BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - By the time Muslim rubber tappers came across the boy in a jungle in southern Thailand, he was so weak he couldn’t even wave away the flies and mosquitoes that covered his body.
The teenager, a stateless Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar, had become paralysed from the waist down after 10 weeks in a traffickers’ camp overseen by brutal guards, where he was forced to squat during the day and sleep in a foetal position at night.
The rubber tappers rescued the boy, whose name has been withheld to protect his identity, along with 30 others who had also lost the use of their legs, and took them to a nearby mosque where they were given food and shelter and slowly recovered.
He had left his home in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State after two bouts of bloody riots in 2012. Barely 16, he hoped to find a job to help his struggling family but was incarcerated instead, first by Thai authorities and later by human traffickers.
Since June 2012, at least 240 people have been killed and more than 140,000 displaced in religious conflict across mainly Buddhist Myanmar, most of them the long-persecuted Rohingya, Muslims who Myanmar does not recognise as citizens.
The violence and the subsequent flight of tens of thousands of Rohingya to neighbouring countries caused international outrage and raised questions about the Myanmar government’s commitment to reforms.
Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to the boy in the outskirts of Bangkok, where he is now living.
"I left Myanmar around November/December 2012 on a fishing boat. There were about 100 people and we came without help from brokers. I just paid the boatman what I had, which was 40,000 kyats (about $40).
"The sea was rough and many of us were seasick. I was scared but what could I do? A woman gave birth on the boat. After 12 days we arrived in Thailand but we were arrested.
DETENTION CENTRE, TRAFFICKERS’ CAMP
I was stuck at the Ranong Immigration Detention Centre (in southern Thailand near the Myanmar border) for 11 months. One day, we were told we would be deported back to Myanmar. The boats were to carry us to Kawthaung (in Myanmar) but we ended up at a place where cars were waiting. The cars took us to the jungle camp run by the traffickers.
"The first time they beat us was just after we - about 400 of us - arrived at the camp in the early morning. They threatened us and made us call our relatives to ask for money so we would be released. When people said they did not have money or relatives to contact, they were beaten up even more.
"We had to squat during the day and sleep in a foetal position at night. We couldn’t move. The guards would swear and beat us if we tried to change position.
"After 10 weeks in the camp, my legs started wobbling when I tried to stand up. My body would sway. Within two or three days, I could no longer move them. I had to drag myself on my bottom to get anywhere, including going to the toilet.
"Many people died in the camp - some from beating, but they were already weak from not having enough food, and some from diseases because living conditions were not clean.
"The guards were Bangladeshis and Thai Muslims. They said, 'If you pay, we will let you go. If you don’t, you will have to stay here till you die.'
Eventually the traffickers ran away, taking with them the able-bodied Rohingya, after hearing that police were on the way. “The traffickers left us for dead. There were about 30 others who were like me. For two days, we didn’t have any food or water because we couldn’t move."
When the Thai Muslim rubber tappers found the group, they could barely communicate. "One of them said “Salam alaikum” so I realised they were Muslims too and replied, 'Alaikum salam,'"
"The rubber tappers took us to a mosque where we stayed for about two and a half months. They fed us and looked after us. I learnt to walk again there. It took me two months. It still hurts when I walk now.
TRAPPED IN SITTWE
"Myself and my seven siblings were born and raised in Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. My parents were also born there. But we don’t have ID cards.
"Being stateless meant we couldn’t travel outside Sittwe and it was hard to find a regular job. But we could still travel within Sittwe and could find ways to earn an income. My father was a tailor and I helped him since I was young.
"Things worsened after the riots. Aung Mingalar was under lockdown. We could not leave and nobody could come in. We used to have Rakhine Buddhist friends but all contacts were cut off after the riots.
"My father’s business was gone. My two brothers were injured and we had to destroy our thatched roof so the fire wouldn’t reach us during the riots.
"I couldn’t see any future and I felt very bitter and upset about the killings and the destruction. My parents didn’t want me to leave. If I had known how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have left.
"After recovering at the mosque, I came to Bangkok. I’m staying with other Rohingya. Most people who were with me at the mosque are now in Malaysia. To go to Malaysia, you need money and I don’t have money.
"I want to find work so I can earn money and send it home. My family is facing even more difficulties."