'Tragedy of monumental proportions'
Indonesia ship survivors 'severely traumatized'
undated - probably 24 October 2001

Traumatized survivors of an Indonesian boat that sank with the loss of more than 350 mostly Iraqi asylum seekers were being treated in hospital on Tuesday, many with broken limbs and coral cuts.

Australia's immigration minister said scores of victims died during 20 hours in the water awaiting rescue in what he called a "tragedy of monumental proportions."

The overcrowded boat, which sank on Friday on its way to Australia's Christmas Island from Lampung in Sumatra, was carrying asylum seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Local fishermen plucked the 44 survivors, including an eight-year-old boy who lost nine members of his family, from the sea off the southwestern tip of Indonesia's main island of Java. Officials previously said the boy lost 21 members of his family.

Only two of 18 people admitted to hospital remain there. All the other survivors are being held at a community hall in the hill resort of Bogor south of Jakarta, where men wailed hysterically, mourning their dead relatives.

Tales of suffering
Iraqi Sadeeq Razak lost his wife but managed to save his two-year-old daughter after waves shattered the rickety boat during the second day of its journey across the Indian Ocean.

"I put my daughter on my shoulder and tried to cling to my wife. When a wave smashed us, I lost her," said 25-year-old Razak who continued floating by clinging to boat debris for 20 hours while holding on to his child, Kautsar.

She was the only infant who survived the tragedy.

Another survivor, eight-year old Hussein Jawad lost nine members of his family including his mother and said he survived because he was with his father and elder brother on the top deck of the three-storey boat.

"It's because I was with my baba (father)," said the deeply traumatized, skinny boy whose father was still being treated in the hospital and whose brother was among the wailing men.

Most of the survivors were mainly men who were on the top floor of the vessel. They used boat wreckage to stay afloat. Most of the victims were women, children and old men who occupied the bottom level of the boat, believing it would be more comfortable.

Disaster a matter of time
Thousands of would-be refugees attempt the treacherous crossing from the vast Indonesian archipelago to Australia's unprotected north every year and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said disaster had only been a matter of time.

"The way the people smugglers pack these boats with far too many people, we've always been afraid that this sort of tragedy was going to happen," the IOM's head in Indonesia, Richard Danziger, told Reuters.

Survivors told IOM officials that more than 20 people refused to board the boat in Lampung when it was due to sail because they felt it was too dangerous.

The organization is helping the survivors, many suffering broken bones, bad coral cuts or psychological trauma, with food, medicine and counselling.

"What we are focusing on right now is the medical help, the counselling -- I mean, they are severely traumatized," Danziger said. "In terms of their future status, it's just too early to answer that."

An Indonesian navy spokesman told Reuters no official search had been launched for more survivors because so much time had passed since the ship sank. Indonesian officials originally said the disaster happened some time over the weekend.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told reporters in Australia as many as 120 people initially survived when the vessel capsized and broke up, but many perished during the roughly 20 hours that passed before they were rescued by two fishing boats.

"This is a tragedy of monumental proportions," he said, adding the boat was built to carry about 150 people.

They were mostly Iraqis, but included Iranians, Afghans, Palestinians and Algerians.

Australia, popular target
The navy spokesman said the passengers paid $800-$1,900 a head for a berth on the voyage to Australia's remote Christmas Island, a popular landing target for thousands of asylum seekers trying to make it to Australia every year.

Many are crammed into leaky boats with little water or food. Hundreds have died in recent years after their boats sank.

Another boatload of about 220 asylum seekers, most of whom said they were from Afghanistan, arrived off Christmas Island at the weekend.

Under tough new immigration controls, most asylum seekers arriving by boat are denied the right to set foot on Australia and are shipped off to remote Pacific Islands for processing instead.

Bogor, Indonesia - Reuters


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