TIME Bangladesh

Only 100 Tigers Remain in Bangladesh’s Sundarban Forests, Survey Shows

India Tigers Census
Joydip Kundu—AP ARoyal Bengal tiger prowls in Sunderbans, at the Sunderban delta, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) south of Calcutta, India on April 26, 2014.

The 3,860-mile mangrove forest is one of the big cats' largest natural habitats

Only some 100 tigers currently roam the Sundarban forests of Bangladesh, a new survey has discovered, indicating far fewer big cats than previously thought in one of their largest global habitats.

The yearlong survey that ended in April was based on footage from hidden cameras and found the true number of tigers to be between 83 and 130, Agence France-Presse reported.

“So plus or minus we have around 106 tigers in our parts of the Sundarbans,” Tapan Kumar Dey, the Bangladesh government’s wildlife conservator, told AFP. “It’s a more accurate figure.”

The number represents a precipitous drop from the 440 figure included in the last tiger census in 2004, although experts say in hindsight the earlier calculation may have been inaccurate since it was based on a study of the animals’ paw prints or pugmarks.

The news from Bangladesh is in contrast to South Asian neighbor India — home to about 70% of the global tiger population — where the Environment Ministry said in January that the number of tigers had risen to 2,226 from 1,411 in 2008. There are apparently 74 tigers on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest that stretches for nearly 4,000 miles across both countries.

Monirul Khan, a zoology professor at Bangladesh’s Jahangirnagar University and the country’s foremost expert on tigers, stressed that the government needs to intervene in order to protect the animals from poaching and their habitat from destruction through development.

The number of wild tigers worldwide is currently estimated at just 3,200 compared to 100,000 in 1900, and WWF says they are in danger of soon becoming extinct.


TIME Bangladesh

Public Lynching of Teenager in Bangladesh Brings Hundreds of Protesters to the Streets

STR—AFP/Getty Images Bangladeshis protest against the beating death of a 13-year-old boy in Sylhet, Bangladesh, on July 13, 2015

The young boy was beaten to death by a gang of men who accused him of theft

The brutal murder of a 13-year-old boy last week, publicly beaten to death by a group of men, has sparked widespread protests in Bangladesh, with hundreds taking to the streets of the northeastern city of Sylhet on Sunday.

A video of the beating taken by a bystander has gone viral in the South Asian nation and prompted mass outrage and calls for justice, the BBC reported, citing local media. The men are shown laughing and taunting young Samiul Alam Rajon as they hit him repeatedly with a metal rod, while he begs them to stop and asks for a glass of water. They also tied him to a metal pole, and threatened to upload the video to Facebook.

An autopsy report found over 60 injury marks on Rajon’s body, and concluded that he died of a brain hemorrhage from injuries to the head.

Three of the men, including the prime suspect who had fled to Saudi Arabia, have been detained by the police, and a special squad has been formed to investigate the case.

The brutal killing appears to be a case of mob justice, with the men reportedly accusing Rajon — who worked with his family selling vegetables — of trying to steal a cycle rickshaw. The mob was spotted and chased by a few locals while trying to dump Rajon’s body in a nearby landfill, with one being caught and handed over to authorities. The other two were taken into custody in the subsequent days.

“It is a sad and unfortunate incident,” Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told a local news outlet. “The rest will be arrested soon. None will be spared.”


TIME Bangladesh

Stampede Kills at Least 23 in Bangladesh

Another 30 people have been injured

(DHAKA, Bangladesh) — At least 23 people were killed in a stampede in central Bangladesh early Friday when hundreds of people stormed the home of a businessman for a charity handout during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, police said.

Another 30 were injured and rushed to a hospital in Mymensingh, a town 115 kilometers (70 miles) north of the capital, Dhaka, said police officer Kamrul Islam.

The crowd gathered outside the tobacco businessman’s home around 4 a.m. and stormed in when the gates were opened to collect free clothing, Islam said. Twenty-two women and one child were killed in the stampede, he said.

Ambia Begum, 45, came along with seven female relatives at dawn. One of them died in the stampede.

