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Monday, December 19, 2011

Rescuers find 13 on island off East Java

Tom Allard in East Java, Kirsty Needham
December 20, 2011

Despite losing his wife and son Dawood Waladbegi says he would try again. Photo: Getty Images
AT LEAST 13 people have been found and rescued on an island 200 kilometres from where a boat crammed full of asylum seekers suddenly capsized and foundered. Remarkably they stayed alive for almost two days after the disaster unfolded off the coast of East Java.

Amar, a search and rescue officer at nearby Jember, said 13 were picked up yesterday, discovered by a tugboat that had been scrambled as part of an intensive operation on air and sea by Indonesian authorities to find anyone who was missing.

The survivors were "tired, stressed and bruised" but otherwise uninjured, Amar said. They had been taken to a hospital for treatment, he added.



Searching for his nephew … Sayid Abas Sultani. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Meanwhile, Indonesian authorities believe they have found two of the Indonesian crew from the boat. They were discovered at 10am near Sendang Biru, a town on the coast of East Java. One was unconscious, the other in a state of high anxiety, said Sutrisno, the head of the East Java search and rescue agency. They are now in hospital in Malang.

The rescue means at least 47 people have survived the disaster. It is a rare slither of good news for the grieving survivors picked up earlier and now under guard in temporary accommodation at a Blitar hotel, Grand Mansion.

Dawood Waladbegi, an Iranian man at the Grand Mansion, is consumed by grief and desperately hoping for signs his wife, two children, brother and family may have survived although the odds are they have died.

But even as he frets and sobs, he stops to state that he would catch another boat to Australia if the opportunity arose.

"We will continue this way again. We will go again by boat. Let the Australian government know that," he says through an interpreter. "I lost all my family members. I have no one here. I don’t want this life."

Nursing an injured leg and unimaginable torment, the decision seems simple. Mr Waladbegi's brother Kamran lives in Melbourne. Life in Iran has been a nightmare and with the prospect of detention in Indonesia he talks about a hunger strike and his fears of being killed.

Such sentiment is widespread among the 32 traumatised and confused Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers staying at a hotel in Blitar, two hours' drive from where they were brought ashore by Indonesian fishermen who discovered them 40 nautical miles off the coast.

Interviewed by Australian Federal Police and Indonesian authorities, all they want to know is what comes next. Is it possible they could be flown to Australia? Maybe the US or New Zealand could take them?

Esmat Adine, 24, an ethnic Hazara who speaks fluent English and used to work for the US government's aid organisation in Afghanistan, says Australia's policy towards asylum seekers is unfair. Those who catch a boat to Australia are resettled quickly. Those who do not make it, or apply through official channels, are denied.

Why, then, he asks, ''does Australia not close the border?''

''We will do again. Because we have nothing. If we are going to die, our responsibility will be

with the Australian government.'' Mr Adine says he tried repeatedly though official channels in Kabul to apply to go to Australia as a refugee.

''They just sent me an email that I should apply in 2013 or 2014. I cannot … my life was in serious danger but nobody would answer me.''

Mr Adine was one of the few survivors from below decks. He climbed out a window and, being a strong swimmer, found his way to some debris to hold on to.

Mr Waladbegi was asleep near the captain's quarters. He watched as the crew evacuated in a small dinghy but could not reach his loved ones amid the screaming and chaos.

About 80 of the 250 people on board got off the boat before it sank, but barely half survived.

Australia has sent a navy boat from Christmas Island, and an Orion surveillance plane, to help with the search and rescue operation. Federal police also interviewed survivors amid suspicions that the accused people smuggler Sayeed Abbas - now in prison awaiting extradition to Australia - was involved.

Survivors were shown pictures of known smugglers and two were taken away for questioning by Indonesian police.

The whereabouts of the Indonesian crew - who abandoned the boat before it foundered, according to accounts by survivors - remain unknown.

In Sydney yesterday, Sayid Abas Sultani said he planned to fly to Indonesia today to look for his Hazara nephew Sayeed, 27. Mr Sultani's brother-in-law, Mohamed Riza Almeri, survived the sinking but has lost five friends and family. The family comes from Ghazni in Afghanistan, and Mr Sultani, who came to Australia in 2000, said the situation was worsening for Hazaras. ''Everyone is leaving.''

He did not know his brother-in-law was coming to Australia until he received the phone call yesterday saying the boat had sunk. While the boat journey was dangerous, so was staying in Afghanistan, he said.

The Melbourne family of Dawood Waladbegi is distraught. His brother Kamran says although Dawood survived, his one-year-old son Daniel is lost, as is his wife, Samana, 24. Another brother Mohamed is dead along with his six-year-old son. ''Please help me,'' cried their sister Somya in the Melbourne home. ''Two brothers, two children, all dead.''

The family came to Australia in March. Another brother is in the Curtin detention centre. ''Our family is in Australia because my country, Iran, is no good. It is very bad,'' says Kamran Waladbegi.

Back in Java, Mr Adine describes the boat's last moments. ''All of us felt that it was the end of our life story. We were seeing everywhere died bodies,'' he says. ''Someone was shouting, 'Oh God. If you are the human's God, help us now'.'' His survival was ''a miracle''. Even so, as he surveys his bleak prospects, he is not sure his prayers have been answered.



SMH

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