April 18, 2013
Asylum seekers who clung to the wreckage of a doomed boat to Australia ended up back in Indonesia even before the alarm had been raised.
It was 3am and pitch dark when the group of refugees gingerly climbed aboard their asylum boat last Wednesday.
Only hours later, when dawn broke over a crystal blue ocean, did Abdul Hussain realise the terrible danger he’d put himself in.
Everyone was scared . . . There were old people, young people and some underage.
“It was a rickety wooden boat. It was very old and there was only one engine. Also, there was nothing provided by the [people] smugglers to ensure our survival,” Hussain says.
It was also desperately overcrowded.
“The boat wasn’t big enough for 72 people. We had to sit side by side [on the deck]”.
By the time the group of Afghans bound for Christmas Island realised their plight, it was too late, they could no longer see the shore.
Less than nine hours into the journey, at 11.30am, the inevitable happened and when this boat went down, it sank like a stone.
“We were hearing voices from inside saying ‘The boat has broken, water is coming inside’,” Hussain recalls.
“Then, within one or two minutes … we went under water … We couldn’t even make a distress call because it capsized so suddenly. It was a very chaotic situation.”
Hussain, 50, is one of just 14 survivors of that sinking. With Abdullah, 32, Abdul Karim, 58, Mustafa, 14, and Muhammad Ali, 51, he agreed to speak by phone to Fairfax Media through a Farsi-speaking intermediary, another refugee, Habib Ullah. Habib is a survivor from a previous fatal boat journey arranged by the same smuggler, Sikandar, a notoriously shoddy operator.
The story of this fatal boat began when a convoy of cars set off on Tuesday from the West Java town of Cisarua, near Bogor. Here, thousands of asylum seekers wait for precisely this moment.
Along the road, eight or nine cars in the convoy were stopped and their passengers detained, but the rest allowed to proceed. This fits with stories from Indonesian immigration officials that 35 asylum seekers were held by authorities in the area but later escaped.
The rest, all men and boys who had paid $US4500 to $US5000 for the privilege, made it to the beach. They found time before their phones were confiscated to call their families and tell them the good news that their next stop was Australia.
“They asked their families to pray for them,” Habib relates. “They were all happy.” On board on Wednesday morning, though, the group’s nervous joy evaporated entirely.
“The boat was moving slowly . . . there was strong sunshine,” the men tell Habib. “We were all vomiting, couldn’t eat anything. Everyone was scared . . . There were old people, young people and some underage as well.”
And then the boat sank. In the chaos and confusion, 14 of them grabbed a rope to stay together. The other 58 were floating in ones and twos, clutching debris or whatever flotation device they had managed to pack for themselves.
Some time later on Wednesday, they saw a container ship.
“We waved our hands and shouted a lot. It wasn’t too far away. We are convinced that it saw us, but it didn’t pay any attention and just went away,” Hussain says.
Stories of container ships whose crew ignore the plight of refugees in the water have become a depressingly common theme in recent tales of survival. But it was more than a day before the alarm was to be raised in Australia, and 40 hours before the Indonesian rescue authorities would hear of the sinking, so no bulletin had yet warned shipping to be on the lookout.
After that vessel passed, Hussain says, the “rest of the guys dispersed” in swells which the weather bureau says were up four metres high. “We don’t know what happened to them.”
All Wednesday night and well into Thursday, the men stayed in the water, clinging to wreckage.
“Our health was deteriorating; we were in a dire state, staring at one another desperately,” Hussain says. “Our faces were totally sunburned. We got injuries in our legs, and were very thirsty. We felt like we wouldn’t survive. We remembered our past, family and friends.”
At noon on Thursday, finally, a fishing boat found them.
“We asked for help to save our lives. At first the captain denied us, but then we offered him money, so he picked us up.” The fisherman took $US100 from each, they say, in return for plucking them from the water. He returned them to shore, to a town called Pelabuhanratu. They arrived at about 8pm. Acting on a tip-off, the local police found them sitting on the town pier and took them into custody.
Police say they tried to question the men, but they did not speak a common language, so they were taken to the local immigration authority. Isman Jayadi, the head of the law enforcement unit at Sukabumi Immigration Office, says he was handed the men at about midnight on Thursday.
At the immigration office, Isman says the men were kept under guard in the yard of his office. All three guards, though, fell asleep and, “A few hours after they arrived . . . they fled, all of them,” Isman says.
Hussain and his friends have a different story. They say they paid a bribe of $US150 each to the police to drive them back to Bogor.
Brigadier Agus Setiawan, from the law enforcement unit of Sukabumi water police agrees the group “tried to collect money among themselves to bribe us”, but “we refused”.
The men are adamant: “They didn’t provide us any medical treatment. Instead the police . . . took our money and dropped us in Bogor, Cisarua, at 3am”.
It was exactly the time the Australian Maritime Safety Authority was first raising the alarm about a boat going down. Numerous factors – language barriers, ignorance, perhaps corruption – had prevented anyone asking the rescued men where their former shipmates might be.
As Indonesian and Australian rescue authorities began a hopelessly confused dialogue about the missing vessel, the rescued men were back in Bogor and visiting the office of the International Organisation for Migration to “get our injuries treated”. Even there they were refused.
Denis Nihill, the chief of mission at IOM Indonesia, says the organisation’s hands are tied. It cannot offer help to individuals unless Indonesia’s immigration authorities request it in writing.
“It’s not like we didn’t want to . . . it’s a standard operating procedure, part of the agreement we have with the government,” he says.
These men do not want to present themselves to Indonesian immigration officials in case they are locked up. A week after their ordeal, they are staying in a house in Bogor, reluctant to go outside, “frightened and confused”. They have no idea what they will do next.
As for the agent, Sikandar, he is not responding to calls. Requests from around the world are flowing in from families trying to find out whose loved ones have survived, who has died. But he has done what people-smugglers do when 58 of their customers have drowned – switched off his phone.