” its pleas for intervention.

CNN has contacted the Indian and Sri Lankan Navies for remark however has not obtained a response. Final month, the Sri Lankan Navy mentioned in an announcement that its crews had made a “strenuous effort” to rescue one other boat carrying 104 Rohingya, together with many ladies and kids, who had fled Bangladesh.

On December 18, Nesa’s brother, Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, who’s in Cox’s Bazar, shared with CNN an audio clip of a harrowing cellphone name he obtained from one of many refugees aboard Nesa’s boat.

“We are dying here,” the person mentioned through satellite tv for pc cellphone, based on the recording. “We haven’t eaten anything for eight to 10 days. We are starving.”

Hatemon Nesa and her 5-year-old daughter Umme Salima at a shelter in Aceh province in Indonesia.

Nesa mentioned the boat’s driver and one other crew member jumped into the ocean to search out meals, however they by no means returned. “I think they got eaten by fish in the sea,” she mentioned.

Twelve different males entered the water, whereas holding onto a protracted rope connected to the boat to attempt to catch one thing to eat, however as others on the boat tried to drag them again in, the rope snapped, Nesa mentioned. “They could not return to the boat.”

Whereas all international locations are sure by worldwide legislation to rescue folks in misery at sea, swift motion is just not all the time forthcoming – notably the place Rohingya refugees are involved, based on Baloch, from the UNHCR.

“I think everyone will agree as human beings that we have the responsibility you want to save one life in distress, let alone hundreds of people dying,” Baloch mentioned. “(Nearby states) have to act to save these desperate people. It has to be an action which is in coordination done collectively by all the states in the region.”

Nesa and Umme Salima have been among the many 174 emaciated survivors proven on video setting foot on land for the primary time in weeks in late December, some instantly collapsing onto the sand of an Aceh seashore, too weak to face.

They’re among the many extra lucky ones – the UNHCR believes one other 180 are presumed useless, misplaced at sea on one other boat since early December, when the occupants stopped speaking with their households.

The survivors from Nesa’s boat are actually receiving medical care in Aceh, nonetheless it stays unclear what would possibly occur to them within the coming weeks and months.

Rohingya refugees rest after being transferred to a temporary shelter following their arrival by a boat in Laweung, Aceh province on December 27, 2022.

Indonesia is just not celebration to the UN Refugee Conference and lacks a nationwide refugee safety construction, based on the UNHCR.

For these discovered to be refugees, UNHCR will start to search for one in all a variety of what options, together with resettlement to a 3rd nation or voluntary repatriation, if an individual is ready to “return in safety and dignity.”

This marks the beginning of a brand new chapter for the group of passengers, who’ve lived for years in overcrowded, unhygienic and unsafe refugee camps in Bangladesh, after fleeing many years of systematic discrimination, widespread brutality and sexual violence of their dwelling nation of Myanmar.

“Stateless, persecuted, these Rohingya refugees have known little peace,” mentioned UNHCR’s Baloch.

Way more must be achieved by the worldwide group for the persecuted group, that suffer on a scale most can not think about, he added.

For Nesa, the hope stays that she is likely to be reunited along with her different daughter some day.

“I was about to die (in Bangladesh),” she mentioned. “Allah gave me a new life … My children should get a proper education. That is all that I wanted.”