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 and becoming one more mouth to feed.
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. The euphoria they first felt during reunions with relatives has long faded. Occasional stories of happiness and opportunity have surfaced, but the men’s fight to start over has largely been narrated by shame and struggle.
Some of them are lucky to find odd jobs paying pennies an hour in cramped slums and rural villages in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Others must travel far from home for back-breaking labor.
Some suffer night terrors and trauma from the years or even decades of physical and mental abuse they endured on boats run by Thai captains. Others have fought their demons with drugs and alcohol.
At least one Cambodian tried to hang himself. Another Thai fisherman went back to work on a different boat at home, only to have his arm ripped off by a net. He says he was offered about $3 and a few packets of instant noodles as compensation.
The men left their impoverished homes years ago full of hope and headed to neighboring Thailand, promising to send money back from good-paying jobs. Instead, they were tricked, sold or even kidnapped and put onto boats that became floating prisons.
They then were trafficked thousands of miles away to the isolated Indonesian island village of Benjina, where the AP first found hundreds of captive fishermen, including some locked in a cage simply because they asked to go home. They were beaten and routinely forced to work up to 22 hours a day. The unluckiest ones ended up in the sea or buried in a company graveyard under fake names — their bodies will likely never be recovered.
The AP story prompted the Indonesian government to initiate a rescue. It also traced fish tainted by forced labor back to the supply chains of many major U.S. companies and pet food brands, including Wal-Mart, Sysco, Kroger, Fancy Feast and Iams.
“What happened in Benjina has opened everybody’s eyes,” says Indonesian fishing minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who oversaw the rescue and is pushing for improved human rights at sea globally.
Despite all the suffering following their homecomings, there are stories of inspiration.
Some of the men borrowed money, enrolled in trade school or found decent work, saving what little they could. Others are opening small businesses, or have married and started families.
A few have gone to court to challenge their former captains, receiving a small portion of the pay they were owed. In rare instances, some even helped send their traffickers to jail.
Many say time has helped soften the pain, but most remain angry about the money and years lost to Benjina. Still, they are thankful to be home, living as free men.
They are slaves no more.
SICK AND UNEMPLOYED
MON STATE, Myanmar — Myint Naing sits outside the flimsy thatch shack he shares with five other family members. He stares silently at a computer alongside his mother and sister, watching flickering images of their extraordinary reunion two years ago.
The memories are still raw of Myint collapsing into his wailing mother’s arms on the same dusty road just feet away from where they sit now in southern Myanmar. That day was tinged with both joy and sorrow for all the time lost — ending 22 years of separation after Myint was taken to Indonesia and nearly beaten to death by a captain who refused to let him go home.
His mother blots her eyes and briefly looks away from the screen. Myint’s younger sister sees herself embracing her brother and screaming, “We don’t need money! We just need family!”
She never realized just how much those words would be tested every day in the harsh reality of poverty.
Myint, now 42, desperately wants to work, but he’s simply not able. He tried doing construction and other manual labor, but the muscles on the right side of his body were weakened by a stroke-like attack in Indonesia. He can’t even steady a smartphone with one hand long enough to take a selfie.
He dreams of opening a little snack shop to contribute to the family’s income, but there is no money to start it.
“Half of my body is suffering, and it’s very challenging for me to get a job anywhere,” he says, as his nieces dance around him on a rickety porch. “I don’t really know how to keep going like this.”
He’s also stressed. He and his sister moved out of their mother’s house soon after he returned, partially because Myint didn’t get along with his new stepfather, who is about his age.
His sister, Mawli Than, and her husband together earn less than $5.50 a day to feed three children and three adults. But she has kept her promise to love and care for him no matter what.
She wishes she could afford to get Myint the long-term medical care he needs. Her voice cracks when she talks about not being able to give him a proper ceremony before he left to study as a Buddhist novice, a custom that every devout Burmese male tries to fulfill.
“I feel really sad and guilty that I wasn’t able to do that,” she says, sobbing, as he listens quietly in the doorway. “My brother is like a father to me.”
Myint’s freshly shaved head reveals two large scars he received during his years in Indonesia. One is from a motorbike helmet, the other from an iron rod — both blows from angry fishing captains.
He eventually escaped his captors and lived in the jungle for years, farming vegetables with help from sympathetic local families.
He insists life is better now that he is home. But his mind often drifts to the past. If his former Thai captains would just pay him what he’s owed for all the time he worked on the boats, he could buy his own house and help his sister instead of making her life harder.
“I’m very angry at them. I can’t even find words,” he says. “If I ever saw them again, I might kill them.”
HAPPY ON LAND
PREK TATIENG, Cambodia — A gas-powered pump growls on Sriev Kry’s back as he walks barefoot, spraying a stream of pesticide on pink lotus blossoms that will soon be ready for harvest.
The work is hard and unforgiving. He doesn’t wear a mask or other protective gear, and there aren’t any trees in the surrounding rice paddy to shield him from the blistering sun. But this is Cambodian soil, and it belongs to him. It’s a freedom he says he never really understood until being trafficked and enslaved in Benjina.
The wiry rice farmer never wanted to be a fisherman because the ocean’s roiling waves had always sent him running to the side of the boat to vomit. So when a cousin asked if he was interested in leaving his rural Cambodian village to find higher-paying work in Thailand, he refused until he was promised a factory job or something else on land.
Unlike most migrant workers who cross the border illegally, Sriev Kry and two of his cousins waited to receive passports before leaving in 2014.
They were immediately taken to a boat and ordered to get on board after receiving $880 advances. They were told they wouldn’t be at sea long. But it was all a lie.
