On the day they were freed from slavery, the fishermen hugged, high-fived, and sprinted through a stinging rain to line up so they wouldn't be left behind. Two years have passed since an AP investigation spurred that dramatic rescue, leading to the release of more than 2,000 men trapped on remote Indonesian islands. The euphoria they first felt has long faded. Occasional stories of happiness and opportunity have surfaced, but the men's fight to start over has largely been narrated by shame and struggle. Some are lucky to find odd jobs paying pennies an hour in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Some suffer night terrors and trauma; others have fought their demons with drugs and alcohol. At least one Cambodian tried to hang himself. Another Thai fisherman went back to work on a different boat at home, only to have his arm ripped off by a net.
The men left their impoverished homes years ago and headed to neighboring Thailand, promising to send money back from good-paying jobs. Instead, they were tricked, sold, or even kidnapped and put onto boats that became floating prisons. They then were trafficked thousands of miles away to the isolated Indonesian island village of Benjina, where the AP first found hundreds of captive fishermen, including some locked in a cage simply because they asked to go home. They were beaten and routinely forced to work up to 22 hours a day. The unluckiest ones ended up in the sea. The AP story prompted the Indonesian government to initiate a rescue. The AP's full story tracks several former slaves, including one who was separated from his family for 22 years and desperately wants to work but isn't physically able.