Boat tragedy claims 33 asylum seekers
November 25, 2012
ANOTHER 33 would-be asylum seekers have drowned on their way to Christmas Island in a boat tragedy that would have gone unreported if one man had not survived.
Mr Habib Ullah, 22, has told Fairfax Media how he survived three days in the water while watching his shipmates, all ethnic Hazara men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, drown one by one.
Mr Habib Ullah said that, during the ordeal, the men had seen two or three passing vessels, including an oil tanker and a container ship, which had not stopped to help. He was convinced the crew of the container ship saw them.
Alone and on the verge of death, Mr Habib Ullah was finally picked up by a passing Indonesian fishing boat and brought to Jakarta.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas have separately confirmed that they have no record of the vessel.
But Mr Habib Ullah, who is now in immigration detention in Jakarta, has been overwhelmed by phone calls and visits from distressed relatives from Australia, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have heard nothing from their loved ones and are begging him for details.
Mr Habib Ullah, who grew up in Pakistan but whose family is from Afghanistan, paid $US5500 ($A5295) to a people smuggler known as Sikander on the basis of gossip among refugees in Indonesia that ''he succeeded in taking many boats'' to Australia.
The men set sail towards Christmas Island in the early hours of October 26, but after about 13 hours the engine and all the pumps stopped.
The satellite phone Sikander had provided did not work, so they could not make distress calls.
About 2am the next day, the boat sank ''in two or three minutes''.
The asylum seekers, most of whom had life preservers, grabbed one of two ropes to keep them together. Habib was with 25 others clinging to one rope, the remaining eight were on the second rope. ''On the first day there was hope. Everyone was optimistic,'' Mr Habib Ullah says. ''We were praying, saying, 'There will be an island, there will be a boat.'
''On the second day, some people, they lost control, shouting and crying, saying, 'No one will help us.'
''Then time was passing, night was coming, and the day passing, losing friends. I would see dead bodies coming from the right side, left side. Everyone, one by one, was waiting for their turn.
''Some guys got crazy, they were talking and fighting, they let go of the rope and went away. On the third night there were seven people on the rope. I was very tired and went to sleep. In the morning, there were only three people left, including me. Those guys, their health condition was really bad … one was trying to drown because he was very thirsty and he was very hungry. So he drowned before my eyes.
''On the third day, after they had all died, I was on the ocean from morning to 3pm. I was exhausted, thirsty, tired, hot, pain in my stomach, pain in my kidneys, there was fear of storm, fear of sharks. And, I think, it was the last moment of my life when the boat came to me.''
Mr Habib Ullah was picked up by a large Indonesian fishing boat south of the island of Panaitan, and nursed to health by the crew before being moved to a second fishing boat, which took him to Jakarta. He is now in the Kuningan immigration detention centre in Jakarta, plagued by memories.
''It's very horrifying for me. When I go to sleep I just remember,'' he says.
One of the many who have visited him to ask for news of relatives is Australian resident Reza Shafaie, who came to Indonesia to find his cousin, Ali Noori, 17, and uncle, Ali Barati.
Mr Shafaie now believes both died in the sinking, although other families in Australia are not yet convinced.
''They really cry, but they told us to keep searching those areas. They say, 'Maybe there is an island.' Still they have hope.''
Muhammad Rezaie, of Dandenong, also came to Jakarta to search for loved ones, but he has given up hope for nephew Enayatullah Hussaini and friends Taqi Bahadori and Mohammad Jawad. Mr Rezaie, who came to Australia by boat in 2001, said he had begged his nephew not to take the risk, saying he should wait for a visa in Indonesia.
''I told him, 'The rules have changed, they'll send you to Nauru.' But he didn't listen because his friends push him - 'Let's go together.' The people smuggler was also pushing,'' Mr Rezaie said.
Mr Habib Ullah, Mr Rezaie and Mr Shafaie have all spoken to people smuggler Sikander by phone. At first, they say, he denied Mr Habib Ullah's story, saying the boat was safe on Christmas Island. He later admitted it had sunk.
Mr Rezaie and Mr Shafaie say Sikander is still active as a people smuggler and sent three more boats in past weeks carrying a total of 311 asylum seekers to Christmas Island. Mr Habib Ullah wants to see him prosecuted.
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