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A forgotten people, lost at sea: Families of refugees whose boat vanished search for answers

Desperate for an escape from crime-ridden refugee camps, they got on a boat. When they cried out for help in a merciless storm, no one answered.
Rohingya refugee
Hasina Khatun shows a photo of her 18-year-old daughter, Asma Bibi, who was 9 months pregnant when she and her little brother fled the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and boarded a boat bound for Indonesia in hope of a better life.  Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP
/ Source: AP (Associated Press)

TEKNAF, Bangladesh — The wind had whipped the waves to nearly three times the woman’s height when her panicked voice crackled over the phone.

“Our boat has sunk!” Setera Begum shouted, as a storm threatened to spill her and around 180 others into the inky black sea south of Bangladesh. “Only half of it is still afloat!”

On the other end of the line, hundreds of miles away in Malaysia, was her husband, Muhammed Rashid, who picked up the phone at 10:59 p.m. his time on Dec. 7, 2022. He had not seen his family in 11 years. And he had only learned days earlier that Setera and two of their daughters had fled surging violence in Bangladesh’s camps for ethnic Rohingya refugees.

Now, Rashid feared, his family’s bid to escape would cost them the very thing they were trying to save — their lives. For despite Setera’s pleas, no help would come, not for her or for the babies, the 3-year-old afraid of the sea or the pregnant women also on board.

Rashid listened to his wife’s terrified voice with growing dread.

“Oh Allah, it’s sunk by the waves!” Setera cried. “It’s sunk by the storm!”

The call disconnected.

Rashid tried to call back. He tried more than 100 times.

But no one answered.

Rohingya refugee
This is their home: Rohingya refugees look on after a major fire in the Balukhali camp in Bangladesh, Sunday, March 5, 2023. Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

The Rohingya: A forgotten people

The Rohingya are a people nobody wants.

This stateless Muslim minority has suffered decades of persecution in their homeland of Myanmar, where they have long been viewed as interlopers by the Buddhist majority. Around one million have fled across the border to Bangladesh, only to find themselves trapped for years in a squalid camp and held hostage by migration policies that have given them almost no way out.

And so, in a bid to get somewhere — anywhere — safe, they are taking to the sea.

It is a life-or-death gamble. Last year, more than 3,500 Rohingya attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea — a 360 percent increase over the previous year, according to United Nations figures that are almost certainly an undercount. At least 348 people died or went missing, the highest death toll since 2014.

It’s impossible to know whether any of those lives could have been saved, because almost no one was looking to save them in the first place. Even when officials knew the boats’ locations in recent months, the United Nations’ refugee agency says its repeated pleas to maritime authorities to rescue some of them have gone ignored.

Governments ignore the Rohingya because they can.

Governments ignore the Rohingya because they can. While multiple international laws mandate the rescue of vessels in distress, enforcement is difficult.

In the past, the region’s coastal nations hunted for boats in trouble — only to push them into other countries’ search and rescue zones, says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya crisis. But now, they rarely even bother to look.

The lucky ones are towed to shore in Indonesia by local fishermen. Yet even rescue can be perilous — a Vietnamese oil company saved one boat, then promptly handed the Rohingya over to the same deadly regime in Myanmar from which they’d fled.

There is no reason why regional governments could not rescue these people, says John Quinley, director of human rights group Fortify Rights.

“It was a total lack of political will and extremely heartless,” he says.

Several countries in the region did not respond to requests for comment.

Rohingya dying at sea
Bulbul, a Rohingya refugee and the sister of the missing boat’s captain, Jamal Hussein, cries as she shares memories of her brother, who was a rice farmer in Myanmar. “He was my heart,” she says. Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

The camps: Haunted eyes, lost hope

The reasons the Rohingya escape are written on face after gaunt face, in haunted eyes and across slumped shoulders. Any hope that once existed in the Bangladesh camps has long since died, replaced by a stoic sadness and a palpable fear. These are a people who have come to expect nothing, and often get that or worse.

Most of the Rohingya in these camps fled what the United States has declared a genocide in Myanmar in 2017. In recent years, brutal killings by gangs and warring militant groups have become commonplace.

Fires are frequent. A blaze that investigators say was set by criminals tore through thousands of shelters in March, leaving 15,000 homeless.

Beyond fear is hunger. The Rohingya are banned from working and rely on food rations, which have been slashed due to a drop in global donations. A military coup in 2021 in Myanmar has made any safe return home a distant dream.

And so, out of options, they do again what they have done before: They flee.

