Boats failed to help: refugee tells of sea tragedy and drownings

Canberra Times
Wednesday, 19 June 2002

Najah Zubaidy's long journey from Iraq to Australia finally ended when she was reunited with her husband and young daughters in Adelaide on Friday, a reunion torn by the tragedy she struck on the way. Najah, 26, was one of just 44 survivors on the Indonesian boat that sank en route to Australia last year, with the loss of 353 lives. Among the dead was her 18-month-old son, Karrar.

Her sister, Najla, 20, and her brother, Haydar, 22, also died in the disaster which is now under investigation by the Senate's children-overboard inquiry.

Najah said yesterday her happiness at finally arriving in Australia was tainted by the memory of her family members who drowned.

Speaking through translator Keysar Trad, a Muslim community leader in Sydney, Najah said she felt depressed and dehumanised by her treatment since the sinking, "as if the treatment after the journey was a war of nerves, delays and unfulfilled promises leading to stress and depression".

She referred to the case of Roukayya Sattar who remains in Indonesia, having been allocated to Australia but since told that she has closer relatives in Norway.

Roukayya lost her husband and two daughters in the sinking. She tells of trying to hold her daughters out of the water, but they drowned after being repeatedly pushed under by others struggling to survive. She was pregnant and has since given birth to a boy, and is, according to Najah, very depressed.

Najah left Iraq for Iran with her family in 1995. Her parents, husband and two daughters, now aged nine and eight, headed for Australia almost two years ago, spending five months at the Port Hedland detention centre before being released.

Najah followed with her two sisters, her brother and baby. Just two of the five survived the ill-fated SIEV X on October 19.

She said she was persuaded to join the boat after running out of money in Sumatra, Indonesia, where they were staying in heavily guarded villas. The family of five paid $US4000 ($A7100) plus 0.5kg of gold jewellery.

They were trucked to a port where armed men, some in police uniforms, intimidated people into boarding. Those who objected were told they would not get a refund.

They had been told they were on a transit boat and would be taken to a bigger boat where they would have individual rooms.

They left at 6am, stopping only to let about 20 people transfer to a boat heading back to shore about half an hour later. After travelling through the night, the boat's engine stopped at midday the next day. She and others threw bags overboard, but at 3.10pm the boat began to break up. It felt like an earthquake, she said.

They had been told there were sufficient life jackets on board, but in the event, there were not enough for even a quarter of those on board.

As the sun was setting she saw three large boats nearby. They shone "projector lights" and her brother swam towards them with some other young men. Others were blowing the whistles on their life jackets, but the boats stayed away, and survivors were not rescued till the next day after about 20 hours in the water.

Najah said she had been reluctant to talk previously about the boats that watched them during the night, fearing for her visa. Other survivors have also spoken about the boats, which remain unexplained, but stories differ about the point of embarkation and the progress of the trip. Others have told of the tragedy of clinging to bits of wood through the night while their families died around them, with just four of the 150 children on board said to have survived. But Najah did not want to talk about the detail of that night in the water.

She and her sister are among eight survivors accepted by Australia, including a 12-year-old girl who lost her entire family and who lives with her uncle in Sydney, and Sundous Ismael Ibrahim, who lost her three daughters and who joined her husband in Sydney in March. She, like the Zubaidy family, is on a temporary visa.

Mr Trad believed another survivor arrived in Melbourne last week, with three still to come.


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