Erni Juita could not contain her sorrow as she talked about being unable to see her husband’s body one last time or attend his funeral.
The lone female survivor of the sinking of a boat off Malaysia’s west coast on Sept. 3 told BenarNews how she clung to two floating corpses to stay alive. In all, 20 people survived the disaster.
Her husband and 63 others on board did not.
On that fateful day, she told her husband to cancel their trip home by boat because she had a bad feeling about it. But her husband, Muhammad Rizal, 27, asked her to ignore that hunch.
“Abang [my husband] said, ‘if it’s fate, we will die anyway no matter where we go,’” Erni, 25, told BenarNews, wiping away tears.
The interview took place Tuesday at Sultan Iskandar Muda International Airport in Blang Bintang, where she and 11 other Acehnese survivors of the sinking had just landed after being repatriated from Malaysia.
“I was in the hospital when my husband’s body was repatriated to Aceh,” Erni said.
Rizal’s body was repatriated to Aceh on Sept. 8, and he was buried soon after, according to Islamic rituals.
The 12 who returned to Aceh on Tuesday were sent home after Malaysian authorities pardoned and released them on humanitarian grounds.
Their 12.2-metre (40-foot) wooden boat, which was crammed with undocumented Indonesian workers, capsized and sank during a journey from Kuala Sungai Bernam, in Malaysia’s Selangor state, to Tanjungbalai, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
The vessel was designed to carry no more than 15 passengers but more than 80 were aboard when the accident occurred in bad weather, officials with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said.
Deputy Aceh Gov. Muzakir Manaf greeted the 12 upon their arrival. In his remarks, he expressed hope that Acehnese would apply for work permits in Malaysia before traveling there to work. As many as two million Indonesians work in the neighboring country without permits, according to news reports.
‘Very uneasy feeling’
The boat left the Malaysian port shortly before midnight on Sept. 2, Erni recalled.
“When the boat departed, I had a very uneasy feeling, but my husband tried to calm me down. I just prayed to Allah. We thought that we would see our son soon,” said Erni.
She and Rizal married in 2010. They had a son, Muhammad Alfaidi, who is now four and was staying behind in Aceh while his parents worked at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.
About 14 months ago, Erni joined her husband, who had already been working there. The couple sent money home to support their little boy, who was living with his grandmother, Erni said.
“The restaurant’s owner promised to get us legal work permits; we waited for months, but it didn’t get done. According to the restaurant owner, the quota had run out,” she said.
The boat encountered trouble about three hours into the voyage as it approached the maritime boundary between Indonesia and Malaysia, Erni said.
Weather conditions worsened and big waves rocked the boat. All the passengers could do was pray and hope for the best, survivors said.
“The boat capsized after it was hit by the third wave but prior to that, waters were already flooding in. It was already starting to rain,” Wahyu Saputra, a 23-year-old fellow survivor, told BenarNews.
The young man, who hails from South Aceh district, said he was able to survive after the boat went down by holding on to floating luggage for eight hours. He and other survivors were eventually rescued by local fishermen.
In Erni’s case, she survived by clinging onto the corpses of two women who had drowned.
She said she felt like God had sent her those bodies to save her.
“I drank a lot of sea water. That was why I had to be hospitalized for a week to heal my lungs,” she said.
‘God has different ways’
Erni not only lost her husband at sea, but all of her belongings and the money they had saved up from working at the restaurant. When rescuers plucked her out of the Strait of Malacca waters, all that Erni had on was her underwear.
The couple had dreamed of using the money to settle back home for good and start their own enterprise. Despite losing her husband, Erni said she was looking forward to reuniting with her son and family and visiting Rizal’s grave.
“We [planned to] work in Aceh. We had some savings for capital to start our own business,” Erni said.
“But God has different ways. My husband is gone for good. I am letting him go because, after all, we all will also be returned to Allah.”