Over the past fortnight, The Weekend West has travelled to Pakistan to trace the relatives of many of the 90 people who died in last month's asylum boat tragedy. This is their story.


Syed Mujahid Ali Shah was one of the first to go. He was well-known in Parachinar, the troubled Pakistani city on the Afghan border, a place closer to Kabul than to Islamabad.

His father had been a respected educationalist and pushed hard for civil reform until he was abducted by the Taliban and tortured for two days before his mutilated and headless body was dumped on the side of a road.

Mujahid was the oldest of six brothers and the killing thrust the 32-year-old to the head of the family.

He had a Bachelor of Arts and a diploma in information technology but there was no work and he couldn't support them. He applied for a student visa to go to Canada but after five months heard nothing. With mounting debts, no food and a heavily pregnant wife, he told his family that his only option was Australia.

"He wanted something for us," his brother Qasar explained this week.

"After our father was murdered there was no one else to look after us."

Mujahid told them he would journey to Australia, where he believed there would be opportunity.

He would find work and send the money back to Parachinar. His family agreed, selling everything and taking out a loan to raise the 1.8 million rupees ($18,320) needed for the trip. Mujahid left late last year, braved the risky road to Peshawar and moved on to Islamabad then Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and finally Jakarta, where he waited for eight months to get on a boat. His wife gave birth to their son four weeks after he left.

On June 21, after more than half a year in limbo in Java, he sent his family an excited text message: "We are in international waters. I will contact you from Christmas Island."

It was the last time they heard from him.

Mujahid was not the only man from Parachinar on that ill-fated boat but he was one of the first to make the decision to go.

Before him, only a few people from the region had attempted the risky journey to Australia by boat. But in the first six months of this year, a chain of events ended up convincing 153 of the region's men - an entire generation from the community - to make the move en masse for the first time, a decision that would ultimately end in tragedy.

Relatives of 18 men who went missing in the asylum seeker tragedy off Christmas Island last month. Picture: Lee Griffith

Parachinar is on the main road between Kabul and Pakistan and its strategic importance has made it the stage for decades of battles and occupation, from the Mujahadin to the Taliban. Insurgents have controlled the road connecting the city to the rest of the country for five years, restricting movement and causing local merchants to gouge the prices of basic staples such as flour, sugar and rice by up to 10 times their usual rates.

Local schools have been attacked by terrorists and Shias - who make up the majority of its population - are persecuted, kidnapped and killed.

So when a rise in insurgent violence over the past 12 months coincided with a network of local agents who spoke of opportunities in Australia and a way to get there, a generation of men slowly became convinced that Australia equalled hope.

One by one, the idea penetrated through the area surrounding Peshawar until 153 villagers - some as young as 13 and with identifiably Shia names such as Syed, Ali and Hussain - gathered in West Java four weeks ago and boarded a boat they thought would take them to Christmas Island.

Because they were Pakistanis, they were not recognised as refugees in their home country so the option of applying for resettlement through the UNHCR was not open.

Twelve-year-old Syed Javid pleaded with his father, Syed Ali Badsheh, not to go. "Don't go, or at least take me with you," he said. Ali had told him he had to go "for your future and the rest of the family".

Twenty-year-old Shakeel Mahmood was another who decided to join. When he graduated from Parachinar's Kohsar Public School (his school certificate describes him as "intelligent, punctual and (a boy of) good behaviour", he spent three years applying for work in the hope of looking after his extended family.

Afghan families from Parachinar sit and talk bout their missing loved ones. Syed Mahmood, centre, breaks down as he tells of the loss of three relatives in the journey off the coast of Christmas Island. Picture: Lee Griffith/The West Australian

In April, a month before he embarked on his journey to Jakarta, he made a last-ditch attempt for a job. His police clearance certificate said: "He belongs to a respectable and reputable family . . . never been convicted in any criminal case and has good moral character". His application was unsuccessful.

Frustrated, he went to his 60-year-old father, Syed Mahmood, and asked permission to travel to Australia with his 25-year-old cousin, Syed Jafar and his nephew, Adil Hussain.

"They asked me to allow them to go," he said.

"I told them we don't have money and they said, 'Sell everything, sell the house, sell the property, sell whatever, but get us the money to go there because they are sympathetic people and we will work there to get livelihood for you and the family'."

Only half the 220 people aboard the boat are believed to have survived. The Weekend West tracked the relatives of 27 victims to the troubled Parchinar region.

Foreigners are banned by the Pakistan Government from entering Parachinar. So the families agreed to meet us in secret, travelling east to Peshawar and gathering at an empty house in a small road that runs off the traffic-choked artery that cuts through the Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa capital.

"Do not drive in that car you are driving in and watch if you are followed," one man had told us.

Asked if their fears were warranted, an aid worker said: "Yes, they should be worried, and you should too."

In the house, Syed Mahmood sat cross-legged on the floor and sobbed as he clutched photos of his son, his grandson and his nephew.

He said that after they convinced him to let them go, he sold the tractor he used to plough his land and the extended family sold their jewellery and took out a loan to raise 3.7 million rupees ($36,600) to send the three boys on the journey. Now he is destitute and unable to pay back the loan, which is attracting interest of 30 per cent.

