My Dark Times: A Survivor's Story
April 27, 2013
New York Times
Last October, Habibullah, a 22-year-old student from Quetta, Pakistan, joined 34 Hazara asylum seekers on a boat bound for Christmas Island, a small Australian territory about 240 miles off the Indonesian coast. Within 24 hours the boat had sunk in a storm. This is his account of his ordeal.
I did not have any intention to go abroad, but it was what I had to do. The circumstances were deteriorating day by day. In recent years, Pakistan has been plagued by sectarian violence and extremism. Especially our community has faced most terrorist attacks because of their distinct looks. Every day we witnessed targeted killing, persecution and sectarian violence that made our community the most vulnerable. Our community was declared a community of infidels by terrorists, making our life miserable. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a brainchild of SSP and the Taliban, made it clear that the only place for the Hazara is the graveyard. Those were the reasons for me to take some concrete steps for my survival.
As a young, energetic and ambitious student, I understood that one day I could lose my life in random killings. Then I opted for the desperate journey that would take me through Malaysia and Indonesia and finally, I hoped, to Australia.
I got a Malaysian visa and left Pakistan in early July 2012. In Malaysia I found a smuggler, who arranged my journey to Indonesia. I stayed two days in Kuala Lumpur and paid him $2,000 just to get me to Jakarta. He promised me that he would take me to Jakarta within one week, but in fact that did not happen.
In the evening of July 26, 2012, after dark, we were taken from a hotel in Kuala Lumpur to the coast from where we set course for Indonesia. We arrived at the departure point on the shore at 10 p.m. We were in the jungle, it was dark and there was a strong wind. The smuggler told us that we would land in Indonesia within four hours. But in fact, it took us ten-and-a-half hours because the man who steered the boat had lost his way. If there had been an emergency, we would not have had any means to ensure our survival. A storm blew up, and there was just the darkness of the night and the horrifying storm. The boat was very small and it was moving very fast. We all got wet. We could have lost our lives within seconds.
I was terribly frightened, and so were my friends. I had brought some books and magazines with me, all of which were spoiled. At one time a police patrol boat followed us.
Finally, at seven o’clock the next morning we arrived on the Indonesian coast. The boat stopped just offshore. As we debarked, we got severely stuck in the mud, and it was only with considerable effort that we freed ourselves. Our clothes and boots had become useless. We were utterly exhausted, feeling cold, and we were unable to walk.
Our journey did not end there. We had to go on foot through the Indonesian jungle, till we found some cars that would take us to another place. We changed our clothes and put on the wet clothes we had in our luggage. I got into a car and started another leg in a series of journeys. On the way, I could not get any rest because the driver was very careless and was behaving in a rude manner. Once I asked him to bring me some water, but he demanded 50,000 Indonesian rupiahs just for a small bottle of water. He did not let us get out of the car. We eventually arrived at a house around 3 p.m. in the afternoon on July 27.
The house was very dilapidated, and it was very hot inside and outside. There was no rug, no fan and no water. On the other hand, there were too many mosquitoes. We remained in that house for five days.
On July 31, our fourth night in that house, we were asleep when suddenly we heard someone beating loudly on the door. Then we saw six men storming into the house. At first we assumed they were police officers but in fact, they were criminals who came to rob us of our belongings.
They forced all of us into one room and began to body-search us, taking all the belongings we had with us within just two minutes. I lost $1,200 and all my personal belongings. When they left the house, they took all our bags with them, leaving us with nothing except the clothes we were wearing. Luckily, they overlooked one cellphone that was left behind.
After the incident, I called the smuggler and told him what had happened to us and he promised to pay me compensation. But that never happened. The next morning, we were moved to another house, where many other illegals were already staying.
On August 1, 2012, around three o’clock at night, there were 24 people. We prepared to continue our journey. There were four cars, each filled with six passengers, a driver and a co-driver. I left without any belongings: I did not have anything to take with me. We traveled continuously for 19 hours. The drivers were the same as on the first leg of the journey. They were very careless, had a very bad attitude and drove recklessly. We twice narrowly escaped an accident.
Thereafter, we arrived at the next coastal site at 11 o’clock at night, for another dangerous boat trip. As we got out of the car, the six of us boarded a small old boat. Again the agent lied to us: he said that it would take us one hour to reach the other side. But it took us five hours to reach the next point at four o’clock in the morning.
