The residents of Wang Kelian, a border town in the Malaysian state of Perlis, on the Malaysia-Thailand border, realised that something was not right when they saw strangers on the streets.
They were weak and injured and began begging for food and water.
Ms Lyza Ibrahim, who runs a food stall, told The Guardian: "They would walk into my shop, with injuries covering their hands and feet. Some were just too weak to even speak properly.
"One asked me, '(Is this) Malaysia?' Then he pointed in the other direction, said 'Thailand' and shook his head to signal that he was not wanted there."
Wang Kelian has become well-known after the discovery of dozens of secret camps in the nearby jungle. The camps were used by people smugglers and 139 graves were also found, some reportedly containing more than one body.
Yesterday, the police in Malaysia began the grisly task of exhuming dozens of these graves, AFP reported.
Ms Ibrahim said she had seen several refugees, whom she believes to be Rohingya, and heard stories about many others, including reports that they would go to a nearby mosque to ask for help.
Others echoed her story. A woman said she had seen a Bangladeshi wandering in the area and knocking on her neighbour's door.
"It is very sad. We have been hearing these stories, but we can't do much," said the woman, who declined to give her name.
"We could only offer food, clean clothes, but we have to call the police and they will be taken away by the police after that."
Villager Mahyuddin Ahmad said he has seen refugees in Wang Kelian for the past two years, but more had been spotted in the past month. The largest group consisted of about 10 people, including women and children.
The 55-year-old businessman, who said he had given food such as instant noodles and clothes to them, added: "It is a common sight here. We didn't suspect anything because we thought they just come from Thailand.
"So we are really shocked to hear what the police revealed yesterday about the grave sites and jungle camps."
The discovery of similar sites in Thailand early this month resulted in a Thai police crackdown that severely disrupted the steady flow of refugees that runs from Bangladesh and Myanmar down through Thailand and into Malaysia.
That left boats loaded with hundreds of starving people stuck at sea, although Malaysia and Indonesia recently agreed to let vessels land safely, after an international outcry.
In another development, Malaysia's Home Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said they are probing the possibility of enforcement officers, including those from the Forestry Department, being in cahoots with the human traffickers who are responsible for the mass graves, The Star reported.
He said the officers may not only be collaborating with locals but may also have links in Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
This article was first published on May 27, 2015.
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