Over 300 slave fishermen rescued from Benjina, Aru Islands, Indonesia, tasted freedom Friday when the trawlers that they were forced to work on took them to a neighboring island, according to the Associated Press.
After the 17-hour trip at sea, the men smiled, clapped and sung while they were transported to another, more accessible island and were, “talking about the new lives they were about to start,” the report said.
The amazing rescue comes just a week after the AP published a report on March 25 that details its year-long investigation into the Indonesian fish trade at the Pusaka Benjina Resources fish company and its work force, which it found is made up mostly of slaves, many of whom told tales of horrible tortures.
According to the New York Daily News, many of the men were abandoned after the Indonesian government issued a moratorium on foreign fishing to stop illegal fishing and depleting fish stocks.
Indonesian Fishery Ministry officials initially offered to evacuate a small group of men, according to the Daily Mail. The news of the rescue spread, and hundreds of men made their way to the boats, but not before jumping over the trawler railings and going through windows to get their things.
Although most were desperate to leave the island, about 50 Cambodians did not want to leave without being paid.
According to the Daily Mail, some of the men who boarded the trawlers to safety came from nearby Benjina villages where they hid, while others were former slaves hiding in the jungles. Most of this first group of survivors were from Myanmar, while others were from Cambodia and Laos, and a few from Thailand.
“They can all come,” said Asep Burhanuddin, director general of Indonesia’s Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance. “We don’t want to leave a single person behind.”
When they visited the Benjina as a result of the AP’s investigation, Indonesian officials found the AP’s information more than credible, complete with an “enforcer” paid to beat men up when they acted out or otherwise “misbehaved.”
AP reporters talked to some of the men held as slaves, and a number of them detailed horrible abuses they suffered with some calling it torture.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us,” said Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave from Benjina. “There must be a mountain of bones under the sea…. The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”
Min was recounted tales of the countless slaves who had been beaten to death and dumped overboard.
The AP report found that more than 4,000 men were held captive on the islands over the years. Some men were tricked into the trade and enslaved as fishermen under the guise of a “job in Thailand,” while others were caught by slave catchers paid to find them, and force them into slavery.
During its investigation, the AP used satellites to track the slave-caught fish, and found that it eventually winded up tainting the supply line into the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Martha Mendoza, who reports for the AP, found a number of pet food makers were receiving fish caught by slave fleets, as evidenced by the customs records, according to NPR.
“Those labels included Iams, Meow Mix, Fancy Feast, and other types of cat food shipped to the U.S. And the distributors in the United States who are receiving some of the seafood from these factories also sell to Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway and others.”
Mendoza and other AP reporters interviewed more than 40 slaves in Benjina, both former and current, who said that they did not know where the fish was going, but that it was “so valuable they were not allowed to eat it.”
Captains forced slaves to “drink unclean water and work 20-22 hour shifts with no days off.” Tales of being beaten with poisonous stingray tailbones and kicked made the rounds from almost all the men reporters talked to.
They also said that if the men expressed that they wanted to go home, they were caged to stop them from fleeing, while being tired and taking breaks got them even more beatings.
Although not all of the men have made it to safety yet, Ida Kusuma from the Fisheries Ministry said, “I expect to evacuate all of them.” and the next step will be to coordinate with immigration from each of the affected men’s countries.
[Photo Credit: AP Video via YouTube]