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Imam questions risks of dangerous trip
Christmas Island Imam Abdul Ghaffar Ismail by the graves of Nurjan Husseini and Fatimeh Husseini. Picture: Lincoln Baker/The West Australian

On the side of a narrow road overlooking Christmas Island's crystal blue waters, two simple gravesites are angled to face Mecca.

The names have faded from the marble headstones but the island's only Imam, Abdul Ghaffar Ismail, remembers the day he buried 55-year-old Nurjan Husseini and 20-year-old Fatimeh Husseini. The women had fled their villages in Afghanistan and were on a boat bound for Ashmore Reef when crew members deliberately set fire to the vessel and scuttled it in an attempt to force the crew of HMAS Wollongong to take them aboard rather than divert the boat back to Indonesia.

Neither of the women could swim. Fatimeh - five months pregnant - and husband Sayyed held hands as they jumped in the water. When they hit, Sayyed lost his grip and his wife sank.

Her lifeless body was pulled from the water some time later.

The couple had been married only a year and had paid $US8400 ($8339) to people smugglers who had promised to transport then from their remote village in Afghanistan to a new life in Australia. Only Sayyed ended up making it. After time in detention on Nauru, he was accepted by Australia and now works at a winery in Margaret River.

"I always ask them why do they do it," Imam Ismail said yesterday as he knelt down beside one of the headstones, running his fingers through the grooves and trying to make out the name. "Is it worth it? That is the big question."

Up the road, at Flying Fish Cove, WA Police were bringing to shore eight more bodies from the island's latest asylum seeker tragedy.

Imam Ismail, who until last year used to lead weekly prayers at the island's detention centre every Friday, said he had yet to be given access to the 110 Afghan and Pakistani men who had survived last week's sinking but said he had begun praying for the dead.

The survivors - including two suspected Indonesian crew members - were being treated for shock and exposure as rescuers described a range of injuries but said the most significant was grief.

Department of Immigration and Citizenship regional manager Joe Feld said trauma counselling had been offered to the men.

Except for those who were being treated in hospital yesterday, the rescued men were all being held together, along with the two suspected Indonesian crew members.

Weary and in shock, the last of the 110 survivors plucked from the water arrived on Christmas Island yesterday. They thanked and shook hands with crew members from merchant ships who had winched them up the sides of their boats and told island authorities they were grateful to be alive.

But as the grim realisation dawned that some of their relatives had not made it, the men were given access to phones to call family members to relay news and let them know they were safe.

The survivors are believed to be predominantly Afghan and Pakistani but immigration authorities said this was still to be determined.

"Whilst we can say they are Afghan or Pakistani they could be ethnically Pashto or Hazara and we are just going through those processes now," Mr Feld said.

The last boatload of them had been brought ashore on Friday in a risky overnight operation to transfer them from HMAS Larrakea.

Customs district manager Michael Farelly said because of the condition of some of the men, rescue teams decided not to wait until daylight to transfer them to the mainland.

Wearing white disposable overalls, the 16 men looked weak and in shock as they walked or were brought ashore on stretchers and in wheelchairs.

"They've been through a lot. They were out there a long time," Mr Feld said. "But once we'd managed to feed them, give them clothes and shower them - all those basics needs - their condition improved."

The small island community scrambled at the weekend to react to the emergency. Doctor's appointments for residents were cancelled and locals were told they would have to wait until at least today for previously scheduled treatment.

WA Police Insp. Neville Dockery said the Australian Federal Police had flown in a minister who was available to counsel officers who retrieved the bodies, some of whom had also been involved in the December 2010 asylum seeker tragedy.

He said the WA police would conduct the necessary coronial investigation which would "also help bring closure to the families who have lost loved ones in this tragedy".