When despair sets out to cheat a slow death
By Kelly Burke
The Age
Thursday 25 October 2001

Ali Mahdi received the phone call at 2am on Tuesday.

"Uncle, you have to prepare prayers," his nephew told him. "You have lost all of your family."

In a darkened, unfurnished unit in Sydney's outer-west, Mr Mahdi speaks of his incomprehensible loss. He clutches a photograph of his daughters, Dunya, 14, Marwa, 12, and Hijran, 10. Travelling with their mother, Zainab, the girls believed they would soon be reunited with their father after climbing aboard an Indonesian fishing boat in Lampung last Thursday. They never made it.

"Do these beautiful children look like terrorists?" he asks. "These are John Howard's and Mr Ruddock's queue-jumpers."

In the next room, Ahmed Alzalimi crouches on the floor, rocking and weeping. The white scarf covering his face cannot conceal his grief, nor muffle his cries of pain.

"Where are my babies, where are my babies?"

He, too, mourns the loss of three daughters. News of the tragedy came via his wife, calling from a makeshift haven 20 kilometres outside Jakarta.

Sondos Ismail, who spent 19 hours in the sea after the boat, carrying 421 asylum seekers, sank off Java last Friday, told her husband their daughters Aiman, 9, Fatima, 7, and Zahra, 6, had perished.

Also lost was her sister, Khadija, whose husband, Mohammed Al-Musawi, speaks through an interpreter of the despair underlying their journey.

"We know that to come by sea is an arduous and dangerous journey ... but (the alternative) is to wait and hope and wait, hope that one day we will see our families again, or that one day we might get a permanent visa, or one day we'll be released out of detention, or one day we'll get at least permission to travel to a third country to see (our family) ...

"But this waiting and hoping can be more painful than the journey itself. And more distressing than death ... these obstacles that have been put here by Australian immigration, they are a slow death."

Mr Al-Musawi, Mr Mahdi and Mr Alzalimi, all Iraqi nationals, have been granted temporary protection visas. They, too, entered the country illegally, via boats from Indonesia. They cannot sponsor their families until a permanent visa is granted, which can take up to five years. They say their families boarded the leaking fishing boat because they believed they had no alternative.

"How can you have feelings about jumping a queue when this is the last resort you have? What does a queue mean, when you are desperate?" asks Mr Mahdi, who says his family paid $5000 to an Egyptian people smuggler in Jakarta, after his wife was turned away from the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

Mr Mahdi knew what his wife and daughters were facing when they boarded that boat; he made the same treacherous journey two years earlier, landing in Western Australia on November 11, 1999. He was taken to the Curtin detention centre and released late last year.

"We didn't come here looking for Centrelink payments or for any handout from the government," Mr Al-Musawi said. "We came here looking for peace, safety and freedom, but in Australia these have turned out to be empty slogans."

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