An Afghan asylum seeker films his desperate attempt to reach Australia, including the panic as his boat starts to sink off the Indonesian coast.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 21:32
Channel: 
SBS One

In a television first on Dateline, an asylum seeker films his own desperate attempt to reach Australia by boat.

Afghan Hazara Batoor records a perilous journey as a boat packed with more than 90 people starts to take water off the Indonesian coast.

Batoor records panicked calls for help from fellow Afghans on the boat, which ends up crashing onto a beach on a remote Indonesian island. The asylum seeker tells Mark Davis of his terrifying journey.

Batoor also speaks of his voyage from Kabul which he had documented with a series of extraordinary photographs - after he fled his homeland, fearing that Taliban gunmen would target him for his work with US forces.

He is now in limbo in Indonesia with others from Afghanistan who are looking for ways to make it to Australia.

WATCH - See this amazing account of the perilous journey.

PHOTO GALLERY - See more of Batoor's pictures documenting his journey in a photo gallery on the Global Mail website.

INTERVIEW WITH MARK - Mark Davis talks to Andrew Bolton from SBS World News Australia Radio about Batoor, his background and what's likely to happen to him now.

UPDATE - After the filming of this story, Batoor decided against taking another boat and instead started the process of applying for an Australian visa. He's now living in Australia and is working on a book and documentary about his journey. See more in David O'Shea's Crunch Time story from August 2013.

WALKLEY AWARDS - Batoor later won two Walkley Awards for the photos he took during his journey. See those images and find out more.

Interview With Mark

Mark Davis talks to Andrew Bolton from SBS World News Australia Radio about Batoor, his background and what's likely to happen to him now.

Resources

Transcript

We have all seen footage of refugee boats coming into Australian waters but tonight we are on board one of those boats. An Afghan asylum seeker filmed and photographed his perilous journey across the globe, recently boarding an old boat headed for Christmas Island with 90 other souls. It was a journey that went horribly wrong and was filmed at every step. Tens of thousands have made this crossing to Australia. We have read and heard their accounts but we have never seen an insider's view like this one.

REPORTER: Mark Davis

Batoor has had a tough week. His refugee boat to Australia sank. He swam for his life, was captured by Indonesian police and then escaped from detention. He is now on the run in Jakarta pondering his next move.

REPORTER: Have you had contact with the smuggler? Does the smuggler know that the boat has gone down?

BATOOR, AFGHAN ASYLUM SEEKER: Yes, yes, he knows.

REPORTER: What is his response?

BATOOR: He is not happy. He is not happy because he lost his money on that.

REPORTER: Yeah.

For Batoor the prospect of getting on another boat is a little too traumatic. It's been less than a week since the boat sank. In that time he has found six of his fellow escapees and a safe house for them to rest in while they consider their options.

REPORTER: What do you do? What do you do?

BATOOR: I'm not sure. I'm not sure. Right now I cannot take any decision about what I should do. But some of my friends or most of them, they are thinking to get another boat and go. But I cannot think of that right now.

REPORTER: Do you think the others would go tomorrow if they got a chance?

BATOOR: As far as I know, some of them, if they get the call right now, they will leave the next hour.

REPORTER: They would still go, tomorrow?

BATOOR: Yes.

Jakarta is an easy city to get lost in. Thousands of nooks and crannies where six Afghanis don't stand out - too much.

CHILD (Translation): Hello, mister white man!

Not everyone is home today but those that are, are watching for the first time Batoor's remarkable recording of their near-death experience.

REFUGEE (Translation): This is the first day, we boarded the night before. This is the first day, we were going forward.

For two days and two night that's struggled towards Christmas Island. The old boat made little headway in the heavy seas.

REFUGEE (Translation): I'd passed out then, I was not well. Water was dripping from my mouth.

BATOOR: He says that I wasn't conscious and I was vomiting there and I didn't know what was happening.

REPORTER: Already?

BATOOR: Already, on day 1, yeah.

REFUGEE (Translation): One of the boats timbers was broken - they had tied it with a bag handle. The boat was going up and down and cracking, it made noise - I said it is going to break in two right now. Then night came, the sea was very choppy. It was calmer during the day but at night the waves were huge.

BATOOR: During the night when people are turning on and off their torches to give a signal to the other boat for help. By night time it was in trouble and the captain told us already that the boat has leaked and we might not go further, that the water is very bad. There was a big hole in the engine also, like the water was coming from there too. The people started bailing the water with buckets and with pots.

REFUGEE 2 (Translation): He tied the rope around his waist.

