Smugglers mercilessly beat rake-thin refugees crowded onto a fishing boat, in a video obtained by AFP news agency that shows rarely seen images from the front lines of the Rohingya trafficking network.
Filmed on a mobile phone by a smuggler who later fled the vessel, the video shows dozens of asylum seekers, including children, sitting in the hull and on the deck as smugglers stand among them.
An argument starts and one of the traffickers, holding a thick rope in one hand, pushes a Rohingya man back and kicks him.
He then uses what appears to be a whip with his other hand to repeatedly lash a group of shirtless men who scramble to avoid the beating.
“They started beating us because we complained about the food,” Mohammad Osman, a 16-year-old passenger, said in an interview at a Bangladesh refugee camp conducted as part of a months-long AFP investigation into the people-smuggling network.
“They randomly beat us just because we were asking for more rice and water.”
Osman’s neighbour, Enamul Hasan, 19, who was also on the ship, said he grabbed the phone after one of the traffickers left it behind when fleeing onto another vessel during what amounted to a mutiny.
VIDEO: From the crowded camps of Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees take a dangerous and sometimes deadly trip by land and water as they try to reach Malaysia.
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) December 15, 2020
The footage was shot several days before the group’s Malaysia-bound boat returned to Bangladesh in mid-April, he said. It had departed in February.
Earlier beatings, which were not captured on video, saw some Rohingya die at the hands of the smugglers, Hasan told AFP at the refugee camp.
“They beat us mercilessly – hitting our heads, tearing at our ears, breaking hands.”
Hasan and Osman said 46 people on their vessel died from beatings, starvation and illness, giving breakdowns of men, women and children who perished.
AFP could not independently verify all of the specifics of their accounts, but a third surviving passenger separately retold similar events.
AFP also confirmed that Hasan and Osman were in the video footage. They could be seen huddling among the group of men who were being hit.
Hasan described how the crew, ethnic Burmese from Myanmar, eventually fled after some of the passengers began to resist.
The refugees had initially kept pleading to be taken to land as they tried to survive on starvation rations of rice and water, he added.
“But the smugglers told us to shut up and that there was no land for us. They said they’d kill us if we kept talking,” Hasan said.
“We realised if this continues, we all would die. We needed to do something. We felt like we were in hell.
“So we attacked the crew since we had nothing to lose. It was a life-or-death situation … we threatened to kill the smugglers if they didn’t drop us on land.”
The crew responded to the mutiny by threatening to set the boat on fire, according to Hasan. “They kept saying they’d burn us alive so we became silent again,” Hasan said.
A small boat showed up a few days later and all but two of the traffickers fled, he added.
“Those two traffickers told us not to rebel, that they would drop us where they could,” Hasan said.
“A couple of days later they left us back near Bangladesh and fled.”