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Chinese immigrants' grim journey

MAIDSTONE, England -- The two survivors of the Dover lorry tragedy described in detail the final journey of the 60 Chinese immigrants.

Su Di Ke, 20, and Ke Shi Guang, 22, told the trial jury they suffered several weeks of arduous travel before making their fateful attempt to enter Britain.

The tragic journey of the 56 men and four women started in China's capital city Beijing, from where they flew by plane to the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade.

They travelled legally on Chinese passports after obtaining permits to leave the People's Republic.

They were escorted in small groups from China by minders after agreeing to pay a criminal "snakehead" gang 20,000 each to smuggle them into this country.

When they arrived in Belgrade they were taken to safe houses and given stolen Asian passports, mainly Korean. From there they were taken by car into Hungary.

They were transported through Austria and into France hidden in the backs of vans, then boarded a train to get to the Netherlands, where they were handed over to the European side of the network, in Rotterdam.

Ke told the jury that he left the Chinese capital with 15 other immigrants and two snakehead minders.

After being smuggled across Europe his group was taken to a safe house in Rotterdam. Other immigrants were already there, awaiting their chance to get into Britain.

The court heard that on June 18 the Dutch gang took the 60 immigrants in two delivery vans -- 27 in one vehicle and 33 in the other -- to a warehouse in the Waalhaven area of Rotterdam.

The Dutch gang members loaded them into the front of the lorry container, then used three pieces of wood to make a partition before stacking boxes of tomatoes between them and the lorry doors, to conceal their presence.

When they left Rotterdam the air-vent on the side of the trailer was tied open with a piece of string, and the Chinese were given four buckets of water to last the journey.

Ke said: "Once the water was inside it was finished quickly. I did not have time to get any."

Wacker drove the lorry to Zeebrugge, leaving at 3pm and arriving just after 6pm. Before reaching the Belgian port he stopped at a motorway service station and closed the air-vent to avoid his human cargo being spotted at immigration checks.

After parking the lorry on the ferry Wacker went upstairs, where he tucked into a meal and watched two films.

The immigrants were trapped inside the airtight container on one of the hottest days of last summer until the lorry was searched at Dover at 11.43pm.

Mr Ke said his fellow passengers were calm until the air started running out. "They started panicking after about two to three hours because the vent was shut and there was no air.

"Some people removed tomatoes and tried to kick open the doors. There was also a lot of shouting and screaming, but nobody came to help."

Guang burst into tears while recalling the crossing in court. After being asked if he had banged on the side of the container he replied: "Yes, but no help came anyway."

The two survivors were the last loaded into the container and lay with their heads on the floor by the wooden partitions as the air ran out. They were pulled out barely conscious by dock workers who searched the lorry at Dover.

As the air ran out and the temperatures rose during the crossing, the immigrants stripped to their underwear, sucked the juice from the tomatoes and tried in vain to pry open the air vent.

Prosecutor Victor Temple told jurors that on the hot summer night, the 60 immigrants "were obliged to sit or squat in an airtight container with little or no opportunity to move, and only a little water to quench their thirst."

Customs officers said the truck was searched because it fitted a profile of vehicles used for smuggling -- one that had not travelled through Dover before, and whose operator had paid for the passage in cash.

Dutch authorities say they were hired to handle the immigrants' transit from the Netherlands to Britain -- described by prosecutors as the third such shipment by the gang in six months.

China has moved in recent months to crack down on the snakeheads. More than 400 people, the biggest annual total ever, were arrested last year, China's official news agency said.

The alleged leader of the gang that dispatched the group to Dover was picked up in January, it has reported.



RELATED STORIES:
Dover lorry death driver jailed
April 5, 2001
Driver of immigrant death truck makes first British court appearance
June 23, 2000
British police charge truck driver in deaths of 58 Chinese
June 22, 2000
Dutch police make arrest in deadly immigrant smuggling case
June 20, 2000

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