The Trip of their lives

Tim Vollmer; 17/10/09

Under the cover of darkness, the Abdula family grabbed their four young children, including a newborn baby, and set off on an arduous four-month trek halfway across the globe in a desperate bid for freedom. Despite paying $US12,000 to smugglers who provided the fake identities, safe houses, boats and know-how to evade military checkpoints, the family were detained four times, each time requiring a daring escape or bribes to gain the assistance of corrupt Indonesian police. Armed with their life savings, Kurdish couple Dilshad and Adiba Abdula fled from Saddam Hussein’s violent Iraqi regime, which had been targeting its Kurd population since the late-1960s, on December 2, 2000, fearing for their lives at the hands of the secret police.”It was not safe in Kirkuk [historically regarded as the Kurdish capital] … in the middle of the night Saddam’s police break down the door,” Dilshad explains.

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His family had been on the move for years. In 1985 he was conscripted into the Iraqi army and made to fight against Iran in Saddam’s costly, bloody stalemated war against his neighbour. Three months later he “escaped” by deserting and returning to his home. From then on, he was a fugitive. The family moved from city to city as he took itinerant jobs as a mechanic or in construction work.
Earlier, in 1991, the family had fled acrossthe border to Iran, a perilous journey that cost the life of their 18-month-old daughter.
Back in Iraq, their passage was organised by smugglers — apparently there is no shortage in the war- torn region — who came recommended by friends and assured the safety of their children, Rabar, 9, Dedar, 7, Lava, 5, and Rebar, just two months. Friends recommended Australia, saying it was “a very good country. There are human rights and a good government”. So over 12 days the family moved via backroads through the mountainous border region to Tehran, where they were handed forged travel documents and tickets to Malaysia.

When they touched down in Kuala Lumpur, new smugglers were waiting, taking them to a hotel where they stayed three weeks as Malaysian passports were organised, before making the five-hour ferry trip to Indonesia.
“They say if you go by aeroplane it is very dangerous, when they catch you they put you in jail — but if you go by ferry they just tell you to go back,” Dilshad says.
It was accurate advice and, while police detained them the minute they stepped off the ferry, they were free in an hour thanks to a simple bribe. They were told there was a taxi that could take them to Medan and, from there, they could get a plane to Jakarta.
In Jakarta they contacted new smugglers and were put in accommodation with several other families before a bus came to take all 38 refugees to Bali. A few days later they moved again, but this time police raided the bus, transporting them to a “hotel” where they were detained for 12 days. On the bus, Dilshad says, they lost everything: passport, money, “everything they found, they took”.
By now his wife had become violently ill, was fainting regularly and was barely able to care for herself, let alone her young children. Adiba says today: “Oh my God, it was very, very bad. All this way I was very sick.”But among the refugees, there was a unique bond: The couple credit a Vietnamese woman for saving the life of Adiba and her baby son by nursing both to health. From the “hotel” they called the smuggler, begging for help.
“He said, send [someone] to take you out of the prison’, but he was lying,” Dilshad says.
“You can’t trust them. If the police catch you, if you’ve got problems, they don’t know you.”
In desperation, he spoke to some fellow families and planned an escape.
In small groups, they moved out of sight of their two police guards, climbed into two waiting vans and returned to Bali.
Rejoining the smugglers, they were moved to Surabaya, kept in safe houses in a small country town on the outskirts, then made the 48-hour ferry ride to Kupang. On arrival they were again detained and this time driven to another “hotel” where they could see “white-faced” inmates looking out.
“We said, ‘We don’t go inside, you can kill us but we don’t go inside’,” Dilshad says.
Again, the problem was solved with a bribe. From there they were taken to a derelict farm house and told to wait until it was safe to be taken to a boat headed for Ashmore Reef, the closest Australian land. At 2am, under the cover of darkness and driving rain, the family were taken out in a small dinghy while their smuggler searched in vain for three hours for the boat. Eventually, they returned to shore.
The Abdulas were detained for a fourth time. After remaining in their “hotel” for about a month with 85 others, they decided to make one last, desperate bid for freedom — pooling all their remaining money and taking it to the police. It was enough and they were driven to a beach where they were ferried, three or four at a time, to a waiting boat ready for the 22-hour trip to Ashmore Reef. Near their destination, the relieved family saw an Australian naval ship anchored 500m away.
“They were waiting for us,” Adiba recalls, praising the officers who provided water and medical assistance to the refugees. All were subsequently transported to Darwin, where they finally arrived on April 10. They spent four months in Woomera Detention Centre before being granted temporary protection visas and released, moving to Sydney where Dilshad has worked as a painter and taxi driver. He says the horrific ordeal “was nearly normal with us because before we had such a hard life” — and believes their journey was worth the effort just to be able to raise their children in the safety of Australia.