In January 2006, 43 West Papuans landed in Cape York Peninsula to seek asylum. Jessica Letch talks to Herman Wainggai about the journey and his future.

With experienced seafarers on board, West Papuan independence activist Herman Wainggai expected his voyage to Australia to take 16 hours. But for four days, Herman and his group had to survive on storm water decanted from tarpaulins.

'The journey was full of risk because there was a storm, and one engine broke, and that's why the canoe is turning in circles,' Herman says. 'And then after one day we didn't see the mainland or any island and people start to feel hungry.'

But eventually land was sighted. 'Six people just swam to the shore and then looked at the sign board,' Herman says. 'They looked at the kangaroo and emu - something Australian Government - then they wave to me. They say 'Oh Herman, we are already in Australia,' and then we start to cry.'

Herman's family had urged him to leave. 'They encourage me: 'Herman, it's better you go, not to stay in Papua, it's not safe' That's why I decided to come to Australia, because I don't want to be arrested for the third time. I don't want to have [an] experience like my uncle and die in prison,' Herman says.

After reaching land, the West Papuans spent a night on a Cape York riverbank. 'We landed late afternoon, nearly dark. Early morning we looked around and crocodiles just swim.' Herman motions with his hands the movement of crocs sliding into the water around them. After the alert was raised by activists back home, 'Australian authorities they came: customs, Australian Federal Police, navy, including journalists. They brought us food and drink and started questioning us.'

After confirming that the group was seeking asylum, the authorities transferred the West Papuans to Christmas Island. 'They took us with helicopter, ten hours from Cape York. We arrived at the detention centre in the middle of the night. Then they divide us into two groups -- families, young boys separate, not in detention centre but in [the] community. The [single] adult people stay inside the detention centre.'

After two months on Christmas Island, Herman and his group were granted temporary protection and settled in Melbourne. 'We got a lot of help from Red Cross. They organised the accommodation, health and English course,' Herman says. 'They explained how to get to school, and how to get the tram -- this is a tram ticket, and if you're sitting on the seat you need to stand up to give the elder people priority to sit. And how to use the mobile phone, to say hello to my parents.'

This year, Herman received permanent residence in Australia, but home is never far from his mind. 'I miss my friends, living as a community. I miss my mum and my dad. They're lovely parents' says Herman, who continues to campaign for the independence of West Papua. 'Freedom of speech is one thing I really enjoy in Australia. I want my people to live in their own land without fear of any kind. As a political activist I don't feel like going back is the right decision for today.'

Jessica Letch has worked with Red Cross for 10 years supporting refugees, asylum seekers and separated families in Australia and abroad.

Source : (www.redcross.org.au/library_publications_humanitarian_Aug09_article3.htm)