SURVIVORS of the sinking of a boat packed with asylum seekers off East Java last month say a vessel twice stopped near them but failed to rescue them, prompting more than 20 traumatised people to try to swim to shore-with disastrous consequences.
The asylum seekers say the vessel that found and then abandoned them was an Indonesian search and rescue vessel. Indonesian authorities are adamant it was not.
The incident, 40 nautical miles out to sea, led to at least 20 deaths. It occurred after about 35 asylum seekers had been at sea for three days without food or water, clinging to the upturned vessel in heavy waves.
The 13 people who stayed with the boat were eventually rescued by a passing ship. Three of those men, now in detention in Surabaya, said many of their fellow asylum seekers were gripped by despondency and panic after the appearance of the vessel, first in the morning, then in the afternoon.
“We saw the boat of search and rescue twice. We waved our shirts above our heads, we shouted but they didn’t come and save us,” said Samin Guhl, a Pakistani.
“They saw us, I am sure of that … because they stopped and they were looking at us … If the rescue boat had stopped and helped many people would now be alive.”
Another survivor, Akbar Salamati, estimated 22 people died. “People were very upset. They
were so disappointed,” the Iranian said through an interpreter. “They just threw themselves in the water. There was so many huge waves but they started swimming. They hoped to reach an island.”
Guhl said an elderly man was so disturbed by the incident he started trying to join planks of wood together with an imaginary staple. When that failed, “he just dropped into the water”.
“He couldn’t swim and I never saw him again. He wanted to kill himself.”
Guhl was adamant the vessel was either a navy or maritime police boat. He said it was identical to the boat that eventually picked them up.
“When they [finally] rescued us, I was very angry, very upset. I said to this man ‘why didn’t you people save us before?’ He didn’t say anything. He just walked into a room.”
Sutrisno, the head of East Java search and rescue, said the rescue effort was not in the area near Nusa Barong island, where the survivors were clinging to the boat, which had drifted 200 kilometres from where it capsized.
A total of 47 Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis survived the tragedy. Thirty-four were found in the water within hours of the capsize. Many are being held at a detention centre in Sidoarjo, near Surabaya-in dreadful conditions.
As many as 12 of the men are packed in each room. Some have escaped, some have tried to escape and there have been regular clashes with guards.
Ali Mohammad, an Afghan, had a black eye and two deep gashes on his legs, which he said were the result of a savage beating by guards who caught him trying to escape.
Some said they had been hit with electric prods after a riot in which they lit mattresses, tried to smash the fence of the detention centre and threw rocks at staff.
“I told them I was a refugee, that I had lost my whole family,” said Dawood Waladbegi, an Iranian whose wife and two children died in the sinking. “They spat on me, beat me and told me I was in their country now and it was their rules,” he said.
The detainees said representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had not yet visited them.
Five wish to return to their countries but the rest said they would stay in Indonesia and get another boat if they could.