Iraqis Tell of Epic Escape to Australia
2 December 1999

SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) - Their nightmare began with a midnight knock on the door in Baghdad in 1996, and for Hameed and Faraj Ishak it nearly ended three years later in a watery grave off Australia.

The Iraqi brothers are among thousands who have fled President Saddam Hussein's brutal rule, but it was the last leg of their epic escape to Australia that nearly killed them.

"We could not let go of the rail or we would have been thrown overboard," said Hameed, 57, recounting the harrowing 34-hour journey aboard a rickety fishing boat from Indonesia to Australia's remote northwest coast.

"We thought we would die. Even the Indonesian crew were frightened," he said, recalling how the terrified human cargo of mostly Iraqi and Afghan refugees clung together for dear life. But on May 7 Hameed and Faraj, 54, waded ashore onto a speck of Australian reef in the Indian Ocean.

After three years and $34,000, they had reached safety. They were spotted after three days by a surveillance plane and taken to a detention center, and after three months they were granted asylum and freed.

More than 900 Iraqis have been granted refugee asylum in Australia in the past 10 years, but in the past month more than 700 boat people, mainly Iraqis, have landed. Now Australia plans to toughen visa laws to try to stem the rising flood of boat people -- almost 6,000 in the last 10 years.

But Iraqis say the new visa laws will not deter thousands more now in countries such as Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Greece from attempting the terrifying journey.

"They have illegally left Iraq, they are illegals in these countries, if they are sent back to Iraq they will be killed -- there is no choice for them," said Iraqi lawyer Al Jabiri, who fled to Australia and now helps Iraqis seek refugee asylum.

Jabiri said Iraq's refugees flee to many Western countries but saw Australia as attractive despite the distance because it was a safe haven on the other side of the world.


Back home, Hameed's only crime was that as an electrician working for the state-owned utility he had followed orders and cut off the electricity supply to a district office of the ruling Baath party. He also happened not to be a party member.

Faraj's crime was that he was Hameed's brother.

For a week after they were picked up from their Baghdad home in 1996, they were not only interrogated but threatened with summary execution, which Amnesty International says has now become routine.

"When I was released I was told, 'We are letting you go, but cut the electricity again and we will execute you,"' said Hameed, sitting in his sister's home in western Sydney.

They decided their families must leave Iraq. With 11 people crammed into two cars, they drove north through the desert to Zakho on the Turkish border, where they paid $2,800 each for fake passports and visas. On July 9, 1996, they dumped their cars and walked for a day and a half into Turkey.

From Turkey they made their way by boat illegally into Greece and for the next 2-1/2 years eked out a living in Athens as illegals, unable to work officially and fearing deportation to Iraq where they believed they faced certain death.

From Athens, they made four unsuccessful applications for refugee asylum to Australia. Desperate and without a future, they decided to pay a "people smuggler" to get them there.

But at $8,000 each for fake passports and air tickets, they could only afford two passages, so the brothers left their families in Athens and continued their search for a way to get everyone to Australia.


Their odyssey saw them fly to Kuala Lumpur hoping to make a connecting flight to Australia. But immigration officials in Malaysia, then Singapore, Indonesia and Bali refused to allow them to board flights, suspicious of their fake Greek passports, and eventually they were detained in Bali.

They were allowed to call relatives in Sydney and nephew Peter Soro, who had himself spent 18 months in Turkish jails before gaining entry to Australia, flew to Bali. Soro had fled Iraq with his three brothers in 1990 and knew the fate that awaited his uncles back in Baghdad if they were sent back.

After the brothers left Iraq, authorities arrested one of their sisters. "My sister Thair died in detention so we could be free," Soro said.

"My uncles had no papers, no money, no future," said Soro, who spent $8,000 in bribes to immigration officials in his desperate bid to get his uncles out of Bali. Forced to return to Jakarta, the brothers were finally spotted by people smugglers, who made them a tantalizing but risky offer.

For $3,000 each they could be in Australia in two days. They were desperate so they returned to Bali and took a ferry to Kupang in West Timor, where they embarked on their perilous journey to Australia.

After surviving the fury of the Indian Ocean and sitting out three months in the Australian detention center, they walked free on Aug. 13. But their wives and children remain in Athens, still living in fear of deportation to Iraq.

"We hope our families will soon be safe," said a smiling Hameed, as his brother hugged him.


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