Three little victims of the smugglers
By Don Greenlees, Vanessa Walker
The Australian
25 October 2001

THEY are sisters in their best dresses, smiling for a family photograph.

For Ahmed al-Zalime, it is a reminder of the family he left behind in Iran two years ago - his wife, Sondos Ismail, and daughters Eman, 8, Zhra, 6, and Fatimah, 5.

Yesterday, Ahmed, 38, and his wife were reunited in grief for their children - he in a bare Sydney suburban flat; she in the care of other family members in the town of Bogor, south of Jakarta, Indonesia.

Their children, to whom Ahmed spoke a week ago, drowned along with 350 other asylum-seekers on Friday when a boat run by people-smugglers who charged up to $US550 ($1085) for passage to Australia sank off Java.

Accepting the smugglers' offer is a decision Sondos will regret for the rest of her life. But suffering has been part of Sondos's life since she was only 5 - the day Saddam Hussein's secret police came for her father, Ismail Ibrahim, and accused him of conspiring with the proscribed Dawa party. Although the family denied he was involved in politics, Ibrahim was hanged.

Sondos yesterday told The Australian how for the next 10 years, she spent a shiftless life with her family in Iraq, always fearing the police might be one step behind.

In 1991, Sondos and 17 relatives crossed into Iran. At the age of 17, she met and married her husband in a typically fast courtship: three days.

But marriage and the arrival of three daughters were not to end Sondos's search for a permanent home. In Iran, the family was shockingly poor, her husband scratching an income from selling home-made food on the street.

'We could not send our children to school because the life was so hard there,' she said. 'We just had enough money to live. We ate because we didn't want to die.'

The hardship of life in Iran was the beginning of an odyssey for Sondos and Ahmed that, as they told The Australian yesterday, was to take them halfway around the world in search of a prosperous life, but which was to end in more misery.

Ahmed received $US3000 from a brother living in the US to flee Iran in 1999, and decided to enter Australia as an illegal immigrant. With money short, Ahmed would lead the way in the hope of bringing his family out later.

He was jailed in Malaysia for a month in 1999 before he moved to Indonesia, where he lived in a Jakarta refugee camp, again for a month. Then he paid $US2000 to insure his passage to Australia aboard an Indonesia fishing vessel.

In a similar vessel, two years later, his family tried to join him.

A people smuggler for $US150 falsified travel documents and put them in touch with a contact in Kuala Lumpur.

The small band of would-be immigrants to Australia then flew out of Tehran to make their first contact with the smugglers who would arrange for their journey from Malaysia to Indonesia and then by boat on to Australia.

After a tedious two-month wait in Kuala Lumpur, they were crammed with 114 others into a small wooden boat for three days, with little food and water.

'All of us in the boat were sick and we could not do anything for our children,' Sondos said.

'Most of them were sick and they had to be taken to hospital.'

The journey to Indonesia ended when the engine gave out and Indonesian police picked them up off the coast of Sumatra.

Another two-month wait followed, this time in Indonesian immigration detention.

They then travelled to Jakarta where Sondos was introduced to a people-smuggler, an Egyptian calling himself Abu Quessai, who promised them passage on a boat to Australia at a cost of $US550 an adult.

In the early hours of last Thursday, she and her three daughters boarded an overcrowded and unseaworthy boat at a South Sumatra bay. At 3pm the next day the vessel, taking water, capsized taking down 353 of the 397 asylum-seekers on board.

Sondos, wearing one of the few life jackets, clutched her children around her in the hope of keeping them afloat. But in the confusion, and injured by the boat's capsizing, she lost her grip and three young girls were lost to the sea.

Sondos would like to join her husband but also fears separation from her remaining relatives now in Indonesia.

'I just want to meet my husband with my family. This is the last hope I have now,' she said.

A temporary Australian visa does not allow the family to join him - they do not get any recognition as refugees and must apply separately for any asylum.

Through his anguish, Ahmed, who is staying at a friend's place in Warwick Farm in southwestern Sydney, said he blamed the Australian Government.

'I heard that Australia was very compassionate toward dolphins but what about human beings? Is this what you do to them?' he said.

'I hope Mr Ruddock can take some satisfaction from viewing the floating corpses of my children.'

His wife, amid this loss remains passionate about one thing - the men who inflicted this pain on her are 'criminals and they are trading with the blood and lives of people'.


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