BATOOR (Translation): Two at a time, eh?

REFUGEE 2 (Translation): He said 'Ten or twelve of you should cling to each other.' So I got a rope and told the others 'We can tie the rope around us so if the boat sinks we will be together.'

BATOOR (Translation): Why?

REFUGEE 2 (Translation): So we would not drown easily.

BATOOR: Like we passed many boats that we could see from far away. People were waving the jackets and whistling but it didn't work. And they are now whistling, whistling and waving the jackets. But nobody turned - people crying, shouting and praying loudly. It was like a scene from doomsday.

I was thinking too that I'm going to die, that I was documenting my death. You could see or you can feel the fear, in my photos, how afraid I was. I can feel it. If I show you definitely you will also feel it.

Batoor was a photographer for the US embassy in Afghanistan and a renowned freelancer before that. But none of the chaos of that war torn country prepared him for the chaos of the sea.

BATOOR: When I got off the boat, then I jumped into the water, felt like it was taller than my height. That's why my back and my cameras went into the water.

REPORTER: So the camera is ruined do you think?

BATOOR: Is not working any more. I don't know. Let's check with the repairer.

REPORTER: But the footage is OK?

BATOOR: Yeah, luckily that's saved.

REPORTER: Why take such risks?

BATOOR: Because my life was under threat in Afghanistan and I couldn't live a free life. I couldn't work there.

REPORTER: You had work. You had income. I mean, a lot of people are very poor in Afghanistan. You probably weren't.

BATOOR: I had a very good job and a very good income. I didn't want to leave my country, but I had no other option to do.

DAWN NEWS: To highlight and draw the world's attention to in a photographic exhibition has been held in Quetta.

Quetta.... Highlighted the scenic beauty of the country.

BATOOR: I wanted to show the beautiful part of Afghanistan.

But when he showed something a little less beautiful, his personal security began to spiral. In April of this year the Washington post ran a photo essay of Batoor's, exposing one of Afghanistan's darkest secrets.

BATOOR: That is about the boys' prostitution in Afghanistan which is called the dancing boys of Afghanistan. The people use boys as a sex slave and make them dance and - like and they put on girls costume on them and put make-up on them and they make them dance in the parties and they have sex with them. That indeed created a lot of problems for me. I got phone calls, threats from people like those who were not happy with the - with that story.

REPORTER: People were talking about you or threatening you directly?

BATOOR: Yes. Plus I started a modelling agency last year too which was also not liked.

REPORTER: A modelling agency?

BATOOR: Yes.

REPORTER: In Afghanistan?

BATOOR: In Afghanistan. It is the first modelling agency in Afghanistan.

REPORTER: That's probably not a great idea.

BATOOR: It was a great idea for me. I was dreaming to build up, like to do something new in Afghanistan. But I didn't know how sensitive or risky it will be

REPORTER: Yes.

His job at the US embassy became untenable as the controversy surrounding his exposure of the dancing boys' ring grew. His services were no longer required in June and he left with little more than a virtual target on his head - a well-known western collaborator in the eyes of the Taliban.

REPORTER: Don't you think the Americans should have a responsibility to you?

BATOOR: I think so but...

REPORTER: They don't?

With enemies and threats all around, Batoor set his eyes on Australia, but there is no process to apply for Australian asylum in Afghanistan. No options he thought but to take to the sea.

BATOOR: They say I had to put it in the fresh water while it was in the sea. I hope I will not have the same experience again.

REPORTER: Bad luck.

BATOOR: I know now about it.

These are the last images Batoor took as their boat crashed into an island and the refugees struggled to shore, most of them unable to swim. After a night in the forest they were captured by Indonesian police, but determined for their journey not to end here, Batoor and a group of his friends soon escaped.

BATOOR: They took us in the bus to Serang and we were detained there in Serang. There was a high wall with broken glass. Big broken glass and we used a pillow and put the pillow on the wall in order not to get injured, and used the bed sheet around our forearms and then jumped through that to the outside.

All of this group are Afghan Hazaras living in Afghanistan or neighbouring Pakistan. They are a vulnerable minority in both countries.

REPORTER: Can you afford to go back to Afghanistan or Pakistan?

SYED: No. I couldn't go, because my life is not secure or safe there. There is a lot of target killings and bomb blasting and killing only Hazara people. Not any other culture.

Syed, 17, sold his family home to pay the smugglers for his journey.

REPORTER: And you left your mother and sister there?

SYED: Yes, in a neighbour's house.

REPORTER: And sold the family home so you could come?