On August 2, when we had completed our crossing, the cars had already been arranged for us. The first two cars managed to leave the place on time, but unfortunately the people in the last two cars were arrested by the Indonesian Navy. On the same day we were supposed to leave for Jakarta by plane.
We were taken to a house for a while, to leave for the airport at 11 a.m., but we still did not know about the other 12 people. While we were waiting at the airport for tickets, a person came to us, got into our car and directed us back to go somewhere else until the flight was to be confirmed.
That person took us straight to a police station, where our friends had already been arrested and were waiting for us. As we entered the police station, media persons started taking photographs of us and some of them were making a video. We were surrounded by journalists and cameramen. I was extremely depressed. I was sweating blood while others were being questioned by the police. The police kept us there and interrogated us. We remained there throughout the day. In the evening, we were transferred to an immigration camp.
On August 3 we became front-page news with big headlines stating that 24 Afghan and Pakistani immigrants had been arrested by the Indonesian Navy. Some of my friends were happy and said “at least we have made news somewhere.” Immigration officials took our fingerprints. There were only two persons who could speak English, including myself.
I asked one of the immigration officials about our position. He told me that we were in Pangkal Pinang, in Bangka Island, and had come from Pekan Baru. This was the first time I knew my whereabouts. Everything was strange to me.
In a nutshell, I remained for 15 days in Pangkal Pinang on Bangka Island. For the first few days I was just relieved, as I had been engulfed in terrible circumstances. The immigration officials there were polite and they treated us well. The officer in charge was kind.
The days and nights were passing. One day, on August 12 in the evening, three underage boys were absent. A bit later, we knew they had run away. At that moment, there was no official present. Later, the rest of us were faced with the consequence. We were locked up in a small room and remained awake the whole night due to overcrowding.
Then the next day, we were transferred to a formal prison in a big prisoners’ van. There we were detained for two days. Prison is a restricted and tough place. It was similar to a cage. There, I underwent intense physical hardship and mental suffering. I experienced prison for the first time in my life.
After our arrest, immigration detention and two days in prison, we were told that we would be moved to another city: Pekan Baru. It was the city that we probably had visited. We were told to get ready for our departure. It was noon; again in the same prisoners’ van we were taken to the airport. Twenty-one policemen were accompanying us. At the airport everyone was staring and looking at our untidy appearance. In the waiting lounge, I felt that we seemed strange to other people. Some of them were whispering.
Anyhow, we were put on a flight to Jakarta. There, we were held in transit for a designated city. The overall journey took one-and-a-half hours. We arrived in Pekan Baru at three o’clock in the afternoon. There, in Pekan Baru, the situation was totally different. There were many other people.
Eight people were thrown into one small room. We complained to the staff that the room was too small and congested, and that we could not sleep there. Their behavior to us was very cruel and they were talking to us in a rude manner; they refused to listen to our request. There was also one old person with us; he was sick and had back pain.
I endured the desperate circumstances and remained for one month in lock-up. Initially, there were eight of us in the restricted space, then the number dropped to five; each of us was to made to pay a “tariff” at different rates for our release. As I had no intention to stay at that camp, my goal was to reach my final destination. Through a middleman, I paid $1,000 to get out.
On September 20, I again called the smuggler whom I had originally dealt with in Malaysia and asked him to arrange my journey. He gave me a telephone number and agreed to have me picked up the next day. On that day, I secretly left the camp, leaving my possessions behind. I met the same Indonesian guy whom I had met at my first landing on July 27, 2012, in Pakan Baru. He took me to a dark and wet house. In that house there were already some Iranian people and one family with a small child.
The smuggler’s agent told us that we would leave Pekan Baru for Padang by road. On September 22 in the morning, we said good-bye to Pekan Baru and were driven to Padang. The journey took us nine hours. Although the road was narrow, I enjoyed the surrounding natural beauty, with both sides of the road covered in thick forest. We got to Padang at night and rested in a hotel. Our flight was arranged for the next evening.
We arrived at the airport on September 24 at dark. Our flight was scheduled for twelve o’clock. I was praying that this time I would not be faced with the same circumstances as before. As I went into the airport, I was thinking of being arrested again. I was sweating profusely. Passed the security check, went to the counter. Nothing went wrong and I finally got into the aircraft, happy.
We landed in Jakarta on September 25 at one o’clock at night. I went to a hotel, took a meal and rested until morning. The journey that should have taken one week, had taken me approximately two months. Through this horrifying trip I suffered many mishaps, from nearly drowning in the sea to being locked-up in jail. Throughout this adventurous journey I endured many harsh times.
