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Desperate Rohingya kids flee alone by boat

Monday - 4/28/2014, 4:58am  ET

In this Nov. 28, 2013 photo, a boat which was intended to carry fleeing Rohingya Muslims until doubts arose about its seaworthiness, is docked at a lagoon near the The' Chaung refugee camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, Myanmar. Although the United Nations considers the Rohingya to be among the most persecuted groups on earth, nearby countries easily reachable by boat have been implementing policies and practices to ensure that Rohingya refugees don't wash up on their shores. (AP Photo/Kaung Htet)

MARGIE MASON
Associated Press

SITTWE, Myanmar (AP) -- The two children stood on the beach, at the end of the only world they knew, torn between land and sea.

They couldn't go back to their tiny Muslim village in Myanmar's northwest Rakhine because it had been devoured in a fire set by an angry Buddhist mob. In the smoke and chaos, the siblings became separated from their family. And after seven months of searching, they had lost hope of finding anyone alive.

The only way was forward. Hungry and scared, they eyed a rickety wooden fishing boat in the darkness. Mohamad Husein, just 15, dug into his pocket and pulled out a little wad of money for the captain. He and his 9-year-old sister, Senwara Begum, climbed on board, cramming themselves tightly between the other ethnic Rohingya in the small hull.

As the ship pushed off, they didn't realize they were among hundreds, if not thousands, of children joining one of the world's biggest boat exoduses since the Vietnam War. They only understood it wasn't safe to stay in a country that didn't want them.

Mohamad had no idea where they were headed. And as Senwara looked back in tears, she wondered if she would ever see her parents again.

Neither could imagine the horrors that lay ahead.

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From Malaysia to Australia, countries easily reachable by boat have been implementing policies and practices to ensure that Rohingya Muslims don't wash up on their shores -- from shoving them back to sea, where they risk being sold as slaves, to flat out barring the refugees from stepping onto their soil.

Despite pleas from the United Nations, which considers the Rohingya to be among the most persecuted groups on earth, many governments in the region have refused to sign refugee conventions and protocols, meaning they are not obligated to help. The countries said they fear adopting the international agreements could attract a flood of immigrants they cannot support.

However, rights groups said they are failing members of the religious minority at their most vulnerable hour, even as more women and children join the increasing mass departure.

"The sense of desperation and hopelessness is growing," warned Vivian Tan of the U.N. Refugee Agency.

About 1.3 million Rohingya live in the predominantly Buddhist country of 60 million, almost all of them in Rakhine state. Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though some families have lived here for generations.

When the country was under military rule, young men took to the seas on small, dilapidated boats every year in search of a better life. But since the bumpy transition to democracy in 2011, sectarian violence has killed up to 280 Rohingya and forced more than 140,000 others from their homes. Now people of all ages are fleeing, many on massive cargo ships.

Women and children made up 5 percent to 15 percent of the estimated 75,000 passengers who have left since the riots began in mid-June 2012, said Chris Lewa of the nonprofit Arakan Project, a group that has tracked the boat journeys for a decade. The year before, around 9,000 people fled, most of them men.

It's a dangerous voyage: Nearly 2,000 Rohingya have died or gone missing in the past two years, Lewa said. Unaccompanied children like Senwara and her brother are among the most at risk.

The Associated Press reported from Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand on their plight, interviewing family members, witnesses and aid groups. Data were collected from the U.N., government agencies, nonprofit organizations and news reports at the time.

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The relief the two children felt after making it safely away from land quickly faded. Their small boat was packed with 63 people, including 14 children and 10 women, one seven months pregnant. There were no life jackets, and neither sibling could swim. The sun baked their skin.

Senwara took small sips of water from a shared tin can inside the hull piled with aching, crumpled arms and legs. With each roiling set of waves came the stench of vomit.

Nearly two weeks passed. Then suddenly a boat approached with at least a dozen Myanmar soldiers on board.

They ordered the Rohingya men to remove their shirts and lie down, one by one. Their hands were bound. Then they were punched, kicked and bludgeoned with wooden planks and iron rods, passengers on the boat said.

They howled and begged God for mercy.

"Tell us, do you have your Allah?" one Rohingya survivor quoted the soldiers as saying. "There is no Allah!"

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