'They drowned in front of our eyes'

By Kathy Marks

Hopes faded yesterday of finding anyone else alive from the asylum-seeker boat that sank off the Indonesian island of Java at the weekend, as traumatised survivors recalled the horror of watching fellow passengers drown.

As those on deck struggled in darkness to save themselves, the people sleeping below died almost immediately.

"[They] came out through the windows and died in front of our eyes," said Saed Mohammad Zia, a survivor from Pakistan. "I saw their dead bodies floating on the sea.

"We witnessed all of this madness, death in the water, for six hours."

Saed, one of 34 survivors - from an estimated boatload of 250 - said that amid the scenes of panic and desperation the Indonesian captain and five crew grabbed lifejackets, leaving only 19 for their passengers.

"We lost sight of them in the big waves and we never saw them again," Saed said. "We don't know if they were rescued."

In Australia, which sent two planes and a patrol boat to look for survivors, political reaction to the tragedy has been restrained. Yesterday the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, called on the Opposition to work "maturely and sensibly" with the Government to resurrect the processing of asylum-seekers offshore.

The number of boats heading to Australia has risen dramatically since offshore processing was abandoned in October, following a High Court decision declaring the Government's "Malaysia Solution" illegal and the Coalition's refusal to support a change in the law.

The Opposition's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said the latest disaster - which came just over a year after an asylum-seeker boat smashed into rocks at Christmas Island, with the loss of about 50 lives - "confirms the trend we have seen this year of the people smugglers putting more and more people on to every boat".

The fatally overcrowded boat, carrying asylum-seekers believed to be mostly from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, had a capacity of about 100. It was about six hours into its journey to Christmas Island, Australia's Indian Ocean territory, when it capsized in heavy seas on Saturday.

Yesterday just one person was plucked alive from the waves, and a spokesman for Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency, Gagah Prakoso, said it was highly unlikely any more survivors would be found. "It's impossible even for a good swimmer with a life vest to swim to shore safely in such extreme conditions," he told the ABC. "When boats sink like this, the bodies usually surface on the third day."

First on the scene on Saturday were four fishermen who had spotted dark shapes in the water from their own tiny wooden vessel. They found more than 100 hysterical and exhausted people, who had been clinging to anything that floated for six hours.

"They were all fighting, scrambling to get into my boat," the captain, Jambe, told Associated Press. He managed to get 25 on board, but had to leave the rest behind.

Those rescued include two children aged 8 and 10, found clinging to the boat's broken deck. As many as 40 children may have died, in the worst disaster involving an aslyum-seeker boat since the vessel Siev X sank en route to Christmas Island in 2001, with an estimated 353 people on board. All perished.

Despite their recent ordeal, survivors - who are being looked after in a hotel in Blitar, a town in East Java - said they would attempt the journey once again.

It was "the only way I can get to Australia", Dawood Waladbegi, an Iranian who lost his wife and two young children, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

- NZ Herald

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