The skinny teenager walks with a limp. His right leg is slightly swollen.
“I’m Muslim, Burma,” 15-year-old Muhammad Siraj greets a reporter in English at an old paper factory in Birem Bayeun, in Indonesia’s East Aceh regency, which is his new temporary home.
This Rohingya boy is one of 433 people who were saved by Indonesian fishermen in the Strait of Malacca on May 20, after their boat ran out of fuel in the Strait of Malacca following futile attempts to come ashore in Thailand and Malaysia.
Siraj only has a sixth-grade education, but he’s one of few Rohingya migrants in Aceh province who can speak a few words of English.
He has ambitions of becoming a journalist. He wants to go to school in Malaysia, where one of his brothers has worked as an illegal laborer for the past two years.
“I’m going to write about the suffering experienced by Rohingya Muslims. The international community needs to know about the brutality of the Myanmar government toward the Muslim Rohingya,” he told RFA.
Traveling alone in hopes of making it to Malaysia, Siraj boarded a smuggler’s boat in Bangladesh in early February.
He and his fellow passengers spent close to four months at sea, baking in the daytime sun and shivering in the chill of night.
The passengers were made to sit with their knees to their chests, in tight rows, he said. They were forbidden to stretch or stand.
“We slept on the chest of the person behind us or on the shoulder of the person next to us. If we lay down or stretched out, we were hit and kicked,” he said.
“I was hit and kicked several times. My leg is injured because it was walked on and hit with an iron bar.”
For the first three months of the trip, twice daily the captain and crew rationed out rice with salt and a small glass of water. Then, for the next two weeks, the passengers received only a biscuit and a glass of water daily to sustain them.
The rations stopped altogether two weeks before their rescue. They were told to drink sea water. Dehydration and starvation began to stalk the migrants.
Ten people died, and their bodies were dumped into the sea.
“If anyone asked for food or water, the captain and crew would hit us with an iron bar, or a machete, or threaten us with a pistol,” Siraj said.
On May 12, the captain announced that the boat had reached the maritime boundary between Thailand and Malaysia.
Shortly thereafter, the captain and four crew members abandoned shop and escaped in a speedboat.
“We couldn’t do anything. They threatened to shoot us. We cried, because not one of us was capable of sailing the boat,” Siraj said.
Two days later, a Thai Navy patrol spotted their wooden boat.
Thai sailors gave the passengers a little food and repaired its broken engine. The following day, the Malaysian navy chased off the migrants.
All told their boat was chased off three times by the Thai navy and twice by the Malaysian navy.
By the time it entered Indonesian waters, the engine died again when it ran out of fuel. It was also taking on water.
The passengers spotted fishermen, and screamed for help. Despite a government ban on rescuing more migrants, fishermen brought them to shore at Kuala Geulumpang, East Aceh, last Wednesday.
‘I am safe’
When he embarked in his sea journey, Siraj left behind three older sisters and two brothers at the Nayapara refugee camp, which is located in Bangladesh on the Myanmar border.
His mother had died in 2002 from tuberculosis, Siraj said. Six years later his father died, also of natural causes. Siraj is the youngest of seven children.
“I really miss my brothers. They don’t know I’m in Aceh, Indonesia. I want to tell them I am safe,” Siraj told RFA tearfully.
Using a reporter’s phone, Siraj then called his oldest brother, Nurul Hakim, at the Nayapara refugee camp, and spoke to him for about 15 minutes.
“My brother asked where I was. I said I was in Aceh, Indonesia. The people here are very kind. They give food, water and clothing to me and to other Rohingya,” Siraj said, adding that he did not want to return to Nayapara, where there was no future and a constant sense of insecurity.
Reported by RFA.