Paul Toohey & Ashley Mullany, in The Advertiser, Sunday, 28 July with title as “I just want my baby boy back”
About 1000 asylum seekers have died trying to get to Australia illegally by boat since the Labor Government was elected. The Sunday Times was on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the latest boat tragedy this week and, in a common but rarely captured story, can tell why one woman took an extraordinary risk to reach her husband in Perth and suffered the most painful loss of all. Special report by Paul Toohey in Java and Ashlee Mullany in Perth.
SHE was sold a cruel lie by the people smugglers. He will never meet his son. She was told she would travel on a luxury ocean liner from Indonesia to Australia. They showed her photos of the ship that would transport her, her beautiful son and her brother to their new life in Australia. It was a superb vessel, with three storeys of cabins. “I believed them,” she said.
He had warned his wife not to do it, to never get on a boat. They would achieve their dream of being together again as a family but not like that. He knew first-hand how dangerous it was, having escaped to Australia four years earlier on a boat to build a new life in Perth for his wife and unborn son, their first child. He had left Sri Lanka when she was five months pregnant. His life on hold in a cluttered share-house with three other men in Langford in Perth’s south-eastern suburbs, he spent his days working, eating, sleeping and dreaming. He dreamt of them being together, even cutting up photos to make a collage of the three of them in a typically Australian scene. The tragic montage is now the only way they would be together.
Wind back a few days. We are in the village of Cidaun, on the southern coast of West Java, at one of the closest points between Indonesia and Christmas Island. Two Sri Lankan women are weeping. One says that her three children and husband are missing, lost at sea after their boat sank. The second woman says her only son is missing. Someone calls her name. She turns, in horror. She knows that over where the voice came from is the makeshift morgue they have set up at the clinic in the fishing village.
An ambulance has just arrived with another body rescuers have pulled from the water. The woman runs, then stops, not wanting to go closer, but compelled to do so.
She knows without doubt what she’ll find. She begins to scream. She rushes and grabs her small son’s grey and wet body and clutches him, her overwhelming
lament unbearable to behold. Local villagers circle her, staring at her pain. And then she and her dead boy are gone.
In Perth, husband Balamanokaran receives a phone call from his wife. His baby boy is dead. Until now, he had no idea his wife and child had boarded a boat to try to get
to Australia. “It’s not the correct way. I never wanted her to go on a boat. I came by boat and I know about the travel,” he said. “I told her not to stay in Indonesia, don’t waste your life. Go back to Sri Lanka and I’ll send you money and she said OK. I didn’t know about the boat.”
Balamanokaran planned to bring his family to Australia next year, when he expected to get citizenship in the final year of his five-year visa.
We pick up this extraordinary story on Wednesday at noon. There are so many tales of loss after an asylum boat, believed to be carrying 187 people, most of them Sri Lankans and Iranians, broke down and sank soon after leaving Cidaun for Christmas Island on Tuesday morning. There are also remarkable stories of survival. Most of the passengers somehow escaped with their lives after the smugglers cruelly overburdened the small wooden cargo vessel in their soulless pursuit of profit.
None of the Sri Lankans seems to know much about the screaming woman. They nicknamed her Radha, and say she, her son and brother travelled with, but were not part of, a bigger group of Tamil asylum-seekers.By Thursday morning, we have tracked her down on the other side of Java, in Jakarta, at the police hospital. She is with a young couple who have also lost their son, a one-year-old.
The Disaster Victim Identification Unit wants to DNA-match the dead children to their parents. The woman comes out a doorway in a daze. Her name is Selvamalar. She is 39. Her son’s name is Darmithan. He was four. She speaks passable English. She says the police won’t let her see Darmithan. They took him from her when they arrived here in the ambulance, the day before. “I want my baby, I want to see my baby,” she cried.
Selvamalar tells how it came to this. Late last year she, her brother Rahulan, 25, and Darmithan left their home in Vavuniya, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. She said husband Balamanokaran faced serious ethnic and political problems as a Tamil in Sri Lanka. “I wanted a life here with my wife and son,” he said. “A good future, good opportunities here.”
