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Memories haunt sole survivor of asylum boat tragedy

The image of his fellow passengers slowly succumbing to Indonesia's unforgiving waters is one that Habibullah -- the Afghan sole survivor of an asylum-seeker boat tragedy -- will never shake off.

The 22-year-old, now trapped in limbo at a Jakarta detention centre, was en route to an Australian territory in October to seek asylum with 33 other 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," Habibullah told AFP 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, 20-metre vessel lost power a few hours into the voyage on October 26 from Java to Christmas Island, an Australian territory closer to Indonesia than Australia. It sank a day later.

Habibullah, who goes by one name, choked with emotion as he described how his fellow asylum seekers one-by-one were swept to their deaths after losing their grip on a rope that held them all 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 $10,000 to 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 Indonesian captains abandoned ship, jumping into the ocean to leave only one captain and a mechanic behind, he said.

The vessel sank the next day, but the men remained optimistic they would be rescued or carried ashore by the ocean, Habibullah said.

"People were thinking there will be a boat, there will be an island, there will be something that will save us."

But by the second day, the men's health had rapidly deteriorated.

A container ship and a large fishing boat passed by, but they did not respond to the bright life jackets or the waving arms, nor did they hear the men's cries for help. At that point they realised their chances for survival were slim.

Some asylum seekers began to hallucinate, others fought with each other as many "lost their grip on the rope" that had held them together.

As he watched his fellow boatmen die one-by-one, Habibullah said he saw apparitions of his parents and siblings appear in front of him.

"I remembered my mother told me 'you have to be very careful, you shouldn't make such a journey if it is so difficult.'"

On the fourth day, only Habibullah and two others were left clinging, critically dehydrated with stabbing pains in their kidneys.

The two other men drowned later that day. Habibullah called out to one of them who had promised they would stay together until they found an island, but there was no response.

Realising he was now alone, he swam away from the bodies in desperation, not expecting to live for much longer.

He got lucky and a fishing boat passed nearby. Despite being unable to bring himself to wave at the boat, he was spotted and plucked from the ocean.

"I was crying when the guy saved me. I couldn't move my legs or my body, but he fed me and got me back on my feet."

Habibullah's fate now hangs on the UN refugee council, which has the power to grant him asylum in a third country, a process that could take years.

Many more like him are attempting the journey, despite the uncertainty of what will happen upon their arrival.

Australia is struggling with a record influx of asylum-seekers, who usually face mandatory detention once they arrive or are transferred to offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea or Nauru.

With numbers growing, it has since allowed some to be released into the community on severely restricted visas which ban them from working while offering scant financial support or rights to family reunion.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jakarta said that as of end of July 2012, there were 1,225 refugees and 5,429 asylum seekers cumulatively registered, with nearly 60 percent coming from Afghanistan, followed by Iran and Pakistan. Growth rates have leapt in recent years.

Habibullah said he still has a little hope that he will eventually get to his destination.

"My ideal safe place is somewhere where there's no discrimination -- there shouldn't be any violence."

He said he has dreams to study at university, though he's not yet sure in which field.

"Then I will decide whether I can continue living or not," he said, adding that he has been unable to sleep with the ordeal seared onto his memory.

"I'll always remember those guys who were with me in the water."

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