“Oh Allah, why I came here? Why?” she wailed as the body of her 60-year-old relative was retrieved.

Survivors said about 1,000 people, mostly elderly women, gathered in front of the home of the businessman who distributes clothes every year ahead of Eid festival like many others in largely Muslim Bangladesh.

Authorities detained six people, including the businessman, who did not request police presence at his house on the occasion.

Stampedes are common at religious places and during charity handouts in South Asian countries.

TIME portfolio

Meet China’s Young and Rebellious Hip-Hop Dancers

The dramatically expressive dance form found its crowd in China.

In China, where personal expression is often discouraged, a group of young dancers are riding the wave of an imported cultural phenomenon, appropriating the highly individual hip-hop genre to transform it into a choreographed group performance.

Their name is Dangsters. Counting 10 exuberant and irrepressible members, the group was founded, among others, by Phoenix, 29, from Yunnan, and Nana, 28, a transplant from Thailand who adopted China as her second home.

The two discovered hip-hop dance in their teens through online videos. Although initially finding it nothing more than “cool and fun,” they soon became professional dancers, swiping across China’s major metropolis. The road to success, though, has been difficult. Many people in China consider this profession a type of “Qingchunfan”, meaning a kind of job exclusively open to vivacious young women.

Financial success wasn’t guaranteed either. Aside from doing commercial gigs and teaching dance courses, the group’s members took on an unexpected task-to perform at new and extravagant nightclubs in the city of Kunming in China’s southwestern province. Their role? To invigorate the crowds, who were not yet accustomed to the new form of entertainment.

“It was very difficult when we worked in the club five years ago,” Nana tells TIME. Aside from performing three shifts a night, the dancers were also tasked with selling a fixed amount of liquors each month. Female dancers had to be scantily dressed, at times exposing them to male customers’ harassments, she recalls.

After the group won a prominent Asian hip-hop dance contest in Beijing, they quit performing in nightclubs as more students expressed interest in their classes. They moved to a more spacious studio in downtown Kunming and now teach various crowds, some as young as 4 years old. “They prefer being teachers because that’s more respectful,” says Bangladeshi photographer AJ Ghani, who stumbled upon Dangsters when in Kunming for a photography workshop.

Ghani purposely chose to document this group as he wanted to move away from the usual images produced about China. “I find that when talking about China, all the issues are very similar. [People] are interested in those subjects: pollution, over-population, urbanization and rapid [growth],” he says, “but everybody has done that.” In his native Bangladesh, where Ghani is a third-year student at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, he noticed that subjects of international interest are often limited to the region’s natural and man-made disasters — from flooding to the Rana Plaza factory collapse. In his work, he wants to go beyond clichés presented in the media and tackle a more complex reality of cultures and places, he says.

Ghani had photographed Dhaka’s dancers while in school, examining how Western culture influenced the lifestyle of the urban youth in Bangladesh. And when he came upon Dangsters, he was astounded by their intense energy and passion. So much so that he now plans to continue his work in other regions of China.

AJ Ghani is a documentary photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Ye Ming is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter @yemingphoto and Instagram.

TIME On Our Radar

After Rana Plaza: Shining a Light on Survivors Through Instagram

Ismail Ferdous Mominul Islam and his wife Sharvanu, who was seriously injured in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory.

Bangladeshi photographer Ismail Ferdous took to Instagram to tell the stories of the Rana Plaza collapse's victims

When the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24, 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed. Images of the devastation captured the world’s attention and drew focus to conditions within that industry. But, four months later, when Bangladeshi photographer Ismail Ferdous visited New York City for a photojournalism workshop, it seemed like those hundreds of victims had been forgotten.

“Though I really love the city,” he tells TIME, “I [was traumatized] when I saw all the large, fancy store windows lined with sales and discount signs. I couldn’t help but think about the labels I saw in the rubble, the faces of the family members who had lost loved ones and the inhumane working conditions of the garment workers in Bangladesh.”

