Survivors tell of horror
LINDSAY MURDOCH, INDONESIA CORRESPONDENT
BOGOR "Did you see scenes of the Titanic sinking in the movie?", asks 19-year-old Iraqi Almjib. "Remember the panic and terror? Well, it was worse than that."
Almjib yesterday told how a 19-metre, rotting and leaking Indonesian fishing boat without a name, sank off Java, killing more than 350 asylum seekers trying to reach Australia's remote Christmas Island.
"It was horrible," he said. "We were being pounded by huge waves. The boat was full of water and then it suddenly turned on its left side.
"We all ran to the right side of the boat to try to right it but a huge wave splashed across us and it sank within 30 seconds."
Sitting amid distressed and injured survivors in a cheap hotel in Bogor, near Jakarta, Almjib said many of those who drowned tried in their final seconds to grab their loved ones and screamed for help from God.
"But most of the people on board went down with the boat, including the Indonesian captain," he said. "Within minutes we counted only 120 people in the water," he said. "The rest had already gone."
One by one over the next 15 hours, 76 exhausted people slipped quietly away from huddles of men, women and children clinging desperately to pieces of wreckage in the rough sea.
By the time an Indonesian fishing boat found them by chance shortly after dawn last Saturday, there were only 44 survivors, most of them men.
Sadiq Raza, 25, from Iraq, and his family were lucky to have been among first people to arrive at a wharf on people-smuggler buses in the early hours of last Thursday.
The first 60 people to board the the boat were able to grab lifejackets. There were none for the rest of the passengers, who had paid up to $US4000 each for the trip. The boat started leaking minutes after leaving port.
When the boat went down about 4pm on Friday, Raza clung to his two-year-old daughter, Kauthar Sadiq, who was crying and calling out for her mother, who is believed to have drowned almost immediately.
Throughout the long night trying to keep his head about the huge waves, Raza kept the baby's legs wrapped around his neck.
Often he thought she had died. But each time he shook her she woke.
"It's a miracle I managed to keep her alive," he said while nursing the child on his lap yesterday.
Almjib, whose father is living in Melbourne after making a similarly dangerous boat trip two years ago, said that throughout the night, people in the water tried to help each other.
He clung grimly to his 16-year-old cousin Dunia who, like everybody else, was praying most of time, and asking: "Where's my mother? Where's my mother?"
"But about 3am we got separated and she slipped away," he said.
Almjib said that at one point, he and 24 other people were clinging to the same 2.5-metre piece of wood. "I saw a body with a lifejacket so I swam over and pulled it off," he said. "Then I managed to find my mother and give it to her. She survived."
Zainab, a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who lost her father, mother, two brothers and two sisters - her entire immediate family - sat dazed among the survivors as she told how a 15-year-old Iraqi boy named Esam, whom she had never met before, held her throughout the night. "He kept saying, `don't let go. Don't let go'," she said.
Esam lost his 19-year-old brother. His father Kisam and mother Rejabab, who survived, yesterday adopted Zainab into their family. "We will not give up even though I have lost a son," Kisam said.
"What can I do? I have no money and no home. I know it is very dangerous but I will get some money and go on another boat with my family unless the United Nations helps us."
Najah Dayer, a 26 year-old Iraqi, wept as she told how her two year-old son Karar went blue after swallowing sea water polluted with petrol and oil from the sunken boat. "I held him up. But then I looked ... he was dead," she said.
"When I came to Indonesia I thought the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would help my family," she said. "But they have done nothing. I don't have any family, money or clothes. I don't know what to do."
Almjib told how the trip was doomed almost from the time it left Indonesia, but said most of the asylum seekers refused to turn back.
Only 30 minutes out to sea, he said, the boat started taking water. Only one of two pumps was working.
Almjib said the boat kept taking more water.
The captain ordered everybody to throw their luggage overboard, which they did.
About 9.30am on Friday, they came across a fishing boat. After the captain of the asylum seekers' boat admitted it was overloaded, 21 people decided to board the fishing boat and were taken to a nearby Indonesian island.
As bad weather turned into a storm that lashed the boat, the captain continued to steer the asylum seekers in the direction of Christmas Island.
But Almjib said the boat started to take more and more water. Eventually the last pump broke down and everybody started bailing water with whatever they could find.
"I was very worried," Almjib said. "I went to the captain and told him he must turn back, that it was too dangerous. I told him he would kill more than 400 people."
But Almjib said many of the other asylum seekers became angry with him and called him a coward.
"Some went to the captain and said, if you continue we will pay you more money," Almjib said. "They collected $US5000 and gave it to him. The captain said, `The boat is safe. We are going on."'
Many of the survivors said that, despite the tragedy, they intended to pay smugglers to get on another boat as soon as possible.
But yesterday, at the Bogor hotel where they were taken by the International Organisation for Migration , they could only sit in shock, staring at nothing. Many have open wounds starting to fester. Some wailed uncontrollably.
Most of them have been living in Indonesia for several years and have unsuccessfully tried to reach Australia on other boats.
Almost all of the 421 who boarded the boat were Iraqis. But there were also Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis and a small group of Algerians.
Twenty-four of those who drowned had already been assessed by the UNHCR to be genuine refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return to their home country. Six of the survivors had applied for refugee status.
One survivor, a man of about 30 who is believed to be from Iraq, showed a card proving he had been assessed by the UNHCR to be a genuine refugee.
"Look, many of us have been waiting in Indonesia for years to be resettled in a third country," said the man, who asked not to be named.
"We have no option but to try to make these dangerous voyages," he said. "You can see we have nothing."
Another survivor, Jalah Shohani, 35, from Iraq, wept and appealed for help. "You are from Australia. You are a Christian," he said. "You must write in the newspaper what happened here.
"If 100 people from America die, all the world gets to hear of the news. But now 400 Iraqis have died here and nobody is thinking about us."
ASYLUM SEEKERS' DOOMED VOYAGE
1 October 18: The 19-metre boat sets sail from Lampung, in Sumatra, with 421 Iraqis, Iranians,
Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians, including 71 children, bound for Christmas Island. Asylum seekers reportedly paid up to $US4000 each for the trip.
2 October 19: During the morning 24 passengers, worried about the state of the boat, ask to get off and disembark in west Java. Later, a young male pleads with the captain to turn back, but other passengers call him a coward and offer the captain $US5500 to keep going.
3 October 19, 4pm: The boat's engine stops and its captain warns all on board the boat is taking water. It capsizes about 10 minutes later, and 120 asylum seekers survive the initial sinking and cling to wreckage and luggage.
4 Throughout the night 76 survivors lose their battle to stay afloat and drown.
5 October 20, 7am: The 44 remaining survivors, including an eight-year-old boy who lost 21 relatives, are rescued by Indonesian fishermen south of the western tip of Java.
6 The survivors are taken to a hospital in Bogor, where 18 are treated for broken bones and coral cuts.
July: 14 Sri Lankans die when their fishing boat, abandoned by its crew, sinks in rough seas after leaving Indonesia.
November: Seven Afghan asylum seekers bound for Australia drown in Indonesian waters.
December: A Middle Eastern man drowns after being dropped off near islands off north-western Australia.
April, May: Up to 350 asylum seekers are feared drowned off northern Australia, although their deaths are never confirmed.
December 13: Unconfirmed reports that two boats, carrying up to 163 people, sink en route to the Ashmore Islands.
December 22: Three asylum seekers drown after arriving off north-west Australia.