March 19, 2014

That sinking feeling

By Paul Toohey
That sinking feeling

Extract of Paul Toohey’s Quarterly Essay 53, That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution, winner of the 2014 Walkley Award for best long-form feature writing


A call came through from another intel officer we had met along the way: a boat had gone down off Cidaun. We drove back, arriving on the outskirts of the village at 2 or 3 a.m. People were up and about. We noticed life jackets hanging off the front of several porches. Driving on a little further, we came to a small town hall, all lit up. People in uniform were gathered out the front. We walked in and saw numerous Sri Lankans collapsed on the floor, most of them sleeping in sarongs the locals had given them. The one or two Sri Lankans who were awake did not speak English. The only non-Sri Lankan was Soheil, aged twenty-three, who was beside himself. “Sixty-one Iranians are dead,” he said. “I am the only one back.” It was the morning of 24 July.

Soheil said he was from Abadan City, in Iran, meaning he was an Arab Iranian. He said they had come to Indonesia less than a month before taking the boat. The previous morning, passengers had been taken to a jungle trail, just east of Cidaun, and ferried on small boats out to a bigger boat, but after several hours of steaming towards Australia the boat got into trouble. “The sea very hard, the sea no good,” he said. “The ship break. The captain he go to small boat, no help me, no help children, no help baby. He go.” The captain had abandoned ship and saved himself. Soheil estimated there were 170 on the boat, mostly from Iran and Sri Lanka. I counted thirty-four survivors in the hall. This appeared to be all that was left of the boat we’d seen on the horizon yesterday morning.

Unknown to Soheil, there were many more survivors. We were directed to drive further to the village of Cidaun itself, where there was a similar scene inside another town hall, with people lying everywhere, in deep shock. There were two bodies lying on tables, covered with sarongs: one belonged to a girl, said to be aged twelve; and another to an older woman. Ali, twenty-four, was crouched against a wall, exhausted. The dead woman was his mother, Samirah, aged forty-six. With Ali was his sister, Maha, aged six, brothers Abdullah and Mohammad, aged sixteen and twenty-three, and his uncle, Yusef. I looked at Maha, the youngest in the family, who was staring at nothing in a state of uncomprehending trauma.

Yusef was on the phone, weeping as he broke the news to home about Samirah’s death. Ali, whose family had also originally come from Abadan City, gave me his account of what had happened: “We were six hours underway, but the boat that was given to us was no good. According to us, this was on purpose. There was a hole in the boat, but they did not call the coastguard. We called our smuggler to send boats to save [us] and he kept saying he would. The boat kept sinking.” At some point the captain, a Sri Lankan, gave up and turned around, heading back for Java. At best estimates, they came within five kilometres of the shore. “We got some waves,” Ali said, “and in a few seconds it broke from the middle and sank. We were in the sea for six hours with a rope and a tube, no life jackets. There were some life jackets, but all the Iranians had none. People died instantly, kids died instantly.”

Ali’s family had planned to migrate to Australia en masse, but only some had been able to secure visas. Those without visas were on the boat. In Jakarta, two weeks earlier, they had met Iranian smugglers whom Ali named as Naseem, the broker, and Abu Yunis, who ran the operation. He said as they prepared to travel, the mobile phones that had been taken from them were given back.

Yusef, Ali’s uncle, was breaking into the conversation, despairing as he gestured towards Samirah’s body on the table. Ali told how his mum died in the sea; how they kept her corpse afloat and brought it to shore: “Mum had a heart attack and died. She survived for four hours and then had a heart attack and died.” The smugglers had told them it would be easy. “They make it sound perfect,” Ali said. “But once you give them the money, things change. Their phones switch off.” Ali echoed what Soheil had said, and I would hear something similar from many who were on that boat: as they sank, there was a small fishing boat and a larger police vessel floating nearby, watching, declining to help.

The district commander of the Cianjur police, Dedy Kusama Bakti, was organising the rescue and trying to get a handle on how many were on the boat. Some said 150, others 175. Smugglers kept no manifests, so it was impossible for Commander Dedy to know when all the passengers, dead or alive, had been accounted for. It would turn out around 210 were jammed onto the vessel, but the precise number would never be known. As local fishermen began to search the seas in their small boats – some of them no doubt the same men who had transported these people to the doomed asylum boat – a small clinic down the road had become both a makeshift emergency department and a morgue. An Iranian woman with dyed blonde hair was half-carried into the clinic. She was unable to walk without assistance and was shaking uncontrollably. I asked the overwhelmed local doctor, the only doctor, who gave her name as Vivi, what was wrong with the shaking woman, whose name I noted as Fatemah. Dr Vivi said she was in a state of diabetic shock. Vivi said there was no insulin in Cidaun.

More people were being pulled from the sea and arriving, dead and alive, in ambulances at the clinic. They were putting body bags in a separate building across the way. Every time a new one arrived, people would rush over, unzip the bag and new screams would come. One man who had just found someone – his brother or his friend, I did not know – collapsed into my arms and wept. I held the huge man as he rocked, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” At that point I started getting passably upset and noticed that Ardiles, who wore long hair, was using his head scarf to wipe away tears in between dutifully shooting the despairing scene which we, as journalists, had the mixed fortune to have all to ourselves, all day.

