Refugee shares Tampa memories

SPECIAL REPORT: Amin Sharzad was just one of the multitudes, one of the 438 on board the boat of asylum seekers when Captain Rinnan's ship found it.

Amin Sharzad was just one of the multitudes, one of the 438 on board the boat of asylum seekers when Captain Rinnan's ship found it.

While so many others on Nauru gave up and returned to death or disaster in Afghanistan, he is one of the few who, 10 years later, have fulfilled the original dream: a life in Australia.

The KM Palapa 1 was one day out at sea when the world ended.

Or so Amin Sharzad and his 437 fellow travellers thought.

“There was a really big sound -- like a crash, something like that. Then they said, "The boat is finished. The engine is broken. We cannot start it up again."

The boat was broken down. Just that abruptly, the Indonesian wooden ferry, carrying almost entirely Afghan asylum seekers from the long-targeted Hazara minority, was left adrift in the Indian Ocean.

Amin Sharzad was 21 years old, a young Hazara man from the dry farmlands west of Kabul, and now there was nothing but water as far as the eye could see.

For three days and three nights, they drifted, trying to bail out the water fast enough to just stay afloat.

He struggles to find the words in English to describe the loneliness.

“We completely feel ourselves lost, you know? We thought that this is the last moment of our lives. There was no hope. We used to see nothing, and we were very hopeless. Especially during the evening, when the dark come, that was very, very horrible, and that was very, very hopeless as well.

Amin Sharzad remembers his friends praying.

He remembers the younger boys, 16, 17 years old, convulsed in tears.

He remembers the boys, the men and the women and small children alike, all convinced their days were ended before their time.

“Exactly, they were crying. They said, 'Now, we are finished.' And they were saying that we did not do a good thing when we came to this wooden ship. And, also, they were saying, 'What will we do now?" That was crying. And somebody was saying very silently, 'Now, the ship is finished. Just we are waiting for the moment that we go down in the sea.'

The bottom level of the triple-decker ferry was, indeed, barely above water, even then only because the boys were bailing it out as fast as the surging waves dumped it in.

The waves were actually crashing heavily across the middle deck, where Amin Sharzad and his friends were huddled, and washing out the other side of the boat.

And that was the terror gripping the drifting boat, even though a violent storm had abated, when the Tampa arrived in the middle of the afternoon on August the 26th, 2001.

Women and children first, came the order, and bags not at all.

What would drive a man, or a woman or child, to take the risks that can leave them in such a moment?

Amin Sharzad was a young schoolboy in 1986 when Mohammad Najibullah became the fourth and final president of Soviet-backed, communist Afghanistan.

His father worked for the Najibullah Government, and, when it fell to the Mujaheddin in the 1990s, the Mujaheddin soon tracked down and killed both the father and his oldest son.

Later, the mother would die and the second son would be badly wounded in a bloody attack on the family home that left Amin, the youngest of the three sons, unconscious.

He recovered, but fled the area, and, in 2001, he escaped to Peshawar, Pakistan, in a van with friends from his home area.

Amin Sharzad stayed in Pakistan for a couple of weeks, then flew to Malaysia, stayed for a night, and then flew on to Indonesia.

There, one morning, he and the hundreds like him were led to the boat that would take them to their final destination -- or so they thought.

“We didn't see the boat before, only on the movies or something like that. We thought the boat is all right -- it will be a steel one, it's a very good one, it's a very nice one, it's a very safe one. But in the morning, around 4 or 5 a.m. -- I couldn't remember exactly, but it was really dark, you know? -- when we come to the boat, at that time we were in a hurry.

“'That was a really, really bad boat, you know? We thought, 'No, this is not the boat that you are thinking about. That's it.' We had a really bad situation in Afghanistan, and so that's why we accept, 'Okay, maybe this boat can take us to Australia.'

Within 24 hours, they knew it could not.

They would endure the engine explosion and then the storm at sea, before the Tampa crew finally pulled them aboard their ship one by one.

Rescuers would find the Palapa suffering from severe damage to both its stern and its superstructure.

Once the wooden boat was emptied, the Tampa just left it adrift, to die alone at sea as its 438 passengers would have.

By then, Amin Sharzad says, they thought they were all set, all on their way to their new life.

“Somebody from (among) us, the one who spoke English a little bit -- he used to speak English well -- they talked with the captain, Arne Rinnan. Arne Rinnan asked us, 'Where (do) you want to go?' We said most of us were from Afghanistan. We said, 'We are in danger. We have to go to ... we are going to Australia.' They said, 'That's okay. This is up to you. If you want to go to Australia, I'll take you to Australia. And we will be in Australian water -- on Christmas Island or whatever, something like that -- before midnight.' We were very, very happy”.

Late that night, Amin Sharzad says, the Tampa stopped, and the asylum seekers were told they were at the island but people were asleep and everything would wait until morning.

When they awoke, he says, Australian helicopters were in the air, Australian military was around them in the water, and they awaited their entry into Australia at any moment.

That is when they were told, because they had come from international waters, the United Nations or the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) would take over the case.

Mr Sharzad says, when they rejected the IOM's word that they would return to Indonesia, the week-long limbo set in that ended with word they were going to the island of Nauru.

Suffering from the daytime heat and night-time cold, along with a shortage of toilets and other facilities for the families aboard, the asylum seekers accepted that idea.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was to review their asylum applications there.

But it would be two more years before, on appeal, on his third try, Mr Sharzad finally gained refugee status.

The conditions on the ground in Nauru have long since lost importance in Amin Sharzad's memory, dismissed in the simple comment that he wasted two years of his life there.

But the condition of his mind in Nauru will never fade from memory.

“Our minds were not okay, you know? Because, we were thinking about our destiny -- what's going to happen to us, what's going to happen to our families, what should we do, how long we will be here. So, that was a really, really tough time in Nauru”.

In September 2003, Mr Sharzad landed in Melbourne with a Temporary Protection Visa good for five years.

Four-a-half years later, on April the 28th, 2008, he finally became a permanent resident of Australia.

And another year and a half later -- more than eight years after the Tampa plucked him from a drifting boat in the Indian Ocean – he became an Australian citizen.

Two years after that, life is good ... very good.

Amin Sharzad owns and operates two trucks -- cheap ones, he says, but good enough to allow him to send money every month to his injured brother in Afghanistan.

More importantly, after all these years, he is surrounded by a family again.

In 2008, he travelled back to Peshawar, met a Hazara woman who had also escaped from his home area in Afghanistan, and married.

She was able to join him in Australia last year, and, now, they have a five-month-old daughter.
It has been a long, grinding road, but Amin Sharzad does not flinch when asked if it was worth what he has been through.

“Personally, you know, my situation was not really good. The Taliban was killing us, and I was scared, you know? Because, I was Hazara, I was Shia, and, also, if they knew that (your) dad was working with the Najib government, that was really, really bad.

“That's why, if I knew that lots of tough times were in front of me if I got to Australia, still I (would) try, you know? Still.

Asked a decade later what he feels towards Tampa captain Arne Rinnan, Amin Sharzad takes a long pause, grappling once more to wrap what he wants to say in English.

“He is a very good person. Because, he rescued 438 people on the boat. I thank him because of his great feelings about (the) human,” Sharzad said.

Source SBS

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