The Tampa children reflect on their rescue 12 years on

August 31, 2013

Tampa children 1

In the meantime, the Tampa families set up their lives in their new green home.

TAHIRA Hossaini couldn’t swim. A hole of deep blue water gaped between two ships. In her young mind, she felt like she might be swallowed up.

One hand of a Tampa sailor held her from behind. A man in army greens aboard the HMAS Manoora reached across, coaxing her to step. Her mum and dad were behind her somewhere, but if she slipped they couldn’t save her from back there, she thought. She would disappear forever.

It is etched deep in her mind, there with the memory of the wooden boat and nowhere to sit, overcrowded and dirty. A broken engine, stricken in the middle of the ocean. The hunger, illness from four days adrift and fear that each swell might roll them over. Their boat was built for less than half the 438 who had left Indonesia in the dark. Hazara mothers cried that they’d swapped danger at home in Afghanistan for a grave in the sea.

Twelve years on, Tahira smiles beside her best friend, Huria Rahimi, on campus at the University of Auckland. Tahira is doing a double major in psychology and social science for public health; Huria is studying optometry.

They first met in the lounge of an Indonesian hotel. Two seven-year-old girls looking after little brothers, fighting over whose turn it was to sit on an old rocking chair.

They and their families were en route to Christmas Island. They were rescued by the Norwegian container ship the Tampa. Lawyers fought for them in the Australian court. Politicians argued to keep them out of the country.

Two weeks after their rescue, as planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, these faceless, nameless boat-people turned from troublesome “queue jumpers” into potential terrorists.

But New Zealand took the children and their families when Australia would not.

The Tampa affair was the start of Australia’s debate over asylum seekers arriving by boat.

For 12 years, the argument has grumbled with each new batch of boats, getting louder again as another federal election looms.

Theirs are typical migrant stories. The parents settled and worked hard, they learned trades, they set up businesses. And the children went to school, hit the books and grew up, like the rest of us. They are university students, engineers, nurses. One is an airline pilot. They are patriotic Kiwis grateful for their new lives.

They are the children Australia didn’t want.

WESTERN women would sell baby products in slick ads on Afghan TV. They’d flounce about, their hair glinting at the Muslim wives watching from their cramped houses. One room for an entire family.

Hazara girls would barely be allowed to leave the house for fear of being caught up in violence. The boys were lucky if they had a safe school to attend, which was academic rather than religious. Uncles died defending their towns from the Taliban.

Huria remembers the weirdest things about her journey. She remembers stepping on to the solid land at Nauru. These previously landlocked people had been at sea for nearly a month. Five days on their broken little boat. Nine days on the Tampa. Fifteen days on the HMAS Manoora.

Her seven-year-old eyes caught her first glimpse of the Western World: “It’s a bit random, but I felt like I’d stepped into a TV commercial. Women with long blonde hair, who weren’t wearing a hijab – it was so foreign and incredible.”

For the children it was an adventure; for the adults it was a flight from oppression.

Tampa survivors 2

But one of the men on board the boat, who became a leader in the chaotic game of musical boats, Shahwali Basiri, remembers the anguish well. He is quietly spoken. He gathers together the Tampa children for a photograph on a wet Auckland Sunday afternoon.

His community meets at the mosque on weekends. He’s proud of how well they’ve all done. Polite, chatty, modest, articulate young Kiwi Hazara people.

The Indonesian people-smugglers loaded the families on board their boat first. Shahwali didn’t know how many more would step on after them. (Asians in Pakistan had sold them the idea of Australia soon after they fled Afghanistan hidden under blankets in a truck.)

“When I saw how many people there were, I told my brother: ‘The boat is too small. Do we go with them or do we walk away?’ We decided we had no choice because if we didn’t take this boat, the next would be the same,” he says. “We’d be stuck.”

Shahwali trained to become a mechanic when he arrived in Auckland. Other parents set up import businesses. Some sell opulent carpets from Asia and the Middle East. They cover almost every floor in Shawali’s home. He’s glad of the opportunities now but for days on the sea he wondered if they’d all die.

He remembers the loud bang when the little boat’s engine broke, just 24 hours after leaving a quiet Indonesian port. They were supposed to be at Christmas Island within two days of sailing. The steady thrum of the engine had stopped.

The silence after the bang was sickening. He went to the captain’s cabin and they took a torch down to the guts of the boat. The eight-cylinder engine was too powerful for the wooden chassis.

A shaft had snapped clean in half. There was nothing to do but wait and pray.

Their prayers were answered in the form of Arne Rinnan, the Tampa captain. He visited them in Auckland from Norway a year later.

Tampa captain Arne Rinnan

The captain of the MS Tampa, Arne Rinnan, gives a thumbs up against the backdrop of his ship in Sydney.

Shahwali’s son has a yellowing clipping from a paper with a photo of Rinnan, who kept his promise to protect them. He looks at it often, to silently thank the angel who saved them.