Survivors were begging to use my phone, calling numbers in Iran or England, then hanging up and waiting for someone to call back on my number. Certain people all around the world knew about this boat, and were counting on its safe arrival on Christmas Island. When the phone rang, someone would recognise the incoming number and wail the bad news.

In a small back room of the clinic, a dead baby had lain all morning wrapped in a white shroud. It was decided it was time to shift the baby inland to a proper hospital morgue. Vinothini, a very young mother, stumbled in grief, supported by her husband, Vimalarasu, as paramedics carried the yellow body bag holding their one-year-old son, Kishanlh, to an ambulance. A young girl was brought from the sea to the clinic. She looked to be aged three or four. her eyes were rolling to the back of her head and she was shuddering wildly. All you could see were the whites of her eyes. Dr Vivi inserted a drip as her parents slapped her wrists and massaged her feet, working tirelessly to rouse her. It looked hopeless to me. The little girl appeared to be brain-damaged from being underwater too long.

I stood in the doorway of the clinic, talking to two Sri Lankan women. One was Dhanusa, aged thirty-four, from Sri Lanka. She said her three children, aged twelve, ten and seven, and her husband were all gone, taken by the sea. She said that after the boat, wickedly overloaded by the smugglers, nosedived and broke at the seams, a vessel had pulled along- side as she struggled in the sea. “One ship near us,” she said in broken English. “Not save, not care.” The story kept coming up of another boat watching the asylum vessel sink, but not helping. Other witnesses would say the captain of the asylum vessel, a Sri Lankan man, had arranged through the smuggler network for a small fishing boat to be sent to rescue himself, abandoning the others. he was seen swimming towards it. It was not clear what the larger police boat – if it was a police boat – was doing. Perhaps it was in the pay of the smugglers, there to ensure no officials interfered with the asylum boat’s departure; and when the boat went down, its crew realised they would have a problem explaining their presence, so they left people to drown.

I would never learn if any of Dhanusa’s family was found alive. As I was about to ask the second woman’s name, someone shouted to her. She ran towards an ambulance that had just arrived. The most unbearable wrenching screams rang out across the clinic grounds. The woman was holding her wet, lifeless son, aged about five. Locals had formed a circle around the woman and were standing, staring at her.

After midday there was a rush of excitement as rescuers began bringing more survivors to shore. They said they had spent the night in life jackets or clinging to debris. An Iranian father wept for joy upon finding his small daughter alive. The girl, apart from crying uncontrollably, was okay. Some reunions were a matter of taking what was left. A teenage girl, whom I’d noticed because she was the Sri Lankan incarnation of my own eldest daughter, ran, arms flailing uncontrollably, when a woman – her mother, aunt or sister, I presumed – was brought from the sea in a wheelchair to the clinic. Joy and loss were being expressed in equal measure. Someone had survived, but someone – a father, a brother – had not.

Another Sri Lankan woman, named Soba, aged twenty-six, told how her husband had already gone ahead by boat to Australia to prepare the way for a new life for herself and two daughters, Marinya and Dhanuya, aged six and two. This man did not yet know that Marinya was dead. Soba told me that after the boat went down, “I asked somebody to help me. I had one hand on a man and one on my baby. And we split. The man held Marinya, but the water was a whirlpool, and Marinya gone. There was too much water in the life jacket and she took it off.”

Soba said the life jackets were cheap; they didn’t work too well. But amazingly, only thirty or so passengers on the vessel had died.

An Iranian man lifted his shirt and showed me the deep claw marks down his side, where he said a Sri Lankan woman had scratched him as he tried to grab a tube she and others had been clinging onto.

The Sri Lankans and Iranians had come together on the vessel because their respective smugglers had teamed up for this shipment. That likely meant they had reduced overheads by going halves on the cost of the boat, which could be bought for around US$7000–8000, the fee paid by one passenger. This boat was unusual in having no Indonesian crew. The Sri Lankan boat captain was missing, having saved himself. The Iranians were searching the faces of the Sri Lankan survivors as they were brought to the clinic for hot showers, trying to identify crew members. It did not necessarily follow that the Sri Lankans who had assisted the captain were crew, in the proper sense. They may have just been trying to help plug the leak. By mid-afternoon there was a crowd gathered on the concrete Cidaun jetty watching the fishing boats, which had been commandeered by police, bring in the last of the survivors and bodies. The sea was too rough to do more and the operation ended. I asked Commander Dedy whether he would be investigating the local cops in Cidaun. He asked me why he would do that. I said this was a regular departure point and they must have known about it. The commander did not answer the question. We had a look at the spot up the hill above town where the asylum seekers had been dropped off by vans before setting out on their doomed journey. The residents of this area were frightened, claiming they had seen nothing.

I went back to speak to more survivors, particularly the woman I had seen cradling her dead son.


This is an edited extract of Quarterly Essay 53, That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution by Paul Toohey (, $19.99)

Paul Toohey
Paul Toohey is a senior reporter and US correspondent for News Limited. His books include God's Little Acre, Rocky Goes West and The Killer Within. He has won a Walkley Award for magazine feature writing and the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year Award.

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