On September 25 in the morning, I contacted my elderly friend who had arrived a few days earlier in Bogor. I called him to ask how I could get to Bogor. Well, I got to Bogor by train. He was already waiting for me. I went with him to his rented home, where there were already six other people.
There I made certain inquiries. I was looking for a reliable smuggler with a good previous record. I talked to my roommates and asked for their opinion as to whom I could trust. I received many smugglers’ names. Since all my friends had talked to the same smuggler (Sikandar) I decided to go with them, and talked to the same smuggler, too.
One night I got the smuggler’s number from my friend and I called him. I talked to him about his next schedule and asked where I could deposit my money. I inquired about the amount, he told me I should pay $5,500. He gave an address of a person in Quetta, Baluchistan. He promised to transport us within 15 days, and he agreed to give us everything that was needed for a voyage by boat.
The next day I called my brother in Pakistan, gave him the smuggler’s agent address and told him to deposit the required amount. He arranged that amount and gave me a deposit number five days later. Then I called the smuggler and gave him the deposit number. Again I asked him about his plan, and he reassured me.
During my stay in Bogor, I went swimming, to the park and some other places. There was fear among us of being arrested by the police, as we didn’t have any legal documents. Sometimes there were rumors circulating that the police would arrest all illegal people. Many people stayed awake at night to avoid arrest, because when it has happened to you once, you don’t want it to happen again.
I heard many stories about ill-fated boat trips that cost people their lives in Indonesian waters. In Bogor, my roommate was telling me about boat tragedies. He said that during the year 2012, there had been many asylum boat incidents. That friend of my (Zaamin) didn’t know that one day, he himself would become the victim of Indonesian waters. He was young, ambitious and smart. I saw people coming and going and staying only a week or less in Bogor. I also saw people who stayed more than eight months in Indonesia and tried many times to go, but did not succeed. In my room there were some guys who had escaped from camps.
On October 13 at around 12 noon, the smuggler talked to us on his cellphone. He sent his agent, who came to our room and gave us some guidance and told us to get ready for the voyage. All of us, including my elderly friend, prepared ourselves and got into a small van. We went to Bogor-Jakarta train station. We arrived in Jakarta at dark. We found two cars there for our onward journey. We didn’t know where we were going; I could just read the road signs. On the way I saw that we were heading in the direction of Bandung. We traveled until one o’clock at night. The group ahead was keeping contact with the smuggler. We passed many cities and got to somewhere that was totally dark. We were roaming here and there to find our exact point of departure on the coast and found that the driver had lost his way. Then, at that moment, the smuggler did not respond to calls anymore: he’d switched off his mobile. So we understood that we better head back to Bogor. The driver was not prepared to take us back, as he was very tired. Anyway, we humored him and paid him some money. He then took us back to Bogor, where we arrived after having traveled for 23 hours. Fortunately, we got back safely. We were all very tired, thirsty and sleepy.
Thus, we remained in the rented house in Bogor and waited for a call. On October 16, we were told to prepare ourselves to travel again. The smuggler’s agent came to us and told us again that we were going to leave. It was twelve noon and we were due to take our lunch. But we could not have our lunch because we needed to hurry to reach the coast on time. That time he indicated the same route again. We were told to go to Jakarta. We arrived there at 7 p.m. There it took some time to find the cars. We found the cars at the train station in Gambir Station, and left for our point of embarkation.
We traveled a long distance until we reached some dark place. This time I could not recognize any location and didn’t see any road signs. It was around midnight; it was quite dark and we were in thick forest. We were almost due to arrive at the coast and our departure point, and the cars were movingly very slowly; suddenly some people stormed toward the cars and started hitting the cars, trying to make them stop. But our driver did not give up and managed to escape. As we went further, we saw the road had already been blocked by a big truck surrounded by armed border protection police.
We were arrested, and taken to a police station. We were exhausted and went to sleep. In the morning, I found three people had run away. A bit later, we were transferred to a big Wisma (guest house) under heavy police guard.
I remained there for three days. On the second day, one person tried to run away, but he (Aman) got hurt when trying to scale a wall, and as he was brought back the police beat him very badly. He lost consciousness and was later taken to a hospital. All his money, which was $1,400, was taken by immigration official in the emergency room and later I heard the officials had not returned his money.
On the third day, there was a small wedding ceremony, and I thought this was the best time to run away. At one o’clock in the afternoon, there were thick crowds, and not many police officers. Before I escaped, another guy (Hamid) had tried his luck and had gotten away. Then, I prepared myself. I started walking slowly, slowly from the back of the room where we were held and watched out until I reached the door and fled. After me, another person (Ibrahim) succeeded to run away through the front door. I went into the town Serang , looking for a taxi. Luckily, I found the other two persons (Hamid and Ibrahim). Together we hired a taxi to take us to Jakarta.
We arrived in Jakarta in the evening. I had something to eat in a café, and at that moment I received a call from my elderly friend from Serang. He told me that he had also escaped and asked me to wait for him. He arrived in Jakarta at six o’clock in the evening and we then went to Bogor.
I was keen to reach to my final destination, Australia, in any way possible; but my friend and I decided not to have a third go at trying to reach that destination right then. We were utterly exhausted. I had doubted after the latest attempt whether it was wise to try again to undertake this dangerous journey. There again, to stay in Indonesia for a long period would be very frustrating.
Thus, we remained in Bogor. Time was passing, and a friend of mine and I were trying to decide whether to go on or stay in Bogor. Then I made up my mind: it was better to try for Australia. We waited for the smuggler’s call. He told us to join a new group.
It was on October 25 at noon when we were about to have our lunch and the smuggler’s agent came to us and told us immediately to get ready for the journey. We quickly got ready and left the house, leaving our food behind. He didn’t tell us the exact time of embarkation; he kept it secret every time. When we were about to be moved, he sent his agent to body-search us and he didn’t let us carry our own bags. He was suspicious that we might give him away so when his agent frisked us, our mobile phones were taken away - but as I had two, I managed to hide one and succeeded in keeping it.
We continuously traveled until dark; passed cities, traveled on mountainous roads, saw a thick forest. On the way, everyone was praying and seeking help from Allah. Anyhow, we traveled a long distance and reached our destination. There was just darkness and thick forest. At last we got to the exact point of departure. There was the smooth sound of a quiet ocean surf, and a slight wind.
We boarded the boat on October 26 at 2 a.m. We were all very happy at that time, but very frightened. The boat was not big enough and we all had to sit side by side close to one another. The boat quickly set course for Christmas Island. On the way I called my mother to tell her that I was on the boat and had left for Christmas Island.
The smuggler provided one satellite mobile phone, but unfortunately it fell down in the morning due to the chaotic situation. It was not possible to check the condition of the boat at night and we were not allowed to use torches. In the morning, when we checked, we found that the boat had one engine, two water pumps and one old generator. The boat was old and decrepit. On board, there were some packets of Maggi and some cartons of water.
I was terribly frightened, and so were my friends. All were vomiting and no one could take in or hold down anything. The water incessantly lapped the boat. Sometimes water was coming inside. At daybreak, we were finally able to have a good look at the boat and our hearts sank
At one o’clock in the afternoon, the engine suddenly stopped but was fixed quickly. But after traveling for two hours, the engine broke down once more, and that time it did not start again. Neither of the crew members knew anything about the engine nor the boat. The situation got worse and we were all looking around to see whether we could spot any ships or islands. At that time the sun was very strong.
There was no island, and no big ship passed us. We remained inside the boat until night and only one of the two water pumps was still working, and the boat was gradually filling with water, so we had to bail; but there was only one water jug and one cauldron and nothing else. We bailed the boat out as much as we could; yet, the water level in the boat gradually rose. By now it was dark; there were strong winds increasing to gale force. The waves were constantly hitting the boat.
On October 27 at around 2 a.m., we prepared ourselves, ready for the terrible moments to follow. We lined up inside the boat in two groups, a group of eight people and a group of 26 people. It was a very chaotic situation. Finally, the boat went down; and all of us inside suddenly floated in lifejackets and inner tubes on the surface of the water. The water was very cold.
We waited until morning, looking for islands or ships. In the daytime, the weather was cloudy, sometimes sunny, but the water was cold. The day passed with no sign of hope. In the evening, we saw a big vessel passing by. We all became very happy. M. Asif was the first person who went ahead alone toward the ship, Azeem was the second and I was the third one to hurry to reach the ship. We struggled to swim to the ship, but unfortunately we could not reach it, instead drifting apart from each other and the group. And then, I didn’t see M. Asif and Azeem again. They were shouting until late into the night. I remained alone until morning. In the morning, when the waves woke me up, I at first thought that I had been washed ashore. Suddenly I heard a voice calling out at me over the waves while I was frantically trying to find and re-join the group. Luckily, it was one of the group members, so the remaining 24 of us were re-united. What happened to the M. Asif, Azeem and the other group of eight, we never found out.
