‘Somehow, they made it’
JAKARTA, June 1, 2015 – We had been in Aceh province for five days to report on the arrival of hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by people-smugglers, when we heard that around 400 people had been rescued by Indonesian fishermen, before dawn on May 20.
They were the third boatload of Bangladeshis and Rohingya migrants from Myanmar who managed to approach the Aceh coast without detection by the Indonesian navy. All were rescued by local fishermen, who stepped in to offer solidarity where successive governments turned away.
With the help of a local fisherman who took part in the rescue, it took us about 30 minutes to reach the abandoned vessel, which I immediately realised was the green boat photographed by my colleague Christophe Archambault off the Thai coast on May 14. I alerted the news desk in Jakarta right away.
AFP were the first journalists to board the boat, lying grounded in shallow waters off Aceh’s eastern coast facing the Malacca Strait. I was there with our video reporter Gianrigo Marletta. Apparently undamaged, it was littered from the cargo hold to the deck with items of clothing, food wrappings and empty water bottles from Thailand and Malaysia. There were empty food bowls on the captain’s cabin and a half-sack of dried chili on the roof deck.
In previous days I had devoted a lot of time to showing the poor physical condition of migrant survivors. The new arrivals were all weakened by their ordeal, most of them severely malnourished and dehydrated, some unable to walk. They were being tended to by volunteers, local aid groups, government rescuers and social services, and staff from the IOM and UNHCR in an environment with minimal facilities. Residents were arriving to drop off clothes and food donations.
I took a strong interest when police began taking their mugshots, the first step in the identification process for new arrivals. After the migrants were registered by immigration officials, they were asked to stand in front of a white measurement board, holding a small whiteboard with their name, age, occupation, hometown and country.
I began taking photos in the style of official mugshots, as I knew that once assembled into a portrait series they would tell a painful story about the persecution of the Rohingya and how they have fallen victim to people-smuggling syndicates.
Mugshots are associated with breaking the law – not the most dignified form of portrait. Yet in a strange way, as I discovered each person’s name while taking their picture, it felt as if we were being officially introduced. I shot a total of 86 mugshot portraits of Rohingya men, women and children from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshi migrants.
How to connect faces with names?
New arrivals from the green boat were confined in a camp in Aceh’s Bayeun village, separately from the earlier groups of migrants. By this point I had started to pick out some of the nameless people in Christophe’s pictures, from their faces, appearance and clothing.
Next I needed to find a way to connect them firmly with the earlier set of images. Language was the biggest barrier. The Rohingya migrants could not speak English, but some of the Bangladeshi migrants could, and they helped us communicate, while some IOM staff generously gave time to help translate for us journalists.
Wearing the same dress
The next day, on May 21, a Rohingya woman was rushed by volunteers to the medical tent, crying in pain and barely conscious. The Indonesian doctors attended immediately and administered intravenous fluid, diagnosing her with malnutrition, dehydration and diarrhoea. The woman’s child sat close clinging to her dress, crying continuously to see her struggling and in pain. I was moved to tears as I photographed.
Back in the hotel, I sent my day’s coverage. Looking closely at Christophe’s pictures, I found the woman I had just photographed – crying helplessly at the side of the boat, wearing the same dress as when I saw her that day. Having survived her ordeal at sea, the doctors saved her life. It is one of the pictures I cannot forget.
By the time the nearly 400 arrivals had gone through the identification process, I was physically and mentally drained. Each night after transmitting my photos, I would stay up late to monitor for rumors of new boat sightings. After eight days of such intense coverage I was ready to leave, thinking I would come back later to continue the portrait series.
Pick up where I left off
Just as I was leaving, though, it turned out AFP’s photo stringer Chaideer Mahyuddin – who covered the first arrivals in Aceh – was returning to the province. During the four-hour drive to the airport, I spoke to him by phone and we agreed he would pick up where I had left off.
Together we selected some dramatic portraits of migrants in distress, begging for food with anguished faces while clutching their stomach, crying for help, or scrambling for supplies thrown by a Thai military helicopter into the sea. His task was to match individuals to the ones in the photos, and obtain their complete name, age and nationality, as well as telephone numbers of relatives in Myanmar and Bangladesh which would help us follow up on their stories and progress in the coming months and years.
I advised Chaideer to take portraits in arrangements similar to Christophe’s photos, their new look and fresh start in the camp in Bayeun a strong contrast with the images of helpless people aboard a drifting boat. The result is a powerful testament to their will to survive.
BAYEUN, Indonesia – When I first saw AFP’s photos of migrants stranded in East Aceh on May 20, I was struck by the close similarities with the green boat captured off Koh Lipe in Christophe’s extraordinary photos. Examining all the details I was certain the people on the boat must be one and the same.
Soon enough I identified two men – Muhammad Ehsan from Bangladesh and Hamid Husen from Myanmar – who were photographed clinging to the boat as they ate supplies recovered at sea. I informed Romy, and that would be the first of our photo combinations.
By showing Christophe’s pictures around the camp, I was able to track down many of his subjects. But staging these group shots was a real challenge since the people I found were located at different spots. I would leave three of them to go look for a fourth, but by the time I returned one had gone missing and I had to start all over. That, combined with the language barrier made it a truly difficult task. It would take two days to bring each group together.
Let families know they are alive
The people I spoke with told me they were pretty shocked to see the images of their despair. All were very happy for me to photograph them again, as they hoped it could let their families in Bangladesh and Myanmar know they were still alive.
They told me of their hardship at sea, a three-month ordeal without sufficient food or water which claimed the lives of around 100 passengers according to survivors. Many were so desperate with hunger they felt like jumping into the sea.
As for what comes next, the Bangladeshis said they hoped to be sent back home or given jobs in Indonesia. But the stateless Rohingya were holding out in hope a new country would take them in, once Indonesia’s offer of temporary shelter for the year runs out.
BANGKOK – It was powerful indeed to discover these pictures from Aceh. It goes beyond the relief I felt when I heard that what had become ‘our boat’, the green boat, had made it to shore in Aceh on May 20. On that day I packed up and flew back to Bangkok from southern Thailand, wondering what was next for those people, rescued by Acehnese fishermen and held in confinement camps.
Beyond the relief, there’s a sense of regained dignity in the great portrait pictures shot by my colleague Chaideer. Men pose in fresh clothing, their heads shaved, women with their scarves tied in place. You can feel they are back to life.
There’s obviously a long way to go before they return to some kind of normality but the immediate fear – of dying at sea, of starvation or drowning – has gone. They are standing. They are not crying. Somehow they made it.
I have just covered a regional meeting in Bangkok called to deal with the Indian Ocean migration crisis. It will take time before the root causes that led to the mass exodus of the Rohingya are addressed.
But on a lighter note, I’m amazed my colleague Romeo came up with the great idea of tracing the guys I shot drifting at sea, and that Chaideer pushed it all the way into getting them lined up in similar postures. That’s brilliant and very moving stuff on a sunny day for all.