By Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Foreign Correspondent, THE NATIONAL
With additional reporting by Denis Giles, Editor, ANDAMAN CHRONICLE

Kolkata: Akhtar Hossain sat motionless on his hospital bed staring out at the sea, perhaps dwelling on how his dream to work in Malaysia had been shattered and wondering how he would now return home. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

As the doctor arrived at his bedside in the G B Pant hospital in Port Blair, capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, he regained his composure, but could not make sense of the questions he was being asked about his condition. “I do not understand,” he said.

Akhtar, an ethnic Rohingya from the south-eastern corner of Bangladesh, had been suffering from severe dehydration after drifting at sea for 14 days, without food and water for the 12, after being turned away from Thailand along with hundreds of other Rohingyas. He is now anxiously waiting to return to his village, Boroituli, in Bangladesh, where his parents, siblings and other relatives live.

“When he came here, with eight extremely dehydrated Rohingyas, Akhtar was half-dead and awfully traumatised. At night they sometimes screamed out. We kept food and water before them on the table, yet they shout out asking God for [food and water],” said a paramedic who was part of a team assigned to look after Akhtar.

The paramedic, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she was not permitted to speak to the media, said Akhtar and the seven Rohingyas were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though the others had recovered and had been handed over to the Indian police.

“For the past two days Akhtar has been severely depressed and often breaks into tears, wanting to go back to his parents in Bangladesh,” the paramedic said.

More than 640 Rohingyas have landed on India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Indonesia’s Aceh Province over the past month.

They say they were intercepted by Thai marines as they approached Thailand en route to Malaysia, where they planned to look for work, and accuse Thai authorities of torture and destroying the engines on their boats before turning them out to sea without food or water.

Recounting his story yesterday, Akhtar said that last month he, his 19-year-old friend Farid and 410 other Rohingyas from Bangladesh and Myanmar piled on to four boats and set sail from the Bangladeshi coastal village of Cox’s Bazar, with a dream to reach Malaysia, via Thailand, to join the illegal migrant workforce there.

Akhtar said the group originally believed they had been intercepted by Myanmar forces and were being taken to a Myanmar island.

They were taken to an island where they were held for about a week and were beaten severely, before the soldiers broke their engines and towed them out to sea, leaving them for dead, Akhtar said.

“The soldiers packed our 100-seater boat with 412 people and left us in the middle of the sea with 100 kilograms of rice and 200 litres of drinking water. From the second day we had no food or water.

“We did not know where to go. The senior boatmen told us it was impossible for us to return to Bangladesh by just paddling the crippled boats.

“Hungry and thirsty people were crying loudly begging relief from Allah. Many were beating their chests and crying. It was frightening. I was also crying and praying to Allah to somehow guide us back home,” said Akhtar.

“On the fourth day no-one had the energy to paddle. Some people were shouting, ‘Allah you are most powerful, our creator, please help us return to our families, we are in the middle of sea and we cannot drive our boat’.

“The sun was beating down. Some fell asleep and did not wake up the next morning. We found their bodies had turned stiff. Some senior people said the dead should not be on board because their sight would demoralise others. I saw four bodies being dumped before my eyes within the first five days. One man sitting next to me died leaning against me. I had to drop his body into the water. It was horrifying.

“I was terribly thirsty and hungry. Like some others, I tried to drink sea water, but it was too salty and gave a squirmy feeling down the throat.

“I counted up to six days, then I lost track of day and night. Sometimes I woke up and found the number of people on boat was reducing.

About a week later, Akhtar said, the group sighted an island in the distance
“Someone shouted, ‘Allah, you have brought the land to us after 14 days. But you have already taken the lives of my brother and a hundred others’.

“People began jumping into the water and swimming towards the island. I was terribly hungry and thirsty and I had no energy. But still I began swimming with the others.

“Despite being a good swimmer, I had no strength to swim after some time. My muscles were dead. I just kept floating, as many did. Later in the day I was rescued [by Indian Coast Guard] from the water.”

One Rohingya man who was on Akhtar’s boat reached the Hut Bay Island by swimming 16km, possibly more, according to local police, before being spotted by local authorities who immediately alerted the Coastguard. They pulled another 102 people from the water.

While police found five bodies, they believe 309 of the original group of 412 perished in the sea, either while drifting on the boat or when trying to swim to the shore. Some believe sharks might have killed some of them.

Akhtar’s friend Farid was among the dead. “I had no idea that the journey to Malaysia could be so dangerous. I hope the Indian government will send me to Bangladesh soon. I shall work in Bangladesh now and never venture to go to Malaysia again,” Akhtar said.

“More than three-quarters of us died. Allah has kept me alive. It’s a miracle to me. I have to live the rest of my life as a good Muslim. Allah will definitely help me in Bangladesh.”