BANGKOK – Haresa counted the days to the moon and grew and waned over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler, so tight that she couldn’t even stretch her legs, bled in weeks, weeks in months.
“People fought like they were fish flapping around,” Ms. Haresa, 18, said of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.”
Dozens of bodies have been thrown overboard, some beaten and some starved, survivors said. Mrs. Haresa’s aunt died, then her brother.
Six full moons after boarding the fishing boat in Bangladesh in hopes that human traffickers would bring her to Malaysia for an arranged marriage, Ms. Haresa, who bears a name, and nearly 300 other Rohingya refugees found refuge in last month Indonesia. Her 21-year-old sister died two days after the boat landed.
Thousands of Rohingya have been banned from their homes in Myanmar and penned in refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh. They have taken the dangerous boat trip to Malaysia, where many of the persecuted minorities work as undocumented workers. Hundreds died on the way.
Most of those who are now making the trip, like Ms. Haresa, are girls and young women from refugee camps in Bangladesh whose parents have promised them to marry Rohingya men in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia with Ms. Haresa last month were female.
“My parents are getting old and my brothers are with their own families,” she said. “How long will my parents take the burden off me?”
Through the matchmaking of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a grass cutter, Ms. Bibi’s parents found a fiancé for her. She asked for details about the man, but none other than his name were provided, she said.
After Ms. Bibi survived more than six months at sea in order not to reach him, she spoke to her fiancé from another country in Indonesia. The call lasted two minutes. “He sounded young,” she said. That’s the extent of what she knows about him.
Ms. Bibi initially informed the United Nations Refugee Agency staff that she was 15 years old, but later changed her age to 18. Child marriage is common among the Rohingya, especially in rural areas.
The Muslim minority, which is largely stateless, was exposed to apartheid in Myanmar with a Buddhist majority. In recent years, waves of pogroms have pushed the Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where traffickers are following the young and desperate people in the 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 coronavirus pandemic tightening the boundaries, sea voyages have become even more difficult. For months this year, boats loaded with hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifted at sea and could not find a safe haven. The authorities in Thailand and Malaysia have repeatedly pushed her away.
The fishermen in Aceh at the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra are among the few who have welcomed the Rohingya. A battered trawler with around 100 refugees landed in June, followed by the larger boat on September 7th.
“The question is how Southeast Asia, as a region on its doorstep, is responding to this humanitarian crisis,” said Indrika Ratwatte, director for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The Bangladeshi government, grappling with its own vulnerable population amid the pandemic, has threatened to move thousands of Rohingya from camps to a cyclone-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. The muddy island was uninhabited until the Bangladeshi Navy forced some 300 Rohingya – including many women and children – to shelter this summer when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended after months at sea.
Earlier this month, several Rohingya died in clashes between various gangs in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, considered the largest refugee settlement in the world. Some women say they use public latrines as little as possible for fear of sexual violence.
Shamsun Nahar, 17, said she was dying to leave the camps despite hearing stories of how dangerous the crossing could be. Her father, a clergyman, found her a match, a man from the same village in Rakhine who works as a carpenter in Malaysia.
“I spoke to him over a video call and I liked him from every angle,” Ms. Nahar said of her brief telephone advertisement. “He wasn’t too big, not too small. He was handsome. “
Her fiancé was supposed to pay $ 4,500 for her crossing, Ms. Nahar said. The spot she occupied on the boat for months was near the engine, so loud that she couldn’t hear anyone else’s voices.
The smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, hit them with plastic pipes, she said. The food was served on a plastic wrap that was smeared with leftovers from the past few weeks, and each meal was covered with a foul smell.
“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and fiancé,” Ms. Nahar said after arriving in Indonesia last month. “What will happen next? I don’t know.”
Although previous waves of Rohingya that landed in Indonesia have largely made it to Malaysia, few of this year’s hybrids have been able to mate 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 children’s houses in Rakhine were touching, he said, as close as possible.
In 2014, Mr Shah paid people smugglers to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia, a 28-day trip 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 the Myanmar military campaign for murders, rape and evictions against the Rohingya.
From a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mr. Shah’s wife asked him to pay for her and her daughter to join him in Malaysia. Knowing how risky the journey was, he refused.
But his wife, whom Mr. Shah described as “very smart,” quietly saved the money he sent her from his job as a construction worker. At the end of March, she and her daughter boarded a fishing trawler, they hoped where her husband lived.
“I was very upset that they left without my permission,” said Mr. Shah.
When news of the mass drinking reached him, he assumed that his family had died at sea. But in June, Shah, 24, heard that a boat had landed in Indonesia. He scanned the crowd on a video and recognized his wife and daughter.
“I’ve never been as happy as the day I found out they were alive,” said Shah.
Other Rohingya in Malaysia have taken second or third wives, he said. But he won’t. Instead, he traveled to Indonesia to reunite with his wife and daughter. “I will stay with a woman,” said Mr. Shah. “You traveled all the way, suffered this difficult time for me.”