Live

Watch CBSN Live

Hundreds Die In High-Seas Tragedy

A journey to freedom ended tragically when more than 350 people — Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers — drowned after their overcrowded boat sank off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Forty-four survivors battled high seas and soaring mid-day heat to cling onto pieces of driftwood for 20 hours before they were rescued Saturday night.

"The conditions were unlike anything you could imagine, worse than anything you've seen in the movie Titanic," said 19-year-old Rami Amjaad who, with his mother, was among the survivors.

The vessel, loaded with at least 400 people, began taking on water within hours of leaving a remote island off the coast of Sumatra Oct. 18 heading for Australia, survivors said. The crew, an Iraqi and two Indonesians, told the passengers, including up to 80 children, that the water pump was working and that there were sufficient life jackets.

The following day and far from shore, the boat foundered, forcing panicked passengers to bail water with cooking pots and plates and heave overboard their worldly possessions in a vain attempt to keep it afloat. At 2:30 p.m. local time, the boat capsized but a group of men rallied to right the stricken, 19-meter-long, three-meter-wide fishing boat. However, within minutes it broke up and sank, spilling dazed survivors and thousands of gallons of fuel into the ocean.

There were just 60 life jackets and most were defective, said Bahiran, one of a dozen Afghans aboard the doomed vessel. People who wore them were the first to sink, he said.

"There was gasoline everywhere in the ocean and people were drinking and choking on it. All the people were struggling in the water, men and mothers with children and babies and young kids," said Amjaad, who watched powerless as his teenage nephew and cousin slipped beneath the waves during the 20 hours they spent in the water. "People were trying to hold on to pieces of wood but they were not strong enough or the wood sink and then they died. We were all exhausted and waiting to die."

Help arrived in the form of a lone fishing boat on the afternoon of Oct. 21. The 44 survivors were pulled aboard and spent the next 24 hours huddled together for warmth as the vessel made for Jakarta, arriving late Monday afternoon.

"We had no idea it happened until they arrived at the port," said a volunteer at the Wisma Palar refugee aid centre in Bogor, about 50 kilometers south of Jakarta, where the refugees were brought. "This is a tragedy for all of us."

A counselor with the United Nations' International Organization for Migration said aid workers knew many of the dead because they'd spent up to a year in Indonesia waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

"It has touched each one of us," said IOM counsellor Maha Bodemar. "I see one little girl maybe eight years old who survived while her parents and siblings died. There's a doctor we all knew, very articulate, who spoke excellent English and helped us a great deal. He died wih his wife and five children. We're all just devastated by it."

Bodeman said the majority of the dead were well educated "computer programmers, engineers, doctors" who knew the risks.

"We met with them and explained the dangers but of course these are very desperate people and they feel it is the only way out for them and their families," she said. "I guess when they're that desperate there's little one can do."

Every year thousands of migrants pass through the waters of Southeast Asia in their search for better lives. Many leaving Indonesia are headed for Australia.

Many of these asylum seekers have spent their life's savings for the opportunity to resettle in Australia. The survivors of this ship tragedy paid the equivalent of up to $6,500 each to be brought from Iraq and Afghanistan to Australia, one man said. There was a small group of Palestinians and two Algerians aboard the ship but the majority of the dead are Iraqi.

Australian officials believe as many as 5,000 Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians are living in Indonesia, waiting for their opportunity to slip into Australia.

In late August a Norwegian freighter rescued 433 asylum seekers from a sinking Indonesian-registered ferry in the Indian Ocean. The refugees seized control of the vessel and ordered its captain to take them to Australian waters where it was boarded by marines, sparking a high-profile feud between the government and the United Nations.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard refused to allow the asylum seekers to land, a move lauded by the majority of population in this election year.

That group, joined by 237 others picked up in a later incident were later transported to the tiny island nation of Nauru in a resettlement deal that cost the Australian government $20 million.

© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In