Skip to main content

Rape, terror and death at sea: How a boat carrying Rohingya children, women and men capsized

N, a 12-year-old ethnic Rohingya refugee, stands in her tent at a temporary shelter in Meulaboh, Indonesia, on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah) N, a 12-year-old ethnic Rohingya refugee, stands in her tent at a temporary shelter in Meulaboh, Indonesia, on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah)
MEULABOH, Indonesia -

Huddled on board the boat, the 12-year-old girl quaked with fear.

The captain and crew who she says had tortured her and three other women and girls were not finished. And the punishment for disobedience, the men warned, would be death.

It was the third night that the girl and around 140 other ethnic Rohingya refugees had been trapped on the fishing boat off Indonesia’s coast. They had fled Bangladesh and their homeland of Myanmar in a bid to escape violence and terror, only to face the same at sea.

The 12-year-old — identified in this story only by the initial N, because she is a sexual assault survivor — tried to hide. She had already survived a night in the captain’s bedroom, where she says he and several crew members had beaten and sexually abused her.

Like most of the passengers, she had survived attacks by Myanmar’s military that forced her and her family to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. There, she had survived nearly seven years in violence-plagued refugee camps. And she had thus far survived this journey without her family, who hoped she’d make it to Malaysia, where she was promised as a child bride to a man she had never met.

The captain ordered more girls to join him and his crew in the bedroom.

“If you don’t come to us,” he shouted, “then we will capsize this boat!”

What happened next would force N and the other Rohingya on board into yet another battle for survival.

For many, this would be the battle they finally lost.

In March, Indonesian officials and local fishermen rescued 75 people from the overturned hull of a boat off the coast of Indonesia’s province of Aceh. Another 67 passengers, including at least 28 children, were killed when the boat capsized, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Until now, little was known about why the boat capsized. This account, as told to The Associated Press in interviews with eight surviving passengers, provides the first insight into what happened.

Members of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency give instructions to Rohingya refugees rescued from a capsized fishing boat off West Aceh, Indonesia, on Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah)

N’s journey began in Bangladesh, where a series of boats ferried her and other Rohingya across the Bay of Bengal.

The bedlam began, the passengers say, when they were transferred to a cramped Indonesian vessel that was supposed to take them to Indonesia. From there, they would be smuggled into Malaysia.

The Indonesian captain and crew separated the men from the women and forced the men into the boat’s cargo holds. Anyone who protested was beaten, says Muhammed Amin.

The captain and crew — who warned they were armed, though no one saw a gun — forced N and four other women and girls into the captain’s bedroom.

One of the women slipped out, but N and the others were trapped. The assaults by the captain and five of his six crew lasted all night, N says.

When morning dawned, N was allowed out to use the toilet. She hid among the other women, but the other three girls were abused for a second night.

On the third night, the three girls emerged from the captain’s room, sobbing and speechless.

The captain and crew demanded fresh victims. The women refused.

The captain and crew had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, the passengers say. The furious captain threatened to capsize the boat unless the women complied.

Soon after, Jannat Ullah says, he saw the captain push the steering wheel with his leg.

The vessel tilted violently, sending passengers tumbling. And then it smashed into a wave.

In the blackness of the water, people screamed for salvation, for God, for their children.

Ethnic Rohingya refugees board a National Search and Rescue Agency ship after being rescued from their capsized boat in the waters off West Aceh, Indonesia, on Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah)

N battled her way onto the boat’s overturned hull. Once again, she had managed to survive. But the three girls who were abused alongside her had not.

Amin spotted the captain and three crew members swimming away.

In the morning, a small fishing boat arrived, and took six people to shore.

Meanwhile, worsening waves had destabilized the capsized boat, which overturned again, killing more people.

Rain spared passengers death by dehydration. But as another night passed, it was clear not everyone would survive. Rahena Begum’s 9-year-old daughter stopped breathing.

The passengers prayed, then slid the child's body into the sea.

Around 30 minutes later, Rahena says, the rescue ship finally arrived.

The bodies of 12 women and three children have since been recovered off Aceh, according to the UNHCR.

Although the fishing boat’s crew rescued the initial six people the morning of March 20, search vessels weren’t launched until that evening. Officials didn’t finish rescuing the passengers until midday on March 21.

Ibnu Harris Al Hussain, chief of Banda Aceh’s search and rescue agency, said the rescue operation began shortly after his agency learned about the boat.

“The most important thing is that we have ensured their safety when they were found,” Hussain wrote in a message to the AP.

On April 2, police announced they had arrested three crew members, plus a fourth man who was not on the boat. They were charged with people smuggling, which carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence. Police are searching for the remaining crew, including the captain, who fled to Malaysia, West Aceh Police Chief Andi Kirana told the AP.

Rohingya refugee Rahena Begum, right, and her 13-year-old son, Noor Shahed, pose for a photograph at a temporary shelter in Meulaboh, Indonesia, on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah)

Police are not considering murder charges, Kirana says, because they believe the capsize was an accident.

But N and the other passengers believe the disaster was a deliberate act of revenge by a sadistic captain and crew. And for that, N says, the punishment should fit the crime.

“They tortured us. They treated us like animals,” she says. “We want the government to treat them like animals.”

Kirana also said police are not considering rape charges, because they haven’t received reports of sexual assault. But N says police have never questioned her.

N hopes to make it to Malaysia and to the man who wants her as his wife.

Maybe then, she says, she will finally be free — though in reality, Rohingya child brides in Malaysia often become prisoners to abusive husbands.

For now, all she can do is fight to survive another day.

“I don't want to suffer anymore,” she says.


Gelineau reported from Sydney. Top Stories

Local Spotlight