Audio Subtitles: “I never thought my son would die like this. I never thought he would be crumbled to death; that I would have to retrieve his body from a nine-story building which crushed him. I never thought this could happen. I never could have believed my son would die so young,” shares Rahela Begum – the mother of her 13-year old son who died during the collapse. Story: “My son had lots of dreams for himself and us. He promised he will improve our condition in the future. But my son went somewhere from where he will never come back. My son was very fond of me. During the winter he would give us the blanket and lie around in the cold. But he never complained. He would always say that he does not need anything except caring about us. On the night before 24th April, he came back from work and fed me dinner himself. I was really sick then. He made my bed and put me to sleep. He told us about the cracks inside Rana Plaza and there was a possibility of the building collapsing. But I did not pay any attention to this. If I knew that this collapse will happen then I would have never let him go to work that day; no matter how much money someone offers me. The next morning, when I heard the Rana Plaza building had collapsed, I ran towards it from our house. When I saw the building had completely collapsed, I could not figure out what to do. I requested a guy in front of me to give me his phone so that I could call my eldest son. For the next three days we searched for him in every possible place but we could not find him. We went to all the clinics around Savar so many times but there were no traces of him. On 27th April morning we went to Enam Medical Hospital because we heard victims from the 4th and 5th floors of Rana Plaza had been rescued that day. But he was not there. (Read on the website) Photo: @ismailferdous #afterranaplaza

A video posted by After Rana Plaza (@afterranaplaza) on

After his visit, Ferdous felt he had to do something. “I didn’t want the world to forget about Rana Plaza,” he says. With the help of filmmaker Nathan Fitch, he launched The Cost of Fashion, an advocacy project that premiered in February of 2014 during New York Fashion Week. “My images of the Rana Plaza collapse were projected onto the buildings of the Lincoln Center and on stores such as The Children’s Place, one of the many companies that still owe compensation to the victims of Rana Plaza.”

Now, Ferdous has taken to Instagram to launch a new series called After Rana Plaza. “This project came from a very personal place,” he says. “As I am based in Bangladesh, I live among the people who are affected by the garment industry. Every day on the street in front of my home, I see hundreds of garment workers going to work in the morning. [They are] a constant reminder of the collapse.”

Audio Subtitles: “I said, if you go, I will go too. He said, “you will stay at home today. If everything is fine today, you will go tomorrow; there is no need to go to work today,” said my husband, as he left for work. After a short while, we heard Rana Plaza has collapsed,” recalled Mosammat Moyna Akhter, the wife of Mohammad Dulal. Story: Mohammad Dulal unknowingly saved two lives on the day of the collapse. His wife, Mosammat Moyna Akhter, also worked in a factory in Rana Plaza, but he forbade her from going to work that day as she was seven-months pregnant. “The day of the collapse, we were supposed to get our salary, but my husband told me not to go, as he would be going there. But I tried convincing him that we would get our payment, so I must, but he insisted that I stay at home due to my condition. My father in law and mother in law also insisted that I do not go to work that day. So finally, I did not go. I told my husband, “Since I won’t be going, you should not go either,” but he told me, “you are sick so you do not need to go but I need to go today,”; when my husband left for work, I went to my in-law’s house, and after a while, my husband called to tell me that Rana Plaza had collapsed,” recalled Mosammat Moyna Akhter. Due to his love, care, affection, and some may say premonition, Dulal saved the lives of both his wife and their unborn daughter. Photo by @ismailferdous (Read more on the website)

A video posted by After Rana Plaza (@afterranaplaza) on

Each day, Ferdous interviews a survivor or a family member of one of the 1,110 people who died in the 2013 collapse. Each photo is accompanied by a short audio testimony in Bengali, which is then translated in English and attached to the picture’s caption. “I also post photos from my Rana Plaza archive with statistics and facts as a way to add more context to this issue,” he says.

Ferdous chose Instagram because he wanted these stories to become an integral part of people’s everyday lives. “I believe Instagram is a useful educational tool and information source and can also engage people of varying ages, nationalities, ethnicities and socioeconomic class,” he says. “It brings issues into peoples’ back pockets.”

