BENJINA, Indonesia » At first the 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 streamed out, many with long, greasy hair and tattoos. They came from trawlers and villages, 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, who’s been gone from Myanmar for four years. His smile revealed a mouthful of missing teeth, kicked out by the Thai captain on his fishing boat with 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 to go to Thailand, where they were put on boats and brought to Indonesia. From there, they were forced to catch seafood that was shipped back to Thailand and exported to consumers around the world, including the United States. In response to the AP’s findings, Indonesian officials visited the island village of Benjina on Friday and offered immediate evacuation after finding brutal conditions, down to an "enforcer" paid to beat men up.
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.
"They can all come," he said. "We don’t want to leave a single person behind."
About 320 men 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 six trawlers that were their ride out. Even just before the boats pushed off Benjina for 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 men 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 instead be housed at a government compound on Tual while immigration issues are 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 migrants 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.
There was essentially no way out. Benjina is in the far reaches of Indonesia and 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.
Some of the men said the abuse went even further at the hands of an Indonesian man known as "the enforcer." He was deeply feared and hated by the workers, who said he was hired by their boat captains to punish them for misbehavior.
Saw Eail Htoo and Myo Naing were among those 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 and fell asleep on the deck as soon as they hit shore.
They said their Thai captain decided to make an example of them. So the two were driven by motorbike up 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 when they searched for 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 were 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 a boat of slave-caught seafood by satellite from Benjina to a port outside of Bangkok. Records then linked it to the supply chains of some of America’s largest supermarkets and retailers and among the most popular brands of pet foods.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that it is pressing Myanmar to quickly repatriate the men. U.S. companies 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 Marilee McInnis, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the U.S., which was among those the AP found with supply chains linked to tainted seafood.
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. The country 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 were also from Cambodia and Laos. A few Thais were allowed to board the boats, but the Indonesians said most Thai nationals could stay on Benjina more safely, since Thai captains were less likely to abuse them.
"I expected to evacuate all of them, 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. Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, Bradley Klapper in Washington D.C. and Martha Mendoza in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.