In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Rohingya Muslim refugee Anwara Begum, 55, choked back tears as she tried to cajole her 7-year-old granddaughter, Umme Habiba, into swallowing a morsel of food.
Habiba was unconsolable, wailing in grief for her 27-year-old mother, Hatemon Nesa, and her 5-year-old sister, Umme Salima. The family had recently learned that the engine of the Malaysia-bound ramshackle wooden boat the two were on had broken down at sea.
The approximately 200 passengers aboard the boat that had left Bangladesh on November 25, all of them Rohingya refugees, had run out of food and water.
Begum told VOA in a telephone interview, “Nesa told us that people were dying out of starvation and dehydration on the boat as it drifted aimlessly. I feared that my daughter and granddaughter would follow suit.”
“I cried a lot, but never in front of Habiba. I told her that Allah would save her mother and sister, somehow. I kept praying.”
Hundreds of kilometers away, on the sea, a worn-down Nesa also held herself together for a young child.
“As soon as we knew that the boat was not moving in the direction of Malaysia, the women, including me, became anxious,” Nesa told VOA in a call. “When the boat drifted into Indian waters, many of the around 30 children onboard began crying out of hunger and thirst. Seeing the children in pain, their mothers began sobbing, too.”
Nesa refused to shed a tear, fearing it would frighten Salima. “I held my daughter as she fell sick after I made her drink salty seawater. I comforted her, saying that Allah would surely help us reach our destination,” Nesa said.
Among about 740,000 others, Nesa had fled to Bangladesh in 2017, after a brutal crackdown by the military in Myanmar on its mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. Her husband had deserted her in Myanmar shortly after the birth of their second daughter.
“The congested, unsanitary Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh are like prisons,” the single mother of two said. “As long as we are in the camps, our movements are restricted by authorities and our children do not have access to formal education. The future looks bleak in Cox’s Bazar.”
Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh usually study in a Maktab, a traditional Islamic elementary school where they are taught to read and recite the Qur’an.
“So, I decided to take my children to Malaysia. They would get a better education there, and grow up to be strong women,” Nesa said. “I could not afford to travel with both of my daughters this time, so I only brought Salima along. I was hoping Habiba would join us later, somehow.”
As the boat engine broke down 10 days into the sea journey, anxiety spread among the passengers. Matters only became worse when 19 of them jumped into the water after seeing another boat, hoping to procure help. No one came to their aid, and they drowned in the sea, unable to swim back to their own boat.
Nesa’s brother, Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, occasionally spoke to her over the phone from Bangladesh. “I told my sister and the other passengers to ask for help by waving their hands while holding pieces of cloth, whenever they saw another boat. It broke our hearts at home when we heard that none came to their rescue,” Khan told VOA over the phone.
As Begum prayed for her daughter’s boat to wash ashore anywhere in the world as long as she would survive, hope dwindled in Nesa and her co-passengers.
“The constant screaming and waving for help, with no food or water for 13 days, depleted our energy completely. 26 of the passengers had died,” Nesa said. “At one point, all of us gave up on trying to get help. We went into the cabin and lay there silently. It went unsaid, but perhaps everyone was waiting to die on the boat. I did not stop praying.”
The answer to Begum’s prayers came in the form of a video call from Nesa on December 26. Nesa, her daughter and around 172 others had just been rescued by fishermen and local authorities in Aceh, Indonesia, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Begum broke into tears of relief.
“My faith in Allah has strengthened after surviving this ordeal,” Nesa said. “I believe I will reach Malaysia soon.”
These days, Malaysia is very strict with the Rohingya. The country is not allowing refugee boats to land on its shore. So, boats carrying Rohingya aim to reach Indonesia. From Indonesia, with the help of the traffickers, using secret routes, the refugees sneak into Malaysia. For some months, they have been following this strategy to enter Malaysia. Indonesia is not the refugees’ final destination. Since Malaysia is very close to Indonesia, like all other refugees, Nesa thinks that she has almost reached Malaysia.
Back in Bangladesh, Nesa’s family are fearful of sending Habiba on an illegal and treacherous boat journey akin to her mother’s.
Nesa’s brother recounted a phone call she recently made to him from Indonesia.
Ardently, Nesa had said, “Speak to people from Bangladesh. I am talking to them from Indonesia, with one question: how can our family reunite?
“My daughter is only 7. She cannot undertake this illegal sea journey fraught with dangers. I implore the international community to make arrangements so that Habiba can legally travel to Malaysia from Bangladesh and reunite with Salima and me. This is a mother’s appeal,” Nesa said.