Previously in Refuge #42 Crash course in People Smuggling: Iranian couple Maryam and Benham meet Iraj, a people smuggler in Bali. He shifts them around, hiding them from authorities and his own disgruntled business partners. Finally, the couple board a fishing vessel from Makassar. Maryam is horrified when she sees the cockroach-infested boat, but they push out to see before she can hop off.
Maryam tells Lesley and I how Benham gently said, ‘Come, I’ll do something for you.’ They climbed down the ladder into the cramped stowage area. Sitting in the spot she had just vacated, Benham pulled out a thin bed sheet from his backpack. He spread the sheet over his lap and asked Maryam to sit on him. Then he gathered the cloth up all around her and held it there all night, until morning, to protect her from the seething mass of cockroaches.
The following morning, people began removing their life jackets to use as pillows, trying to make themselves more comfortable, realizing that the journey would take a while, realizing that if they were to capsize or be thrown overboard, no one knew where they were, there was no way to call for help; the life jacket might keep them afloat for a few days, and then what?
Even so, the mood was upbeat, people exchanging stories of why they left Iran and how they had come to know Iraj. The passengers on the deck cooked a huge pot of instant noodles and lowered it into the stowage, men serving women first. Someone lent Maryam and Benham a fork, which they shared.
The boat was so wretched that its engine sputtered into silence after they had been at sea for only two days and two nights. If you wanted to be optimistic, you could say it was fortunate that they had made so little progress; they were still near land and Iraj came within a day in a replacement boat.
It was a bigger boat, with a wheelhouse that straddled the width of the deck. The only way to get from the bow to the stern was through the wheelhouse. A very fat man, the pregnant lady, and her husband sat in front of the wheelhouse. The pregnant lady chose this spot out of consideration to others because she kept throwing up. The fat man sat there probably because there was no space for him below deck. He was quite resourceful and found a rope to tie himself to the wheelhouse because there were no railings on the boat. A tarpaulin behind the wheelhouse sheltered around fifteen passengers, all young men, and beyond that, at the stern of the boat, was a two-walled toilet.
Around fifty people crammed into stowage below deck. The ceiling was so low that one could not stand up straight. Maryam’s spot, though, had the advantage of the ladder opening so that she could stand up and look out, or at least glimpse a sliver of sky.
Every available surface below deck was taken up with bodies and arms and legs so that if someone wanted to stretch his legs, someone else had to pull up his legs to his chin. It is fairly accurate to say ‘his’ because the passengers were almost all male.
The young men didn’t transfer all the supplies to the new boat because they didn’t like some of the flavours of the instant noodles and also because Iraj had told them the journey would take only three days. When Iraj left, the passengers, all Iranian, could not communicate with the crew who spoke neither Persian nor English. So they used sign language to ask the captain how many days, and he used his fingers to indicate eight days. They didn’t believe the captain.
At sunset, a man with a particularly good voice led the passengers in reciting Muslim prayers. Maryam and Benham, who were not religious, and did not know the words of the prayers, continued talking to two or three other men around them.
‘Shhh!’ scolded the other passengers. ‘God will not bless us.’ Although Maryam felt that their prayers and beliefs had nothing to do with her, she and Benham tried to be quiet.
By night, storms whipped the sea into a roiling frenzy. Seething waves tossed the flimsy wooden boat up in the air. Each time the boat slammed down, screams pierced the pitch darkness. Many times, Maryam thought that the boat would break apart.
On the third night, the storm increased its fury, like a tornado in water. She was alternately submerged in water and when the boat was tossed up, water drained out, and she gasped for air. Her arms were raised above her head and her fingers dug into the wooden slats. Maryam attended to her thoughts with detached logic: I’m going to die, that’s OK; Benham is asleep, he is not suffering, OK, we’ll die together; but how will my mum cope with the news of my death?
And she wept for her mum.
The next morning, she looked around at faces frozen in grimaces. People around her still slept. She pinched her cheeks to check if she was alive, or in paradise. The boat was still. She stood up and spotted an island. It looked untouched, with no human habitation. She woke the others up.
Having collectively emerged from a near-death experience, people started swapping stories in a strange mix of tears and laughter. Crying, the fat man told them how a fish had swum into his lap when the boat went under. When they emerged, he said to the fish, ‘This is my last night but I don’t want you to die.’ He threw the fish back into the sea.
Some of the young men swam ashore and came back with coconuts, gratefully received, because food and water stocks were running low. The captain said they would stay there, in that sheltered body of water until the bad weather passed.
When the captain spotted another fishing vessel, he would shout for everyone to stay down, lest they be discovered. But, perhaps it too, was another boat crammed with refugees and their captain was also shouting for them to stay down.
Gazing at the sandy beach from the boat, Maryam and Behnam spotted a pair of komodo dragons, which they recognized from TV documentaries.
‘Look, look!’ they yelled like excited schoolkids.
‘What? Land lizards?’ said the other passengers, unimpressed.
‘No, no, these are komodo dragons, from the age of the dinosaurs,’ Maryam said.
‘This is like our little cruise ship,’ joked Benham. ‘Pity we don’t have our cameras.’
On the third day at the island, Maryam and Benham swam ashore with some soap, conditioner, shaving cream and a razor. Benham tried to shave in salt water and ended up with a face full of cuts.
When they pushed off again, the nightly storms returned.
‘I need the toilet badly,’ Maryam shouted into Benham’s ear.
‘Just do it here,’ he yelled back.
‘I can’t! There is this guy here and that guy over there; they’re going to smell it. I can’t do it here!’
‘Just sit here and do it,’ said Behnam.
‘I can’t! I’m human. I can’t do it like an animal,’ said Maryam. She stood up, gripped the ladder firmly with both hands and pulled herself up. Behnam stood up behind Maryam and helped her to steady herself. They staggered onto the top deck, through the wheelhouse, over the young men clinging to one another under the tarpaulin. Maryam made it into the two-walled toilet, and saw the full fury of the raging seas. She relieved herself with her hands gripping the boat in case a swell knocked her into the water. When they returned to their spot below deck, Maryam buried her face in her hands and sobbed, thinking, ‘I am no more than an animal.’
To be continued next Friday, 3 January 2020 in Refuge #44 An Ocean Liner. This is part of the serial online release of the book, Refuge, a collection of true stories about refugee resettlement in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to instalments in your inbox.