Boat tragedy survivor granted asylum
By Vanessa Walker
The Australian
21 December 2001

A GIRL who lost her family in the October boating tragedy that killed 368 asylum-seekers became the first survivor to make it to Australia yesterday.

Zaynab Alrimahi, 12, arrived in Sydney distraught at being separated from the 43 other survivors who are still being held in a UN refugee hostel in Jakarta.

Zaynab lost her parents Souad and Ahsan, younger brothers Mahmoud, 6, and Moustafa, 4, and sisters Fatima, 14, and Roukaya, 7, when their leaking boat capsized and sank off Java.

Zaynab, one of only four children of 150 on the boat to survive, told the Los Angeles Times about the 22 hours she spent in 4m seas and heavy rain before being rescued by Indonesian fishermen.

'I saw my six-year-old brother holding to a plank. Polluted seawater mixed with fuel began going into his mouth and he choked and died,' Zaynab said. 'I saw people floating, dead.'

Zaynab said her mechanic father, who took his family to Iran after escaping from Iraq in 1997, paid people-smugglers because he thought he might get citizenship in Australia.

The Department of Immigration granted Zaynab a safe haven visa so she could join her nearest living relative, her uncle Alaa Alrimahi, in Sydney.

He said that if the department granted his niece a permanent visa, Zaynab, who has never been to school, wants to start her education and become a doctor.

In a transcript of a video recorded by the survivors, 21 people give horrendous accounts of their ordeal.

One man said: 'I boarded the boat with 15 other family members -- nine drowned and six remained. We clung on to a plank of timber for 20 hours drifting in the water.

Another man said: 'I was part of a large group, but only five remained when the ship capsized. The 150 children kept floating up looking for air to breathe inside their cabin, more water went in and they were drowned. I managed to swim out following a ray of light that beamed through.'

The survivors say two boats, which their rescuers told them were Australian border patrol vessels, shone floodlights on them but did not help.

A spokesman for the Defence Department said the closest ship was HMAS Arunta, which was 230 nautical miles south of the spot.

Another man, Ahmed al-Zalime, who lost three daughters in the disaster, has written to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock asking for permission to go to Indonesia to visit his wife, who survived the ordeal. Mr al-Zalime is in Australia on a temporary visa that forbids him from returning to the country if he leaves.

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