Survivors tell of desperate struggle for life after 350 drown off Indonesia
23 October 2001

GUNUNG PUTRI, Indonesia, Oct 23 (AFP) - Survivors of a sea disaster off Indonesia which killed about 350 Australia-bound asylum-seekers spoke on Tuesday of their desperate struggle for life after the overloaded boat foundered.

"About 14 people were trying to hold on to the same piece of wood," Musa, an Iraqi aged 41, told AFP.

"Slowly, one by one, they lost their grip and sank. I drank and swallowed gasoline and water and I was about 20 hours in the water.

"We had no hope (of surviving) but prayed that God help us."

About 350 asylum-seekers, mainly Iraqis, drowned late Thursday and 44 were rescued Saturday, said Richard Danziger, local chief of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

"An eight-year-old child was the only survivor of a family of 21. It is horrific."

He said his relief organisation was trying to clarify earlier reports that 21 passengers disembarked on an island after the voyage began.

It was thought to be the worst disaster involving desperate Middle Eastern asylum-seekers who use Indonesia as the last stepping stone to Australia -- trusting their lives to people-smugglers using dilapidated and overloaded boats.

The boat left Lampung in Sumatra island Thursday and capsized the following day. Survivors spent almost a day in choppy seas before being rescued by two Indonesian fishing boats.

They were brought to Jakarta Monday and transferred that evening to a guest house in this village south of the capital. Ronni Bala of the IOM said eight were still in hospital.

"The boat could only carry about 150 people (safely)," Musa told AFP. The people-smugglers, he said, had claimed it had a capacity of more than 400.

On seeing the boat 10 people refused even to board.

"We could not return because if we return, the smugglers would not return our money, and we had no more money," Musa said.

Behram, 46, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan, said through a translator he was the only Afghan survivor. Seven other Afghans -- three of his cousins and his four brothers -- drowned.

"When water came into the ship we used the pump but later it did not work. We tried to repair the water pump but could not. Slowly, water came up and the engine stopped working," he said.

"The ship fell to the left side. We all rushed to the right side but the ship immediately sank. It broke into many pieces, everybody was trying to hang on to a piece of wood.

He spent about 20 hours on the water before being rescued around 2 pm on Saturday.

"I saw them (brothers and cousins) when the ship started to sink, but then I could not see them any more.

"This is a smuggling job, the smugglers only want money, They do not care about our lives and I do not know who is to blame," Behram said.

"I wanted any country which can give me food. Afghans want a peaceful country where they can get food."

A 47-year-old Iraqi woman, Amal Hasan, was barefoot and had cuts on her feet and legs.

She came with her son Amjid, 19, to try to join her husband, who has been in Melbourne for the past three years as a refugee.

"I am very tired but I cannot go back to Iraq. If I go back to Iraq, Saddam (President Saddam Hussein) will kill me," she said.

"I gave him (the smuggler who is an Indonesian) all my money. Now tell me what I should do? I cannot stay here. My hope and that of everyone on the ship is to go to Australia.

"Everybody has beautiful dreams about Australia."

"I told everyone the boat was made from wood, but everyone said to me: silence, we want to go to Australia," she said about her earlier fears of boarding the boat.

She clutched a plank to survive.

Amjid said he and his mother paid a total of 2,100 dollars to the people-smugglers. He said the captain of the boat was Indonesian but an Iraqi might have been among the crew.

Danziger said the passengers were mainly Iraqis with a handful of Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians.

"Four or five boats this year have foundered near the coast with one or two drowned but not a tragedy on this scale," Danziger said. "As far as I know it's the worst (such incident).

"We were waiting for such a tragedy to happen."

Danziger said he believed quite a number of women and children were on board. "I understand the youngest was a baby aged three months."

In August, 433 would-be immigrants, most of them Afghans, were rescued by a Norwegian cargo ship from a sinking Indonesian boat. They spent eight days at sea following Canberra's refusal to let them land on its territory of Christmas Island.

The group was later taken to of Nauru, where they were processed as refugees.


Back to