He watched his father, uncle and cousin drown. Now he is alone.

September 1, 2012
Michael Bachelard
Canberra Times

AMID the tumult and emotion of the surviving asylum seekers returning to Indonesia yesterday, their dreams of reaching Australia shattered, a young boy sat still and quiet.

Known only as Omed, the 10-year-old Afghan was forlorn but uncommonly calm as, around him, men harangued Indonesian officials and wailed in grief.

Omed had more to cry about than most. His father, uncle and cousin had just drowned in front of him. His mother remains behind in Afghanistan and now he is alone in an unfriendly land - indefinitely.

Omed is one of 54 survivors and the only child who dodged death on a boat laden with about 160 asylum seekers that foundered three days ago in the busy Sunda Strait that divides Java and Sumatra.

As they clung to debris and lifejackets, watching their friends drown around them, the asylum seekers say five ships passed them but refused their pleas to stop and help. When he arrived on the dock at the port of Merak, Muhammad Zahir, 25, said that as about 150 refugees floated in the ocean, one commercial vessel came close enough for the crew to speak to them, only to say they were "not allowed" to pick them up.

The refugees, all Hazaras from Afghanistan and Pakistan, told traumatic stories of watching relatives die in the ocean after the "old and broken" fishing boat they were using to sail to Christmas Island sank and the Indonesian crew swam away. About 10 women and girls were among the dead, they said, including a three- or four-month-old girl.

The boat sank early on Wednesday and the last survivors were not picked up until almost 48 hours later. The tragedy has sparked criticism of the Indonesian search and rescue agency, Basarnas, which gave up the search after several hours on Wednesday afternoon. A spokesman said the search was conducted in the right area but helicopters and ships were unable to find any evidence of the wreckage, so they stood down.

The first survivor was found by a commercial ship early on Thursday and, by late that night, a flotilla of commercial and other vessels, including the Australian navy vessel HMAS Maitland, had pulled 54 people out of the sea alive, leaving perhaps 95 drowned. Three survivors were injured, and one died on the rescue ship in unknown circumstances.

Mr Zahir said his sister, Hameeda, 29,

drowned. ''I was about to help her but inside the water without any facilities, how could we help her? I was like, 'No, please don't go,''' he said, crying.

''People are gone, my brother, my sister gone, so how can we go back to Indonesia? Somebody help us please How can I see my family and tell them my sister is gone? Who has that ability? To tell their family?''

The refugees confirmed the boat had been arranged by the people smuggler Haji Ghulam, a Pakistani also known as Hassan, who lives in Indonesia and whose voice they heard only on the phone. He had charged them $US5500 each for safe passage to Australia, some said. ''He told us, lying and saying everything is clear: 'You guys aren't going to face a problem,''' Mr Zahir said.

Another rescued refugee, Mohammad Reza, said the people smugglers were ''a mafia-style group. They go by different names''.

Mr Reza provided security and worked as a translator for the coalition forces in Afghanistan but he and his family were harassed by the Taliban and fled to Pakistan. ''[But] we had no security, we couldn't travel,'' he said, so he tried to go to Australia.

A third refugee, Ali Ghuman, said he had been the one to call Australian police early on Wednesday to tell them the boat was sinking. His family of 10 had sold their house to send him to Australia to find work to support them.

Mr Ghuman said he had heard of the recent law change in Australia but had spent $14,000 of his family's money to get to Indonesia and needed to complete the trip. He looked hurt and bewildered when told by this reporter that Australia did not want him.

The asylum seekers spent last night in Merak, near the port, where they will be processed by the Indonesian immigration officials. A spokesman for the local people smuggler taskforce, Cornelis, said they would then be sent to detention centres.

''We are not happy to go,'' Mr Zahir said. ''We are ready to kill ourselves to jump in the water. We're not going in Indonesian immigration.''


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