Papuans tell of a fear-filled journey

By Andra Jackson and Tom Allard
April 10, 2006

FORTY-THREE Papuan asylum seekers made their perilous crossing to Australia without a compass, group members said yesterday.

Speaking at a church service on their seventh day in Melbourne, they described how their seven-metre boat was swamped by waves "as big as buildings".

They ran out of food and water and were so parched that they drank boiled sea water and collected rain water.

"We were in danger of sinking and I saw with my own eyes, my friends were almost sick with fear," group leader Herman Wainggai said.

The Age learnt that the group arrived in Australia a day earlier than reported. But they stayed offshore for the rest of the day and night because they did not know where they were - the Australian mainland, New Zealand or Torres Strait islands.

And it has emerged that Australian authorities were alerted that the group had left Indonesia five days before they landed at Cape York, yet failed to inform Jakarta.

The revelation is likely to inflame antagonism in Indonesia over Australia's role in the saga, which has already led to Jakarta recalling its ambassador, threats to Australian expatriates and a proposed trade boycott.

It will also feed suspicions in Indonesia that elements in the Australian Government support the West Papuan independence cause, particularly given the recent history of the two countries co-operating closely to prevent people smuggling.

A spokesman for the Department of Immigration, David Seale, confirmed that the Government first heard the Papuans planned to travel to Australia on January 13. That was the night they left Merauke, in the remote south-east of West Papua. They were still in Indonesian waters, meaning Australia's obligations under the Refugee Convention to protect asylum-seekers had not been triggered.

It was not until January 18 that the asylum-seekers were found on Cape York, entitling them to apply for refugee status. Yet a spokesman for Indonesia's embassy in Canberra, Dino Kusnadi, said the first Jakarta heard of the Papuans' impending arrival was a media report of their journey on January 18.

The Papuans, recently granted protection visas, yesterday attended a Palm Sunday service at St Andrew's Anglican Church at Somerville.

Forty-one of them arrived rugged up in fleecy jumpers, some carrying Bibles. St Andrew's minister, the Reverend Peter Woods, acted as interpreter.

One man said the group's escape began on November 3. As they travelled along the West Papua coast, "We were being persecuted and investigated by the military - God saved us."

Another said: "On the journey we didn't even use a compass but somehow we found the way. "We experienced hunger, we experienced huge storms and even in the midst of these storms, we had no idea where we were going," he said.

Ferra Kambu said the group left because, "many of us were targeted by Indonesian intelligence to have our lives snuffed out".

The group arrived in Australia on January 17. It was not until the next day, when they found a road sign with "a kangaroo and a map of Australia", that they knew where they were.


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