Rape, Terror And Death At Sea: How A Boat Carrying Rohingya Children, Women And Men Capsized

Fatima Khatun, a Rohingya survivor of a capsized refugee boat, cleans her temporary shelter in Meulaboh, Indonesia, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Fatima was among 75 people rescued in March from atop the overturned hull of the boat, which capsized off Indonesia's coast. Dozens of others, including Fatima's 8-year-old daughter, died. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah)
Fatima Khatun, a Rohingya survivor of a capsized refugee boat, cleans her temporary shelter in Meulaboh, Indonesia, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Fatima was among 75 people rescued in March from atop the overturned hull of the boat, which capsized off Indonesia's coast. Dozens of others, including Fatima's 8-year-old daughter, died. (AP Photo/Reza Saifullah)
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MEULABOH, Indonesia (AP) — The boat glided across waters that were dark and still, under a night sky that was cloudless and calm. But on board, 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 wooden fishing boat, floating off the coast of Indonesia. These children, women and men had fled Bangladesh and their homeland of Myanmar in a bid to escape violence and terror, only to face the same horrors with a crew that seemed to delight in their dread.

Huddled among the other women and girls, the 12-year-old — identified in this story only by the initial N, because she is a sexual assault survivor — tried to hide her face. 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 neighboring 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.

Her young life had been one long battle to survive. And so, it seemed, this night would be no different.

The captain was in a rage. He ordered more girls to join him and his crew in the bedroom.

No one budged.

“If you don’t come to us,” the captain 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 atop the overturned hull of a boat off the coast of Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh. Another 67 passengers, including at least 28 children, had been killed when the boat capsized, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Until now, little was known about how the boat capsized, or why. This account, as told to The Associated Press in separate interviews with eight surviving passengers, provides the first insight into what happened on board and why so many died. The men, women and children interviewed include witnesses of the events leading to the capsize and of the sexual abuse, as well as the only surviving sexual assault victim, N.

The disaster is the latest in a string of tragedies to befall the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority that suffered mass slaughter at the hands of Myanmar’s military in 2017 in what the United States has dubbed a genocide. Over the past two years, the Rohingya have increasingly fled Bangladesh's refugee camps, where gang violence and hunger has surged, and Myanmar, where a bloody conflict between the ruling military junta and ethnic rebel groups has escalated. Muslim-majority Malaysia, which the Rohingya view as relatively safe, is the preferred destination.

The results of this mass exodus have been catastrophic. Last year, 4,500 Rohingya — two-thirds of them women and children — fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat, the UNHCR reported. Of those, 569 died or went missing while crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the highest annual death toll since 2014.

International indifference toward the Rohingya has, in many ways, worsened the crisis. In several cases, coastal countries in Asia have ignored pleas to rescue imperiled Rohingya boats, despite international laws mandating the rescue of boats in distress. Global donations for the nearly 1 million Rohingya languishing in overcrowded camps have plummeted, leading to slashed food rations. And no country is offering large-scale resettlement.

Most Rohingya understand the risks of taking to the sea. But those who board the vessels say the world has left them with little choice.

And so it was that N arrived one night in March at a remote beach in southern Bangladesh, where she climbed into a small fishing boat that would take her away from everything she knew, including her family.

Like an increasing number of underage Rohingya girls, she had been promised as a wife to a man in Malaysia she’d spoken to only by phone. These marriages are rooted in desperation: Many parents in the camps can no longer feed their children or afford the traditional dowry demanded by grooms. The men in Malaysia forfeit dowries and often send money to the brides’ parents.

The fishing boat ferried N and her fellow passengers to a larger boat, which took them deeper into the Bay of Bengal. One day later, they were moved again to an even bigger boat, with a crew from Myanmar.

For around a week, they slid seamlessly through the sea. The crew was kind, providing enough food and water. The children had space to play. The waves were placid. For Rahena Begum, traveling with her 9-year-old daughter and 12- and 13-year-old sons, it almost felt too easy.

Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

The captain told those on board the plan had changed. They would need to transfer everyone to an Indonesian fishing boat, with a crew who would take them the rest of the way to Indonesia. From there, the passengers would be smuggled into neighboring Malaysia. Though the captain gave no reason for the switch, the recent surge in Rohingya arrivals has put Indonesian authorities on alert for boats from Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The sight of the rickety Indonesian vessel sent a chill through the passengers. Muhammed Amin, who had fished the waters off Bangladesh for years and spent countless hours on boats, estimated the Indonesian vessel was built to accommodate, at most, 60 people — not 140.

