TUAL, Indonesia - The same trawlers that had enslaved countless migrant fishermen for years carried more than 300 of them to freedom Saturday, following a dramatic rescue from a remote Indonesian island that many men believed would likely be their final resting place.
After 17 hours overnight at sea, the men, mostly from Myanmar, took their first steps of freedom. They filed off the boats and walked to their new temporary home where they were finally safe.
They moved in an orderly, single-file line with colored ribbons tied around their wrists to identify which of the six vessels had brought them. They were tired from the long, cramped journey, but smiled and laughed while talking about the new lives they were about to start. At one point, a group sang and clapped their hands. But mostly, the fear of being beaten or killed by their captors had finally lifted.
"I'm so happy, I wanted to go home for so long," said Aung Aung, 26, who lifted his hair on the left side of his head to show a fat, jagged scar stretching from his lip to the back of his neck - the result of a machete attack by his captain's son. "I missed home and especially after I was cut. . . . I was afraid I would die there."
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 taken 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, an Indonesian delegation 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 from the Fisheries Ministry offered the men a chance to leave, fearing they would not be safe if they stayed on the island after speaking out about the labor abuses.
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.
After arriving on the island of Tual on Saturday afternoon, the men were given packets of Indonesian rice wrapped in paper. Those who were sick or injured were offered medical care by paramedics inside ambulances.
Officials from Myanmar are set to visit the islands next week and will assist with getting the men home and locating others who are still trapped.