It took Azima a month travelling to wed her childhood sweetheart. In that time, the 17-year-old witnessed men beaten to death, starvation, rape and an attempted suicide.“When the men complained, the smugglers beat them,” Azima said, recalling the days she spent living with hundreds of people on a boat in the Indian Ocean. They used an inch-thick red cane.“I saw seven people die.”
The Burmese Rohingya woman paid to be smuggled to Thailand so she could build a family, a goal that has become harder for her ethnic minority in Burma’s western Rakhine state as many men have already fled state-backed persecution.
Anxiously waiting for her in the Thai capital was Hussein, whom she met as a child in her village. “Our homes were near, we would meet in the street or at school,” she said, smiling and wearing a brown veil dotted with decoration. Both from farming families, they had small plots of land used for growing rice, beans, potatoes and chillies.
Hussein had already managed to leave Burma by land, with his mother. Two years later, with Azima’s parents too old to farm and the police harassing her, she felt her life had become desperate enough to risk the journey.
It was easy to find a people smuggler – one lived in her village, a man named Anwar.
One night, he came to the farm where Azima lived. “He told me to come with him that night to his house,” she said, recalling saying goodbye to her parents. “That same night we were brought to the sea and boarded a dinghy with Anwar’s men.”
The dinghy was crammed with about 30 people, Azima recalls. They sped out to sea under the stars until they approached a green ship with three decks and more than 400 people onboard.
Azima was told to sit on the middle level. She met other Rohingya that night who said they had been waiting for days for the ship to fill up – Azima’s small dinghy was the last group and so they started for Thailand, a seven-day journey south.
“Women were fed once a day in the morning,” Azima said. “Men were not given food.” The idea, she speculated, was to starve them to the point where they would have no energy to rise up against the 10 smugglers who ran the ship.
But after a few days with no food, some men protested at the conditions. Seven were beaten to death by the crew, she said.
“Us women got dried fish and sometimes a small bottle of water,” she said. “It was so crowded that we would lie down on top of each other’s bodies and sleep during the day and in the cooler night-time we would just sit.”
Two of the smugglers were themselves Rohingya, including a religious leader, she said. The other eight were Thai.
Towards the end of her time at sea, Azima saw an old man jump overboard after days of not eating or drinking. “He wanted to die,” she said. The old man was dragged back on board and tied to a pole.
Azima’s story illustrates a Burmese society broken by apartheid-like rule. One in 10 Rohingya in Burma have fled by boat.
Tens of thousands of men have departed, so that now the cost of a dowry in Rakhine has risen significantly. Now girls such as Azima are taking the perilous boat trip so they can marry.
‘We were tortured all the time’
Azima says she was never attacked or abused but that the women on the upper deck would come downstairs to use the single toilet and talk of sexual attacks.
“They said: ‘We are tortured all the time’,” Azima said.
Ashore in Thailand, the group was taken to the hills in the jungle to be held before their families, or in Azima’s case her fiance, paid the ransom to have them released.
The Guardian cannot independently verify Azima’s story, but the details of sexual abuse, killing and enforced malnourishment by human smugglers are corroborated by the UN, which has interviewed hundreds of Rohingya over several years. The UN refugee agency estimates 620 people have died at sea since October, primarily as a result of starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews.
While Azima was in the jungle, her fiance deposited 70,000 Thai baht (£1,300) into a smuggler’s bank account. He and his father are now heavily burdened with debt.
Hussein says he had to flee two years earlier as he was particularly vulnerable to abuse from the authorities – his father Asiya, 47, also fled the country for Thailand in 1991 when he joined a revolutionary movement, leaving his wife and six-month-old son in the village as the passage overland to Thailand was too dangerous.
As Hussein grew up, his land was seized and he was imprisoned three times. Each time, his mother would have to pay bribes to get him released.
“We were always paying bribes,” Hussein said, wearing the traditional Burmese longi, a type of sarong. “The army made us build roads at night-time. I would work as a porter without payment.”
Burma’s 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya are a stateless people. They have been persecuted for decades, but in 2012 deadly clashes with the Buddhist majority in Rakhine caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. The government denies that it is persecuting Rohingya and says accusations are “one-sided”.
Hussein fled with his mother just days before the killings in 2012, when authorities could be bribed to help them take the safer overland route to Thailand. Once there, Hussein, 22, met his father for the first time since he was six months old.
He lived with his parents and younger siblings in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok and started selling pancakes to schoolchildren. He mixes the batter himself, crouching over a plastic bucket filled with molten butter and flour.
Bodies left in the jungle
Hundreds of miles south in the jungle, Azima was being held in an open prison. She was kept with other women on a plastic sheet in the jungle. The smugglers had cut a few trees down but there were no cages or buildings. The prisoners were so badly malnourished and the jungle so dangerous, there was little point in escaping.
“When we arrived, sometimes we got food twice a day,” she said, adding she counted about 460 people in the camp, which was moved occasionally to avoid police. When it rained, the women would hold the sheet over their heads. For 13 days, she sat there, among a group of women who hoped they could keep the smugglers away if they bunched together.
The men were so weak at this point that some of them were dying, Azima said. Their bodies were left in the jungle.
As she spoke, Hussein, who was sitting stirring the batter for the pancakes stopped and looked at her, listening, then looked at the floor.
“There were only 12 smugglers,” she said, of the jungle camp. “But they had guns.”
Then one day, a smuggler approached Azima. “Your name has come up,” he told her. Hussein’s money had arrived in the account and she would be taken to Bangkok.
She married Hussein and they live together a short walk from his parents. Sitting next to her husband, she says that a year later she is finally content with her life although she knows she will probably never see her parents or her homeland again.