Shortly after dawn Wednesday, residents of an isolated Australian island community heard the screams of children just offshore.
One by one, the inhabitants of tiny Christmas Island ran to the water's edge to find scores of asylum-seekers -- their wooden boat dashed against razor-sharp rocks -- being tossed about by seas one onlooker likened to "an open washing machine."
Late Wednesday, officials were still searching for survivors and tallying the mounting deaths. So far, 27 bodies have been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were rescued from the sea and one passenger made it to shore of an estimated 70 on the boat.
" Australia, Australia, help, help, help!" the survivors, who authorities believe hail from Iraq and Iran, called out to bystanders garlanded along the steep limestone cliffs.
As naval rescue boats edged in to pluck survivors from the sickening swells, townsfolk made one valiant effort after another to save the lives of total strangers, according to local newspaper accounts. They lowered ropes and ladders and tossed life preservers and makeshift flotation devices into the water.
But winds from a nearby cyclone blew many of the preservers back into their faces. Those that did reach panicked passengers, most of whom apparently couldn't swim, were often of little help.
..."There are bodies all over the water," one resident told the Western Australian newspaper. "There are dead babies, dead women and dead children. The swell is unbelievably big."
Christmas Island, a phosphate mining center about 1,600 miles northwest of Perth, is home to Australia's main offshore immigration detention center. The island has about 1,400 residents, most of them living near the community of Flying Fish Cove.
The refugee issue has divided Australia and played a role in recent parliamentary elections, where one conservative candidate campaigned on a platform to "stop the boats." As many as 6,000 undocumented boat refugees arrive in the country each year.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Severe dislocations of civilian populations, mostly resulting from our glorious war-of-choice in Iraq, continue to scatter disaster like chaff in the wind: