Refugees clung to driftwood to escape shipwreck

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Men buried their heads in their hands as the sound of wailing filled the air in a community hall in the small Indonesian town of Bogor.

Men buried their heads in their hands as the sound of wailing filled the air in a community hall in the small Indonesian town of Bogor.

Survivors of a shipwreck that killed 356 asylum-seekers described how they clung to driftwood in choppy seas for 19 hours while watching their loved ones slip away.

Their hopelessly overcrowded boat was on its way to Australia, carrying mainly Iraqi and Afghan refugees, when it sank off the Indonesian island of Java. Forty-four battered and traumatised people were plucked alive from the ocean by fishermen the next day.

Earlier, another 21 people had demanded to be put ashore, alarmed by the state of the vessel.

Among those who died, in the worst tragedy to befall a boatload of asylum-seekers, were 70 children. Sadeeq Razak, from Iraq, saved his two-year-old daughter, Kautsar. "I held the baby on my back. Four or five times she went down and I got her out again. I tried to cling to my wife. When a wave smashed us, I lost her." Another Iraqi, who gave his name only as Musa, said: "About 14 people were trying to hold on to the same piece of wood. Slowly, one by one, they lost their grip and sank. I was swallowing gasoline and water. We had no hope, but prayed that God help us."

About 200 people, mainly women and children, are thought to have been trapped in the hull when the boat capsized. The survivors were mainly men, travelling on the less comfortable upper deck. A mayday call went unanswered; at least 120 people are believed to have drowned during the long wait to be rescued.

The shipwreck – which happened at the weekend but was made public only on Monday – provoked an unseemly political dispute in Australia, where immigration has been a key issue in the campaign leading up to next month's general election.

Kim Beazley, the opposition leader, has supported the hardline policies of John Howard's conservative government, which turned away a boatload of 433 Afghans in August, and sent the navy to patrol the north-west coast to repel asylum-seekers before they entered Australian waters.

Yesterday, though, Mr Beazley said the drownings demonstrated the failure of the government's asylum policy. Mr Howard condemned the remarks as despicable and "a rotten slur", although refugee advocacy groups expressed a similar view to Mr Beazley. William Malley, the chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia, said: "The government is very lucky this boat did not sink after it was pushed away from Australia by a naval vessel."

In Indonesia, there was no time for recriminations, only for tears. While injured survivors were treated for broken bones and lacerations at the hospital in Bogor, about 40 miles south of Jakarta, others clung to each other for comfort.

The events that led them there were depressingly familiar. They had made their way to Indonesia, where they had paid "people smugglers" up to £1,400 a head for the perilous crossing to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. Some Palestinians, Iranians and Algerians were also on the boat. When the vessel set sail from Lampung in southern Sumatra last Thursday, more than 20 people refused to board because they had doubts about its seaworthiness. Two hours later, 21 others asked to be put ashore on a small island off Java for the same reason.

Their fears were quickly borne out. Early on Friday, the captain announced the engine had stopped and the boat – which had a capacity to carry fewer than 200 people – was taking on water. He urged the passengers to try to scoop out water. Ten minutes later, the boat sunk.

Bahram Khan, from the Afghan city of Jalalabad, lost four brothers and three cousins. He said: "The hull sprang a hole, and the ship fell to the left side. We all rushed to the right side, but it immediately sank. It broke into many pieces, and everyone was trying to hang on to a piece."

The survivors are being cared for by the International Organisation for Migration. Richard Danziger, the head of the IOM in Indonesia, said the youngest person to drown was aged three. A boy aged eight lost 21 members of his family.

Philip Ruddock, the Australian Immigration Minister, said the shipwreck highlighted the need to curb the activities of people smugglers. "This tragedy may have an upside, in the sense that some people will see the dangers that are inherent in it."