But the Myanmar captain and crew, he says, reassured him the boat was safe and that it would reach Indonesia in one day.

Reluctantly, Amin, N, Rahena and the others climbed into the Indonesian vessel. The Myanmar boat soon disappeared into the distance.


Almost immediately, the Indonesian captain and crew separated the men from the women.

The men were forced into the boat’s cramped, stifling cargo holds, one of which was beneath the captain’s bedroom. Anyone who protested was beaten, Amin says.

The captain and crew turned to the women and girls, but they did not speak Indonesian and could not understand their demands.

A few Rohingya men who spoke the language were allowed out of the hold to translate. When the women understood what the captain wanted, they began to cry.

The men told the crew to leave the women alone. The crew beat them, and then beat the women.

Seventeen-year-old Samira, whose husband was stuck in the hold, became an early target. The captain and crew repeatedly ordered her into the bedroom. A relative of Samira’s, Fatima Khatun, told the tearful teen to say she was sick, and used hand signals to explain to the captain that Samira was married. The crew moved on.

N, however, had no one to protect her. And she quickly caught the captain’s attention.

She was a child stuck in the middle of the ocean, facing a group of men who warned they were armed, though no one ever saw a gun.

She had no choice.

And so, N and four other women and girls entered the bedroom.

It wasn’t long before the stillness of the night was shattered by their screams.


Through her terror, N struggled to make sense of what was happening, then struggled to make it stop. But inside the room, there was no pity, only pain.

One of the women managed to slip out, but N and the others were trapped. Two of the girls were teenagers, and the third around 20, N estimated. All were in tears.

The abuse by the captain and five of his six crew members lasted all night, N says. Attempts to fight back were met with beatings.

From the cargo hold below the bedroom, the men could hear the cries. Those who dared to climb onto the deck could see the abuse unfolding through the room’s windows. But believing the crew was armed, they say, they were powerless to stop them.

When morning finally dawned, N spotted a man she knew and signaled to him for help. He approached the room and was beaten by the crew but persuaded the captain to let N out to use the toilet. She hid among the other women and hoped the captain was finished with her.

He was, at least for the moment. But he and the crew were not done with the other three girls, whose assaults continued for a second night.

In the sweltering hold, 19-year-old Jannat Ullah’s yearning for fresh air grew so intense he risked climbing on deck. When he emerged, he says, he looked through the bedroom window and saw the captain raping one of the teens. A crew member spotted Jannat and slapped his head until he retreated. But later, Jannat says, he watched through a gap in the wall as another crew member raped the same girl.

The sun was rising again, along with the passengers’ desperation. The crew had given them no water and only tiny portions of rice, noodles and eggs. They wondered how much longer they could last.

Fatima Khatun, sitting next to the captain’s room with her 8-year-old daughter, Ruma, had witnessed the abuse of the girls inside and could bear no more. She signaled through the window to the girls to come out.

At last, that night, they did, emerging sobbing and speechless. Fatima and Samira told them to cover themselves with hijabs and tried to hide them.

It was then that the captain and crew began demanding fresh victims.

The women and girls refused. The crew kicked and punched them. The women wept but stood their ground.

The captain and crew had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, the passengers told the AP. The captain was growing angrier.

“If you don’t come into the room, I will capsize this boat!” he thundered, again and again.

Samira told herself he must be joking.


It was around 9 p.m. and many of the children had fallen asleep, oblivious to the chaos. As Fatima fretted over the captain’s threats, daughter Ruma slumbered against her arm.

Fed up with the hold, Amin and Jannat had come up on deck. The captain, Amin says, looked drunk, his body wobbly. The captain went to the toilet and then headed to the helm.

Which is when, Jannat 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.

“RUMA!” Fatima cried, searching wildly for her daughter, who had been ripped away when the boat overturned. “RUMA!”

Fatima fought to stay afloat, but the water was swallowing her as fast as she was swallowing the water.

Suddenly, hands closed around her arm and yanked upwards. Passengers who had climbed on top of the overturned hull were pulling her to safety.

She screamed and screamed for her little girl. But Ruma was gone.

Jannat could hear his 7-year-old cousin, Futika, shouting from somewhere inside the boat. Frantic, the teen swam back into the vessel and spotted Futika wedged with others inside the cargo hold. Jannat tried to yank him free, again and again. But it was futile. Jannat swam out, clambered onto the hull and wept.

Those who were drowning desperately clutched at others struggling in a sea that was fast becoming a graveyard. Among the dying were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, a 3-year-old boy and his parents.

Scores of passengers found themselves trapped under heavy fishing nets that ensnared them when the boat overturned. Women wailed for help that did not come.

