SITTWE, Myanmar – The two children stood on the beach, torn between land and sea.
They couldn’t go back to their tiny Muslim village in Myanmar’s northwest Rakhine because it had been burned down by an angry Buddhist mob. In the chaos, they became separated from their family and gave up hope of finding them alive after seven months of searching.
The only way was forward. Hungry and scared, Mohamad Husein, 15, and his sister Senwara Begum, 9, climbed on board a rickety boat crammed with others fleeing home.
They had no way of knowing they were among hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Rohingya children who have left Myanmar by sea since the country was first gripped by sectarian violence two years ago, or that they were joining one of the world’s biggest boat exoduses since the Vietnam War.
Despite pleas from the United Nations, which considers members of the religious minority among the most persecuted groups on earth, nearby countries shove them back to sea or bar them altogether.
“The sense of desperation and hopelessness is growing,” warned Vivian Tan of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
About 1.3 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country of 60 million that only recently emerged from decades of military rule. The government considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though some families have lived here for generations.
Since the transition to democracy began three years ago, Buddhist mobs have killed up to 280 Rohingya and forced more than 140,000 others from their homes. The violence, which first flared in mid-2012, has forced about 75,000 people to flee, according to Chris Lewa of the non-profit Arakan Project.
Nearly 2,000 people have died or gone missing at sea during that time, she added. And women and children now make up 5 percent to 15 percent of those leaving,
The Associated Press reported the children’s story based on interviews and data from Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Their small boat was packed with 63 people, including 14 children and 10 women. They baked in the sun and vomited from the waves.
Nearly two weeks passed, and then a boat with at least a dozen Myanmar soldiers approached.
They kicked and bludgeoned the Rohingya men with wooden planks and iron rods, several passengers said.
“Tell us, do you have your Allah?” one Rohingya survivor quoted the soldiers as saying. “There is no Allah!”
They tied Mohamad’s hands and lit a match, laughing as the smell of burnt flesh wafted from his blistering arm. Senwara watched helplessly.
The beatings finally stopped after Mohamad suspected money changed hands, and the soldiers ordered the boat to leave. The government said the Navy denied seizing any ships during that period.
The ship plodded on, but it was falling apart. A sarong stuffed in a hole could not stop water from bubbling through, and Senwara’s sticky rice and bits of bread were gone. When they finally floated ashore in Thailand, she had no idea where she was.
Up until a few years ago, Thailand towed migrants out to sea and left them, often with little or no food, water or fuel. But after an uproar, Thai authorities began giving basic supplies to migrants before sending them on.
Sometimes, however, they direct the boats to traffickers, according to human rights groups. Those who cannot raise ransoms often escape or are sold as slaves onto fishing vessels.
Royal Thai Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Karn Dee-ubon said the navy always follows humanitarian principles, but added that other Thai agencies could be involved.
On shore, Mohamad and Senwara were given rice and dry fish and then put on another small boat without an engine. Thai troops pulled them far out to sea, cut the rope and left them to drift without food or water, survivors said. Senwara got sick after drinking sea water and eating ground-up wood.
The next day, they spotted a fishing boat. It was from Indonesia.
The world’s most populous Muslim nation has been sympathetic to the Rohingya, but has not opened its doors to them. It only allows them to stay until they can be resettled elsewhere, which can take years. In the meantime, they are kept in overcrowded detention centers and shelters.
The Indonesian and Malaysian governments fear that letting the Rohingya stay could lead to a greater influx of illegal migrants.
“At stake is national interest,” said Yan Welly, an Indonesian immigration official. “A flood of immigrants could affect efforts in coping with problems of our own people.”
The number of Rohingya housed in Indonesia jumped from 439 in 2012 to 795 last year. About 20 percent of the children who arrived traveled alone, according to U.N. data.
Some register with the U.N. Refugee Agency and wait to be resettled in another country, but no Rohingya in Indonesia were referred for placement last year.
To avoid the long delay, thousands paid smugglers in the past to take them by boat to Australia’s Christmas Island. But that country has shut its doors. It now transfers sea arrivals to Papua New Guinea or the tiny island of Nauru. It also tows vessels from its waters.
Once in Indonesia, after nearly a month at sea, Mohamad and Senwara were transferred to a filthy detention center with about 300 people, double its capacity. A riot soon broke out there between the Rohingya and illegal Buddhist fishermen from Myanmar, and eight Buddhists were beaten to death.
Senwara slept through the brawl in another area. When she awoke, her brother was gone.
After a few months in jail with other Rohingya arrested from the fight, Mohamad was released due to his age and left for neighboring Malaysia.
Around 33,000 Rohingya are registered in Malaysia and an equal number are undocumented, according to the Rohingya Society of Malaysia. Increasingly, migrants risk getting caught up in group arrests, and up to 1,000 have been detained in a nationwide crackdown, the Society said.
Mohamad found illegal work as a street sweeper, earning about $70 a month, and now lives in a tiny hovel with about 17 other Rohingya men. He remains tortured with guilt for leaving his little sister behind.
Soon after the detention center riot, Senwara was registered as an asylum seeker. She was moved to temporary U.N. housing in Medan, Indonesia, and taken in by a Rohingya woman. She remains hurt and angry for being left alone, and her heart aches for home.
Senwara’s parents didn’t learn the children were safe until more than eight months after their village was burned.
On that awful night, their mother, Anowar Begum, and father, Mohamad Idris, fled with two babies into a lake. Later, they searched frantically and found five more of their nine children. The family ended up in a squalid camp with tens of thousands of other homeless Rohingya near Rakhine state’s capital, Sittwe. They had given up hope on Senwara and Mohamad by the time an unknown Rohingya called from Indonesia to say the children were safe.
Today, 22 months after their separation, it’s only through technology that the family, now scattered across three countries, can remain in touch.
Mohamad, in Malaysia, watches a video clip of his sister playing soccer in Indonesia. Even as he breaks down, he cannot look away from the little girl on the screen.
Back in Myanmar, Anowar stares at her daughter on a Skype video and sobs into her headscarf. Senwara wipes away her own tears in Indonesia as her father’s weathered face trembles.
They go through the questions every parent wants to know: Is she well? How is she doing in school? Is she getting enough to eat?
Her father reminds her to be a good girl. He is desperate to see his children again, but believes they are better off far away. The family often goes hungry, and there’s no money for medicine.
When it’s time to say goodbye, Senwara keeps staring at the screen, long after the faces are gone.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to see my parents,” she says, softly. “For the rest of my life.”