This is the moving story of a fisherman forced to work as a slave for 22 years..His incredible journey from slavery to freedom was documented by AP
Myint Naing was willing to risk everything to see his mother again. In 1990, his father drowned while fishing, leaving him as the man in charge at just 15. He helped cook, wash clothes and care for his siblings, but they kept sliding deeper into poverty.
So when a fast-talking broker visited the neighborhood three years later with stories of jobs in Thailand, Myint was easily wooed. The agent offered $300 for just a few months of work — enough for some families to survive on for a year. He and several other young men quickly put their hands up to go.
His mother, Khin Than, wasn’t so sure. He was only 18-years-old, with no education or travel experience. But he kept begging, arguing that he wouldn’t be gone long and relatives already working there could look after him.Finally, she relented.
Neither of them knew it but, at that moment, Myint began a journey that would take him thousands of miles away from his family. He would miss births, deaths, marriages and the unlikely transition of his country from a dictatorship to a bumpy democracy.
He would run away twice from the ruthless forced labour on a fishing boat, only to realise that he could never escape from the shadow of fear.
Yet on the day he left home in 1993, all Myint saw was promise. The broker hustled his new recruits to grab their bags immediately, and Myint’s 10-year-old sister wiped tears from her cheeks as she watched him walk down the dirt track away from their village.
His mother wasn’t home. He never got to say goodbye.
After easily skirting police at the border with Thailand and being held in a small shed with little food for more than a month, Myint was shoved onto a boat. The men were at sea for 15 days and finally docked in the far eastern corner of Indonesia. The captain shouted that everyone on board now belonged to him, using words Myint would never forget:
‘You Burmese are never going home. You were sold, and no one is ever coming to rescue you.’He was panicked and confused. He thought he would be fishing in Thai waters for only a few months. Instead the boys were taken to the Indonesian island of Tual in the Arafura Sea, one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, stocked with tuna, mackerel, squid, shrimp and other lucrative species for export.
Myint spent weeks at a time on the open ocean, living only on rice and the parts of the catch no one else would eat. During the busiest times, the men worked up to 24 hours a day, hoisting heavy nets rippling with fish. They were forced to drink foul-tasting boiled sea water.
He was paid only $10 a month, and sometimes not at all. There was no medicine. Anyone who took a break or fell ill was beaten by the Thai captain, who once lobbed a piece of wood at Myint for not moving fish fast enough.
Nearly half the Burmese men surveyed by the AP said they were beaten, or witnessed others being abused. They were made to work almost nonstop for nearly no pay, with little food and unclean water.
They were whipped with toxic stingray tails, shocked with Taser-like devices and locked in a cage for taking breaks or attempting to flee. Sometimes, the men said, the bodies of those who died were stashed in the ship’s freezer alongside the fish.
By 1996, after three years, he had had enough. Penniless and homesick, he waited until his boat returned to Tual. Then he went into the office on the dock and, for the first time, asked to go home.
His request was answered by a helmet cracking his skull. As blood oozed out, he used both hands to hold the wound together. The Thai man who hit him repeated the words that already haunted him:
We will never let you Burmese fishermen go. Even when you die.’
That was the first time he ran away.
An Indonesian family took mercy on Myint until he healed, and then offered him food and shelter in exchange for work on their farm.
For five years, he lived this simple life and tried to erase memories of the horrors at sea. He learned to speak the Indonesian language fluently and acquired a taste for the food, even though it was much sweeter than the salty Burmese dishes his mother fixed.
But he couldn’t forget his relatives in Myanmar or the friends he left behind on the boat. What happened to them? Were they still alive?..
In 2001, he heard one captain was offering to take fishermen back to Myanmar if they agreed to work. He was determined to find a way home. So, eight years after he first arrived in Indonesia, he returned to the sea.
Right away, he knew he had fallen into the same trap again. The work and conditions were just as appalling as the first time, and the money still didn’t come.After nine months on the water, Myint’s captain broke his promise and told the crew he was abandoning them to go back to Thailand alone.
Furious and desperate, the Burmese slave once again pleaded to go home. That, he said, was when the captain chained him to the boat for three days.
Myint searched wildly for something, anything, to open the lock. Working it with his fingers was useless. Then he managed to fashion a small piece of metal into a makeshift pick and spent hours trying to quickly and quietly unlatch freedom. Finally, there was a click. The shackles slid off. He knew there wasn’t much time, and if he got caught, death would come swiftly.
Sometime after midnight, he dove into the black water and swam to shore. Then he ran without looking back, in clothes still weighted by sea water.
He knew he had to disappear. This time, for good.
After he ran the second time, Myint hid alone in a bamboo shack in the jungle. But just three years later, he fell ill with what appeared to be a stroke. His nerves seemed to stop firing properly, leaving him easily chilled despite the oppressive tropical heat.
When he became too sick to work, the same Indonesian family cared for him with a kindness that reminded him of relatives back home. He had forgotten what his mother looked like, and knew that by now his favourite little sister would be all grown up. They likely thought he was dead…
What he didn’t know was that his mother was like him: She never gave up. She prayed for him every day at the little Buddhist altar in her family’s traditional stilt house, and asked fortune tellers year after year about her son. They assured her he was alive, but in a faraway place difficult to leave.
After eight more years in the jungle without a clock or calendar, time began to blur. Now in his 30s, he started to believe the captain had been right: There really was no escape.
He couldn’t go to the police or local officials, afraid they might hand him over to the captains for a fee. He had no way to call home. And he was scared to contact the Myanmar embassy because it would expose him as an illegal migrant.
In 2011, the solitude had become too much. Myint moved to the island of Dobo, where he had heard there were more Burmese. He and two other runaway slaves farmed chilies, eggplant, peas and beans until the police arrested one in the market and put him back on a boat. The man later fell sick at sea and died..
One day in April, a friend came to him with news: An AP report linking slavery in the seafood industry to some of the biggest American grocery stores and pet food companies had spurred the Indonesian government to start rescuing current and former slaves on the islands. To date, more than 800 have been found and repatriated.
This was his chance. When the officials came to Dobo, he went back with them to Tual, where he was once a slave — this time to join hundreds of other free men.
After 22 years in Indonesia, Myint was finally going home…
They wailed and wept so loudly, the whole village emerged to see what seemed like a ghost. ‘That guy’s been gone for 20 years,’ one man said.
Myint, his mother and his sister walked arm-in-arm to the simple stilt house of his childhood.
As his sister helped wash his hair, his 60-year-old mother turned pale and collapsed against a bamboo ladder. Then, suddenly, she grabbed her heart and began to gasp for air. Relatives and neighbors fanned her and fetched water and a lime to smell, but her eyes rolled back into her head. Someone yelled that she wasn’t breathing.
Myint ran to her, dripping wet, and blew three breaths into her mouth.
‘Open your eyes! Open your eyes!’ he screamed, beating his chest with both hands. ‘I’ll look after you from now on! I will make you happy! I don’t want to see you sick! I am back home!’She slowly revived, and Myint took a long look into her eyes…He was finally free to see the face from his dreams. He would never forget it again.