The project, funded in part by the Netherlands Embassy in Bangladesh, will last a year, until the next anniversary of the collapse. “Through these stories, people will realize how their lives have changed, what challenges they continue to face and what [can be done] to help in the recovery process,” Ferdous says.

Ismail Ferdous is a freelance photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Follow him on Instagram @ismailferdous.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME Bangladesh

Prominent Bangladeshi Writer Flees India for the U.S. After Death Threats

Press conference for the honorary doctorates 2011 of UCL
Virgine Lefour—EPA Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen at the press conference for the honorary doctorates 2011 of UCL in Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, on Feb. 2, 2011

"Will be back when feel safe," she tweeted

Famed Bangladeshi writer and activist Taslima Nasreen, already in exile from her home country, fled even further away from it after reportedly receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Nasreen, who had been living in India since 2004 after leaving Bangladesh a decade earlier, arrived in the U.S. last week, according to a statement from a nonprofit organization that helped bring her into the country. Nasreen was “specifically named as an imminent target” by fundamentalist groups associated with al-Qaeda, the Center for Inquiry said.

Such groups in Bangladesh have already murdered three of the country’s secular bloggers this year, in what is turning into a growing trend of intolerance against freedom of speech.

Nasreen, an award-winning poet and author known for speaking out against extremist Islam, had left Bangladesh in 1994 after being targeted by fundamentalist groups. After the recent killings, followed by more threats against her life, Nasreen tweeted that she didn’t feel safe in Bangladesh’s western neighbor either.

“Was threatened by Islamists who killed atheist bloggers in B’desh. Worried,” she said, according to the BBC. “Wanted to meet GOI (Government of India) but no appointment. Left. Will be back when feel safe.”

TIME Bangladesh

Bangladesh Factory Owner Charged With Murder Over Rana Plaza Collapse

AFP—AFP/Getty Images Bangladeshi property tycoon Sohel Rana (C), seen wearing police-issue body armor, is escorted for his appearance in court in Dhaka on April 29, 2013.

More than 1,100 people died in what was the country’s worst-ever industrial disaster

Authorities in Bangladesh will press murder charges against the owners of the Rana Plaza garment-factory complex in Dhaka that collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,100 people in the country’s worst-ever industrial disaster, AFP reports.

“We are going to press murder charges against 41 people including the owners of the building, Sohel Rana and his parents, later today,” Bijoy Krishna Kar, the lead investigator for the Bangladeshi police, told the news agency. “It was a mass killing. All 41 of those charged have a collective responsibility for the tragedy.”

If convicted, the accused could face the death penalty, he added.

More than 2,400 workers were rescued or escaped alive after the factory collapsed on April 24, 2013. Even after several complaints about cracks appearing in the walls, thousands of people were reportedly forced to continue working in the complex before it collapsed.

“They [Sohel Rana and the factory owners] discussed and decided to keep the factory open,” Kar said. “They sent the workers to their deaths with cool heads.”

Rana, who attempted to flee the country in the days following the disaster, was arrested near Bangladesh’s border with India a week after the collapse. Although the police announced plans to indict Rana last year, the process was delayed as they awaited government approval to press charges against a dozen government officials who are among the 41 now set to be formally accused. Rana and the others will also be charged with violating Bangladesh’s building code.

Many Western retailers source clothes from Bangladeshi suppliers owing to cheap labor costs, and the disaster resulted in calls for immediate reforms including safety inspections and higher wages across Bangladesh’s $33 billion garment industry, which employs close to 4 million workers.

TIME language

Here’s a Theory About Why South Asian Americans Totally Rule the Spelling Bee

Anthropology professor Shalini Shankar shares her ideas with TIME

South Asian-Americans, whose forebears immigrated from countries like India or Pakistan, have now won the Scripps National Spelling Bee eight years in a row. At one point in the 2015 final, six of the remaining seven spellers were of that ethnicity, and in the end there were two: co-champions Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. That means that out of the last 16 years, spellers of South-Asian origin have lost only four competitions. And one Northwestern academic says it’s not a coincidence.

Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies, spent this week with the 283 elite spellers who qualified for the bee in National Harbor, Md., continuing her research into what, exactly, might have produced this string of success. TIME spoke with Shankar about her interviews with parents, the kids’ intense preparation and how immigrant culture might lead to dominance in “brain sports.” (Hint: It doesn’t hurt that there is a spelling bee circuit exclusively for spellers of South-Asian descent.)

Who exactly are we talking about when we talk about top spellers in South Asian cultures?

Primarily India and Pakistan and Bangladesh are the countries that appear to have a lot of spellers. And when you look at South Asians in the South Asian spelling bee, it’s a range across those three countries. Occasionally from Sri Lanka as well. But once you get down to the finals or the championship level, it tends to be more spellers just from India. So Indian-Americans. Usually they are second generation. They were born in the United States to parents who are first generation Indian immigrants.

Is there a chance the string of wins by South Asian-Americans is a coincidence?

I think we can safely say it’s not a coincidence. I hesitate to call it dominance, only because it sounds like something premeditated or strategized. These kids come from families where their parents are really well educated, many of them, and their parents really emphasize education and certain types of extracurricular activities. Combined with that, they seem to have a real love of words and language and their parents foster that.

What kind of extracurricular activities are we talking about?

The parents spend a lot of their time and resources taking [their kids] to participate in what some of them describe as brain sports. So rather that going to travel baseball or travel soccer, they’re traveling this academic competition loop. Part of why you’re seeing their success on the rise is they’re in constant preparation mode for these various academic competitions. And there are several competitions that are exclusively for children of South Asian parentage. So they have more opportunities to do what they’re doing.

If part of this is the parents spending money on the travel circuit, does income level come into play in explaining the phenomenon?

I can’t speak to income levels because I don’t have that data. But I can safely say there’s at least one professional parent in most of these families that have what they call elite spellers. So they’re certainly socially upwardly mobile families even if they may not be wealthy, per se.

How much have you found the kids are into this intense competition because their parents are pushing them, versus pursuing it themselves?

The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But I don’t think that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them.

But isn’t there something, even if it’s not Tiger-Mom tactics, like a value the parents are passing along about what kind of competition is worth winning?

I have some partially formed ideas about that. I’m still looking into it. Part of what I’m seeing is that there’s a lot of prestige in this community to winning something like a spelling bee or winning a geography bee or a math bee. And that is valued as much if not more than winning some sort of physical sport … These are very important bragging rights among South Asian-American communities. There’s some real status linked to it, that the kids feel too. The kids are really excited about the prospect of being on ESPN. They want to be on television.


Is there a more fundamental place in the culture that this value on academic prowess comes from, like what brought these immigrants to America?

Among the elite classes in India, both economically and socially elite, there’s a real emphasis on education and the use of education for social mobility. It’s not so different from other places in the world, but it’s certainly quite prevalent there. So I think that value is one that gets very magnified when you look at what Indian-American populations actually emigrated. It’s mostly professionals who immigrated post-1965. They are doctors or engineers or scientists, etcetera. So they are absolutely going to place a higher value on that than, say, other types of accomplishment. It doesn’t meant they downplay other types of accomplishments, but there’s an understood value of education that these contests jibe with very well.

What is it that drives these kids to dedicate themselves to spelling so intensely?

Unless you really love language and reading and words, it becomes very hard to care about preparing to the extent that one needs to for a spelling bee at this level. Kids who do this love words and they love thinking about words. They read the dictionary, among other things. And not all of them prepare to win. They set their own goals, like ‘I want to make it to Scripps’ or ‘I want to make it to the semi-finals’ or the finals and proportionately spend time preparing in whatever ways they think will allow them to attain those goals.

What is that preparation process like?

