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For young Rohingya brides, marriage means a difficult, deadly crossing

BANGKOK – Likes counted the days to the moon, wax and descended over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler, crammed into a space so tight she couldn’t even stretch her legs, were bleeding for weeks, weeks into months.

“People were struggling like fish swimming around,” Ms. Haresa, 18, said of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.”

Dozens of bodies were dumped overboard, some beaten and others starved, survivors said. Mrs. Hareza’s aunt died, and then her brother.

Six full moons after she boarded a fishing boat in Bangladesh in the hope that human traffickers would take her to Malaysia for arranged marriage, Ms. Haresa, who has the same name, and nearly 300 other Rohingya refugees have taken refuge. in Indonesia last month. Her sister, 21, died two days after the boat landed.

Expelled from their homes in Myanmar and crammed into refugee villages in neighboring Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya took the dangerous boat to Malaysia, where many of the persecuted minority group work as undocumented workers. Hundreds died along the way.

Most of those now embarking on the trip, such as Ms. Haresa, are girls and young women from refugee camps in Bangladesh whose parents have promised to marry Rohingya men in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia last month with Ms. Hareza were women.

“My parents are getting old and my brothers are with their own families,” she said. “How long will my parents carry the burden on me?”

Through the matchmaking of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a lawnmower, Ms. Bibi’s parents found a fiancé for her. She asked for details about the man, but apart from his name, apart from his name, they were not provided.

After surviving more than six months at sea in an unsuccessful attempt to contact him, Ms. Bibi talks from Indonesia with her fiancé in a distant country. The phone call lasted two minutes. “It sounded young,” she said. That’s the extent of what she knows about him.

Ms. Bibi initially told UN Refugee Agency staff that she was 15, but later changed her age to 18. Child marriages are common among Rohingya, especially among the rural population.

Almost stateless, the Muslim minority is subjected to a apartheid existence in Myanmar with a Buddhist majority. In the last few years, waves of pogroms have pushed Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where human traffickers are looting young and desperate people in refugee camps, along with their families.

The flow of people has increased since 2017, when more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya fled an ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar. With the coronavirus pandemic tightening borders, sea travel has become even more difficult. For months this year, boats loaded with hundreds of Rohingya migrants have been drifting out to sea, unable to find safe haven. Authorities in Thailand and Malaysia have repeatedly repulsed them.

Fishermen in Aceh, on top of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few to welcome the Rohingya. A battered trawler with about 100 refugees landed in June, followed by a larger boat on September 7th.

“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region is responding to this humanitarian crisis on its doorstep,” said Indrika Ratwat, director for Asia and the Pacific at the UN refugee agency.

The Bangladeshi government, battling its own vulnerable population in the wake of the pandemic, has threatened to relocate thousands of Rohingya from camps on a cyclone-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. The foggy island was uninhabited as Bangladeshi’s navy forced about 300 Rohingya – many of them women and children – to take refuge there this summer, when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended months later at sea.

Earlier this month, several Rohingya were killed in clashes between gangs at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, considered the world’s largest refugee settlement. Some women say they dare to use as few public toilets as possible for fear of sexual violence.

Shamsun Nahar, 17, said she desperately wanted to leave the camps, even though she had heard stories about how dangerous the crossing could be. Her father, a clergyman, was found by a matchmaker, a man from the same village in Rakhine who works as a carpenter in Malaysia.

“I talked to him on a video call and I liked him from every angle,” Ms. Nahar said of their brief courtship over the phone. “He was not very big or too small. It looked good.

Her fiancé had to pay $ 4,500 for the move, Ms. Nahar said. The place she had occupied for months on the boat was close to the engine, so noisy that she could not hear the voices of others.

Smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, beat them with plastic pipes, she said. The food was served on a plastic sheet smeared with leftovers from previous weeks, covering each meal with a putrid odor.

“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and fiancé,” Ms. Nahar said after arriving in Indonesia last month. “What will happen next?” I do not know.”

Although previous waves of Rohingya that landed in Indonesia have mostly made their way to Malaysia, only a few of this year’s crossings have been able to reunite with their families or future spouses.

When Naemot Shah married his wife Majuma Bibi, he was 14 and she was 12. The roofs of their Rakhine childhood homes touched, he said, as closely as possible.

In 2014, Mr Shah paid human smugglers to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia, a 28-day journey that nearly killed him, he said. His daughter was only six months old when he left. Three years later, his family fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military campaign of killings, rapes and forced relocations against the Rohingya.

From a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mr Shah’s wife asked him to pay for her and their daughter to join him in Malaysia. Knowing how risky the trip was, he refused.

But his wife, whom Mr Shah described as “very smart”, quietly saved the money he sent her from his job as a construction worker. In late March, she and her daughter boarded a fishing trawler hoping for her husband’s place of residence.

“I was very upset that they went without my permission,” Mr Shah said.

When news of a mass drowning reached him, he assumed his family had died at sea. But in June, Mr Shah, 24, heard that a boat had landed in Indonesia. Scanning the crowds on video, he recognized his wife and daughter.

“I have never experienced such happiness as the day I realized they were alive,” Mr Shah said.

Other Rohingya in Malaysia have taken a second or third wife, he said. But he will not do it. Instead, he traveled to Indonesia to reunite with his wife and daughter. “I will stick to a woman,” Mr Shah said. “He traveled all this way, he went through this difficult time for me.”

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