“I could see the death in front of me” — listen to the hair-raising reality of seeking asylum in Australia. Two ship-wrecked asylum seekers cheat death, make a daring escape, and now face the wrenching choices of a life in limbo.
It was 5am when I was woken by a phone call.
“Hi Aubrey, it’s Barat Ali Batoor. I’ve escaped,” he said, his voice buzzing with adrenaline. “I’m on the way to Jakarta. Where are you?”
Just the previous day, I had been talking to Batoor on the phone and he had been in despair. Despair because Batoor had made a break for Australia in a shoddy wooden boat with more than 90 other Hazara asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The boat had nearly sunk in rough seas, and had been forced to run ashore in a remote corner of western Java. After two days stranded in the jungle, they had been captured.
When Batoor had first called, he had been on his way to immigration detention west of Jakarta, where he faced the possibility of deportation to Afghanistan, and, he said, the risk of death at the hands of the Taliban.
But before dawn the next morning, Batoor had broken his way out, and now he was hurtling towards Jakarta in a taxi.
I ran out of my house to meet Batoor, 29, and another Hazara asylum seeker, Barkat Ali, 31, on a roadside as the early daylight bled out over the city. In spite of their bleary eyes, crumpled clothes and scratched arms, the men were wired, chatting excitedly like kids just off a fairground ride. Ali had nothing but what he was wearing; Batoor still had a backpack. Both men wore sandals they had stolen from the front doors of homes during their escape.
“We saw death right in front of us,” Batoor recalled, after some tea, rest and a shower. “Now I can feel how the death is, how you see the death. When you see it really close to you.”
But Batoor and Ali were alive. They were also free, sort of, among the malls, traffic and anonymous millions of Jakarta. But in the strange limbo that is the life of asylum seekers waiting in Indonesia, they faced a series of difficult choices. Should they take another boat, or risk the long wait to be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? Was returning home an option? How long could their money last?
First things first: Batoor and Ali had no shoes and few clothes left, so their first act of freedom was to change some creased US dollars and go shopping.
I had first met Batoor, via a Pakistani contact, a couple of weeks earlier, as he waited for the smugglers’ rickety wooden boat to Australia. Back in Afghanistan, Batoor had been a photojournalist, a risky enough vocation for anyone. The fact that Batoor was a Hazara, the Shia Muslim minority with distinctive East Asian features and a history of animosity with the Sunni extremist Taliban, just made things worse. Afghanistan had begun to seem more insecure by the day, but Batoor said the trigger for him to leave was a photo essay he had published on Afghan child prostitutes known as ‘dancing boys‘. After it appeared, he had started to receive threatening phone calls, including, he claims, from people aligned with the government. When he fled in July, he took his camera with him.
Ali had a similar story.
Back in Afghanistan, Ali had been relatively successful and was also, he claims, a marked man. Ali worked as a procurement officer for the UN in Kabul, a reasonably well paying job. But working for the UN upped the risk factors for him. Eventually, word filtered through to Ali’s family in Ghazni province that the Taliban had him on a hit list.
Ali had sent his wife, one-year-old daughter, mother and younger sister to wait in the Pakistani city of Quetta, itself a dangerous town plagued by Islamist death squads who have killed hundreds of Hazarasin recent years. Then in August, Ali dipped into nearly four years’ worth of savings and paid USD11,000 to people-smugglers to get him to Bangkok, via Dubai, and then by road and ferry through Malaysia to Indonesia. Another $6,000 would get him on a boat for Christmas Island. Batoor paid $8,000 for the first leg, and $5,700 for the second.
In Puncak, a traffic-clogged strip of hill towns outside Jakarta favoured by asylum seekers as a stopover, both men waited separately for the call telling them it was time to go. They knew each other from a few earlier encounters in Kabul, but neither man had seen the other in Indonesia until they crossed paths in a market.
Batoor and Ali met each other again when they separately boarded a boat in the early hours of Friday, September 21, and slipped under cover of darkness out of a port somewhere in Java. For a day, their vessel moved smoothly through the strait that separates Java and Sumatra, and past the shattered cone of the famed Mount Krakatoa. But by nighttime, the weather had turned foul. Waves tossed the boat around as those below deck prayed, cried and vomited. Water began pouring in faster than the pumps could take it out.
“Finally the captain told us: ‘The boat is not in a good condition to take you further. The water is also very bad. So if you go ahead, I will take you, but that is completely, 100 per cent death and you will be responsible for your lives.'” Batoor recalls.