That process is usually every day, if not almost every day, they spend a few hours after school, after their homework, sometimes after their parents get home so they can quiz them. They spend several hours each weekend day preparing, maybe not year-round but certainly in the weeks and months leading up to the bee. Some of these spellers who compete in their school bees as well as these South Asian spelling bees, they don’t let too much time go by when they don’t have to be preparing for something. They’re kind of constantly keeping this fresh in their minds. So it’s an ongoing process for them, during the years in which they’re able to compete. And then suddenly it ends when they’re 14. It can be a very abrupt ending.

How do competitions like this affect the way we think about childhood?

If anything, the continuum of what childhood means is being expanded in productive ways to accommodate things that might have seemed extremely marginal or relegated to this untouchable nerd kind of activity. It’s something that has more mainstream cachet. I mean, being on ESPN is something very few kids get to do and these kids are very proud of participating in something that has such national recognition. It’s just expanding our ideas about what childhood means in ways that are keeping up with how the world is changing.

TIME Bangladesh

Bangladesh Bans a Hard-Line Islamist Group Suspected of Killing Atheist Bloggers

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR—AFP/Getty Images An Indian student looks from behind a poster with pictures of recently killed Bangladeshi bloggers during a protest meeting organized to pay homage in Kolkata on May 16, 2015.

Move comes days after 150 prominent writers from around the world released a joint letter condemning the killings

Authorities in Bangladesh have banned a radical Islamist organization suspected of involvement in the murder of three secular bloggers who were hacked to death in the majority-Muslim South Asian nation earlier this year.

The attacks on Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman, who were murdered in the country’s capital city, Dhaka, in February and March, respectively, and Ananta Bijoy Das, who was killed earlier in May in northeastern Bangladesh, sparked domestic and international concern about the rise of fundamentalist violence in the country.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the murder of Roy, a Bangladesh-born U.S. citizen who was hacked to death by masked men carrying machetes while he was returning with his wife from a book fair, a “shocking act of violence” that was “horrific in its brutality and cowardice.”

Rahman and Das were killed in similar attacks by machete-wielding men.

On Monday, Bangladesh’s Home Ministry responded by banning Ansarullah Bangla Team, a radical group that is suspected by the Bangladeshi police of being involved in the three killings. Members of the group had previously been charged with the murder of the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, AFP reports.

“The [Junior Home Minister] today signed a government order, outlawing the militant organization Ansarullah Bangla Team,” Sharif Mahmud, a Home Ministry spokesman, told the news agency.

The move comes days after the writers’ organization PEN International released a letter signed by 150 prominent writers from around the world — including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Salman Rushdie — condemning the murder of the bloggers and calling on Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed to ensure that the attacks are not repeated.

TIME Malaysia

Rohingya Survivors Speak of Their Ordeals as 139 Suspected Graves Are Found in Malaysia

Human remains being disinterred from an informal cemetery near an abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.
James Nachtwey for TIME Human remains being disinterred from an informal cemetery near an abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Burma's persecuted Muslim minority takes unspeakable risks into order to flee to Malaysia

Less than a kilometer from Malaysia’s border with Thailand, the trappings of death are littered across the jungle: a stretcher made of branches to carry bodies, reams of white cloth used to wrap the deceased in Muslim tradition and, most menacing of all, empty boxes for 9-mm bullets.

On May 25, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, confirmed that there were at least 139 suspected graves strewn across the Perlis range of hills that rise from Malaysia into Thailand, in the vicinity of nearly 30 abandoned camps. How many bodies each possible grave contains is not yet clear, nor is it known how the people may have died. But these remains are believed to be a grim by-product of the human-smuggling trade that for years has transported persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Burma, as well as, increasingly, Bangladeshis desperate to escape poverty back home.

For years, desperate individuals have boarded rickety boats to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, then trekked through Thailand’s southern jungles to their ultimate destination: Malaysia. But with the smuggling routes through Thailand into Malaysia disrupted by police investigations, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis are thought by the U.N. to be stuck at sea, as traffickers figure out how to salvage their human cargo and captains abandon the boats for fear of the official crackdown.