Just as their trawler reached the Malaysian border, Sriev Kry says he woke up to learn a Burmese fisherman was missing. They didn’t stop to search for him, and no calls were made for help. Instead, Sriev Kry says the Thai owner told the workers that “life on the boat doesn’t matter. No one cares about missing people.”
He says the men then watched as the crew member’s passport was tossed into the sea, destroying the only record of his existence.
“The other workers just saw that life is very cheap,” Sriev Kry recalls. “It is cheaper than the bodies of dogs.”
He tried not to cause problems and worked nonstop on the boat, sorting mountains of fish. He saw other crew beaten or scalded by water tossed on them when they were too sick to work.
“It’s like a slave’s life. It’s even worse than a slave. Slaves can sometimes complain or challenge the owner,” he says. “If we refused, if we complained, the Thai owner always asked: ‘You want to live? You want to have a life? Or do you want to die?’”
Sriev Kry was only able to contact his wife a few times from Benjina. He told her he wasn’t sure he’d ever make it back home to the emerald green rice paddies and lotus fields they tended together.
Two of their four children were studying in the capital, Phnom Penh, with one already in university. The baby was just a year old, and the family was struggling to survive because Sriev Kry never sent the money he was promised. But his wife, Khan Srin, encouraged him to hold on. To focus on staying alive.
When he was finally rescued, Sriev Kry was done being silent: He volunteered to testify against his captain. He saw it as his duty to speak out to prevent others from facing the same fate. He is still waiting for his day in court.
Today, at 44, he earns about $10 a day farming the field that rings a one-room shack perched on stilts overlooking the few acres of land he owns. He sleeps here sometimes, away from his nearby village, to stand watch over his crops. He also sells mangoes from his beat-up motorbike just across the border in Vietnam and harvests catfish from a lake — the only fishing he says he will ever do again.
It’s not much, but it’s enough to pay his debts and feed his family. His captain in Benjina swore more earnings would be sent, but Sriev Kry says nothing ever came.
He remains angry and is still haunted by the image of the dead crewman’s passport being thrown into the sea. But he’s happy to be home and vows he’ll never leave his family again.
“I was just rescued from hell,” he says, shaking his head. “Why would I go back to hell again?”
STILL A FISHERMAN
YANGON, Myanmar — Phyo Kyaw’s father wept when he heard his son was returning to Thailand to board another fishing boat. But there was nothing he could do.
After the 31-year-old was rescued from Benjina, 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 soon was stolen.
Several of Phyo’s friends from Benjina already had gone back to Thailand to find better-paying work, and they encouraged him to get a passport and join them on another fishing boat. They had heard good stories about the company, and they all had legal working documents this time. They were convinced their papers would protect them from exploitation.
Phyo left Myanmar without telling his father. He went to the same port town where he was initially trafficked and got on a trawler with 13 other Burmese men.
After being beaten and spending more than two years on Benjina with no pay, he was scared of being trafficked again but decided to take a chance. As he prepared to leave, he met other fishermen who had just docked — they had been at sea for three years without touching land.
“I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s my choice to go,” Phyo says. “My father is the only financial provider here for the moment so at least if I go to Thailand, I can bring some money back.”
Phyo didn’t know where his boat was going or how long he would be gone. He also had no idea if he was fishing legally or poaching, a common but dangerous practice that can land an entire crew in a foreign 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 for the trip, 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 out to sea again with another group of Benjina guys.
His father, an electrical engineer, can only shake his head with disappointment.
“As parents, you are always worried about your children,” Aye Kyaw, 67, says inside the family’s small, sweltering apartment.
But Phyo just shrugs. 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 with a shaved head, Prasert Jakkawaro speaks calmly and softly as he looks back on his lost life.
He spent eight years fishing the Arafura Sea’s rich waters off Benjina. If he was lucky, his boat docked twice a year. He worked around the clock, but says he was never paid what was promised.
The memories still cut like razor blades, but he does not show it. His voice remains steady, his fingers laced loosely across his lap. 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 and helping others who have lost their way.
“I feel that I have to give forgiveness and kindness back,” he says, his robe concealing tattoos from his former life. “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 all of the evil he saw.
Even though the captains were Thai like him, he says he was treated just as badly as his fellow fishermen from Myanmar and Cambodia. They rarely had vegetables or meat to eat — just fish and rice for every meal, and even that wasn’t guaranteed. Those who got sick were forced to work anyway, and he saw one crew member die due to a lack of medical attention. Sleep was a luxury.
“If you don’t get up, the metal rod will be used to bang on your door and beat on your legs,” says Prasert, 53. “The rule is that if you can eat, then you have to work.”
When he asked to go home after just one year on his trawler, he was told he first had to find a replacement, an impossible request on a remote island with hundreds of other enslaved men just as desperate to leave.
Once, after coming ashore, Prasert asked his captain for more money. As punishment, he says he was tossed into a tiny, muggy cell with about 20 other men.
The security guards then used the imprisoned fishermen for a twisted form of entertainment — forcing them to beat each other up.
“You would get hit so hard that you could see the handprints on your face,” Prasert says.
Over the years, he lost hope and rage festered inside him. He talked about attacking the captain, but the other fishermen always managed to calm him down.
After he was finally rescued and returned home to Thailand, he received a settlement of about $2,250 from the boat owner. It was far short of the nearly $9,000 he says he was owed, but he knows most of the other men received nothing.
The anger continued to swell, and he wallowed in alcohol and slept anywhere he could find, including on a bathroom floor. Staff at the local nonprofit Labor Rights Protection Network, which has long assisted trafficked fishermen, pushed him to seek help.
With encouragement from his sister, Prasert spent three months studying at a Buddhist temple.
Slowly, the hatred began to melt.
“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.”
Information for this story came from interviews with nearly 15 former fishermen in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand along with nonprofits in Cambodia and Thailand.