“Nobody knows how many people have died. It could be 50 or even more,” recalls Khadiza Begum. The 50-year-old was among 396 Rohingya Muslims who had tried to reach Malaysia but who finally returned to the Bangladeshi shore after the boat carrying them was stranded at sea for two months.
Her estimate on the number of deaths comes from the funerals her son officiated as an imam, a Muslim preacher, on the same boat.The human smugglers never delivered them to their longed-for destination.
Khadiza had to run away from her home in Myanmar because of violence that UN investigators described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Neighbouring Bangladesh gave her shelter, settling the fleeing Rohingya Muslims in what has now become the world’s largest refugee camp.
Around one million Rohingya are housed in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and some among them, like Khadiza, hold dreams of a better life in Malaysia, lying across the Bay of Bengal.
But in Khadiza’s case, the dream turned into a nightmare. She recounts how the crew – the human traffickers – tried to conceal deaths on their crowded boat.
“They would run both engines so that none could hear the sound of splashing water when bodies were thrown out.”
Often, she says, the bodies were disposed of during the night: “I know for sure at least 14 to 15 women died.”
The death of a woman who was sitting next to her continues to traumatise Khadiza. Severely dehydrated, the woman was initially disoriented and behaving strangely. The crew took her to the upper deck of the boat, where Khadiza says she died.