At around midday on 28th October, we again spotted a ship, very far away. We made frantic efforts to reach it, but unfortunately we did not succeed as it was too far away. That evening, one of our friends could no longer bear the situation; he started shouting and begging for help, and moments later he drowned. After a few hours I saw one of my roommates (Ammanullah) lost his life. Then the situation became very tense. On top of that, there was a fear of sharks, and all of us were totally exhausted. Then another person (Rajab) let his grip go and floated away. He was crying, remembering his past and begging for help until late at night. In the morning I saw his dead body floating in the water.
By daytime on October 29, we didn’t see any ships or islands. The day passed without offering even a glimmer of hope. As there was a strong wind whipping up high waves, we were all extremely tired. At night, my elderly friend complained about his condition. He said he had stomach pains and kidney trouble. When I reached him, he was in a dire state. Later, I missed him: he must have lost his grip on the rope. Other people, too, were gradually losing their grip.
On October 30, we were all extremely thirsty, hungry and desperate. At about 1 p.m. another person couldn’t endure the tough situation; he (Sharif) lost his life, and an hour later another person (Kabir) also became the victim of the waves. The same fate befell yet another member of the group, Hamid, who desperately looked around. He was at the end of his tether, totally tired out, and overcome with sorrow, calling for his wife and his parents until he drowned. But the rest of us didn’t give up and we didn’t lose our minds. In the evening, we saw another vessel far way. Salim, M. Sharif and Karim went toward that vessel, leaving the group behind. They remained within sight for awhile, and I could hear the sound of the whistles that were attached to their life jackets. But they were not heard and could not possibly have reached the ship; nor were they able to rejoin the group. Some seven or eight of us remained together until night. The night was clouded, and we were all laden with grief. I stayed awake till late at night to finally see out that tragic day, bringing that dramatic three day episode to an end.
Next morning, out of seven or eight people there were only three left. I hadn’t noticed what had happened to the others. Ibrahim, Rahim and I were together until I saw Rahim could not cope anymore, and he too lost his life. Ibrahim was about to expire, his face totally burnt. I called him, touched his shoulder several times, but he was just breathing his last. I understood that he would be with me no more; I moved away and had to leave him there.
After I left him, it dawned on me that I, too would not have long to live. I just floated in the water, desperately looking around. So I drifted until the afternoon, didn’t lose my spirit and struggled till my last moments. It was sunny; the water was cold but calm. My face was totally burnt, I could barely open my eyes, and my body was freezing. Fear of sharks occupied much of my mind. I was extremely thirsty, had severe pains in my stomach and kidneys. I remembered my past, surrounded by my parents and siblings, and I realized they were with me. I felt like I was breathing my last moment. At around 3 o’clock in the afternoon I saw a small boat far away. As I kept looking at it, the boat got bigger and bigger and finally saw that it was coming toward me. As the boat got nearer, I shouted and blew my whistle. At last, the boat hove to and rescued me. I had not imagined that I would have even the slightest chance of survival.
The boat was a fishing boat on the way to its fishing grounds. It was a fairly big boat with a crew of about a dozen. I was relieved and they were happy for me, too. They gave me water and a bunk to lie down. Then I lost consciousness and woke up the next morning, weak and with wounds at the back of my knees. I stayed on the fishing boat for four days. They gave me first aid, food and drink. Afterwards, I was transferred to another boat to take me to Jakarta. That journey took 24 hours. When we approached Jakarta, I was too weak to go back into the water, so I had to come ashore with the crew.
The captain took me to a pharmacy, where I bought some medicine for my injuries and my burnt face, after which we returned to the boat. But as the captain had already called the police to let them know he had a “passenger” on board, he could not do anything but hand me over to the police, who arrested me and transferred me to the police headquarters. The next morning, November 5, an immigration official came and interrogated me. It did not quite register with him what had happened to me, even though I gave him the full story. Finally, in the evening they moved me to the Directorate of Immigration in Kuningan, Jakarta.
At the Department of Immigration, I received no further help, but was instantly locked up in the detention center, where I could reflect on my and my companions’ tragic misfortune. During the first month there, I was physically in a very poor condition as well as going through a state of deep depression. I had nothing left except $50 to buy the necessary medicines.
At present, I am in the detention center of the Directorate of Immigration, Kuningan, held in a limbo-like situation and a state of harrowing uncertainty.
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