Rohingya refugee
Momina Begum shows photos of her son and daughter-in-law. The couple and Momina's grandchildren, aged 3 and 4, tried to escape aboard a crowded boat in December 2022. When they called her from the boat to say goodbye, she screamed, “Where are you going with these children? ... Why are you crossing the dangerous sea?” Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

They put their trust in the captain

Virtually everyone in Block H of Nayapara camp in Bangladesh is connected to the boat somehow. Many residents have spent most, or all, of their lives here, after fleeing violence in Myanmar.

This tight-knit warren is home to Setera and 64 other passengers, including the boat’s captain, Jamal Hussein.

Jamal was afraid for his life, says his sister, Bulbul. She weeps at the memories of her brother. “He was my heart,” she says.

Back in Myanmar, Jamal was a rice farmer. After his dad died, he became a father figure to his younger siblings, including Bulbul, 15 years his junior.

Grandpa, everything will be all right.

Abdu Shukkur, remembering his granddaughters' words to him

Their life in the camps was difficult, she says, but they managed. More recently, though, Jamal had received death threats, Bulbul says. He started making plans to get out.

He bought a boat and took a video of it to share with prospective passengers. In the video, obtained by the Associated Press, the wooden vessel sits in murky brown water. It appears old and shabby, and clearly too small to safely carry 180 people 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) to Indonesia, Jamal’s target.

Rohingya dying at sea
An illustrated map showing a general boat route taken by Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Malaysia. AP Illustration

From there, most passengers planned to make their way to their ultimate destination, Malaysia.

Though Bulbul denies it, residents of Block H say Jamal was a seasoned captain who had successfully guided several other boats of Rohingya refugees. It was his experience, they say, along with his willingness to put 16 of his own relatives on the boat — including his wife, six children, five grandchildren and two pregnant daughters-in-law— that prompted so many to trust him.

In a shelter a short walk from Jamal’s, Setera’s father holds up a photo of his daughter, with her full lips and wide-set eyes so much like her mother’s.

“She was the most beautiful person in our family,” says Abdu Shukkur.

Setera, a warm and doting mother, rarely complained, despite raising her girls on her own in the misery of the camps. Her husband, Rashid, fled to Malaysia in 2012 to support his family with wages from his restaurant job.

The money made the family targets of kidnappers, Shukkur says, and Setera had begun to fear for their lives.

Two years ago, a gang snatched Setera’s 4-year-old nephew, Shukkur says. They held him in the mountains for six days, drugging him to keep him quiet. The family paid a ransom of 300,000 taka ($2,800) to get him back — a fortune in the camps.

Setera went to her father and asked his permission to go on Jamal’s boat, along with her two younger daughters.

Shukkur forbade her to go.

“If you want to go to Malaysia by boat, just divorce your husband,” he told her. “It’s too dangerous.”

His wife, Gul Faraz, intervened. “She’s been living without her husband here for 11 years now,” Faraz said. “Let her go.”

Shukkur relented.

Grief steals his breath as he recounts his goodbye with his granddaughters. They had a habit of stealing Shukkur’s unripe guavas, plums and mangoes whenever they visited, prompting scoldings from their grandfather.

“Grandpa, you will not need to scold us anymore,” one of the girls told Shukkur. “Everything will be all right.”

Setera, angry that her father had tried to stop her, did not come to say goodbye.

“They were my lovely ones.”

Muhammed Ayub, whose daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren were on the boat

In a nearby shelter, Jamal’s cousin, Muhammed Ayub, was fighting to stop his daughter, Samira, and her children, aged 6 and nine months old, from getting on the boat. But his son-in-law, Kabir Ahmed, was resolute. Villagers outside the camps had beaten him with an iron rod, and he was afraid.

“It is not safe here. People are getting killed every day,” Ahmed told his father-in-law. “If you stop me from leaving, I will not visit you anymore.”

And so, powerless, Ayub hugged his daughter and son-in-law goodbye. Riddled with anxiety, he wrapped his grandsons in an embrace. His entire body ached as he watched them leave.

“They were my lovely ones,” he says.

Rohingya refugee
Momina Begum lost her son, his wife, and their two children on the doomed refugee boat. “It would be better to kill us by poison instead of taking away my family,” she says. Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

The boat departs

A boat carrying 180 Rohingya refugees set out from Bangladesh on December 1, 2022. One week later, the boat vanished. The AP has reconstructed their journey based on interviews with 28 relatives of those on board, audio recordings of calls from the boat, interviews with three eyewitnesses, and photos and videos.

