Drowning in a smuggler's paradise
JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- On October 19 last year, 43-year-old Iraqi Amal Hussan clung to a plank of wood watching as hundreds of women and children died around her in the waters off the Indonesian coast of Java.
"My dream was to arrive in Australia and become a refugee and to find a job," Hussan says of her journey, which ended with the death of 354 of her fellow passengers.
The tragedy, one of the largest maritime disasters in Indonesia's history, was the last straw in an escalating boat people crisis.
Shortly afterwards Jakarta said it would host a regional meeting to crack down on the deadly business of people smuggling -- a meeting formally opened Wednesday on the resort island of Bali with 350 delegates from 53 countries.
Hussan's perilous path to safety casts light on the challenges nations face in clamping down on the human cargo trade.
Hussan's trip began in December 1998, when she traveled with her husband and son from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, following the U.S. war, to build a new life and find jobs, money and a safer existence.
"From the north of Iraq we traveled across the mountains, went into Iran and decided to go to Australia," she says.
Her husband went before her, flying to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur before heading to Indonesia, where he took a boat to Australia. He stayed in the outback detention center of Woomera for eight months, and now lives in Melbourne, Hussan says.
The mother of three followed in his footsteps, accompanied by one of her sons, Amjag. She bought a passport in Iran for $200, something the former Iraqi bank worker says the Iran government knows about.
In July 2001, Hussan flew to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur with her son, and was greeted at the airport by a group she calls the Iraqi mafia.
"Before I travel I know the names and when I arrive they know me," she says.
On the fourth night, she was loaded into a car and hidden in a safe house until morning where she was taken to a deserted stretch of coastline. She was ferried first by a "tourist" boat, complete with TV, video and CD, before being swapped to a smaller boat that shipped her, along with 15 others, across the narrow Straits of Malacca into Indonesia.
In the capital Jakarta it was not long before Egyptian Abu Quassey approached Hussan, saying he had a good boat for them to travel in to Australia.
His boats had already made the arduous journey to Australia, so Hussan handed him $1,000 for the trip.
Then the wait -- a four-month wait -- until a boat was ready to take them.
While Hussan was told 175 people were accompanying her, when she turned up to the Sumatra port of Bandar Lumpung, more than 400 people were herded onto an unnamed boat with conditions worse than a 17th century slave ship.
"I told everyone, this boat will not arrive in Australia," she said. "I was afraid and I cry but what can we do, there is no money to go back."
Adding to the confusion were scores of gun-toting Indonesian police, she said, who seemed to be collaborating with the smugglers to keep scared travelers on the boat.
Hussan boarded the battered 19-meter Sumatran fishing boat and embarked on a well-established people-smuggling route -- 36 hours from Sumatra to Australia's Christmas Island, 360 kilometers away.
In Hussan's case, the engine cut out hours after the journey began. It was just minutes before water began gushing in, and the boat broke apart.
Life jackets from the dead
"Maybe about five minutes I open my eyes and found myself under the boat. I see many children die quickly, quickly."
Hussan and her son, two of 44 survivors, lived only because they took life jackets from people who had died, and clung to broken wooden planks for 20 hours, drinking water from the sky.
They were saved by fishing boats in the morning and taken first to Bogor and then to Jakarta, where they still remain, four months later, seething at the smugglers.
"They are just liers. This is just about the money," she says.
While Sweden, Finland and Denmark have come to the rescue of the survivors, Hussan, her son and four other people with family in Australia are still waiting for a decision to be made on their status.
"I want to learn English very well and want to speak with Larry King live to tell him the story about myself. I want the world to know."
Quassey has since been arrested.
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