Rohingya migrants rescued by Indonesian fishermen last May.
Rohingya migrants rescued by Indonesian fishermen last May.
Rio Tuasikal

LANGSA — It was 8 p.m. and the sea was calm in the Strait of Malacca, at the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island. Ibrahim, a local fisherman, was pulling in his first catch of the night when he received news that a nearby boat was overcrowded and in trouble.

"We met another small fishing boat and they asked us to help," Ibrahim recalls. "The fisherman said there were more than 1,000 people that needed help, but his boat could only take around 20 to 30 people."

He immediately released his catch and headed towards Malaysia. Half an hour later, he witnessed a terrible scene that looked like something out of the movie Titanic.

"When we arrived, we put our lights on," he recalls. "We saw all these people floating in the water like ducks. Many of them were drowning, but we saved some of them. Their boat was half underwater, and passengers were being thrown into the water."

He describes the boat as small and so overcrowded that people on it couldn't move. "The passengers didn't jump off," he says. "They were thrown off it. The boat's engine was dead, and the boat was filling up with water."

Tuasikal

His fishing boat was the fifth one on the scene, and his 30-person crew lowered their ropes and started saving the refugees, ultimately bringing 180 people to shore.

"Some of them were half naked, so we gave them our spare clothes," Ibrahim recalls. "We gave them what food and water we had. Some of them were bleeding, so we gave them onions and salt to put on their wounds."

With no languages in common, Ibrahim and the migrants used body language to communicate. It was almost dawn when his boat and other rescue ships arrived at the Kuala Langsa dock.

He then handed over the refugees to the Indonesian maritime police, who scolded him for his efforts. "The officer asked me why we didn't reject the boat people," he recalls. "If the ship was still in a good condition, we would have just given them food, but if they're drowning at sea we have to rescue them. We are humans. if someone is dying, we have to help them. There is no way that we could have done anything different. They needed our help."

Grateful survivors

Muhammad Amin, one of the rescued Rohingya refugees, says Ibrahim and the other fisherman who helped them are heroes. "If there were no Acehnese out at sea that day, everyone would have died," Amin says.

Another refugee, Hassan, says the fishermen have given them a new life. "I always pray for Indonesia," he says. "If your country hadn't saved us, maybe we would have died."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are still about 7,000 other refugees at sea. Ibrahim and the local fishermen have agreed to report illegal immigrants to the authorities if they see them.

"If the ship is still in good condition, we will not bring them to the coast," he says. "If they are in the ship, they don't need our help, but we saved refugees that were in trouble."

The Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees are now staying in temporary camps in Kuala Langsa, the harbor of Langsa city. The port is located right next to the fish unloading center where Ibrahim docks his boat. He says he and the other fisherman lost money on the night of the rescue.

"We didn't catch anything, and then we got home and we haven't been able to go out to sea again because we have a problem with the light," he says. And now it's Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims in which the faithful fast during the daytime. "Everything is going wrong."

But when he visits the refugee camp, he says he knows he did the right thing. A refugee passes by and thanks him again.

"We have a hard life, but their problems are much greater than ours," Ibrahim says. "I want to see the government look after them for a year. They have never begged us for food, so as long as the government is looking after them it's not a problem having them here.

"We should never lose our humanity."

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