Round trip ends with anger and despair

Peter Alford, in Merak
September 01, 2012 12:00AM

AS search and rescue vessel RB201 pulled into the coastguard dock at Merak with its cargo of wretchedness yesterday morning, a middle-aged man scowled and drew his finger across his throat, again and again: "Australian terrorists," he shouted.

They had risked everything to be on Christmas Island.

Now they were back where they had started at the weekend, more or less, in Indonesia.

But they were about 100 fewer; those bodies adrift on the currents running through Sunda Strait into the Indian Ocean.

Another ghastly episode on the suspected illegal entry vessel (SIEV) routes to Christmas Island.

"The night before last, we kept fighting the waves, we were tired, without food, without water; we drank sea water," Muhammad Reza said from the RB201's rear deck yesterday morning.

"We couldn't think of anything but how to keep ourselves alive."

By Thursday night, after the 55 survivors - one died that night - had been gathered from the water by the Australian navy and four merchant vessels, they were aboard HMAS Maitland and daring to hope they might still finish the journey.

"But it was the Australian navy officers who asked us to leave their boat this morning," 30-year-old Reza shrugged hopelessly.

Among the 54 brought into Merak yesterday were just one woman and one child, 10-year-old Omeid, who had lost his father, brother and uncle in the deathly turmoil of Wednesday morning.

"There were 10 women and children," 25-year-old Muhammad Zahir wailed angrily.

"Now they are gone. We lost 110 people, they are gone: my brother, my sister, they are gone - so how can we go back to Indonesia?

"Indonesian immigration! We go three months in the jail, after that they just exchange us for money.

"We are not happy to go, we are ready to kill ourselves, we will drown ourselves here.

"We are not going with Indonesian immigration."

But they did go. By 11am, Zahir and the others - all ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan and Pakistan - had been taken off the boat, quietly, all fight gone for the time being. Three badly injured people were stretchered off to Permata Krakatau hospital and the others were bussed to the nearby Feri Merak hotel, for initial questioning by police, people-smuggling investigators and then immigration processing.

Some will slip away over the weekend.

And several days afterwards, as Zahir says, those who have offended against Indonesian immigration law will be off to various detention centres around Java.

There, as friends who had been through that mill had told him already, they would be expected to buy their way free, almost certainly to seek another dangerous passage.

A policeman involved in the investigation told The Weekend Australian that at least three of those brought into Merak yesterday had made this journey at least once before.

They had been identified from among the 120 asylum-seekers who were picked up in April by a chemical tanker from a fishing boat foundering in Sunda Strait and brought to Merak.

This time, they had paid the smuggler, alleged to be a young Afghan known as Haji Ghulam, $5500 each for places on his boat.

Ali Ghunan said he had paid $US14,000 already to get to Indonesia from Afghanistan.

His father had sold the family's home to fund the trip, and his getting to Australia was their only hope.

Zahir lost his sister and his brother on Wednesday morning.

The boat capsized but stayed afloat for about six hours, he said. [emphasis added] The three were among perhaps 100 clinging to the upper deck.

"The waters got crazy and everybody spilled out," Zahir said.

"Some have life jackets and still alive. Some life jackets (were) already gone and the person is also gone."

His brother disappeared but Zahir stayed close to his 29-year-old sister, Hamidah, for several hours until he saw she was slipping through her disintegrating life jacket.

"She told me she was killing herself. I was saying, 'No, please, don't go'." But she was gone.

Now Zahir is back in Indonesia, and marooned again.

Wherever he and Ali Ghunan and Muhammad Reza find themselves in the next month, whether they are in a detention centre or in refugee lodging, it will still be Indonesia.

Whatever the costs and risks, and whatever the threats of Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island emanating from Canberra, it is difficult not to foresee that at least one, if not all, will attempt the fatal crossing again.

Additional reporting: Telly Nathalia, AAP


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