On the day they were freed from slavery, the fishermen hugged, high-fived and sprinted through a stinging rain to line up so they wouldn’t be left behind. But even as they learned they were going home, some wept at the thought of returning empty-handed.
Two years have passed since an Associated Press investigation spurred that dramatic rescue, leading to the release of more than 2,000 men trapped on remote Indonesian islands.
They were initially tricked with the promise of good jobs in Thailand, but instead ended up trafficked thousands of miles away to the island village of Benjina. Many were beaten and forced to work nonstop for years with little food and no pay.
Since returning home, some stories of happiness and opportunity have surfaced. But the men’s fight to start over has largely been narrated by shame and struggle.
Still, they are thankful to be alive, living as free men. They are slaves no more.
SICK AND UNEMPLOYED
Mon State, Myanmar — Myint Naing stares silently at a computer alongside his mother and sister, watching flickering images of their extraordinary reunion. The memories are still raw of Myint collapsing into his wailing mother’s arms, ending 22 years of separation after he was taken to Indonesia and nearly beaten to death by a captain who refused to let him go home.
Myint, now 42, desperately wants to work, but he’s simply not able. He tried manual labor, but the muscles on his body’s right side were weakened by a stroke-like attack in Indonesia.
He dreams of opening a little snack shop to contribute to the family’s income, but there is no money to start it.
“I don’t really know how to keep going like this,” he says.
Though he insists life is better, he stays with his sister and her husband, who together earn less than USD5.50 a day to feed three children and three adults.
In Indonesia, Myint eventually escaped his captors and lived in the jungle for years, farming vegetables with help from sympathetic local families.
If his former captains would just pay him what he’s owed, he says he could help his sister instead of making her life harder.
“If I ever saw them again,” he says of the captains, “I might kill them.”
STILL A FISHERMAN
Yangon, Myanmar — After Phyo Kyaw was rescued, he worked a few months on the gritty outskirts of Yangon driving a bus and a motorbike taxi, but the money wasn’t good and his bike was stolen.
Several of his friends from Benjina already had returned to Thailand to find better-paying work and encouraged him to join them. So Phyo traveled to the same port town where he was first trafficked and boarded a trawler with 13 other Burmese men.
He was scared of being trafficked again, but decided to risk it. “I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s my choice to go,” says Phyo, now 31. “My father is the only financial provider here.”
Phyo didn’t know where he was going or how long he would be at sea. He also had no idea if he was fishing legally or poaching, a dangerous practice that can land an entire crew in jail.
The days were still long but, this time, he got a few more hours of sleep — four or five a night — and he wasn’t beaten.
After six months at sea, the trawler returned to Thailand. Phyo should have made nearly $1,600, but was left with just $350 after deductions for fees, food and supplies.
He could have earned nearly double that amount driving the motorbike taxi back home. Still, he’s thinking about going back out to sea. Fishing is what he knows.
“If I can get a better job here, I won’t go,” he says. “But if I don’t have anything, I will go on a fishing boat.”
FORGIVENESS AS A MONK
Samut Sakhon, Thailand — Wrapped in flowing saffron robes, Prasert Jakkawaro speaks calmly as he looks back on his lost life. He says he spent eight years fishing off Benjina, working around the clock and never getting paid what was promised.
The rage that once sent him searching for solace at the bottom of a bottle has died. He now finds comfort praying in a monastery as a Buddhist monk.
“I feel that I have to give forgiveness and kindness back,” he says. “I have another chance. There’s no point in dwelling on the past. The anger will only follow me in this life and into the next.”
Finding peace wasn’t easy: He was first forced to confront the evil he experienced.
Food wasn’t guaranteed on the boat, and he saw one crew member die due to a lack of medical attention. Sleep was a luxury.
Once after asking his captain for more money, Prasert was tossed into a tiny cell with about 20 other men. They were ordered by security guards to beat each other up.
“You would get hit so hard that you could see the handprints on your face,” says Prasert, now 53.
After he returned home to Thailand, he received a settlement of about $2,250 from the boat owner — far short of the nearly $9,000 he says he was owed. But he knows most men received nothing.
The anger continued to swell but, with encouragement from his sister, Prasert spent three months studying at a Buddhist temple.
Slowly, the hatred melted.
“When I attend ceremonies, people really look at me as if I can shine a light on their life, and it makes me feel that I am useful again,” he says. “I feel like I can have real happiness at last.” Margie Mason, AP