EVERY night Hadi Basiri Skypes his Afghani fiancee. He fell in love with her four years ago on a return visit to his home town.

He returned this year for three weeks and proposed. He pulls out his smart phone and swipes proudly through photographs of his exotic wife-to-be.

“That’s her,” he says. He asks the photographer to take some extra pictures – thoughtful, serious ones of him to send her. Love at a distance is tough. No date has been set. He needs to get a job and set himself up before they will marry.

One wedding in Afghanistan, one in New Zealand. Shahwali is proud of his handsome sons.

Hadi is working on a final-year project for his civil engineering degree. It’s an overhaul of a dangerous Auckland intersection which he hopes will be taken up by the road authority.

He remembers the trip from Afghanistan well. Ten at the time, he recalls leaving his friends behind. And his soccer ball. Two changes of clothes were all he could take.

He got another ball in New Zealand and went on to represent Auckland in the inter-city squad. Now his attention is on serious things, like study and work.

Some of the Tampa boys, older teens at the time, unaccompanied by family on the boat, played rugby league. They embraced the local code.

From his dad’s house in a new suburb overlooking Auckland’s city lights he describes the elation seeing the Tampa, a red dot at first, growing as it glided towards them from the horizon.

In short months, they’d gone from fleeing, to stealth mode (in Indonesia, their code word for Australia was “Auntie’s house”), to anticipation, then despair.

Since the day after the engine broke, Australian border control planes had swept over three times, twice a day. They could see the looks on the pilots’ faces, but for three days nobody came to help them.

They had connected their clothes together to form an “S-O-S” on the deck. The little girls remember being rustled up to wave on top when the planes flew over. To show the pilots there were little kids on board.

“We thought we were going to die out there,” Hadi says. “When the Tampaarrived to get us, it was the best moment of my life.”

The Tampa had a crew of 30. They would make the little girls squeal with laughter playing tricks on them that didn’t need a common language. It was cramped, they slept on flattened cardboard boxes and food was limited. But they weren’t going to drown.

Nadi remembers Australian special forces one day falling from the sky and scaling the side of the Tampa.

They appeared on board with AK-47s, expecting a volatile rabble of Afghani desperates. They put the guns away when they saw the passengers were weak, hungry and unarmed. They were no threat.

The Howard Government refused for days to allow the Tampa into Australian waters. It circled Christmas Island, on the starboard side.

None of the Afghanis could see land. The only view they had was out to sea on the port side. Shahwali and his brother’s family were the first to go aboard the HMAS Manoora.

They feared being sent home. Other families followed them. Hadi remembers his dad’s concern. Things worked out well for him and his family. But when he has visited Afghanistan, people ask him whether the ordeal was worth it.

Hadi is hesitant. The trip could have killed him and his family. “We have a good life now. A safe one. But nobody should put themselves in danger like that.”

THE Tampa crew lifted the children first up a three-storey vertical ladder on the side of the container ship.

Sakina Awazi was small even for seven. She had the standard “mushroom” cut that Hazara mums would give their little girls.

She and her friends gently mock the hairdo. “We had Lego hair!” they laugh.

She was the third to stand on the container ship’s deck. Solid ground after days of swaying. But she felt afraid.

“I was standing so far up above, looking down on the rest of my family and feeling very alone. I was so scared,” she recalls. She was among strangers. Her parents were still back on the wooden boat.

Sakina watched as each new person came aboard, hoping it would be her mum.

It felt like hours she stood and waited. It probably was. Her father and uncle were the 437th and 438th to come aboard. Until then, nobody had counted the human cargo. They were stunned.

Sakina is 19 now. She is in her first year of a degree in visual arts at Auckland’s Unitec. She wants to be a photojournalist. She speaks Farsi at home with her family and breaks into it occasionally, excited chatter with her friends. She wears modest western clothes, with a headscarf. Maybe one day she will fall in love with a Hazara man and marry.

But Sakina is a Kiwi at heart. You’d find none so staunchly patriotic. Her English consonants are blunted with the Kiwi neutral. She is a mad All Blacks fan – watches every game on TV and hopes to be in the crowd one day to cheer her team on. This young woman bears a small grudge against Australia for leaving them all at sea. It’s a feeling that, if shared by the others, they aren’t saying so.

Sakina loved seeing her team beat the Aussies in the Bledisloe Cup. “Satisfying,” she says wryly.

Family who have settled in Australia since that time encourage her to visit, to come over and live when she’s older and has her degree.

They think there are better job opportunities. That life is better in Australia.

“But I’ll never live in Australia. They rejected us when they shouldn’t have,” she says. “I feel like I’d be breaking a promise to New Zealand if I went. This is my home now.”



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Filed under Boat Tragedy, PNG/Pacific Solution, Talented Asylum Seekers

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