Around 3,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have managed to land in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks, after months at sea. With Southeast Asian governments at first unwilling to take them in, the boats — their holds packed with hundreds of people, like modern-day slave ships — floated between different national waters in what the U.N. described as “human ping pong.” Only last week did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia officially agree to offer shelter.

For now, the suspected graves in northern Malaysia’s Perlis state are marked with lone branches, the earth covered by a scattering of oversized rainforest leaves. On Tuesday, forensic teams — including one that recently returned from Ukraine, the site of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet — began sifting through the soil to recover bodies. It is a process that forensic analysts gathered at a makeshift police encampment in Wang Kelian, a few kilometers from the hill-top burial grounds, say will take weeks, if not months.

Only one body was discovered above ground. It was found in a wooden holding pen, the lower part wrapped in the sarong that is commonly worn in Burma and parts of Bangladesh. So badly decomposed was the body that forensic investigators removed it from the site in five separate bags.

An abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.
James Nachtwey for TIMEAn abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Malaysia’s suspected burial ground is not the first to be discovered along the porous border with Thailand. Earlier this month, 33 bodies were unearthed in Thailand, less than 500 m from some of the Malaysian suspected graves on the opposite side. Initial police reports indicated that the cause of death for most of the bodies found in Thailand was either starvation or disease. Often, according to TIME interviews with more than 20 Rohingya who have taken the same trafficking route through Thailand into Malaysia, the agreed-upon price for the journey is jettisoned once the victims reach the jungle camps on the border. There, they are essentially held to ransom until family members either back home or in Malaysia pay much higher sums. Food is scarce and beatings common, say survivors.

Shanu binti Abdul Hussain says she, her three small children and her brother-in-law were imprisoned in a camp of the Thai side of the border for 26 days in December before her husband, who was already working in Malaysia’s Penang state, was able to meet a $4,150 ransom. (The family originally was told the voyage would cost one-third the price.) Her husband, Mohamed Rafiq, was given a Malaysian bank account number and sent the money through a cash-deposit machine in Penang. “Waiting after I sent the money was the hardest part,” he says. “I thought, what if the money was too late? What if one of my children has died?”

Since beginning their operation on May 11, Malaysian police have found a network of 28 camps deep in the Perlis jungle, one of which North Brigade police officer Mohd. Salen bin Mohd. Hussain estimates was abandoned just one week before it was discovered. Police believe one camp held 300 people, while others are far smaller. Crude holding pens girded by saplings hint at forced confinement, as does a coil of metal chains. Sentry tree houses poke through the foliage. “I am not surprised by the presence of smuggling syndicates,” Malaysian national police chief Khalid tells TIME. “But the depth of the cruelty, the torture, all this death, that has shocked me.”

This year, Malaysian police say they have arrested 37 people in connection with human smuggling, including two policemen from the state of Penang. In 2014, 66 people were charged in connection with the trade. But for human traffickers to have operated in border areas with such impunity for so many years — no matter how thick the foliage may be — it’s hard to imagine a complete lack of official complicity. Earlier this month, the mayor and deputy mayor of the Thai border town Padang Besar were arrested. Other local officials in Thailand have been detained.

Yet the trade has been going on for years, with the number of Rohingya fleeing Burma (officially known as Myanmar) escalating after Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Rakhine (or Arakan) state exploded in 2012, with the stateless Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence. Hundreds of this Muslim minority are believed to have died, and around 140,000 have been herded into camps, where disease stalks a vulnerable population. Bereft of their homes and land, many Rohingya see opportunity in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, no matter how hard the journey. Others allege they were kidnapped onto trafficking boats, as the smugglers struggle to find enough people to fill their holds. The traffickers are also targeting Bangladeshis from across the border with Burma; they, unlike the Rohingya, have little hope of ever gaining refugee status in Southeast Asia.

So far, Malaysian police have been combing a 50-km stretch of the Perlis jungle. What else will be found in the coming days? Locals speak of ghosts up in the hills by the Thai border. “I thought I would die,” says Dilarah, a Rohingya, of her 38-day journey from western Burma, through the camps on the Thai-Malaysian border. She is 6 years old.

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