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A fight in flight: The Rohingya journey

Somirahatun and her baby

May 24, 2015

Somirahatun was spared from an unimaginable disaster. The migrant from Myanmar nearly lost her baby.

The mother was separated from her child when she and hundreds of other people landed in Kuala Langsa, East Aceh, after months drifting in the open sea.

Police and local residents stepped in to help Somirahatun and she was eventually reunited with her child. The mother and son were among 677 other people from Myanmar and Bangladesh - the third batch of undocumented migrants arriving in Aceh in the past few weeks.

"My mother was killed in the conflict in our village, so there's no need for us to stay in Myanmar in a state of fear," said Somirahatun.

She is a Rohingya person and is a citizen of Myanmar. She decided to flee her village due to the unfavorable security situation.

Somirahatun eventually decided to depart with other Myanmar citizens to seek refuge. Their main destination was Malaysia, to meet relatives who had arrived there earlier.

"I must meet my husband in Malaysia. I will do anything to be able to get there," said Somirahatun, as she hugged her baby son Muhammad Mahin.

During the voyage, the migrants had to struggle to survive due to the challenging conditions and limited supplies of food and water.

They sailed on a medium-sized wooden boat filled to the brim. The passengers were from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and nearly half of them were women and children.

The migrants were gathered together in the vessel from smaller boats from various regions. They were assembled by the boat owner and agent who told them they would be taken to Malaysia and would work on a plantation.

During the voyage, meals and water were strictly rationed. It was not rare that the agents and boat owner would hit those who asked for more food, Somirahatun said.

"Some also died of hunger and thirst and their bodies were thrown overboard by the boat owner," said Somirahatun.

Things turned worse when the boat owner and agents abruptly abandoned the boat and left the passengers drifting at sea. The owners and agents were picked up by a speed boat and they fled, taking all the communication equipment with them.

The tide took the vessel to Thai waters, but they were not saved by the local security personnel. Instead, they were ordered to remain on board.

"They held us in the boat with limited food and water supplies from the Thai authorities," said Somirahatun.

After almost 20 days held on the boats, Thai authorities released them by tugging their boats to international waters and setting them adrift once again.

The journey was perilous, but Somirahatun claimed she had no other choice.

"I'd rather die fighting than die of doing nothing in Myanmar," said Somirahatun.

Another Myanmar refugee Khunsum Katum, 25, also made the same choice as Somirahatun. She even brought along her three children, Imam Husein, 13, Setera Begum, 9, and Nurul Amin, 6. They sailed together to Malaysia to meet their husband and father who had earlier arrived there.

But unexpectedly her daughter Setera got lost when they were rescued by Acehnese fishermen. Setera was separated from her mother as she was placed in a different fishing boat.

"I'm very worried about my daughter's current whereabouts. I don't know where she is now," said Khunsum, who nevertheless was convinced her daughter was still safe.

Uncertain conditions in Myanmar have forced them to seek asylum by any means necessary, such as crossing the sea without the certainty of arriving at a destination safely.

Around 1,800 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have landed in Aceh in recent weeks, abandoned by human traffickers after their boat journeys to Malaysia were disrupted by a Thai crackdown on long-established routes.

The migrants were saved by fishermen in Lhoksukon, North Aceh, and in Kuala Langsa and Kuala Geulumpang in East Aceh.

Migrants have also arrived in Malaysia and Thailand after being dumped by smugglers. Thousands more are still believed to be stranded at sea with little food and water.

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Rohingya Exodus