How local fishermen obeyed an ancient custom, defying government orders by doing so.

In the last week of June, a boat full of 94 Rohingya refugees was rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the Lancok beach in Aceh, the country's western province. The captainless boat was full of women and children, who were stranded at sea for days. 

Local boatman Faisal Afrizal, who had just caught a 200 kg fish, spotted the broken boat wallowing in the water. As the people inside it cried for help and made gestures that seemed as though they were requesting to drink water, his saviour instinct, nourished by centuries of Indonesian sea tradition — that the dead or alive must be brought to the shore — kicked in.  

"My crew found in the front part of the boat there were around 15 bodies, most of them children and women," Afrizal said. 

"I heard them (some of the survivors) say 'Assalamualaikum', but could not understand the rest of the words said by them," said Faisal. 

Afrizal, a Muslim, figured from the Arabic greeting that the survivors on the boat were of the same faith. 

He transferred the refugees on his boat and gave them water and instant noodles. He asked from where they had come. "Rohingya," said one. 

The day turned out to be rough for Afrizal. The engine of his boat broke down and he too found himself stranded at sea. Luck was on his side, though. A fishing vessel passed by, and its captain agreed to help.

As the friendly vessel towed his boat and brought it toward the shore, he  served them grilled fish for lunch.

Seeing the refugees, the Indonesian authorities were in a fix as to whether to let the refugees come onto land or push them back to the sea — a common tactic applied by European countries to keep refugee boats away from their shores. 

The police blocked their entry onto land. As per local reports, the government asked the travellers to return to the water, all the while offering gas and other logistical practical help for their stranded boat. 

But Afrizal and his fellow fishermen dug their heels in and refused to let that happen. A standoff ensued. 

Faisal Afrizal, wearing grey t-shirt on the extreme left, is still haunted by the images of dead people he saw on the stranded Rohingya boat.
Faisal Afrizal, wearing grey t-shirt on the extreme left, is still haunted by the images of dead people he saw on the stranded Rohingya boat. (Courtesy of: Faisal Afrizal)

In the meantime, the people of Aceh province gathered around the boat in large numbers. Enraged by the unwillingness of the authorities to let them in, they lodged their protests, demanding the police to deem the refugees a safe passage. 

Iswadi, a 40-year-old resident of Aceh, began collecting money from locals to buy food and other essentials for the refugees. "We raised 1,000,000 rupiah ($67)," said Iswadi. 

With that money, he and his fellow villagers bought rice, bread and water. The supply was sent to Afrizal's boat. 

The counter move

The locals continued with their efforts to persuade the presiding authorities to allow the stranded group to enter the country. It was in vain - by late afternoon, the police began to evacuate them. Around the same time, Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Ministry released a statement saying they would investigate the possibility of people smuggling. 

The police tried to transfer the refugees onto a government vessel but the villagers were quick to counter the move. They sent two boats out to sea and dragged Faisal’s boat towards the beach. 

The police couldn't reverse the move as the villagers were swift in moving them to the shore, quickly housing them in their fish auction hall. 

The onlookers and protesters cheered in unison as the sight of the Rohingya stepping onto the land complemented their sea tradition. They knew the refugees wouldn't have survived another day if Afrizal hadn't come to their rescue. 

The efforts of Afrizal and his fellow fishermen were praised across the country as their story soon became national news. Many politicians applauded them for standing up for humanity. 

The following day, the UNHCR arrived at the auction hall to take the refugees to the camp. 

The event brought to the fore the Indonesian government's conflicting perspective towards sea tradition, even though it has been preserved as a maritime law by a customary body called Panglima Laot (Sea Commander). 

On June 25, Afrizal and local fisherman help the refugees reach the Lancok Beach in North Aceh, Indonesia.
On June 25, Afrizal and local fisherman help the refugees reach the Lancok Beach in North Aceh, Indonesia. (AP)

The Panglima Laot has been the guardian of the sea in Aceh since the 17th century. It is now regulated under Aceh's Islamic law. Miftah Cut Adek, the Secretary of Panglima Laot, said that the custom was based on the value of honouring human life and environment. 

"Everybody who is stranded at the sea should be evacuated. No matter the religion, no matter the ethnicity. Including rescuing the Rohingya. It has become an obligation. Even if it is a dead body, it has to be rescued," Adek told TRT World. 

"We don't care if it's a dead body, or alive, that's why we are obliged to rescue them". 

Adek said that according to the custom, fishermen who ignore distress calls in the sea are sanctioned.

Some fishermen who were found guilty of not following the custom’s norms have been banned from fishing. 

"The ban period depends on the decision made by the customary court," Adek said.  

Three months have passed since Arizal saved the refugees, but he can't stop thinking about the event. He's haunted by what he witnessed on that day. 

The scene of dead bodies in the stranded boat still plays on his mind, not least because to this day, he does not know how they had died. His voice trembles as he narrates the sequence of events. 

However, when he thinks about the other surviving members, his thoughts settle down. His efforts have been appreciated countrywide and he also later received an award from a local Islamic fund raising body. 

Source: TRT World