The residents of Wang Kelian sensed something was amiss when a number of people stumbled on to their streets, weak and injured, and began to beg for food and water.
“They would walk into my shop, with injuries covering their hands and feet. Some were just too weak to even speak properly,” said Lyza Ibrahim, who runs a food stall in the town on the northern Malaysian border with Thailand.
“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 is an unassuming settlement but it has been thrust into the global spotlight this week after the discovery in nearby jungle of dozens of secret camps used by people smugglers and nearly 140 grave sites.
Police say some of those graves contain multiple bodies – raising the terrible prospect of hundreds of unexplained deaths. On Tuesday Malaysian authorities began the grim task of exhumation.
Some of the campsites included wooden pens, some with barbed wire and guarded by sentry posts. In one pen, police found several parts of a decomposed body.
The camps appear to be part of a complex of bases stretching into Thailand on what had been a well-established route smuggling mostly Rohingya people from Burma and Bangladesh.
But the trade has been in chaos since early May, when Thai authorities launched a crackdown after the discovery of mass graves on their side of the border.
Thousands of migrants headed for Thailand started landing elsewhere in south-east Asia. And as the smugglers fled their jungle hideouts, migrants were spotted in Wang Kelian.
Ibrahim said she had seen several migrants, whom she believed to be Rohingya, and heard stories about many others, including that they would go to a nearby mosque to ask for help.