Sea of tears

Stuart Rintoul and Vanessa Walker
The Australian
24 October 2001

AT 2am on Monday, Ali al-Sobbi received a phone call from his nephew. "He said, 'uncle, you have to prepare prayers because you have lost all of your family'," Mr al-Sobbi says, breaking into tears.

In the dreadful sea off Java, he lost his wife, Zainab, and three daughters: Dunya, 14, Marwa, 12 and Hijran, 10. Now he sits on a Persian rug in a concrete flat in Sydney's southwest where the sound of wailing drowns out the railway line, and says: "I am dying."

In Melbourne, Abbas Akram thanks God for the preservation of his wife, Amal Hassan, and their son. In west Java, Ms Hassan has told how she survived by clinging to a piece of wood and a dead woman. Five of her nieces and nephews were drowned. She has said: "Beautiful girls, beautiful children quickly, quickly die."

Both women had paid people-smugglers in bids to join their husbands. Both men had also paid people-smugglers to get to Australia where both have been accepted as refugees and placed on three-year temporary protection visas, which do not entitle their families to join them. Both men, once wealthy in Iraq, say they advised their wives against the trip.

Mr Akram says his wife told him: "If death is waiting for us, we are dying anyway."

For Ms Hassan and Mr Akram, who was an art dealer in Iraq, it had already been a four-year journey. They fled Iraq at the end of 1997, first to Iran where it was "impossible to survive", then back to northern Iraq.

They parted there in December 1999. Mr Akram paid people-smugglers $US4000 for transport and false papers. He does not know how much his wife paid. Asked why they chose an illegal route to Australia, he said: "We were desperate, we had no choice."

In January last year, Mr Akram made it to Ashmore Reef, which last month was removed from Australia's migration zone under border control legislation designed to protect Australia and "take the burden off Australia's humanitarian and judicial system". Mr al-Sobbi says his wife was tired of waiting, first in Malaysia, then six weeks in an Indonesian hotel, and paid $US5000 to an employee of an Egyptian people-smuggler

"She applied to the Australian embassy (in Indonesia) but they wouldn't even see her," he says. He says his journey to exile began with an accident in 1991 when a portrait of Saddam Hussein fell from the wall of the Baghdad supermarket he owned, and shattered.

Soon after, he was reported to the police for dishonouring the dictator, tortured and interrogated. He was smuggled out of Iraq with his family and sought refuge in Iran for eight years.

On September 12 1999, he said, he kissed his wife and children goodbye and headed for Indonesia, where he paid $US2000 to a people-smuggler to get passage to Australia.

After a year in Curtin detention centre, he was granted a temporary visa.

In Melbourne, Mr Akram is asked what he thinks of Australia's rejection of illegal asylum-seekers. Through an interpreter, he says: "We feel it is unfair. We wish that the Australian Government would look upon us in a humane way, because we have no other choice, our country has been under siege for so long. I hope the Australian Government and the Australian people attempt to understand."

Sitting beside Mr al-Sobbi, in a room where men are crying for the dead and cursing Australia, Imam Mohammed Al-Mossawee, has also lost his wife, Khadeeja Ismail.

Fiery one minute, silent the next, he says: "The arduous journey to get to Australia is extremely difficult. However, hoping one day we will see our families or get a visa or they will be released to see us is more difficult than the journey itself and more distressing than death."

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