At the southernmost tip of mainland Bangladesh lies a wild, wind-swept beach, fringed to the east by forest and mountains and to the west by the Bay of Bengal. It was from here that a small fishing boat began ferrying passengers to Jamal’s vessel.

Late on the night of Dec. 1, many of those on Jamal’s boat called their anxious families.

Setera told her husband for the first time that she and two daughters were headed his way.

Rashid had told them countless times never to get on a boat. But this time, Setera would not be stopped. She told him she’d sold her jewelry to help pay for their passage, a total of 360,000 taka ($3,400).

Rashid was stunned. He apologized to Setera for any mistakes he’d made in their 20 years of marriage. And then, he says, he heard Jamal tell Setera to get off the phone. She hung up.

Rashid began to cry with excitement and fear. He couldn’t believe he might soon see his girls.

Rohingya dying at sea
Setera's husband, Muhammad Rashid, calls from Malaysia to have a video conversation with his oldest daughter, Tasmin Tara, center, who stayed in the Nayapara refugee camp after her mother and two younger sisters tried to escape by boat. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

Meanwhile, Jamal’s daughter-in-law, Bibi Ayesha, called her parents to say she and her family had also made it on board. Alongside Bibi was her 17-year-old brother, her husband, and her 3-year-old son, Abu.

The little boy was frightened of the water. Bibi and her husband passed him back and forth, trying to comfort him, as they spoke with her parents. “Pray for us,” they said.

Jamal got on the phone with the parents to reassure them. “The boat is big,” Jamal said, according to the couple. “We have enough food for 15 days.”

Asma Bibi, who was married to another of Jamal’s sons, called her mother, Hasina Khatun. Eighteen-year-old Asma was 9 months pregnant, and excited to meet her child after a stillbirth one year earlier.

Asma hadn’t wanted to go on the boat, says Hasina, but her husband did.

“How can I stay here without my husband?” Asma had told her nervous mother days earlier. “How can my child survive without a father?”

And so, Hasina gave her daughter two sets of baby clothes — one pink, and one white, since they didn’t know the baby’s gender. She also gave her medicine, towels and a green blanket to wrap the newborn in after birth.

Asma reluctantly followed her husband onto Jamal’s boat, along with her 13-year-old brother.

At 4:04 a.m., back in Block H, Jannat Ara’s phone rang. It was her aunt, Kurshida Begum, who said she’d boarded with her husband and two sons, aged 3 and 4.

In the recorded call, shared with the AP, Kurshida recites a prayer, then asks her niece to do the same.

“The journey has begun,” Kurshida told her niece.

Rohingya dying at sea
In this combination of photos, relatives hold images of some of those lost when their crowded boat carrying around 180 people sank in the sea south of Bangladesh on Dec. 7, 2022. Top row from left are Muhammed Khanif; Mezanu; Majida Bibi; Dildar Ullah; Majida Bibi and Dildar Ullah; Samira Begum holding her son, Tasin Ahmed; Kabir Ahmed and Saiful. Bottom row from left are Yasmin Ara and Noor Kaida; Ziabul Hoque and Azizul Hoque; Kabir Ahmed; Asmat Ullah; Mubarak Hussain; Asma Bibi; Noor Hassan and Noor Hashim. (AP Photo)AP

Another boat spots them

News of the call quickly reached Kurshida’s mother-in-law, Momina Begum, who became hysterical. She had no idea Kurshida and the boys were on the boat.

“Where are you going with these children?” Momina screamed. “Why are you crossing the dangerous sea with these children?”

But it was too late. Jamal’s boat was headed into the Bay of Bengal.

Why are you crossing the dangerous sea with these children?

Momina Begum, whose son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were on the boat

What happened next is best told through the eyes of the refugees on another boat that set out for Indonesia one day later.

On board were 104 people, including a man named Kafayet Ullah. According to Kafayet, he was merely a passenger. According to others, he was the captain.

Not long into the journey, Kafayet spotted a boat in the distance. As they moved closer, they realized the boat was Jamal’s. And it was in trouble.

Jamal called out that his engine was having problems. He borrowed some electrical wire from Kafayet’s boat.

Kafayet was worried. His own niece and nephew were aboard Jamal’s vessel, which looked old and overloaded, the passengers packed in tight like animals.

But unlike Kafayet, Jamal had experience and a satellite phone. So when Jamal finished fixing the engine, he set off again, and Kafayet followed.

Four days later, the sky cracked open.

