Refugee drownings reveal mistreatment and military involvement

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Broadcast: 17/01/2012
Reporter: Matt Brown

The East Java shipwreck that saw some 200 refugees drown on their way to Australia is now surrounded by allegations of mistreatment of survivors, slow identification of the dead and the involvement of the military.


TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: It's now a month since around two hundred asylum seekers drowned when their boat capsized south of Java.

Anxious family members have flown to Indonesia to try to identify their loved ones, but the vast majority of bodies remain nameless.

Now the families are faced with a race against time to make a claim on the badly decomposed corpses before they are buried in Indonesia.

As Indonesian and Australian Federal Police investigate the tragedy they found more evidence that Indonesian soldiers were involved in the smuggling syndicate.

This report from Indonesia correspondent, Matt Brown in East Java. But first, a warning that some viewers may be disturbed by some of the images.

MATT BROWN, REPORTER: As the wet season rains pour down, the immigration detention centre at Pasaruan is filled to the brim with human misery.

Here dozens of survivors of the East Java shipwreck are locked away.

ESMAT ADINE: We have very bad nightmares here. We cannot even sleep during the night.

MATT BROWN: Esmat Adine and his fellow inmates have little to do but re-live the day about 200 people drowned on the way to Australia.

ESMAT ADINE: Many people were crying, many people were praying. Lots of children, they are looking for their mother or their fathers, and someone looking for her husband and his wife.

We can never forget that.

MATT BROWN: It's now a month since they boarded this vessel, an overcrowded death trap, destined to capsize.

Esmat Adine was thrown into the ocean, then forced to watch helpless as his uncle and two cousins drifted out of sight.

ESMAT ADINE: I was not able to do anything for them. I was shouting to God, they are alive, I can see them, but I cannot do anything for them.

MATT BROWN: Esmat Adine is from Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic group which is often persecuted by the Taliban. He was even more at risk because he worked for the US government's foreign aid body, USAID.

But rather than wait through months of detention he agreed to be sent home and now he says he is faced with a deadly dilemma.

ESMAT ADINE: My life is still in serious danger. My family still receives direct warning from Taliban. They send a warning to my family that if he came back, we will kill him.

MATT BROWN: Others have already escaped. Ali Mohammad and his friends broke out, determined to find another boat to Australia despite the risks. But he was recaptured, and as his mobile phone footage shows, bashed before he was brought back to his cell.

ALI MOHAMMAD (translated): The immigration officers and local people, they fastened my wrists and my feet as well. Then they hit me with a baton on my head while bringing me through the front gate.

ESMAT ADINE: Did you just try to hit someone and tell him that you make problem for us. If they are in your country, the Taliban kill you. Here I will kill you.

MATT BROWN: The camp guards say the detainees are dangerous and violent but the head of the detention centre would not be interviewed.

Detention is made even worse by an endless wait for answers about the fate of missing loved ones. The search teams recovered 103 bodies, but they were badly decomposed and so far just 23 have been identified. For the families at times this frustration has been too much to bear.

ASYLUM SEEKER: We want them to show us. To show us the dead body. We think who is alive and who is dead.

MATT BROWN: The bodies are now being stored in a shipping container with intermittent refrigeration. The victim ID teams have resorted to posting up pictures of items recovered from the dead in the hope a family member will recognise something decisive.

Ali Poya, a Hazara refugee who has made his life in Perth, is still looking for his two cousins, but he identified his brother Azatula (phonetic) thanks to a macabre slideshow on the computer.

ALI POYA: I saw the pictures they pull out from his pocket, you know, from his property. I saw my dad's picture and I saw his daughter's picture as well and I saw some numbers that match up with my family and I'm sure he is my brother's body.

MATT BROWN: Habib Isaac, a Hazara refugee living in Adelaide is another engaged in this agonising search. He has identified four cousins but the fate of three others remains a mystery.

HABIB ISAAC, RELATIVE: It is so in dignified. Every time, every day, they open the gate and the smell of the dead bodies goes all around the hospital and you know that your loved ones are in that container and they are actually suffering.

And we suffer more. It's just terrible, terrible.

MATT BROWN: Samples of DNA have been taken from each corpse and sent to Jakarta but family members have been told they will have to pay a thousand dollars for each sample to be tested.

FARID AMANSYAH, HEAD OF VICTIM IDENTIFICATION (translated): If we can get identification from just fingerprints and dental records than why not? Because DNA testing needs to be specifically handled and it costs so much money.

HABIB ISAAC: It's an absolute disgrace that the DNA has not been done on these deceased ones. I'm not going to say that the Indonesian Government should pay for t but the respected embassies of the deceased ones should actually take responsibility of the corpses of their citizens.

MATT BROWN: So far, just two bodies have been returned to their families. While they will be laid to rest at home, the police say they will bury the remaining corpses in Indonesia in less than a week.

HABIB ISAAC: We cannot live peacefully in our own country. We cannot, if we are dead somewhere, deceased, our body and our corpses is not looked after properly and we do not get any help from nobody.

It's just so sad.

MATT BROWN: The tragedy continues to shine a troubling light on the smuggling trade and the vexed effort to stop the boats.

Investigators say a notorious smuggler named Sayed Abbas organised the doomed trip despite the fact that he was arrested back in August.

ALI POYA: He is amazing, he killed many people. He didn't look for alive, he just looked for money, he looked for money.

MATT BROWN: There is also mounting evidence that the smuggler was aided and abetted by members of the Indonesian armed forces.

7:30 has learned the police now have evidence that five soldiers and a civilian defence employee were involved. Faced with a widening scandal, the local army chief has pledged full cooperation.

MAJOR GENERAL MURDJITOK, REGIONAL ARMY COMMANDER: Who wouldn't be unhappy to uncover the syndicate? That's what we are trying to do right now. We need complete and comprehensive coordination, but for the time being, we are dealing with our people.

MATT BROWN: However, the police fear they will be blocked from pursuing inquiries which lead up the chain of command.

For his part, Ali Poya says his brother's death highlights the futility and danger of Australia's attempts to stop the boats. As it happens, Azatula was on the first boat turned back by John Howard in 2001 but that didn't stop him.

In fact this doomed trip was Azatula's third attempt to get to Australia.

ALI POYA: They are desperate to reaching Australia, actually. We know of this danger in front of them but the danger is more there, you know? That's why he comes here and wants to go to Australia.

TRACY BOWDEN: That report from Matt Brown in Indonesia.


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