Across the churning black water, Alam Jafar could see his frantic seven-year-old son gasping for breath, his arms flailing just above the ocean’s surface. The boy was crying out louder than he ever had in his life. He did not know how to swim.
“Papa! Papa! Help Me!”
Just moments before, Jafar had huddled together in a small fishing boat filled with refugees from Myanmar bound for Bangladesh. They were part of the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam War – more than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims whose homes had been torched by Buddhist mobs and soldiers.
What happened next, just 1,000 feet from shore, would take the lives of at least 50 people, most of them children, in the deadliest tragedy of its kind since the crisis exploded in late August. Through interviews with more than a dozen survivors, The Associated Press has reconstructed their ill-fated journey late last month.
Despite the plight of the Royingya – the United Nations has called them the most persecuted minority in the world – Jafar, a 25-year-old farmer, had managed to do well for himself. In 2009, he married Tayiba Khatun after saving enough to pay her dowry in gold: a necklace, earrings, and a small nose-ring. They had three children.
On August 25, Rohingya insurgents armed with rifles and machetes attacked dozens of police posts and an army base in Myanmar. In response, mobs backed by security forces began setting entire Rohingya villages ablaze. A month later, Jafar woke to gunfire and screams. Outside, flames were rising in the distance. Whole families had begun fleeing.
“How can we just leave everything behind?” Khatun asked, in tears. “We have no choice,” Jafar whispered. “Our belongings are not going to save our lives.”
Jafar’s family joined an endless stream of families leaving the village. They hiked for two days, scooping cold water from streams and sleeping on the ground. On the morning of Sept. 27, they finally spotted the coast.
Jafar had never seen the ocean before. It seemed infinite, and to him, unreal. It also gave him hope that the hardest part of their journey was over.
Thousands of refugees were already camped on the beach, exhausted. Each family had a story to tell, of a village burned, a husband shot, a wife raped.
A few hours after nightfall, a dozen fishing boats from Bangladesh suddenly appeared. Jafar and his family jumped to their feet. The boatman counted off about 80 people, including as many as 50 children, and let them on board. The boat pulled away.
At first no one spoke. One hour passed. Then two.
By then, Jafar knew they should have crossed the Naf River and arrived in Bangladesh. But when he raised his head, there was nothing to see but darkness.
Over the next few hours, the weather grew steadily worse. The refugees began to notice that the water, which had no perceptible scent at the mouth of the river, now smelled bitter. It was saltwater. Something had gone terribly wrong. They had strayed far off course, deep into the ocean.
“We’re lost,” the boatman said, staring ahead into the night.
The refugees began praying to God, to Allah. Jafar could hear his wife weeping. He wrapped his arm around her. “Please don’t worry,” he told her. “Please don’t.”
After a few hours, someone spotted the twinkling lights of a large ship in the distance. They waved scarves above their heads and shouted across the waves. Thirty minutes later, the lights had faded away.
At dawn, a new feeling of dread set in. All they could see was water. Jafar’s wife turned angrily to her husband, fighting back tears again. “How could you do this to us? Why?” she said.
“This wasn’t a mistake,” Jafar said. “Maybe we will die here, but right now we are alive.”
Soon, the boatmen made a grim announcement: the boat was dangerously overloaded. They hurled the small bags and bottles the refugees held overboard.
For what felt like an eternity, the boat sailed on. The stench of vomit mixed with the smell of sweat and urine. The lack of water made Jafar’s throat yearn for it. In whispers, he and his wife began to discuss the unthinkable.
“Please forgive me,” Khatun said, “If I ever did anything wrong to you.”
As boat rocked endlessly back and forth, they drifted in and out of sleep. And then they were startled to hear one of the mazis, wide-eyed, yelling. “It’s there! It’s there!”
Jafar thought he was dreaming. But when he lifted his cramped body up he saw it, too: the top of a green hill peeking out of white clouds on a coast. No one knew what country it was. No one cared.
“Oh, blessed Allah, he knows where we are,” Khatun said. “Maybe we will be OK.”
As the boat motored toward the shore, though, the wind began to pick up again. The sky darkened. Torrential sheets of rain began to fall. And then, somewhere around 3:30 pm, the engine died.
The refugees didn’t know if they had run out of fuel, or if the engine had broken down. People were crying and groaning, reciting final prayers. Without power, the boat was at the mercy of the waves, which tossed it around like a toy. The shoreline was just a few hundred yards (meters) away.
When a giant wave suddenly hit, it thrust the boat upside down. It threw Jafar into the surging ocean with the twins, wrapped around his chest in a longyi. Arms thrashing, he surfaced, trying to keep their heads above water. He could barely see, but he spotted his wife, and his son. He heard Mohamed crying out.
“Papa! Papa! Help Me!”
They were not far away, maybe 10 feet, when the second wave crashed down. He lost sight of them.
For half an hour, Jafar struggled to swim on his back in the current. But the waves and the weight of the twins kept pushing him down. He didn’t know if they were dead. He was exhausted. When he realized he would drown if he held on to them any longer, he untied the longyi, and let go. By the time he crawled onto the beach in the twilight and collapsed, he was wearing only his underwear.
“Where am I?” Jafar asked a stranger weakly. “Brother,” the man said. “You are in Bangladesh.”
On the beach, Jafar searched desperately for Khatun and Mohamed and the twins. When he found their bodies, laid out on the sand by rescue crews, he broke down and wept.
Of the 80 refugees believed to have been on the boat on September 28, only 24 are known to have survived. Police collected 23 corpses from the shore. The rest – mostly children – are missing and presumed to have drowned. They are among at least 184 Royingya on 28 capsized boats who have died trying to make the crossing to Bangladesh since August.
Jafar can’t stop thinking about what happened. He feels helpless with loneliness and guilt. Wherever he looks, he sees his kids. “Why did I bring my children here and let them die in the water?” he asks. “Wouldn’t it have been nice if I, too, had died? Wouldn’t it?”
The mass grave where his wife and children are buried is not far away, in a clearing in a small coastal village. There are no names. Just a trio of palm fronds stuck in the dirt.
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