Boat to nowhere
John Aglionby
Friday October 26, 2001
The Guardian

When a fishing vessel smuggling 400 people from Sumatra to Australia sank last week only 45 people survived. But it seems that no one cares what happens to them now.

Achmad Hussein could feel his life ebbing away. Having been buffeted by pounding waves and heavy rain for hours, this 18-year-old Iraqi was struggling to keep his head above the water of the Java Sea as he fought to cling on to a piece of wood with one hand and one of 14 relatives in the sea alongside him with the other. "I was convinced I was going to die," he says of his ordeal following the sudden capsize of the 60-foot boat that had been smuggling about 400 Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians to Australia last Thursday night. "I'd been swept under the sea several times and thought there was no need to prolong the agony."

Then, on the verge of giving up, Achmad heard the thin, pleading voice of his 10-year-old nephew, Jawad Hussein. Barely audible above the din of the tropical storm as he lay on a plank, Jawad's appeal gave his uncle renewed strength. "Jawad said: 'You cannot die Achmad. I have already lost my father, my mother, my brothers and sister. Who is going to look after me if you do not live?'," Achmad remembers.

More than 12 hours later the captain of a passing fishing boat, only in the area because he had been blown off course by the storm, spotted clothes, bags and bodies floating in the sea. He swept the area for a couple of hours and rescued 44 of the passengers. Another man, his face half burnt by the blistering hot sun, was picked up a day later by another fishing boat. No more survivors are expected.

They were taken initially to Jakarta and are now being accommodated in the Villa Ragal guesthouse in the hilly tea plantation village of Cisarua, about 40 miles south of the capital. Most of the survivors are men, many are injured and all are deeply traumatised - often breaking down when talking about their lost loved ones or suddenly shouting at each other and anyone else around them.

At first glance they appear safe, sheltering in clean bedrooms with fresh sheets and regular meals as the authorities begin the long and arduous process of assessing who might be accorded formal refugee status. But this is a life none of them wants. It is so close to their promised land, Australia, yet so far. Canberra wants practically nothing to do with them, even those deemed to be refugees.

Getting on "that boat", which none of the survivors knows the name of, in the southern Sumatra port of Bandar Lampung last Thursday night was not the start of the adventure. Many of the passengers hoped it would be the final leg, after arduous journeys from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Achmad's family, who say many of their relatives were murdered in Iraq, had been on a tortuous route.

For the 430-odd who boarded the ill-fated boat last week, their Jakarta human-trafficking supervisor was an Egyptian named Abu Quessay, a known people-smuggler about whom the Australian government has warned Jakarta. Once his "cargo" was assembled, Quessay herded them on to the fishing vessel, which had the capacity for just 60 people.

"There were men with guns watching us all the time," says an Iraqi man named Jordan. Some people say they were in police uniform, others say they were soldiers. A third group say they were Quessay's thugs. The Indonesian police stressed yesterday that they were not, as an institution, aiding and abetting the people smugglers, but admitted that a few rogue officers might be involved. A team has been sent to Bandar Lampung to investigate.

On seeing the overcrowded boat, some people refused to board. About 10 were allowed to stay on land after paying an additional 250. "To ensure that none of the rest of us got off, Quessay followed us in a speedboat for the first four hours," Achmad says. Shortly after that the fishing boat stopped at a small island and 21 people did manage to get off; it is thought that money again changed hands.

Conditions for the remaining passengers were worse than those on a 17th-century slave ship. "We could not sit properly, or stand up," Achmad says. "If you wanted to stretch your legs you had to ask someone else to move and they would have to disturb lots of other people to do that. There was only one toilet and that was for the women and children."

There was practically no food available but, Achmad says, the sea was starting to swell, so few people were interested in eating. However it did appear that they might reach their target, the Australian territory of Christmas Island, about 200 miles south of Java and supposedly a 36-hour voyage away.

Then, at about 1pm the captain, a man named Zainuddin, suddenly switched off the engine. "He said it had to rest for a bit," Achmad says. "Then at 2pm the main water pump broke. Two spares were started, but they broke within about 10 minutes."

The ship's hold, into which many women and children were squeezed, started filling with water. This additional weight, combined with the increasingly large waves, made the boat start to rock from side to side. Just after 3pm it capsized and within a few minutes it broke up. Many of the passengers, especially the women and children, had no chance to escape. Some people reckon about 120 survived the capsize, but there were only about 60 life jackets. "And they were far too small for most of us," one man says. "It was as if they were all children's size."

Soon after the boat capsized, the rain started. "It rained and rained all night," says Burram, who is from Afghanistan. "Every so often you could tell that another person had died. I am only here because Allah did not want me to die that night."

Most of the survivors are still in too much shock to plan their next moves. Some are relying on the UNHCR to grant them refugee status while others, says Jordan, will try again. "The UN and the international community don't seem to care about us," he said. "if we're ever going to find a new life we're going to do it on our own."


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