The next morning, the asylum seekers scrambled off the boat and over submerged rocks into the thick forests of Ujung Kulon, a remote peninsula at the extreme western end of Java. Batoor slipped off one rock and into the sea, drenching and destroying his camera. Discarding dozens of lifejackets on the beach, they moved into the jungle, splitting up into groups as they quarreled over what to do next.
“All were confused and scared. Worried about how to get out of the jungle and find a way. Just to get out of this hell and not be caught by police,” Batoor says.
Batoor and Ali became part of a group that decided to set out for a village. On the map, it didn’t look far, but it soon became clear they would never make it. There was no food, and the only water they came across was from a stagnant creek. After a night on the beach, they found a jetty and some coconuts, which they cracked open and drank from thirstily. When a boat from a resort on a tourist island came by, Ali and Batoor were part of a group that hailed it. They were quickly handed over to Indonesian water police.
INDONESIA’S IMMIGRATION-DETENTION centres are nothing like the modern complexes Australia has built at home and in the Pacific. They are half-heartedly run, shambolic affairs. Escapes are so common that Ali had already been briefed by another asylum seeker on where to go after breaking out of the detention centre in Serang, about 75 kilometres west of Jakarta.
Not that their escape was easy. The authorities paid the men plenty of attention, at least as a source of cash. On the ferry back to Java, both men, along with other asylum seekers, had money taken from them, and Batoor’s camera was confiscated. They only got their belongings back after the passengers vocally protested. When they arrived in their room at Serang, they say an immigration officer furtively strip-searched them, taking about USD300, two mobile phones, and their shoes.
In the detention centre, there were 52 asylum seekers guarded by a contingent of immigration officers and armed police. Inside their room, Batoor, Ali and six other Hazaras watched the guards through a window facing an inner courtyard, observing their movements. At about 4am, as the guards sat around a fire, they removed two glass slats from an outside-facing window and slipped through, taking their pillows and sheets with them. Batoor and Ali went first, and the others in the room followed. They climbed a tree near an outer wall, which was topped with shards of broken glass. The men put their pillows over the glass, and climbed over the wall with the sheets wrapped around their hands and forearms.
Later on, as their taxi approached Jakarta, the driver asked them where they had come from. “Mongolia,” Ali replied.
NOW SHOPPING FOR SHOES, Batoor and Ali seemed to have plenty of choices. But as we moved from one of Jakarta’s downmarket malls to another, none of the shoes seemed to fit.
When I met Ali early this morning, he had been set against getting on another boat. “It was my first time and my last,” he’d said. But as the hours pass, he becomes less certain. Batoor is similarly ambivalent.
“We can’t live in Afghanistan or Pakistan. If I got back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, I will be killed,”Ali said.
Both men already have spent their childhoods as refugees in Pakistan, returning to Afghanistan only after the Taliban were overthrown by the American-led invasion in 2001. But Pakistan is no longer a safe haven. Quetta, where most Hazaras in Pakistan live, is now a killing field, and people have been fleeing. Many Hazaras have moved into other parts of Pakistan, but they fear Islamist militants will soon also start targeting them there. Indonesia is safe, but both men say they have no way of earning money while they wait, possibly for many years, while the UNHCR processes their claims and a country of resettlement is found. Australia resettles a tiny fraction of the refugees waiting in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Ali fears for his family stranded in Quetta.
Neither man wants to brave another boat trip to Australia. But, right now, it’s only the fear of drowning that’s keeping them from going again. Money is not a problem. Batoor said the cash for his trip to Australia was deposited with a third person, who will only pay the people smugglers once Batoor is safely delivered to his destination. His next trip, in other words, is free. Neither man said he was deterred by the prospect of offshore processing in Nauru.
After finally finding some shoes that fit, the men head to the home of a friend of Batoor’s, an Indonesian photographer. She serves up a round of drinks and the men rest before finally heading back up to join the hundreds of other Hazaras waiting in the hills outside Jakarta.
Before he leaves, Batoor’s friend hands him an envelope that arrived while he was in the jungle. Inside are the papers registering him as an asylum seeker with the UNHCR, which had been obtained three weeks ago but were mistakenly sent to a friend in Australia.
If Batoor ends up choosing to take his chances by waiting here in Indonesia, he will need them.
This post was originally published in: http://www.theglobalmail.org/