Barat Ali Batoor: My desperate journey with a human smuggler

I am a Hazara, and the homeland of my people is Afghanistan. Like hundreds of thousands of other Hazara kids, I was born in exile. The ongoing persecution and operation against the Hazaras forced my parents to leave Afghanistan.

This persecution has had a long history going back to the late 1800s, and the rule of King Abdur Rahman. He killed 63 percent of the Hazara population. He built minarets with their heads. Many Hazaras were sold into slavery, and many others fled the country for neighboring Iran and Pakistan. My parents also fled to Pakistan, and settled in Quetta, where I was born.

After the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, I got a chance to go to Afghanistan for the first time, with foreign journalists. I was only 18, and I got a job working as an interpreter. After four years, I felt it was safe enough to move to Afghanistan permanently, and I was working there as a documentary photographer, and I worked on many stories.

One of the most important stories that I did was the dancing boys of Afghanistan. It is a tragic story about an appalling tradition. It involves young kids dancing for warlords and powerful men in the society. These boys are often abducted or bought from their poor parents, and they are put to work as sex slaves. This is Shukur. He was kidnapped from Kabul by a warlord. He was taken to another province, where he was forced to work as a sex slave for the warlord and his friends.

When this story was published in the Washington Post, I started receiving death threats, and I was forced to leave Afghanistan, as my parents were. Along with my family, I returned back to Quetta. The situation in Quetta had changed dramatically since I left in 2005. Once a peaceful haven for the Hazaras, it had now turned into the most dangerous city in Pakistan. Hazaras are confined into two small areas, and they are marginalized socially, educationally, and punished. This is Nadir. I had known him since my childhood. He was injured when his van was ambushed by terrorists in Quetta. He later died of his injuries. Around 1,600 Hazara members had been killed in various attacks, and around 3,000 of them were injured, and many of them permanently disabled. The attacks on the Hazara community would only get worse, so it was not surprising that many wanted to flee.

After Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Australia is home to the fourth largest population of Hazaras in the world. When it came time to leave Pakistan, Australia seemed the obvious choice. Financially, only one of us could leave, and it was decided that I would go, in the hope that if I arrived at my destination safely, I could work to get the rest of my family to join me later.

We all knew about the risks, and how terrifying the journey is, and I met many people who lost loved ones at sea. It was a desperate decision to take, to leave everything behind, and no one makes this decision easily. If I had been able to simply fly to Australia, it would have taken me less than 24 hours. But getting a visa was impossible. My journey was much longer, much more complicated, and certainly more dangerous, traveling to Thailand by air, and then by road and boat to Malaysia and into Indonesia, paying people and smugglers all the way and spending a lot of time hiding and a lot of time in fear of being caught.

In Indonesia, I joined a group of seven asylum seekers. We all shared a bedroom in a town outside of Jakarta called Bogor. After spending a week in Bogor, three of my roommates left for the perilous journey, and we got the news two days later that a distressed boat sank in the sea en route to Christmas Island. We found out that our three roommates -- Nawroz, Jaffar and Shabbir -- were also among those. Only Jaffar was rescued. Shabbir and Nawroz were never seen again. It made me think, am I doing the right thing? I concluded I really had no other choice but to go on.

A few weeks later, we got the call from the people smuggler to alert us that the boat is ready for us to commence our sea journey. Taken in the night towards the main vessel on a motorboat, we boarded an old fishing boat that was already overloaded. There were 93 of us, and we were all below deck. No one was allowed up on the top. We all paid 6,000 dollars each for this part of the trip. The first night and day went smoothly, but by the second night, the weather turned.

Waves tossed the boat around, and the timbers groaned. People below deck were crying, praying, recalling their loved ones. They were screaming. It was a terrible moment. It was like a scene from doomsday, or maybe like one of those scenes from those Hollywood movies that shows that everything is breaking apart and the world is just ending. It was happening to us for real. We didn't have any hope. Our boat was floating like a matchbox on the water without any control. The waves were much higher than our boat, and the water poured in faster than the motor pumps could take it out. We all lost hope. We thought, this is the end. We were watching our deaths, and I was documenting it.

The captain told us that we are not going to make it, we have to turn back the boat. We went on the deck and turned our torches on and off to attract the attention of any passing boat. We kept trying to attract their attention by waving our life jackets and whistling.

Eventually, we made it to a small island. Our boat crashing onto the rocks, I slipped into the water and destroyed my camera, whatever I had documented. But luckily, the memory card survived.

It was a thick forest. We all split up into many groups as we argued over what to do next. We were all scared and confused. Then, after spending the night on the beach, we found a jetty and coconuts. We hailed a boat from a nearby resort, and then were quickly handed over to Indonesian water police.

At Serang Detention Center, an immigration officer came and furtively strip-searched us. He took our mobile, my $300 cash, our shoes that we should not be able to escape, but we kept watching the guards, checking their movements, and around 4 a.m. when they sat around a fire, we removed two glass layers from an outside facing window and slipped through. We climbed a tree next to an outer wall that was topped with the shards of glass. We put the pillow on that and wrapped our forearms with bedsheets and climbed the wall, and we ran away with bare feet.

I was free, with an uncertain future, no money. The only thing I had was the memory card with the pictures and footage. When my documentary was aired on SBS Dateline, many of my friends came to know about my situation, and they tried to help me. They did not allow me to take any other boat to risk my life. I also decided to stay in Indonesia and process my case through UNHCR, but I was really afraid that I would end up in Indonesia for many years doing nothing and unable to work, like every other asylum seeker.

But it had happened to be a little bit different with me. I was lucky. My contacts worked to expedite my case through UNHCR, and I got resettled in Australia in May 2013.

Not every asylum seeker is lucky like me. It is really difficult to live a life with an uncertain fate, in limbo.

The issue of asylum seekers in Australia has been so extremely politicized that it has lost its human face. The asylum seekers have been demonized and then presented to the people. I hope my story and the story of other Hazaras could shed some light to show the people how these people are suffering in their countries of origin, and how do they suffer. Why do they risk their lives to seek asylum?

Thank you.