Survivors recall sinking horror

2011-12-20 17:37
Asylum seekers who survived a wreck are escorted by plain-clothed police officers upon their return from hospital at a temporary shelter in Trenggalek, Indonesia. (AP)

Asylum seekers who survived a wreck are escorted by plain-clothed police officers upon their return from hospital at a temporary shelter in Trenggalek, Indonesia. (AP)

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Lumajang - From their hospital beds, shocked migrants on Tuesday recounted the horror of clinging to wreckage for three days in violent seas after their overloaded boat sank off Indonesia en route to Australia.

Seventeen-year-old Afghan student Samin Gul Afghani broke down in tears as he described seeing his uncle and two younger brothers sink exhausted under the waves.

Afghani, one of 13 survivors found Monday 100km from Saturday's capsize location, recalled seeing dozens of fellow migrants drowning as they waited in vain to be rescued.

"Many people did not know how to swim and were sitting on a large plank of wood from the wreckage. When the waves hit one side, we shifted to the other," said Afghani.

"One by one, they were swept away by the waves and drowned. Many were old people and young children."

Drowned

His uncle and two brothers were non-swimmers, Afghani said.

"They died in front of my eyes. I could do nothing to save them," he said, sobbing.

Afghani was one of a handful of survivors receiving medical treatment at a hospital in Lumajang city in Indonesia's East Java province. They said that most of the roughly 250 migrants on the doomed boat were Afghans or Iranians.

"People-smugglers first brought me to Indonesia. From here, I got on the boat at around 03:00 on Saturday," said 25-year-old Syed Ghasem, another Afghan.

"I was on one of four buses loaded with people like me who were trying to get to Australia," he said. "Six hours into the [sea] journey we were in a very, very violent storm, and the next thing I knew the boat had capsized."

Ghasem said that about 50 survivors managed to climb onto the section of wood, but many were lost when it broke apart.

"Thirteen of us managed to hang on, and we were adrift for three days and two nights before being picked up by a ferry," Ghasem said.

Survivors

So far, 47 survivors have been rescued after the fibreglass vessel, which had a capacity of only 100, sank 40 nautical miles off eastern Java.

Thirty-four people were plucked from shark-infested waters by fishermen on Saturday six hours after the sinking and were being formally identified by the International Organization for Migration.

Officials said they were trying to establish whether two Indonesians found on Monday near eastern Java's Malang city were crew. One of the Indonesians said he was a fisherman.

Search operations resumed on Tuesday despite only slim chances of finding anyone else alive, said East Java provincial Disaster Management Agency chief Siswanto.

Survivors said they were heading to Australia's Christmas Island, a favoured destination for people-smugglers lying closer to Indonesia than Australia, where nearly 50 would-be migrants are believed to have died in wild seas during a shipwreck in December 2010.

The latest incident is considered the "largest loss of life" yet from a sinking of one of the many boats packed with Asian and Middle Eastern migrants who undertake the perilous sea voyage from Indonesia to Australia.

Crew and migrants had fought over 25 life vests on the doomed boat, officials and survivors said.

Investigations

"There was nothing for us. We didn't eat, we didn't drink. We were so thirsty. We thought we were going to die," Afghani said. "One Iranian tried to swim to shore and get help. He never came back."

Afghani said he saw rescuers on two boats on Sunday but was disappointed when they turned back.

"They couldn't get to us because the waters were very disturbed, very big waves," he said.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare on Monday said Indonesia had requested help from Australian police to investigate people-smugglers, who he said had showed a "callous disregard for human life".

Australian police are already assisting in investigations, Indonesian police chief of general crimes Ari Dono Sukmanto said.

"We are chasing people-smuggling suspects. Migrants have told us that several people are involved in this case. They are part of a syndicate involving Indonesian and foreign people-smugglers," said Sukmanto.

The Australian newspaper reported on Monday that a principal suspect in sending the latest boat was an associate of the jailed kingpin Sayed Abbas, whose extradition Australia seeking from Indonesia.

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