"Do you have children," he asked.

"It is very difficult for a parent to let their children go on a journey where they don't know what will happen to them.

"I was very worried about them. I knew they were going a dangerous route. But what could they do here in Pakistan?

"They told me people who went before to Australia said Australians were very good people . . . lots of jobs.

"They said, 'Just make it to this place and the Australians are realistic and think about how this man has reached this place from such a far-flung area'.

Mother Sharab Nisa tell the story of her son Muhammad Ishfaq, who was on a boat that sunk. Picture: Lee Griffith/The West Australian

"If I am sitting in house and I know my children are dying because I have nothing to give them and outside people are trying to kill me, I have no other option."

Beside him, the brother of 22-year-old Muhammad Ishfaq held the man's photo in the two good fingers of his left hand. The others were lost in a bomb attack.

"We have had a terrible time for the last five years," his 53-year-old father, Safdar Ali, explained, saying he had survived but other relatives had not been so lucky.

"The roads on all sides were blocked. We had nothing to eat. No safe water. Nothing at all.

"We were captured. We have been in the hands of militants. The Government was not paying attention to our problems.

"We didn't have any other way out than Australia."

The families explained that each had lost members to abductions, attacks or bombings in the past two years.

One of the missing men, 25-year-old Hashmat Ali, a promising student with dual masters in economics and science, is No. 30 on the official list of people injured by the Qissa Kwani bomb blast in December 2008, which targeted Shias.

A 65-year-old man, Mansabali, showed a picture of a dark-haired woman, who appeared to be in her late teens.

Her name was Suria Begum, he said. She was a cousin of 23-year-old Jamshid Ali, who is believed to have drowned on the boat last month. She died when insurgents fired a rocket at the ambulance she was travelling in on the road from Parichinar to Peshawar.

That was why he borrowed 800,000 rupees ($8000) and sold his taxi - his only source of income - to send his nephew to Australia.

"The last time I talked to him he said, 'We are getting on the boat'. We were happy because we are poor people and we thought in two days he would reach his destiny and we would be OK," he said.

"I don't have anything. I don't know what I will do. Everything we have we have spent. And what we didn't have, we borrowed. And now he is gone, too."

The men from Parachinar had kept in contact with their families. The month before he got on the boat, 33-year-old Muhammad Salman, who sold his spare parts business to go to Australia, posted pictures on Facebook from Bogor, in West Java. In one of them he poses with four friends, all of whom were on the boat. Only two are believed to have survived.

"All who are sitting here. We have a common plight," his cousin, Jamal Hussain, said. "We are Shi'ite. We belong to a different sect and we have been a part of this great game that is being fought between these great powers.

"We are the worst affected people of this region in this game of terrorism.

"During this whole war we are not given any relief (by) the (Pakistan) government, (by) the West, not international human rights. And what we suffer is not being reported to anyone."

In the 38 hours the journey to Australia was expected to take, the messages being received back in Parachinar were sporadic but hopeful.

Twenty-five-year-old Syed Irshad Hussain called his cousin, Syed Hilal Hussain, who had been crippled in a bomb blast to say: "We have entered Australian water.

"This is the last time we will talk to you before we reach Australia. After this we will throw the mobile away and after two days I will talk to you on the internet when I reach Australia."

In a text message to his brother, another missing asylum seeker wrote of God's will: "Salam brother me sadaqut just need ur pray me near to international water. Inshahullah vil reach to Christmas Island tomorrow inshahullah OK".

On July 21, in what are believed to be his last moments alive, Syed Arshad Hussain called his 25-year-old wife, Bib Zaera.

"His last words were: Pray for us because our ship is sinking. Pray to almighty God to save us," she said.

"I don't know what has happened to him.

"You need to understand. We were helpless. We didn't want to leave each other but for the sake of our livelihood, he had to go."

When the first reports filtered through that a boat had sunk, it was initially reported to be from Sri Lanka, giving the community hope that the men were alive.

"Two days later, I came home from the mosque and my father was crying," 29-year-old Ishan said.

"When my brother was close to international waters, he had called me and said the boat was overloaded. I said, 'Why did you get on the boat if it was overloaded, why do you take a big risk?' He said, 'What could I do? I have been in Jakarta six months'.

"We don't have any choice to stay here in our country. That's why we move to another country. To save our life."

The agents who arranged the journey have disappeared from Parachinar. So too has the money.

Twelve-year-old Syed Javid still does not know his father is gone. His family tell him he is in hospital in Australia.

Syed Abbis Hussain, said he also tries to give hope to his mother that his 32-year-old brother, Hur, is alive.

"You can't realise what we are feeling," he said. "Nobody can.

"I tell my mother that my brother is unconscious. I give hope every time to my family.

"There is hope. Still, we have hope.

"It was a difficult decision for him to go but the situation was that there was no income for us. And he was an elder. He felt he was responsible for us.

"I thought there would be a ship. When I heard there were going to be 200 people I thought they would go on a ship. But when I saw the news, there was a fishing boat.

"The last thing he said from the boat was, 'Pray for us'."

The West Australian

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