SYED: I was not coming but my mum forced me to go because my life was already in danger.

Haider, now appointed as cook for the group came from Quetta in Pakistan, an even deadlier place for Hazaras now than in Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan.

HAIDER (Translation): I drove a bus back and forth to Iran, but people were getting dragged off the bus and beaten to death. Understand? So I stopped doing that job.

Over the past 12 months a string of buses on Haiders route have been attacked by Taliban associates in Pakistan. They film these horrific attacks, dragging off and killing just Hazaras - seen as allies of the international forces in Afghanistan and as Shias, not true Muslims.

HAIDER (Translation): Then I got work carrying goods to the bazaar, but the bazaar was a very dangerous place - I could not go there to buy goods. They would have killed us because they go for anyone who is Hazara.

And the Hazaras in the market where Haiders work were under constant attack.

REPORTER: What cities are you thinking of going to? Do you know what city you want to go to?

Despite almost dying on their first attempt to get to Australia, each of them have their own city picked out as their ultimate target?

REPORTER: Sydney? Perth?

And most have already made up their minds to move again.

REPORTER: Melbourne. OK. So one in every state, yeah. So you will get on the boat again?

REFUGEE: Yeah.

REPORTER: Again?

REFUGEE: Yeah.

REPORTER: Why go to Australia? Why not another country, a closer country?

REFUGEE 2 (Translation): I chose Australia because when I studied about Australia, I found out it is one of the countries that accepts refugees. Australia is the best and so I chose Australia. When I was in Kabul I heard that Australia has changed the law. I am prepared to go to Nauru although it is a bad place at least if I go to Nauru my life is safe.

REPORTER: They will probably send you to Nauru and you will probably be there for a number of years. Does that affect your decision?

SYED: It will affect it. But we do not have any other chances because we can't sit here also and we can't go back. So probably we will go to - go wherever they send us. We don't have any other...

REPORTER: Choice?

SYED: Choice, yes.

REPORTER: Good morning.

SYED: Good morning.

REFUGEE: Good morning, sir.

REPORTER: How are you? Good.

REFUGEE: Fine.

REPORTER: Ready for a new day?

REFUGEE: Yes.

REPORTER: Batoor. How are you? Good. How did you sleep?

BATOOR: Very nice.

REPORTER: What have you got on today? Any plans?

BATOOR: We don't have anything to do, just see our friends.

REPORTER: So there are many refugees around here?

BATOOR: Yeah.

REPORTER: So you have a little community here waiting for a phone call pretty much?

BATOOR: Waiting for a phone call. That's part of every da

REPORTER: When the call comes how quickly do you have to move?

BATOOR: As quickly as one hour, it could be 8 hours.

REPORTER: And it's just "go, move"?

BATOOR: Move, get ready.

Dozens of Hazara refugees have turned up to this soccer game. The teams fluctuate wildly as team members disappear when their boats come in. But there is always someone new to take their place.

REPORTER: It's incredible to watch this, it's like a social club, you all meet?

SAMIR: Here where we meet, we are coming to the gym, the boys are coming here playing football. You know, this is what we do right now.

Everyone here is suspicious of talking on camera, but when I meet Samir, a former international forces translator and now refugee, he helps chill the mood.

REPORTER: How many Hazaras do you think are in this area roughly?

SAMIR: 2,000 maybe.

REPORTER: 2,000 Hazaras in this area, really? Wow. How long have you been here?

REFUGEE 3: Four or five months.

REPORTER: Are you waiting for a boat? Have you tried? Have you been on a boat yet?

REFUGEE 3: Just one.

REPORTER: Just one, what happened?

REFUGEE 3 (Translation): We got on the boat there, our boat had problems.

SAMIR: The boat was just a problem, broken down or something.

REPORTER: Broke down?

Everyone here is fleeing some danger but the fate of translators like Samir particularly seems unjust. People who have served international troops or agencies are prime targets for Taliban murders or beheadings - a prospect that hangs over all of them now that the international forces are pulling out next year.

SAMIR: I will work for the British forces for four years. Been with the Danish in my province. I have my photos, I have my certificates, I have my pass, everything in my pocket on my telephone right now.

REPORTER: That's you?

SAMIR: This is me, yes. This is me during a patrol.

REPORTER: So you were translating for the international forces?

SAMIR: Yeah, I was interpreting for international forces, for the coalition forces.

REPORTER: So they armed you?

SAMIR: And then they give me the rifle so I look like them.

REPORTER: This is front line work?

SAMIR: Front line work, yeah.

REPORTER: And now you're stranded?

