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A trip down the path of horror

The four were in a hurry, had little time to bargain for the cricket bat’s price. Most excited among them, Nur Alam pulled out his moneybag hurriedly, paid 300 taka ($3.90) and almost snatched the bat from the salesman.

Stepping out of the shop, he impatiently focused his eyes on Teknaf Police Station building lest uncle Mizan left in the three-wheeler without them to catch the Malaysia-bound ship.

Before buying the cricket bat and ball, Nur Alam, Lokman, Amir and Khalil, also bought a football because Mizan uncle had said there is a big field in the ship for playing all kinds of games.

For the four friends, all aged around 18, it is beyond what they could possibly dream of.

From left: Bangladeshis Shahbuddin, Noor-e-Alam and Nur Alam at the Ranong Immigration Detention Center. (The Daily Star)
From left: Bangladeshis Shahbuddin, Noor-e-Alam and Nur Alam at the Ranong Immigration Detention Center. (The Daily Star)

Firstly, uncle Mizan had brought them all the way from Shariatpur to Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar to show them the beauty of the sea.

And now he managed everything so that the four friends can go to Malaysia in his friend’s ship without any expense at all!

“Hurry up, get in the CNG,” said Mizan, who according to what his neighbor in Shariatpur Nur Alam knows, is a businessman based in Teknaf. “Something has suddenly come up and I’ll join you later,” he told them.

Alam did not even bid him goodbye because he believed the man “who convinced owner of the Malaysia-bound ship to arrange separate seats and computers for each of the four” would definitely be part of this “beautiful journey.”

“On your behalf, I will pay him a minor amount in fare for this journey, after which you will get lucrative jobs in Malaysia,” he had told them.

Leaving the regular road, the three-wheeler entered a jungle leading to a small hut.

As they get down, the people in charge throw them into the hut, took away all their belongings including mobile phones, moneybag and even their trousers. They gave them lungyi to wear.

As Alam attempted to resist them, they swooped on him, pinned him to the ground and took away everything.

“Nine people were already waiting there, all looking like panicked to the core,” Alam said while recalling the December 2013 incident that brought him to the Ranong Immigration Detention Center in Thailand’s southern Ranong province.

The Ranong governor gave The Daily Star special access to the center on May 26 so that people can realize how risky and fatal can be the arduous journey Nur Alam took in a fit of fantasy.

“When there were 14 of us, they forced us onto a small boat later.”

After a three-hour journey, they were taken on what the traffickers’ term “ship,” which is a modified fishing trawler.

“During midnight, the ship started moving,” said Shahabuddin, a 23-year-old fish trader from Khuruskul area of Cox’s Bazar who had already been brought to the trawler when Alam was taken there.

One broker named Aminul, a Myanmar citizen who moved to Cox’s Bazar several years ago, had convinced Shahabuddin to go to Malaysia with a promise of job for just 18,000 taka though he used to charge 20,000 taka from others.

“He gave me this concession because my sister was married to a man who lives near his house in Gunapara village,” Shahabuddin said.

He was picked up on a small boat at a “Malaysia Airport” ― so named because of the destination ― at Badar Mokam area in Cox’s Bazar Sadar upazila.

“As the journey was long, I bought dry food including bread apple, juice and water worth 1,500 taka,” said Shahabuddin, who also bought a blanket.

Asked where he got the food in the remote area, both Alam and Shahabuddin said shops have been set up near every “Malaysia Airport” and are making brisk money selling such foods to the Malaysia-bound people.

When Shahabuddin was led to the ship, a Rohingya broker named Ayub forced him to enter the bottom of the three-storied trawler. “The accommodate a few hundred people in the small ship, wood planks are used to make floors,” he said.

A total of 474 people, including 30 women and seven children, were forced into the trawler before it started for Thai coast.

It became so crowded that the victims could just manage to huddle together lowering their heads, so that it did not bump into the wooden floor.

Seven Arakanese citizens carrying whips made of rope and thick cable would stand guard and beat people on any trivial pretext. “To spread panic so that everyone complies with their order, they would beat people more during the first few days,” said Nur Alam.

“With our dreams of a lucrative job in Malaysia already shattered, what we were doing round the clock was pray ― none could rest nor sleep.”

