By Shafiur Rahman, Noor Hossain and Mojaffor Ahmed, Dhaka Tribune

Survivor recounts how, with 58 already dead, they overpowered the traffickers and took control of the boat and their destiny

The boat carrying more than 400 Rohingyas, which landed in Bangladesh in the early hours of April 16, had experienced a dramatic mutiny 30 hours earlier.

In that mutiny, four of the 11 Rakhine traffickers were killed, five were rescued by another boat, and two traffickers, including the captain, were kept hostage to steer the trawler back to Bangladesh.

In exclusive testimony, a survivor of the ill-fated journey explained how the failure to land in Malaysia, despite three attempts, led a group of 17 Rohingya men to confront and overcome the traffickers.

The increasing death toll as well as the insufferable conditions on board were also key factors.

The magnificent 17

The 17 men had been “volunteers” until the moment of mutiny. They were needed by the traffickers to carry out menial tasks.

Five had been detailed to do the cooking. The others did an assortment of tasks, including helping people who had grown weak, and taking care of the disposal of Rohingya men and women who had died by throwing them overboard.

Hell on water

After the death of the 58th person — eight women and fifty men — the volunteers asked the traffickers to let them land anywhere they could.

They argued that they had been misled since the first week of departure about how long the journey would take, and it had already been over 50 days.

Food and water had been woefully insufficient, resulting in starvation. They also could not tolerate the daily beatings that were handed out.  People were beaten with iron rods, sticks, and belts.

Rescued Rohingyas at Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar on April 15, 2020 | Dhaka Tribune

The Rohingya volunteers made one simple demand: “Drop us in Myanmar or take us back to Bangladesh.”

The traffickers placated them by saying that another boat would be coming and they would soon be off the boat they were on.

Within a day or two it was clear that the traffickers had not changed their plan. When confronted, the traffickers insisted they would stay put until they found an opportunity to land.

They threatened the Rohingya making the demands: “You will do as we tell you. Otherwise, you can join your dead.”

The survivor explained that the plan to take over the boat was hatched as they were drifting in Myanmar territorial waters for 10 days.

Praying for a miracle

On the night of Shab-e-Barat — April 9-10 — all the Rohingya men and women fervently prayed for their lives.

A day or two earlier, a Myanmar navy patrol boat had come to their trawler, and the officers were spotted receiving money from the traffickers.

The group of volunteers had hoped their prayers would be answered. They were anticipating that the navy patrol boat would come again and take them ashore and put them in jail in Myanmar.

Rohingya refugees rescued by Bangladesh Coast Guard in Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar on April 15, 2020 | Dhaka Tribune

They even thought that perhaps they would be sent back to Bangladesh, as they were all carrying UNHCR cards.

However, it soon dawned on them that the money handed over to the Myanmar navy was simply to pay them off, and that there was no hope of any disembarkation. Fearing that there would be further deaths, they started hiding various items that could be potentially used as weapons against the traffickers.

The final straw

For the survivor, one other incident made up his mind to take action. The 57th dead person was the mother of two young children.

The mother was sick throughout the journey and vomiting blood. The meagre amount of food she got, she gave to her two children.

After her death, the children would often cry and hug each other. For the survivor, this was distressing and brought back memories of his own young boy whom he had left behind in the camps.

Making their move

The mutiny took place one day and six hours before landing in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya volunteers waited until twilight to surprise the traffickers. They thought this would be the best moment, as during daylight hours the traffickers would be able to see what was happening and respond. Other trafficker boats could also possibly observe and come to the aid of the Rakhine men.

The volunteers were aware that the traffickers had two pistols, and they made sure those were not accessible. One trafficker was killed on the bow of the trawler.

Rescued Rohingyas at Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar on April 15, 2020 | Dhaka Tribune

They lay in wait for the others by the latrine on the deck of the boat, and there, an hour later, three of the Rakhine men were apprehended and killed.

Women and children rushed to the hull when the traffickers started fighting back. This was the area in which men had been confined the entire journey, except for the 17 Rohingya volunteers.

There followed a protracted five-hour long stand-off. In that time the traffickers were desperately trying to contact other boats to rescue them. Finally, another trafficker boat came to their rescue five hours later.

Escape from the traffickers

As soon as the traffickers had leapt onto the other boat, the Rohingya volunteers used the “double machine” to speed away from it – their trawler had two propellers. The boat that had come for the traffickers only had one.

Of the two Rakhine men taken hostage, the captain was arrested in Teknaf. The survivor is unsure about the whereabouts of the other, though he was brought to the Transfer Camp in Kutupalong for quarantine purposes.

The survivor’s assessment is that had they not taken action more people would undoubtedly have died.

“A few dozens more would have died. You can see. Many of them are unable to even walk.”