Survivor tells of frantic calls to Australia as asylum-seeker boat sank

Peter Alford
The Australian
September 28, 2013 6:10PM

A SURVIVOR of yesterday's asylum-seeker boat horror says he called Australia 10 times in the space of 24 hours pleading for help "and they didn't come".

"We called them and we told them we're sinking, we need anybody to help us," said 28-year-old Abdullah al Qisi.

"And they said 'okay how many'. I told them 81 and 35 children. And they said 'okay send us your GPS position'. I did twice."

None of the children survived, according to the asylum-seekers. There were none among the 22 people who were brought from the remote West Java coast to Sukabumi this afternoon.

"And they were telling us 'we're coming, we're coming' and they didn't come," said Abdullah.

"If they going to (say) they didn't tell their position, I am going to tell, you are lying."

That was Thursday, apparently, and the boat remained afloat, but taking water heavily for another day, before it broke apart in heavy surf less than 100 metres from the beach near Cikole, an isolated fishing village.

Twenty-five people made shore yesterday afternoon. Another three were found this morning.

There are 21 bodies, seven children and nine women, still in Cikole. According Abdullah's account 32 people are missing, with hopes faint and fading any more will be found alive.

Abdullah and several of the others today denied a claim by West Java police that the fishing boat captain and his crewman went overboard to another waiting boat after they were paid for the Christmas Island passage.

"They were with us until the boat sank," said one man. "Then they ran away."

The sinking is the second fatal boat accident off the West Java since then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced in mid-July Australia was shutting its doors to any asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Tony Abbott is due in Jakarta Monday afternoon for talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Though Mr Abbott has tried to de-emphasise his new government's controversial anti-asylum seeker program, this latest tragedy and a diplomatic blow-up, involving Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa, ensures the problem will be the focus of the PM's visit.

Most of the asylum-seekers in yesterday's disaster were Lebanese.

An official from Lebanon's Jakarta embassy said today it was the first case she had seen of Lebanese asylum-seekers coming through Indonesia.

There were also a sprinkling of Iranians, Iraqis and eight Eritreans, some of them former soldiers.

One of the young Lebanese survivors, Achmad el-Haddad, said he and a group of friends had fled their country "because there is fighting, fighting, every day".

Pointing to an older, silent man, Achmad said: "He has lost his wife and eight children.

"Will the Australians take us now," he asked as the miserable, badly sun-burned and mostly still shocked survivors huddled in the lobby of the Sarah Hotel, where they are now in Indonesian Immigration detention.

It was clear he had no idea that more than two months ago the then Australian government had slammed the door on anybody else arriving by boat.

But Abdullah wants to know why nobody from Australia came to help after he called at least 10 times and, he says Australia called back twice.

His iPhone, which he used to call and to send GPS co-ordinates, is somewhere under water and he does not have the number or the name of the authority he kept phoning.

But it has been common practice for Indonesia-based smugglers over the past 18 months to send their boats out with a satellite phone and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's emergency phone number. The survivors say their satellite phone didn't work.

Abdullah said: "I told them 'we don't want to come to Australia, just rescue us, we have so many children'. Yes. 35 children have died.

" They were, like, 'we're coming, we're coming, there's an airplane coming'.

"We told the Australian government, we told Indonesian government, we told anybody, why nobody come?"

Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison said Australian authorities received a call about the vessel on Friday morning that placed the stricken boat about 25 nautical miles of Indonesia, AAP reported.

Mr Morrison said the Rescue Co-ordination Centre had maintained co-ordination of the search and notified the Indonesian rescue agency. An all-ships broadcast was issued by Australian authorities, but a merchant ship and a border protection aircraft were both unable to find the vessel.

A duty officer at Basarnas, the Indonesian search and rescue agency, told The Australian today the first message his office had from AMSA was around 8am local time on Friday.

Cikote villagers saw the first survivors struggling out of the water about 3pm.

The survivors said they put from the Banten, western Java coastline, on Monday night, though Abdullah said he was not quite sure of that because by Day Three, Thursday, they were without water or food and the boat’s motor had failed.

That was when, Abdullah said, he started started calling Australia.

Additional reporting: Telly Nathalia


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