Hussein's Homecoming

SBS Dateline
Yaara Bou Melhem
15 October 2013

Two weeks ago, our story on the survivors of the latest asylum seeker boat sinking off Indonesia sparked a storm of controversy. Our viewers were outraged by an incendiary speech from a Lebanese sheikh, blaming Australia for the tragedy. He was from the village of Qabeit, which lost 18 people in the disaster. Yaara Bou Melhem was on hand as the survivors made an emotional return to Beirut, including a man whose entire family drowned. And it seems the sheikh was changing his tune about Australia.


REPORTER:   Yaara Bou Melhem


As the survivors take their first steps back on home soil, there is relief for some. But also fear and uncertainty for others, who, 10 days after the tragedy, still don't know if their loved ones are dead or alive. 


MAN (Translation):  Some say ďHeís dead,Ē others say ďWe donít know.Ē  Well, isnít this the governmentís responsibility?

REPORTER (Translation):  What is his name?


MAN (Translation):  Mustafa Ahmed Abdo.


WOMAN (Translation):  She says she saw him on TV.


MAN (Translation):  What is his name?


WOMAN (Translation):  Nasser Youssef.


MAN (Translation):  Nasser Youssef?


WOMAN (Translation):   Nasser Youssef, my son.  Iím his mother.


MAN (Translation):  Nasser Youssef, not here. He is not among the dead. He survived. Hajja, heíll  come on Monday.


And this man says Indonesian security forces were complicit in the tragedy.


MAN 2 (Translation):  Majors and colonels put us on the boat.


REPORTER (Translation):   In Indonesia? 


MAN 2 (Translation):   Yes.  They took us from the houses and told us to go. Colonels.


This is Hussein Khoder, who lost his wife and eight children. His relatives here in Lebanon were featured in our last story. 


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  I swam and the waves helped me too, the waves helped many people get to shore. Mainly those who held on to the wooden parts, but the boat was on top of us, we were underneath it.


Hussein is accompanied by his cousin, Sheikh Ali Khoder, whose fiery speech against Australia two weeks ago enraged our viewers.


SHEIKH ALI KHODER (Translation):  Is there a court of justice to try you, Australia?


The survivors take this convoy, with black mourning flags, for the 3-hour journey back to the village.


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  I feel that I had a family, I was with them somewhere and I am back without them. Iím back without them. God help me with my mother, I donít know what to do. When I left, I went on Etihad Airways, my family took up the whole row Ė from one end to the other, all together. Coming back, they were not there, people I didnít know were in their seats.

Let me greet my mother first and I will come back, let me be strong in front of her. She is sick.

As the convoy returns, the media is again out in force. Hussein's arrival is beamed live.


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  How are you, mum? Iím well, Mum donít worry about me.


MOTHER (Translation):  Praise God for your safety.


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  Thatís enough, sit down. Later.


NEWSMAN (Translation):  What is the first thing you want to say in Qabeit?


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  I want to thank you so much for sharing my pain.


NEWSMAN (Translation):  What do you say to the villagers or those who want to take the risk?


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  No, no, no. No one should take that risk. Everyone must know that Australia does not want to welcome anyone.


This realisation has come too late to save his family. But Hussein saw no future in this small village, or anywhere else in his homeland. 


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  The political situation is not good, things are not good here, that is why I insisted on leaving the country.


He says work is scarce and Sunni-Shiah violence is increasing. He claims both he and his late son had been attacked. 


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  You canít imagine how many times they pulled a knife on him at school and frightened him so that he would leave the school and flee. Put yourself in my shoes or my sonís shoes. Who doesnít want to be safe, happy and free from being troubled by anyone?


Hussein's tragedy is compounded by the fact that his brother, Nasser, warned him of the dangers.

HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  He didnít think it was a good idea and he advised me not to go. They all did. But when you are under pressure what do you do? You would rather die than be humiliated in front of everyone.  I would rather go and die in the sea than have someone the age of my children form a gang and kill us on the road.


Hussein and the others who took the deadly voyage were easy prey for the people smuggler. 


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  They showed us photos of a ship, a good ship, a proper one that had food, drink, bathrooms, beds and everything. They promised us the voyage would not take more than 18 hours and they showed us everything.

When we went to get on that boat, the boat of death, we said ďNo, we wonít go. Not on this. How can we go on this?Ē  They got us sitting on top of each other, there was no room to sit as it was too small.  Innocent children, the children who were with us, the little ones and the women, started screaming.  ďFind us a solution, do something!Ē  Imagine seeing people dying before your eyes and you are not doing anything, you canít do anything.


The boat sank close to shore and the water filled with bodies, including his wife and eight children. As he staggered onto the sand, Hussein tried desperately to save one of them. 


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  I did first aid for her, I pressed her abdomen so that if she had swallowed water, it would come out. But unfortunately, there was no water. She was dead.


With the media swarming in the village, the controversial sheikh seems inclined to blame everyone for the tragedy.


