GEULUMPANG, Indonesia: Fishermen Muchtar Ali broke down in tears when he set eyes on the overcrowded boat carrying desperate, starving Rohingya off the coast of Indonesia before going to the rescue of a vessel that has become emblematic of Asia’s human-trafficking crisis.
“I was speechless,” Ali told AFP, recalling the moment he saw the boatload of more than 400 Muslim migrants who are fleeing persecution in their native Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. “Looking at these people, me and my friends cried because they looked so hungry, so skinny.”
The fisherman from staunchly Islamic Aceh province, where there has been an outpouring of sympathy as Rohingya and Bangladeshis have come ashore in recent days, said that he also felt compelled to help due to their shared religion.
“We must help fellow Muslims, how can we not help destitute people like this? It would be a big sin,” he said.
The wooden green boat had drawn global attention after harrowing scenes emerged of the migrants pleading for help off Thailand last week. They were rescued by fishermen early Wednesday and brought to shore, and AFP journalists boarded the vessel soon afterwards and confirmed it was the same boat.
For the migrants, who had not been heard from for over three days, the rescue marked the end of a harrowing, four-month journey.
The Rohingya, who included 140 women and children, were “totally exhausted” after being repeatedly towed out of Thai waters and then forced at gunpoint to leave Malaysian waters, said Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project monitors migrant journeys across the Bay of Bengal.
“The worst were the Malaysians who pushed them out twice. They said the second time the Malaysians came with guns and said they’d shoot at the boat if they came back again,” said Lewa, whose researchers had talked to two of the migrants.
It is the latest grim tale to emerge from the region’s migrant crisis, which has seen thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis arrive in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days after being abandoned after a Thai crackdown disrupted people-smuggling and -trafficking routes.
The three nations have also sparked outrage by turning away seaworthy vessels, although Malaysia and Indonesia relented on Wednesday and said they would take in migrants provided they could be resettled or repatriated within a year.
As migrants have made it to shore, often malnourished after months at sea, they have recounted tales of being abused by smugglers and of deadly fights breaking out between rival groups armed with axes and knives.
The group rescued off Indonesia’s Aceh early Wednesday, who join another 1,300 Rohingya and Bangladeshis who recently arrived in the province, suffered the same fate as others, pushed for days between Southeast Asian countries who were unwilling to accept them.
After last week’s harrowing scenes drew global attention, the Thai navy simply reprovisioned the boat and took the vessel out to international waters with authorities insisting the migrants wanted to travel south to Malaysia.
The boat lost contact late Saturday, raising fears for the welfare of the hundreds on board.
The trawler was finally spotted late Tuesday by fishermen off the coast of Aceh. The migrants were rescued from the boat in two batches, with both brought ashore in the early hours of Wednesday.
AFP journalists later reached the boat, after setting off from the port of Geulumpang. The 30-meter (100-foot) long boat was abandoned not far from the coast, and was littered with abandoned water bottles, food containers and clothes, they said.
Fisherman Ali described how he heard from others about the stranded boat late Tuesday and arrived to help in the early hours of Wednesday.
“They came close to us, they were shouting, calling for help,” he said. “We looked at the boat and — wow — there were so many people aboard.”
He said several fishing vessels in the area were called in to help and the migrant boat was initially towed closer to shore. Fishermen then loaded the migrants into their trawlers and brought them to land.
Ali, who transported about 100 of the Rohingya, said the Acehnese and migrants could not understand each other but managed to work out they shared the same religion.
“If we said ‘Islam’, they would answer ‘Islam, Muslim’. Those were the only two words that we exchanged,” he said.