It was a horror story from the time he left his burning village in Rakhine to his harrowing experience at the hands of traffickers in a camp in Thailand. Yousuf Haron describes his ordeal.
One humid night in summer, at the beginning of September in 2012, I was suddenly awakened by a commotion, loud voices and cries of “Help! Help!”
Immediately, I jumped up from my bed and rushed to the window to look outside my wooden two-storey house. I was horrified to see flames from a quickly spreading fire a kilometre away lighting up the darkened sky at the southern side of the village.
The whole night was hell. Wearing only my pyjamas, I stepped outside to see villagers – including the elderly, women carrying babies and toddlers, and children – wailing and running around in panic. The raging fire had devoured their homes: they had lost everything and they had nowhere to go, not even proper water supply or a change of clothes.
Nothing changed throughout the night. When morning broke, I saw the military and the local Rakhine carrying heavy guns; they were well equipped with weapons. They were deliberately shooting Rohingya people and burning and bulldozing the rest of the houses in the villages. All the Rohingya villagers were kept in the paddy field under gunpoint and nobody was allowed to go out of the area.
This lasted for the next two weeks. Not even the injured were allowed to leave. In such isolation, people quickly suffered very seriously, theiir basic needs unmet. They ate only the dried rations that they had been able to carry with them. As many as two dozen people died where they lay from their injuries because of a lack of medical access. After about two weeks, when the military finally left the area, the villagers fled in every direction.
I hid in the nearby forest for almost three weeks. We kept out of sight of the military and the local Rakhines as we feared for our lives.
I couldn’t see any way I could safely remain in Myanmar. So, in search of a safer place, I decided to flee to Bangladesh as it was the only land I could reach at that time.
After a few days of travel with some other fellow villagers, I reached my destination. I was left with only the clothes that I was wearing. Luckily I managed to find an old friend who was my primary school classmate. He provided me shelter in his makeshift home, which was outside the designated and heavily overcrowded refugee camp. His place was constantly under threat of demolition by the Bangladeshi local authorities.
I too was faced with a constant fear of arrest and also of local attack because of my lack of any documentation and protection. As I couldn’t move freely, I also faced many difficulties in obtaining basic necessities.
While I was in Myanmar, my country of origin, I was not like other human beings with dignity and rights. The Burmese military government had taken away citizenship rights from the Rohingya in 1981, and so I had no status in the country where I was born and raised.
Both of my parents had lived for generations, enjoying full legal status as citizens, the same as other persons in Myanmar. They worked for the government and contributed fully to the nation. But then the military enacted a citizenship law and everything changed for the Rohingya.
Now people like me could not travel without seeking permission. I couldn’t get married if and when I wanted to and to whom I wished, without permission from the authorities. I couldn’t pursue my studies because my right to education did not exist. I couldn’t own or conduct any business like other people in Myanmar.
As a Rohingya, I had no rights, and there were severe restrictions placed on my life in every sphere of activity. We were ‘non-citizens’. And our lives and property were constantly under threat.
I pondered about alternatives for a better future. Many people warned me not to go to Malaysia because the journey there was so dangerous, and life in Malaysia was also unsafe for refugees like me. I heard many horror stories of the disappearances of untold numbers at sea and the abuse and exploitation at the hands of traffickers.
But I didn’t take all this into consideration as I just didn’t have any hope and future in Bangladesh. It was either ‘do or die’. I asked my relatives to lend me some money to arrange an agent so that I could reach a new place with the hope of a better future, a place where I could support my family.
The traffickers in Bangladesh mostly target the Rohingya who have fled the communal violence and the unbearable situation in Myanmar, because we have little choice. And the traffickers grow wealthy.
Springtime, when the waters are calmer before the monsoon rain, is the prime smuggling season. My friend had managed to find an agent for me from the refugee camp in Bangladesh.
A few days later, one dark midnight, the smugglers took me, along with about 70 other people, to a small fishing village. We boarded a small fishing boat, and after a two-hour journey, we approached a larger vessel, and all of us were transferred into it. Most of the people in the vessel were from Myanmar, some from Bangladesh.
On the vessel, I saw many others including pregnant women and small children. For nearly two weeks, we remained at sea as more people boarded the old, leaky vessel until it was crammed with passengers. Finally, when the traffickers had recruited about a thousand people, the boat set sail for Thailand. Hygiene conditions on the boat were scary. There was only one toilet and people had to queue for it.
Ten traffickers were on board – five from Myanmar and another five from Thailand. All were armed with guns, and each had a sword as well. Nobody was allowed to move much; only the traffickers could. They would beat anyone trying to walk anywhere on the boat.
People couldn’t sit and sleep well the whole journey. Food was insufficient. Every day, we were provided with only a plate of rice in a plastic bag along with a small bottle of water.
Due to the lack of movement and insufficient food, day by day people grew weaker physically and mentally. But there was no medical aid or medicine when anyone got sick. As a result, five passengers passed away on the journey and their dead bodies were dumped into the sea.
Fortunately, after 10 days, we arrived at night somewhere in Thailand, but I didn’t know the exact location. Upon arrival in Thailand, the traffickers divided people into group sof 50. Each group had to walk to a different place in the jungle.
After about three hours of walking through the jungle, my group arrived in an open area inside the jungle. It had some makeshift covering, and under them lay several people, including babies and some other of the traffickers’ own people. Some of them were in a critical condition. The situation in the jungle was about the same as the situation on the boat in terms of food, hygiene and treatment.
The worst thing in the traffickers’ camps was that the they used a hammer to beat victims who couldn’t settle the ransoms set for their release. The traffickers had made people phone their parents or relatives in Malaysia or any other place, to demand money for their release. Not everyone could pay up.
I was under held by the traffickers for eight days until my relatives from Malaysia paid the ransom. I witnessed for myself how every day at least three or four people died in the traffickers’ camps because of mistreatment. When someone passed away, their corpse was taken away by the traffickers.
Finally, after my relatives paid the ransom for me, apparently to the traffickers’ counterpart ‘agent’ in Malaysia, the agent brought me to the Malaysian border sometimes by walking and most of the time in a car. I crossed the border at night by climbing a ladder and jumping into Malaysian territory with some 30 other people. Upon my arrival in Malaysia, the agent handed me over to my relatives.
Then I started to look for a job every day. Most of the time, I was rejected because I had no status here either. After one and a half months, however, I did get a job at a carwash. Many times I had to run away when I heard the authorities were going to conduct a raid. I was always in fear of arrest, extortion and detention by the authorities – a daily occurrence in the refugee community here.
We have no protection because we have no status. When people talked about detention in Malaysia, I cried because I feared I could get detained any time. I wondered what sort of future lay in front of me in Malaysia, what hope I had, when my status was the same as it had been In Myanmar.
Yousuf Haron is the pseudonym of a Rohingya refugee who took part in an Aliran Young Writers’ Workshop last year.
This is part of a series of articles that Aliran is publishing in partnership with the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.