SHEIKH ALI KHODER (Translation):  Forget Indonesia, it is a backward country, they didnít even respect the bodies. 


On my last visit here, the Khoder family had just received the terrible news. The photos spoke of unimaginable loss.


RELATIVE (Translation):   And this is Mariam, his youngest, she is one and a half. God rest her soul.


MAN (Translation):  Thank you.


As the village gathered to grieve, the sheikh launched his explosive attack. It was also broadcast live and sparked controversy in Australia.  But today, the sheikh is apologetic.


SHEIKH ALI KHODER (Translation):  Australia, shame on you, shame on you, that your new rulers have reached the stage of killing people and making this part of their election campaign.


But today the sheikh is apologetic.


SHEIKH ALI KHODER (Translation):  You can imagine, I lost nine of my relatives, among them children, young girls and young people. My heart was aching over them. Now, after this catastrophe and after verifying the facts, I apologise for the information I received, based on which I said what I said, that they had entered Australian waters. It turned out that they had not  and that they were outside Australian waters.


Outside, Hussein is relentlessly pursued. 


REPORTER (Translation):  Did those who survived know how to swim?


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  Not necessarily. A four-year-old boy survived, he didnít swim or anything. God saved him.


As the media move away, he begins to tell his brother about the tragedy, and here there's more controversy - about the timing of Australia's response. 


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  We rang the water police.


BROTHER (Translation):  The Australian coast guard.


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  Thatís the one. We spoke to them - he said ďCan you speak English?Ē  I said ďNo. My friend Abdullah speaks English.Ē


In Indonesia, survivor Abdullah Al Qisi takes up the story.


ABDULLAH AL QISI:  So, we tried to call the Australian Government. We called them and we said, "We're drowning. We need your help." They said, "OK, we can help you. Just send us the position of the GPS, that's where you are exactly." I did. I sent it and he called me back and he said, "OK, I got it. I know where are you. We're gonna help new two hours." We wait for 2.5 hours and we call again. "Where are you?" He said, "I need to send me another GPS, a higher view of the GPS photo, so we can, like, uh, precisely know where are you." We did. And we kept calling and calling for 12 hour. And they just kept saying, "We're coming in. We're coming. We're coming." So at that point, we know that they're not gonna come.


As Abdullah, a Palestinian from Jordan, faced an uncertain future, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rejected claims that Australia failed to quickly respond.


SCOTT MORRISON, IMMIGRATION MINISTER:  Any suggestion otherwise is as offensive as it is wrong.


Air Marshal Mark Binskin also weighed in.


AIR MARSHAL MARK BINSKIN:   Now, you'll be aware of some of the reporting surrounding this tragedy. I would like to just clarify that at no point did AMSA indicate that assistance would be provided within two hours, as has been reported to the media. Nor was AMSA aware of the vessel for 26 hours prior to the vessel foundering, as has also been reported.


But over the course of many interviews, Al Qisi remains adamant he was told help was just two hours away, and that he began making calls to the rescue authorities on a Thursday, not Friday, as the Australian Government asserts.


ABDULLAH AL QISI:  Thursday, we called the Australian Government. 


Back in Lebanon, a meal is prepared for Hussein and the men of the village. And it seems, for Hussein's father, at least, Australia is still not out of the question. 


FATHER (Translation):  What would you think if we sent you to Australia legally to live with your cousins and nephews?


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  You can say what you want but I will say what I think, I donít feel like it anymore. The people I wanted to go there for are gone.


FATHER (Translation):  Now go for me, I like Australia, I have feelings for it.


MAN (Translation):   Australia is a fair country, anyone with a broken heart, theyíll fix it.


Despite this pressure to try again, Hussein can barely contemplate life without his family, or possessions - sold to pay the people smuggler for the doomed voyage.


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  I had an LCD TV here, I brought it for 1200 dollars, I sold it to make up the money for the Journey of Death.  This house was full, all of it was full, nothing is left. All of this here was furnished. It was allÖ. Itís abandoned.


REPORTER (Translation):  Where was your room, your bedroom?


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  The bedroom is inside.


REPORTER (Translation):   Can we see it?


HUSSEIN KHODER (Translation):  You can see it - that is if the key is here. I think it is.  Itís still locked. Oh God, itís still locked. There is no one to open it for me.  I want to leave Lebanon. Iím adamant on leaving Lebanon. I have nothing left in it, my loved ones are gone.

This is Lebanon, beautiful landscape, look at the sea. What can I say? What can I say? I have to see a doctor for my chest, I really donít feel good. I canít talk, I canít breath, Iím short of breath, I am constantly coughing and I have pain in my back. I have to see a doctor, I donít know what to say, I have run out of words. I have nothing to say.

ANJALI RAO:   Just unimaginable, what that poor man is going through right now. Yaara Bou Melhem reporting. Well, there's a blog from Yaara online looking at why people like Hussein are so desperate to leave Lebanon. After such a big reaction from you last time, do let us know what you think about the sheikh's change of heart.










Original Music Composed by


15th October 2013


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