Refugee boat survivors traumatized; hundreds die
Story last updated at 10:58 a.m. on Tuesday, October 23, 2001
by Chris Brummitt
Associated Press

BOGOR, Indonesia -- Traumatized survivors of a boat sinking compared the tragedy to the film "Titanic" and one said 200 people, mainly women and children, were trapped in the vessel's hull as it sunk off the Indonesia coast.

Others drowned after floating in the water for hours. Officials say the death toll may pass 350.

"I held onto a woman's body for two days. I was very tired," said Amal Hasan, a 47-year-old woman from Iraq. "I wanted to die. I saw children die quickly, including beautiful girls."

The wooden boat, which was reportedly carrying illegal immigrants to neighboring Australia, sank Friday. U.N. officials said only 44 survivors were pulled from the water out of a reported 421 on board. News of the catastrophe was only made public on Monday.

Today some survivors were recovering in a refugee camp, said Kemala Ahwil, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta.

Underscoring the clandestine nature of people smuggling and the difficulties Indonesian authorities have in controlling it, spokesmen for the police and navy could not confirm reports of the sinking.

In the Wisma Palar refugee camp in Bogor, a town about 38 miles south of Jakarta, dozens of people were milling about, many of them still dazed by their experience.

Hasan recalled 200 people trapped in the vessel's hull.

Bahram Khan, from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, said he lost four brothers in the disaster. He said the 19-meter vessel set sail from a fishing port in southern Sumatra after the refugees had paid $4,000 each for the journey.

"About 2 p.m. the hull sprang a hole. The mechanic could not fix it and the boat sank," Khan said, adding that he had spent 20 hours clinging to a piece of wood before being picked up by Indonesian fishermen.

A survivor who refused to give his name said it was "just like the film, 'Titanic,"' with the boat going down immediately once the problem started.

The International Organization for Migration reported in Geneva that most of the immigrants were Iraqis, but that there were also Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians on board.

Thousands of migrants head for Australia every year from Southeast Asia. Leaky, unseaworthy vessels overloaded with passengers and cargo routinely leave Indonesian ports without working radios or enough lifejackets.

The ship left on Thursday, IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said. Later that day 21 passengers asked to get off the boat and were put ashore on an Indonesian island.

Early the following morning, the captain announced that the engine had stopped and the ship, with 400 passengers aboard, was taking on water.

"The boat sank in 10 minutes," Chauzy said.

Maritime disasters, with large loss of life, are common in Indonesia, a chain of more than 13,000 islands between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Sea safety is often lax and shipping laws are ignored and rarely enforced.

Criminal gangs with links to corrupt Indonesian authorities routinely pack hundreds of people into leaky fishing boats for the one-way run to the nearest Australian territorial waters, about 220 miles south of Java.

In April 2000, up to 350 asylum seekers were feared drowned off northern Australia, although their deaths were never confirmed. In December of that year, unconfirmed reports said that two boats carrying up to 163 people sank in bad weather en route to Australia's Ashmore Island.

Indonesia, a developing country with massive economic problems, does not have a coast guard. Its navy is badly equipped and has minimal search-and-rescue capability.

The Australian government has recently tried to crack down on asylum seekers from the Middle East as well as Central and South Asia. Australia has demanded that Indonesia do more to stop the migrants, and has refused to let many land on its territory, transferring them to neighboring Pacific island states for processing.

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