KUALA LUMPUR) - Bibijan Rahimullah stepped aboard a small boat in Myanmar in October for what she was told would be a week-long journey to Malaysia to escape violence and discrimination afflicting her Rohingya ethnic group.
Instead, she and her three young children endured a harrowing, month-long odyssey by sea and land, packed "like sardines" on a series of vessels and watched several fellow migrants die or be beaten to death, their bodies tossed into the sea like garbage.
"I didn't expect the tragedy we faced on the way to come here. If I had known, I would never have come. I would rather die in my home," said Bibijan, 27, during an interview in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur.
Muslim Rohingya - labelled by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities - have for years braved the dangerous passage down the Andaman Sea and Thai coast to Malaysia.
They flee discrimination and repression in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where authorities view the roughly 1.3 million Rohingya as foreigners, denying most of them citizenship and placing restrictions on their movement, marriages and economic opportunities.
But the flow has accelerated into a growing exodus two years after deadly clashes erupted between Buddhists and Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state, activists said.
Chris Lewa of Rohingya rights group Arakan Project, which monitors departures, said an estimated 19,000 have fled since early October.
The exodus comes partly as conditions deteriorate in squalid Rakhine camps where roughly 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya, live after being displaced by the violence.
Bodies tossed overboard
Increasing numbers of women and children are risking a journey previously taken mostly by men, activist said.
Bibijan, her five-year-old son and daughters aged two and three, left their home in northwestern Rakhine to join her husband, who fled to Malaysia two years earlier.
She paid people-smugglers US$2,500 (S$3,259), some of it borrowed.
A small boat packed with dozens of people took them down a river to a ship anchored at sea, where they waited several days in cramped conditions as hundreds were brought aboard, leaving space only to sit.
"It was very crowded. People became like fish, like sardines," said Bibijan.
Wracked by sea-sickness, she would pass out between bouts of vomiting.
Women were fed twice daily, a meagre meal of rice and three dried chillies, and some water. Men ate once, or not at all.
"(The men) became very weak. When they asked for more food, they were beaten with rifle butts and iron rods," Bibijan said, her big, fearful black eyes peering out under a black Muslim headscarf as her children clung to her.
About a dozen people died at sea, some beaten to death by smugglers, others succumbing to hunger, dehydration or illness, said Bibijan, who saw corpses thrown overboard.