N battled her way through the throngs until she made it onto the hull. Once again, she had managed to survive.

But the three girls who were abused alongside her in the captain’s bedroom had not, their battered bodies disappearing into the depths.

In the water, Rahena Begum spotted her 9-year-old daughter, Rema, but her two sons were nowhere to be seen. Other passengers pushed Rahena and Rema onto the hull, then began to pump the unresponsive child’s chest and water-swollen stomach. Suddenly, Rema’s hand moved, and she sputtered a few words.

Rahena pulled her daughter into her lap and cuddled her. Her baby was alive, at least for now. So was her 13-year-old son, who’d also made it onto the hull. But her 12-year-old boy, Noor Aziz, was missing. She would never see him again.

Amin knew they had to keep the vessel stable if they had any hope of surviving. He ordered the men to stand on the corners of the hull, to try to balance the weight.

The crew, meanwhile, wanted to be anywhere but the boat. Amin spotted the captain and three crew members swimming away, using water jugs as flotation devices. The remaining three crew tried to follow them, but Amin and the other men held them back, forcing them to stay on the hull. Amin feared that if rescuers found them on the boat without a crew, the passengers would be blamed for the disaster.

Hours passed, and those on the hull waited for a miracle. In the morning, it seemed to arrive, in the form of another fishing boat. Scores of passengers leaped into the water and swam toward it. But the fishing boat was tiny and could not hold them all. The crew allowed six people on board, then headed for shore.

The waves had worsened, and passengers’ frantic attempts to flee the overturned boat had left the vessel unstable. It capsized again.

Rahena found herself back in the water, fighting once more to save her daughter. She spotted Rema slipping below the surface and grabbed her, before other passengers pushed the pair back onto the hull.

But Rema had grown delirious. She tried to bite people and could not speak. Rahena knew her daughter was in urgent need of help.

Others never made it back on board. Samira’s husband, Akram Ullah, estimates at least 20 drowned when the boat overturned the second time.

The subsequent capsize had knocked loose the remains of passengers who had drowned inside the vessel the night before. Jannat spotted the lifeless body of his little cousin, Futika, bobbing in the waves.

More fishing boats arrived, and passengers called out for help. But those on board the vessels simply shot photos and videos of them, then left.

A few passengers tried to swim to shore, promising to send help if they made it. They were never seen again. And help still did not come.

But, at least, the rain did.

The passengers, weak with thirst, collected what they could in a tarp and shared sips of it, thanking Allah for sparing their lives.

Yet as another night passed, it was clear not everyone would be spared. Rahena’s daughter, cradled in her lap, had gone still. Rahena hugged her little girl and tried to talk to her. But the life had drained from her daughter.

The passengers prayed for the child, then slid her body into the sea.

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


In the days following the disaster, the bodies of 12 women and three children were recovered from the waters off Aceh, according to the UNHCR. The search for more has been called off.

Although the fishing boat’s crew rescued the initial six people from the hull the morning of March 20, search and rescue vessels were not launched until later that evening. Officials finally spotted the boat around 9 a.m. March 21, about 22 kilometers (14 miles) offshore, and finished evacuating all the passengers from the hull around midday.

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 capsized boat. He also said officials needed time to coordinate a plan to care for survivors once they reached land, while crews at sea initially kept their distance out of fear the passengers would hurt themselves trying to swim to the rescue boat.

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

On April 2, police announced they had arrested three members of the crew, plus a fourth man who was not on board the boat. They were charged with people smuggling, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Police are still searching for the remaining crew, including the captain, whose mobile phone activity places him in Malaysia, West Aceh Police Chief Andi Kirana told the AP.

Police are not considering murder charges, Kirana says, because they believe the capsize was an accident — the result of an overcrowded boat simply taking on too much water.

But N and the other passengers believe the disaster was a deliberate act of revenge by a sadistic captain and crew who thought they could escape. And for that — and for all the suffering endured — the punishment, N says, 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 any reports of sexual assault. But N says police have never questioned her about what happened on board.

For now, she and the other passengers remain in limbo, sleeping under tents behind a government office building. They have been shifted between shelters amid protests by locals who want them to go away. But there is nowhere for them to go.

Though they have survived so much, some wonder what it was all for.

Rahena questions why she was spared, when two of her children were not. Her husband, already in Malaysia, blames her for attempting the journey and for the death of their daughter and son.

“I lost my hope when I lost my children,” Rahena says. “I feel like I have nothing.”

N, alone and aching for her mother, hopes to somehow 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 and pray for a future free of pain.

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


Gelineau reported from Sydney.