A powerful storm descended upon them. Kafayet’s terrified passengers sobbed as the rain pounded down and the tempest washed their supplies overboard.

The water in Kafayet’s boat began to rise, and a man on board spotted sharks. The passengers prepared themselves to die.

Through the darkness, they could see a light shining on Jamal’s boat. It was still above water.

But not for long.

'Our boat has sunk!'

The recording of Setera’s call to Rashid lasts 44 seconds.

“Oh Allah, our boat has sunk!” Setera shouts into the satellite phone. “Only half of it is still afloat! Please pray for us and tell my parents!”

“Where are you?” Rashid asks.

“We are about to reach Indonesia.”

“Indonesia?” Rashid repeats.

“Please tell me the name of the place,” Setera says to someone else on board, before replying to her husband: “Yes, it is India. Please try to send…”

“Are you in India?” Rashid asks, bewildered.

“Our boat has sunk! Our boat has sunk!”

“Who?” Rashid replies in a panic.

“Oh Allah, it’s sunk by the waves, it’s sunk by the storm!”

“Oh, is it sunk by the storm?” Rashid repeats. “Oh Allah...”

The call cut out.

Rashid began to pray.

Rohingya refugee
Rohingya refugee Dildar Begum lost two of her sons when the boat vanished a week into its journey to Indonesia. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

Not even the shrieking wind could drown out the screams of Jamal’s passengers.

Kafayet could just make out the shape of Jamal’s boat as it made a sharp turn in the waves, and then flipped over. Kafayet threw empty water drums overboard in case his niece or nephew or any of the others could grab onto them.

He says he couldn’t see anyone in the water. But he could hear them screaming.

Then the screams stopped. The light on Jamal’s boat blinked out.

“I saw with my own eyes,” Kafayet says. “The boat sank.”

They drowned in the dark, screaming for help from a world gone deaf

Within hours, the recording of Setera’s call spread through Block H. In shelter after shelter came the wails of families cracking apart.

As Jamal’s cousin, Muhammed Ayub, listened, he began to howl in agony.

All he has left now of the grandsons he called his “lovely ones” are their clothing and his memories. He stares at a pair of little brown shoes with Velcro straps that 6-year-old Tasin once wore, and weeps.

His wife, Minara Begum, inhales the scent from their daughter Samira’s yellow dress. Then she presses a pair of 9-month-old Samir’s tiny blue shorts to her face, the fabric growing damp with her tears.

“Oh, my grandson, why did you leave?” she moans. “Where have you gone?”

Families already pushed to breaking point are now broken. One man who lost four relatives tried to kill himself.

Momina Begum, whose young grandsons were on board, feels she is burning in a fire or sinking under water. She sits next to a plastic basket of her 4-year-old grandson’s toys.

“It would be better to kill us by poison instead of taking away my family,” she says.

Hasina Khatun, whose pregnant daughter, Asma, and 13-year-old son were on the boat, now finds herself begging to hold other people’s babies.

Hasina Khatun, whose pregnant daughter, Asma, and 13-year-old son were on the boat, now finds herself begging to hold other people’s babies.

Hasina, like some others, still holds out hope her loved ones are alive.

One man, Muhammed Rashid, believes he sees his teenage son, Saiful, in an online photo of Rohingya refugees in Indonesia. He had it laminated.

Muhammed pulls down a sack of his boy’s belongings and dumps it on the bed, a strangled sob erupting from his throat. Then he kisses his son’s English book, on which Saiful had scrawled: “I love you.”

“My son is everything,” Muhammed murmurs. “We believe he is alive.”

But the only known survivors from that night were Kafayet and his passengers.

After Jamal’s boat sank, they drifted for 10 days, their engine damaged, their food and water gone.

Delirious with thirst and hunger, they spotted a speed boat in the distance and frantically waved their clothes in the air. The Sri Lankan navy towed Kafayet’s boat to shore.

His brother, Muhammed, knows how close they came to death. He hopes no one else will attempt to do what they did.

Yet back in the camps, such plans are already underway. In early March, Jamal’s sister, Bulbul, listened in horror as her 20-year-old son told her he was preparing to leave by boat.

“I will never allow you to go on this dangerous journey,” she told him. “My brother died on a boat.”

So he agreed to stay — for now. If he flees, she says, she will die of worry.

Rashid’s eyes are ringed with black, a result, he says, of crying for months for Setera and their daughters.

He accepts now that they drowned in the dark, screaming for help from a world gone deaf.

“I spent a long time here for my family. But now I’ve lost them,” he says.

“I feel I am dead.”