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Trafficking survivors share their stories

Ahmeen, front, a Rohingya who was held captive in the jungle, receives treatment at a hospital in Thailand's Songkhla Province on May 27. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

KHAO LAK, Thailand -- Hidden in the jungle of southern Thailand, shabby huts fashioned out of branches, bamboo and tarps sit on a slope. Junk-food wrappers, plastic bottles and instant coffee packets litter the ground. A foul odor hangs in the air. It was here that Ahmeen, a 25-year-old Rohingya, and others hoping to get to Malaysia were held hostage by a human trafficking ring.

     Ahmeen was rescued from the camp by Thai authorities on May 1. He said he and two other ailing captives were left behind around April 25, when the traffickers fled after getting wind of a government crackdown. Reduced to skin and bones, Ahmeen was hospitalized. His face contorts in pain when he moves, but he wants to tell his story.

     He used to live with 11 family members in Maungdaw, in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. One day, an acquaintance of his father's suggested that he move to Malaysia, which has a Muslim majority. "There's a job out there," Ahmeen recalled the man saying. "Why don't you go?"

     Ahmeen boarded a smuggler's boat that was crammed with 600 people. After 20 days at sea, he and about 500 others ended up camped in Thailand's Songkhla Province, which borders Malaysia.

     Thus began a three-and-a-half-month ordeal. Ahmeen said he was beaten for not asking permission to relieve himself. He soon fell ill. Often, he dreamed that his mother was dying.

     Yet Ahmeen was one of the lucky ones. From the time he boarded the boat to the day the Thais came, he said some 50 people around him died. Most succumbed to starvation.

     At the camp, 26 people were buried in shallow graves off to one side.

     The traffickers apparently crossed the border into Malaysia, taking a number of Rohingya hostages with them. One month after his rescue, Ahmeen had yet to get in touch with his family. As he lay on his ho

spital bed, tears welled in his eyes.

No choice

At one point, more than 50 such camps are believed to have existed in the vicinity of the Thailand-Malaysia border. Mhamad, 17, was held in one of them for two months.

     Mhamad said he never really wanted to leave Myanmar. His nightmare began when a man showed up at the fish farm where he was working in Rakhine. The visitor threatened Mhamad at knife point and told him: "Life here must be tough. You should work in Malaysia and send money back to your parents."

     The teenager did not get a chance to talk it over with his family. He was taken straight to a smuggler's boat, which left him in Thailand about a month later.

     At Mhamad's camp, the once-a-day meal consisted of a small amount of rice, fermented fish and half a cup of water. He said the hunger pangs were ever-present.

     Captives were beaten with wooden sticks and metal bars. Women were raped. Mhamad said he was forced to help bury more than 20 bodies. Fearing he too would soon be dead, he decided to make a run for it with five other people. The morning after their escape, the group was taken in by residents of a nearby village.

     Mhamad has been living at a supporter's house in Hat Yai, a city in Songkhla, for about a year.

     According to Abdulkalam, 58, who helps Rohingya refugees, human trafficking rings typically demand that relatives pay ransoms of 40,000 baht to 100,000 baht (around $1,200 to $3,000) before allowing hostages to reach Malaysia. In the worst cases, the captives are killed if their families do not pay.

     Mhamad's parents were asked to hand over 60,000 baht but were unable to come up with the money. Since the government of Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, he has no intention of going home despite missing his family. His mother died five months ago.

In limbo

Roshida, a 30-year-old mother of four, is staying at a shelter in Khao Lak, in Thailand's Phang Nga Province -- a popular destination for tourists.

     She and her children, whose ages range from 3 to 12, have been there since May 19. They were rescued by the navy on their second day in the country.

     Like Ahmeen, Roshida hails from Maungdaw. About two years ago, her husband stowed away to Malaysia. Traffickers talked her into making the voyage so she and her husband could be together. For two months, she said, 15 women and nine children were squeezed into a small space in the bottom of a boat. One of Roshida's daughters, 10-year-old Hasena, said she spent much of the time in the dark thinking of her father.

     A total of 77 Rohingya women and children now live in the this shelter. The facility relies on donations from foreign governments and aid groups, as it is difficult to get by on Thai government stipends, which come to 57 baht per person per day. The playful voices of the youngsters hide the painful reality: these people have nowhere else to go.

     A tearful Roshida said she hoped to reunite her family and give her children a better future.

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