At first the (slaves) men filtered in by twos and threes, hearing whispers of a possible rescue.
Then, as the news rippled around the island, hundreds of weathered former and current slaves with long, greasy hair and tattoos streamed from their trawlers, down the hills, even out of the jungle, running toward what they had only dreamed of for years: Freedom.
“I will go see my parents. They haven’t heard from me, and I haven’t heard from them since I left,” said Win Win Ko, 42, beaming, his smile showing missing teeth. The captain on his fishing boat had kicked out four teeth with his military boots, he said, because Win was not moving fish fast enough from the deck to the hold below.
The Burmese men were among hundreds of migrant workers revealed in an Associated Press investigation to have been lured or tricked into leaving their countries and forced into catching fish for consumers around the world, including the United States. In response to the AP’s findings, Indonesian government officials visited the island village of Benjina on Friday and found brutal conditions, down to an “enforcer” paid to beat men up. They offered immediate evacuation.
The officials first gave the invitation for protection just to a small group of men who talked openly about their abuse. But then Asep Burhanuddin, director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance, said everybody was welcome, including those hiding in the forest because they were too scared to go out.
“They can all come,” he said. “We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”
About 320 slaves took up the offer. Even as a downpour started, some dashed through the rain. They sprinted back to their boats, jumped over the rails and threw themselves through windows. They stuffed their meager belongings into plastic bags, small suitcases and day packs, and rushed back to the dock, not wanting to be left behind.
A small boat going from trawler to trawler to pick up men was soon loaded down.
Throughout the day and until darkness fell, they kept coming, more and more men, hugging, laughing, spilling onto the seven trawlers that were their ride out. Even just before the trawlers pushed off Benjina on the 24-hour trip to neighboring Tual island, fishermen were still running to the shore and clambering onto the vessels. Some were so sick and emaciated, they stumbled or had to be carried up the gang plank.
While excitement and relief flooded through many of the fishermen on the dock, others looked scared and unsure of what to expect next. Many complained they had no money to start over.
“I’m really happy, but I’m confused,” said Nay Hla Win, 32. “I don’t know what my future is in Myanmar.”
Indonesian officials said security in Benjina is limited, with only two Navy officials stationed there to protect them. The men will be housed at a government compound while immigration is sorted out. Officials from Myanmar are set to visit the islands next week and will assist with bringing the men home and locating others.
The dramatic rescue came after a round of interviews Indonesian officials held with the fishermen, where they confirmed the abuse reported in the AP story, which included video of eight men locked in a cage and a slave graveyard. The men, mostly from Myanmar, talked of how they were beaten and shocked with Taser-like devices at sea, forced to work almost nonstop without clean water or proper food, paid little or nothing and prevented from going home.
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There was essentially no way out: The island is so remote, there was no phone service until a cell tower was installed last month, and it is a difficult place to reach in the best of circumstances.
The abuse went even further at the hands of the man known as “the enforcer.” This man, deeply feared and hated by the workers, was hired by their boat captains to punish the slaves for misbehavior, they said.
Saw Eail Htoo and Myo Naing were among those he tormented. After three months at sea working with only two to four hours of sleep a night, the two Burmese slaves just wanted to rest. They fell asleep on the deck.
Their Thai captain decided to make an example of them, they said. So the two were driven by motorbike to a hill above the port. They were handcuffed together and placed in front of an Indonesian flag. Then they were punched in the face and kicked until they collapsed into the dirt, they said, blood oozing from their ripped faces.
Even then, the enforcer would not stop.
“He kept kicking me,” said Naing, rail-thin with a military-style haircut. “I kept thinking, if I was at home, this wouldn’t be happening.”
The findings documented by Indonesian officials and the AP came in stark contrast to what a Thai delegation reported from a visit to Benjina earlier this week to find trafficked Thai nationals. They denied mistreatment on the boats and said the crews were all Thai, even though the AP found many migrant workers from other countries are issued fake documents with Thai names and addresses.
“We examined the boats and the crews, and the result is most of the crews are happy and a few of them are sick and willing to go home,” said Thai police Lt. Gen. Saritchai Anekwiang, who was leading the delegation. “Generally, the boat conditions are good.”
Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, has been under further pressure to clean up its industry since the AP tracked slave-caught seafood out of Benjina by satellite and linked it to the supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers. The U.S. State Department said Friday that it is pressing Myanmar to quickly repatriate the men. U.S. retailers also called for action and commended Indonesian officials.
“We don’t condone human trafficking in the supply chain, and we applaud the government’s work to end this abuse. Our hearts go out to these men, and we wish them well on their journeys home,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Marilee McInnis.
Last week, the International Organization for Migration said there could be as many as 4,000 foreign men, many trafficked or enslaved, who are stranded on islands surrounding Benjina following a fishing moratorium called by the Indonesian Fisheries Ministry to crack down on poaching. Indonesia has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, and the government estimates billions of dollars in seafood are stolen from its waters by foreign crews every year.
Three-quarters of the more than 320 migrant workers who left the island on Friday were Burmese, but about 50 from the country refused to go, saying they had not received their salaries and did not want leave without money.
Some slaves also from Cambodia and Laos. A few Thais were allowed to board the boats, but the Indonesians said Thai nationals could stay on Benjina more safely, since Thai captains were less likely to abuse them.
“I expected to evacuate all of the slaves, but I did not expect it this soon,” said Ida Kusuma, one of the leaders of the Fisheries Ministry delegation. “But I think it’s good.”
Police are investigating in Benjina and will decide whether to prosecute those involved in abuse, said Kedo Arya, head of Maluku province prosecutor’s office. The Indonesian officials were told “the enforcer” was being detained.
For those like Naing, who recalled being tortured, beaten and locked in a room for a month and 17 days for simply falling asleep, the thought of finally leaving the island was impossible to believe.
“Is it real that we are going home?” he asked.
A firework soon shot off from one of the boats, signaling it was indeed time to go. The same trawlers where the fishermen had suffered years of abuse were heading back to sea. This time crowded with free men full of hope.
Mason reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. AP writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report from Jakarta. AP writers Bradley Klapper in Washington D.C. and Martha Mendoza in San Jose, California, contributed to this story.