Now, all he wants is to hold the son he never knew. “I want to see my son’s face because I’ve never seen him,” he said, sobbing quietly in a bedroom in his Langford home.
He is urgently trying to get a passport to go to Jakarta, but says he has been told to wait until next week. “I’m asking the Australian Government to let me go to Indonesia. Send me
to Indonesia,” he said. “If I can’t do that, please bring my wife and baby here to stay with me for a couple of weeks and then send my wife back to Sri Lanka. I just want two weeks with my wife and child.”
Selvamalar said she’d tried to join her husband through legal means, but was refused a visa. “I don’t know why,” she said.
In mid-November, feeling she had no alternative, she set off from Galle, in the south of the troubled island nation, with her son, brother and 43 other Australia-bound asylum seekers.
Each paid the equivalent of around $7200 for passage to Indonesia. The engine stopped as they got close to Indonesia in their 2000km journey. “We were 45 days in the boat,” Selvamalar said. “After 25 days, there was no food. Then a ship stopped and give us food. After 36 days, we got more food from a New Orient ship. We just floated. On January 1, we are rescued by a ship and come to Indonesia.”
They were taken to Medan, capital of north Sumatra, and put in an overcrowded migration detention facility with other Sri Lankans and Iranians, Afghans and Burmese. “On April 4, eight Rohingya (Muslim) persons from Myanmar were murdered by Buddhists in the jail,” she said. “I don’t know why. They were stabbed. My son saw this. My son is very afraid. We are all very afraid.”
After more than three months, the International Organisation for Migration secured their release into the community. Selvamalar found a smuggler who arranged for their three-day journey by inter-island ferry and bus to Jakarta By April 22, the three were in Cisarua, in central West Java, the place where most asylum seekers register with the UNHCR in the hope of gaining legal resettlement in Australia, or to make contact with the smugglers.
She and her brother had no trouble finding the smuggler network. At least 40 brokers operate on behalf of the kingpins in the area, looking for passengers. The deal was that Selvamalar and her brother would pay $7200 each. Darmithan would travel free.
They were taken from Cisarua to another town on the evening of July 22, where she said a large number of Sri Lankans were gathered. They were driven down to the coast, arriving on Tuesday morning. “When we saw the boat, very shocked,” she said. “But they are saying that this boat will take us to the ship.” They motored to sea for two hours. Selvamalar began to realise there was no ship. They were put on a boat that quickly began taking water through a hole in the hull. “We are very afraid,” she said. “The boat is in danger.”
The captain responded to passengers’ pleas and turned back for Java, limping on half power for three hours until the boat swamped and began to quickly sink. Selvamalar tells of something strange, but something we have heard from others: that a bigger, more- modern boat was just 50m from them as people began to struggle and drown. “They are watching our boat,” she said. “We say, `Please help us’. We remove our life jackets and wave. They don’t help our rescue. They are watching, watching. We called out, `Help us, save our life’. They not help.”
She had become split from her brother (who would survive) and was floating, holding Darmithan. Each had a life jacket, but she didn’t know
how to swim. She didn’t want to float further out to sea with her boy.
“A man came and took my son,” she said. “A Sri Lankan man. He could
swim. I gave him my son to take him to safety, to take to land.” But
Darmithan arrived dead. What happened? “I don’t know, I don’t
know,” she said, bursting into tears again. “On Wednesday I see my
son, dead. Very cute boy, very cute boy.”
She does not know if the man who took her son made it back to shore. She does not know if someone stole her son’s life jacket. When we speak to Selvamalar in the police hospital, she says someone had given her a phone so she could call her husband. Selvamalar cannot let go. She cannot accept her son is dead.
“My baby was a good dancer, a very good singer,” Selvamalar said. “Every
day he’s saying, `Mama, I want to see my papa. When will I see my papa?
When are we going to Papa?’.
“My baby is always saying to me, `Don’t cry Mama, don’t cry Mama’. He was very cute, very cute.”
She doesn’t know what will happen now. “I don’t want to go to Australia,” she said. “My life is my baby. My future is my baby. I want my baby. I want to see my baby.”
Asked what she thinks of the people smugglers, she says: “They are very cheaters. No life do they understand. Not babies, not pregnant ladies, nothing. They not understand.”