Many of the victims had nervous breakdown and fell sick. “There was no doctor. If you fell sick, you must die untreated,” Shahabuddin said.

For those like Nur Alam whose money was seized before the start of the journey, the traffickers used to provide some rice with dry red chili twice ― once at 10 a.m. and later at 3 p.m. ― and around 25ml water thrice.

For Noor Alam, a 25-year-old fisherman from Teknaf, who was duped to Katabuniya area in the sub-district and was later taken on a boat forcibly, the food and water was far less than one could survive on.

“That’s why I asked for some food when my stock ended after a week,” he said while talking about his voyage in November 2013 in another trawler that was carrying 450 people to Thai coast.

A guard beat him up with a whip made of thick electric cable so hard that he started to bleed from his head and left knee, he said showing injury marks. He was left in that condition.

Failing to bear with the thirst, four men took their own lives jumping into the sea.

“The guards beat up another six so badly that they started to vomit and fell sick. Seeing that they were lying there occupying a lot of space, the guards threw them into the sea,” he shivered while recalling the event.

But Noor-e-Alam, father of a son, aged two, and a daughter, aged one, said it was the most unbearable sight when the guards used to beat up the kids in front of their parents for seeking water.

Shahabuddin and Alam were also witness to similar brutality.

A 40-year-old man from Jessore who was duped to Cox’s Bazar in the name of traveling and later taken on a boat forcibly, was sent to the bottom cellar on the seventh day of their journey.

“The man complained that he had heart diseases and was feeling bad. He vomited twice and lay on the floor.” Seeing him of no value, the guards pulled him up and flung in the waters.

Nine days after starting, the trawler carrying Shahabuddin and Alam reached sea on Myanmar-Thai border.

The brokers handed over the victims to three smaller boats. The boats took them near the coast and forced them to get down in chest-high water.

“Later, we had to wade through water and mud for two hours before we reached a hill around 3 p.m.”

The victims, exhausted to the bone, were very happy when they were served a full meal ― a boiled egg, some rice and salt ― at 8 a.m. at the rubber garden camp in the hill slope.

In the afternoon the next day, the victims were taken on mini trucks, each carrying eight, which were covered with thick sheets so that none can understand what’s inside.

The trucks traveled for eight hours to take them to a camp in Padang Besar, a border town on the Malaysia-Thailand border in the Sadao district in Thailand’s Songkhla province.

There, 107 victims were kept in three rooms in a brown-colored one-story building.

The trafficked people are mostly taken to the hilly or jungle areas along the Thai coast in Songkhla, Sotun, Ranong and Phuket provinces.

In the morning, a man speaking Arakanese gave Shahabuddin a mobile phone and asked him to call home.

“He told me to pay the 18,000 taka saying otherwise my future will be uncertain.” His family sold two of their cows for 30,000 taka and collected 50,000 taka from some relatives to pay the ransom three days later.

As per the directives of the Arakanese broker, Shahabuddin’s family contacted a broker named Faruk in Teknaf on a mobile phone number provided by the brokers in Thailand and paid him the money.

Alam had to pay 20,000 taka though. “The Arakanese broker said they would take us to Malaysia the day we pay the ransom.”

Those who have paid the ransom were given a red ribbon to tie in their hands as a mark of payment, and there were 84 lucky ones to get it.

Two mini trucks came and took away 26, 13 in each vehicle, as those who couldn’t pay waited for unknown future.

“As we were waiting to get in the third vehicle, police raided the building and took us to Hat Yai immigration office in Songkhla.”

Meanwhile, two brokers, who were also arrested with them, advised the Bangladeshis to introduce themselves before police as Myanmar citizens saying “it would help us get release in just two days.” Alam and Shahabuddin complied, but no avail.

As the Hat Yai office became overcrowded with 600 arrestees, authorities shifted 200 of them, including Alam, Shahabuddin and Noor-e-Alam, to Ranong Immigration Detention Centre on Jan. 24 last year.

“In just two months, the two brokers got release from here. But we’re still languishing here,” said Noor-e-Alam.

The three, who are the only Bangladeshi citizens among 240 at the center now, said they’re lucky that they had failed to board the truck bound for Malaysia.

Now waiting for repatriation, Shahabuddin said: “We could by now have turned into another group’s slaves and be working in any rubber garden.”

By Shamim Ashraf, The Daily Star