(2/3) The next time, there were four big buses full of people, and we drove from Jakarta all the way to Surabaya, which is a 24 hour drive. When we arrived, I actually saw a boat for the first time. It was a scary looking boat, wooden and very old, and it was big – bigger than what I had seen on the internet. They put 250 people on that boat. I was kind of sad and happy. Sad that it had taken this long and happy that we were finally going. I was also reunited with one of my friends who I had known for ten years in Iran.
The boat was absolutely packed. Families mostly went upstairs, and we went downstairs, where there was a long table attached to the ground. People were asleep there on their knees, packed in like sardines. Other people were talking in many different languages. Some people were vomiting out of the windows, others were vomiting in the boat. I went on top of the table, which was mostly full of people’s bags. From there, I could see the food – there were like a thousand eggs, hundreds of packets of noodles, and more than 100 watermelons. There were no life jackets. But we didn’t think about that.
In the morning, everyone was quiet and we tried to sleep. I lay back on the table and used a bag as a pillow. Then the boat started going left and right. At first, it felt normal. It was heavy and the waves were knocking it around. Then I realised that it was pitching too much. Next, it went right, and didn’t come back again. After that, the water came in. It made a very crazy sound, and then the boat completely collapsed on its side. I put my hand on the side of the table, and hung off the edge, and that was a very lucky moment, because then people started jumping on top of each other to try to get out, and many people got trapped underneath their feet.
I really don’t know what happened after that. It was just the noise of the engine and the water and people screaming. It was chaos. But somehow I was pushed by the water out of one of those windows. When I came out, I was very far from the boat, and I didn’t know how I had got there. Other people were all over the place. The waves were high and there was lots of stuff floating on the water. Then I saw that the boat was upside down and people were trying to climb on top of it.
At first, I swam toward some people holding on to a piece of wood nearby. We were all in shock. Some people said we should to go back to the boat because the boat was stable and some said no, it was going to sink and everyone would die. In the end, we decided to push all together to try to get to the boat, but the waves were very strong and we couldn’t move. Meanwhile, people around us were just disappearing. Finally, one of the guys said, ‘I’m going to swim to the boat – who’s coming with me?’ And I said I would come. It was a decision that saved my life.
After 15 minutes of swimming, we reached the boat. It was on its side, and very slippery so I had a lot of difficulty climbing up. Out of the 250 people on the boat, there were only 80 or 90 left. When I got to the top, I saw my friend was there. He was very quiet and in shock, just looking blankly at my face. As the boat was very unstable, people were hanging on to the windows. Eventually, we started to drag the suitcases and bags out of the windows to see if we could find water. Meanwhile, people were shouting. They were emotional and very scared. Families were split up – some were lost, some were on the boat. A father could see his family dead in front of him and he couldn’t do anything. I saw a mother and a little daughter hugging each other. An Afghan man was praying, and everyone would follow the prayer even though not all were Muslim. Another man was shouting ‘Jesus!’ and everyone would shout after him ‘Jesus!’. It didn’t matter what religion you followed, you would just shout. We kept dragging out the bags, and after every two bags we would drag out a dead person.
It was raining and the water was going a bit crazy. When the waves hit us, people would fall down into the water. Then everyone had to climb back up again to sit on the top. People were climbing on the shoulders of other people and when people are panicking and they hold on to you, they can pull you under. Some people died this way. Each time the waves hit, we would lose a few people. But I would jump into the water and swim for a minute then go back once it was stable.
I’ll never forget when we first saw seagulls. It kind of gave us a sense of hope. People were cheering, and it was a very emotional moment. Then we saw a boat coming, a long, but tiny Asian fishing boat. We waved and we shouted and suddenly knew that the fisherman had seen us. He didn’t get really close, because he must have known that he could get swamped by people and sink as well.
I jumped with some others and swam towards that boat. 34 people got in and then he said stop, no more. As we departed, we told those that we left behind that we would get help and come back for them.
Photographer: Simone Cheung www.facebook.com/simonecheungphotography