SAMIR: In Indonesia.

REPORTER: When the Americans and Australians leave Afghanistan you can imagine the numbers of people that are going to be trying to runaway then?

SAMIR: Yeah, yeah. Loads of people will try to run away because the Taliban are threatening and killing those people who help the government and help the ISAF forces, the international forces, the coalition forces.

REPORTER: If you help them you're in trouble?

SAMIR: Yeah.

REPORTER: It's incredible. The British won't help you?

SAMIR: As we can see now, you know, like thousands of people work for the British embassy or the British government. If they start this process then anybody that has worked for them they have to take them.

REPORTER: But anybody who has worked for them their life is at risk. Maybe they should take them.

SAMIR: I have told them several times that I am receiving warnings.

It seems astounding that people who have risked their lives serving America, Britain or Australia are left stranded on the smuggling route. There is no process to apply for asylum inside Afghanistan and the process of officially applying from here can take at least three years before any answer is given.


Haider, bus driver and unofficial cook for the escapees, is too unsettled by the sinking boat to try for another just now. He is heading for the UNHCR to start the process of being officially declared an asylum seeker. Step 1 - get a token for an interview.


It's a long queue. The token that Haider gets today entitles him to his first interview in July 2013. He is likely to wait another year to hear the results of that interview, and yet another year before hearing from Australia. With three children waiting for him at home, it will be an agonising wait, a typical twist in a difficult journey so fastidiously and uniquely documented by the tour.

REPORTER: I don't know whether you know whether anyone has done this before?

BATOOR: I don't know whether anyone has done it before or not but I did it because I just wanted to document it. If nobody did it so it will be part of history, so I can share it with the people of Australia and the refugees of Australia to put it in their museums.

Batoor's video captures of drama of the boat journey but his photos document the complete saga like no-one has before.

BATOOR: We're altogether.

REPORTER: All the gang?

BATOOR: All the gang, yeah.

Leaving Afghanistan, crossing jungles and seas through Asia to get to Indonesia.

BATOOR: We are heading to Kuala Lumpu.

The hideouts, the ruses, the chain of smugglers that pass them through each country.

BATOOR: These are the people, the smugglers, so you can see their outlines only.

REPORTER: This is the first boat?

BATOOR: The first boat from Malaysia to Indonesia.

The payments made to keep the wheels rolling.

BATOOR: We were taken it a wooden house where the smugglers came and collected money from each person. You can see the money here.

REPORTER: A big pile of money.

BATOOR: Yeah a big pile of money he is collecting.

REPORTER: Wow.

And the people that fell along the way.

BATOOR: He is missing on the last boat, carrying around 150 people. Very cool guy. Very cool guy. Very sad. I still cannot believe.

A saga documented by some journalists but never so completely by a refugee. An inside view of an astounding journey. A snapshot not just of this journey but of all the waves of refugees who have made it to Australian shores the same way.


REPORTER: This Hazara we met the other day - some of those guys have tried three times, they said.

BATOOR: Yes.

When we met 7 days before, Batoor was wary of getting on a boat again, a journey that nearly killed him and did kill two of his friends who got the boat before his.

BATOOR: I spent like three weeks together with them - in a room. They were very quiet, good guys and very gentle. Amazing guys.

It seems just one week of realising how hard it will be to survive in Indonesia is changing his mind.

REPORTER: You were unsure before whether you wanted to get a boat. What are you thinking now?

BATOOR: I'm thinking there are not many choices for me. I don't know. I'm thinking maybe I will get another boat. I don't know.

Since I left a few days ago, two of his group of six have managed to get another boat. It's likely they will be at sea tonight. For Batoor it seems all paths open to him backwards or forwards are going to be deadly ones.

Batoor on a beach in Java - and it seems that is the most logical place for him to be. There is no process for him to apply for asylum to Australia from within Afghanistan. As Australia and its allies prepare to withdraw from the war torn country, there will be hundreds of people in the same situation as Batoor and others from tonight's program who have served foreign forces and embassies. The department of immigration advises that there are no provisions to assist those who have served Australian troops when we leave. That story will be available to watch again on our website shortly. And you can follow the links for more of Batoor's pictures from his journey at sbs.com.au.

Reporter
MARK DAVIS

Camera
LEXY RAMBADETA
MARK DAVIS

Producer
GARRY MCNAB

Editors
MICAH MCGOWN
SUE BELL
NICK O'BRIEN

Translations/Subtitling
AZADEH FADAGHI

Original music composed by

VICKI HANSEN

16th October 2012