Piercing wails slice through the stillness of the jungle, haunting cries that do not let up.
Grief-stricken mothers and fathers throw themselves over small coffins draped in white sheets.
Inside lie their children, their hopes for the future crushed and broken.
On a hot Sunday afternoon last August, seven indigenous children disappeared from their remote boarding school in Malaysia’s north east. After 47 days, only two were found alive in the jungle.
One of the survivors, 10-year-old Norieen Yaakob, watched her younger brother and friends die, her mother, Midah binti Angah, says.
“The bodies decomposed slowly, one by one,” says Midah. “They saw maggots coming out from their bodies. At night they were scared, they didn’t sleep till the morning.”
The tragedy has devastated the close-knit Orang Asli community, the indigenous tribe that has been fighting for survival for decades as development encroaches on their land and traditional way of life.
Parents blame the boarding school for their children’s deaths, and community leaders say the case symbolises how the Orang Asli have long been neglected and discriminated against by the authorities.
“The Orang Asli is the forgotten community,” says Siti Kasim, an advocate for indigenous rights.
‘The children didn’t return’
|Orang Asli children stand outside their home in the remote village of Penad deep in the jungles of Malaysia’s Kelantan State [Karishma Vyas/Al Jazeera] [Daylife]
By the time search and rescue parties found Norieen deep in the jungle in Kelantan state, she was gaunt, emaciated and near death.
Two months earlier, Norieen and her friends had run away from their boarding school to the nearby jungle.
As they ran through the jungle – in what older students say was an attempt to escape abuse by a teacher – they fell down a ravine to a river bank.
Eight-year-old Linda was swept away by the fast-flowing water.
Bamboo pierced the leg of nine-year-old Ika. The youngest of the group, seven-year-old Juvina, was also injured. Slowly, after many days, they died.
Only bones and fragments were found of Haikal, Norieen’s younger brother.
Eight-year-old Syasya is still missing but presumed dead. Norieen told rescuers that her friends begged her for help as they died.
The children were wards of the state who had been sent to a government boarding school hours away from their villages, in the hope that they could one day help to lift their tribe out of poverty.
Now their families are desperate to know why their children died and want someone to be held responsible.
It took the school almost two days to tell the police that the children were missing.
The authorities then accused the parents of hiding them and the school sent Midah a letter threatening expulsion if her children did not return.
“They said that we were hiding the kids and they searched for them in all the houses,” says Midah.
‘We are left far behind’
|An Orang Asli child stands outside his home in the remote village of Gawin, deep in the jungles of Malaysia’s Kelantan State [Karishma Vyas/Al Jazeera]
While corporal punishment of girls is not allowed in Malaysia, older students told Al Jazeera they were often hit and caned.
“They would punish them by making them hold tables and chairs over their heads under the hot sun,” says Juhi binti Angah, a former student. “Sometimes they gave them stale food with worms inside.”
An education ministry official who visited the school refused to comment on the case. However, in a statement the ministry said that schools for Orang Asli children were regularly monitored.
“No school is left behind from any means of monitoring to ensure its growth and success,” the statement said.
But parents such as Midah say their children are looked down upon because they are indigenous, a common complaint among Orang Asli, many of whom say they suffer racism and discrimination.
On almost every social indicator – from literacy to life expectancy – the Orang Asli lag behind other Malaysians.
More than 30 percent live in poverty, much higher than the national average of four percent, according to government statistics.
“It’s obvious that we are left far behind,” says Dendi Johari, a tribal leader who says land that traditionally belonged to the Orang Asli is being logged and cleared for rubber plantations.
“We’re living in another era in terms of development. We are so fed up with the Malaysian government, because every year they’ve made us promises but we get nothing in the end.”
The government department in charge of taking care of the Orang Asli rejects these allegations.
“Whatever we do, it is never appreciated by the people,” said Hasnan Hassan, the director general of the Department of Orang Asli Development.
With a budget of more than $80m last year, the department is responsible for everything from building infrastructure to providing healthcare for the tribe.
“When I took the helm of the post in 2014, I made sure that every single cent that is spent for the indigenous must be fully spent, must be fully utilised. No compromise about integrity. No compromise about corruption,” he says.
But news that the department’s deputy was charged with taking bribes just weeks after the children’s funerals has done little to instill confidence.
Lawyer Siti Kasim has long campaigned for the rights of the indigenous but says the situation has now reached a tipping point.
“If we don’t do anything to help them, to maintain their heritage and culture through education, we will eventually lose all Orang Asli,” says Siti, who is helping the tribe to take legal action over the children’s deaths.
Midah, whose daughter remains traumatised by the deaths of her brother and friends, is committed to seeking justice.
“I want those people who are responsible for this to realise what they’ve done,” she says.
Source: Al Jazeera