'I was waiting for my turn to die'

JAKARTA - The image of his fellow asylum seekers slowly succumbing to unforgiving waters is one that Mr Habibullah - the sole survivor of a boat tragedy near Indonesia - will never forget.

The 22-year-old Afghan, now trapped in limbo at a Jakarta detention centre, was en route to an Australian territory in October to seek asylum with 33 other Pakistani and Afghan men, all of whom were lost to the Indian Ocean after the boat sank.

"There was rain and strong winds, and on the second night there was a storm and we were swinging like a pendulum," Mr Habibullah said in Jakarta, where he has been detained since his rescue.

"In the morning, we saw bodies floating in the water surrounding the boat."

The small, 20m-long vessel lost power a few hours into the voyage on Oct 26 from Java to Christmas Island, an Australian territory closer to Indonesia than to Australia.

It sank a day later.

Mr Habibullah, who goes by one name, choked with emotion as he described how his fellow asylum seekers were swept to their deaths one by one after losing their grip on a rope that had been holding them together in the water.

"I was waiting for my turn to die," he said of his harrowing four days at sea with no food and nothing to drink.

He had paid almost US$10,000 (S$12,270) to people smugglers in the hope of ending up in Australia, which he calls "the land of freedom".

Having fled the unrest of Afghanistan, he had moved to the Pakistani city of Karachi, but lived in constant fear of attacks against him and his Shiite Muslim community.

When the boat lost power, one of the three Indonesian captains abandoned ship, jumping into the ocean to leave only one captain and a mechanic behind, he said.

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