On 19 October 2001, a woman gave birth on a sinking boat en route from Indonesia to Christmas Island. She was one of 421 people who had boarded the 19.5 metre vessel, Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle X, now known as SIEV X, the previous day, in a Sumatran fishing village, with hopes of reuniting with her family, and beginning life anew in Australia. She was last seen drifting with her baby attached by the umbilical cord.
Amal Hassan Basry, an Iraqi survivor of the tragedy who now lives in Melbourne, says at least three women gave birth as the boat sank. The tragedy induced the births prematurely. Amal recalls the events of that day with great clarity. She knows the exact moment the boat capsized: ten past three in the afternoon. Many watches stopped at that time.
‘Because I was waiting for my death, I saw everything,’ Amal has told me. ‘I was like a camera. I can still hear the shouting, the screaming. I see the people going under. The gates of hell opened up.’
The SIEV X tragedy claimed 353 lives 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. The victims included many woman and children, desperate to join fathers and husbands living in Australia on temporary protection visas. Their predicament is highlighted in the tale of Iraqi asylum seeker, Aluomer Zainalabadin. A frayed visa document, a learner’s driving licence, and an interim Medicare card, are all that remains of his former presence in Australia. The visa, printed on cardboard, was his longed-for passport to a new life. Instead, it proved to be one of the factors that contributed to his death.
Aluomer’s troubles began when his father was executed in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1982. Aluomer escaped in 1991 and languished for eight years in refugee camps in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1999, as the situation for Iraqi refugees in Iran continued to deteriorate, he left behind his wife and mother with the promise of reuniting with them in a country where they could feel safe. He arrived in Australia by boat from Indonesia in September 1999, and was transferred to the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. When he was released in September 2000, he was granted a three-year temporary protection visa and bussed to Melbourne, where he was left to fend for himself.
With help from caseworkers at the Ecumenical Migration Centre and the Darebin City Council, Aluomer was able to find accommodation in a flat in West Heidelberg. In mid 2001, he learnt that his wife and mother had arrived in Jakarta and were looking for a boat that would enable them to sail the final leg of the journey to Australia. He pleaded with them, by phone, not to risk the voyage.
To understand what happened next, we need to look at the provisions of Aluomer’s visa. Between 1994 and 1999, asylum seekers who were found to be genuine refugees were granted permanent protection visas, subject to health and character checks. This visa entitled them to eventually sponsor family members they had left behind.
In October 1999 the Howard Government introduced a new visa rÃ©gime. Asylum seekers arriving by boat, and judged to be genuine refugees, were to receive three-year temporary protection visas. If they left the country to merely visit their families they could not return. In effect, this meant they could not hope to see their wives and children for years. They would be reassessed when their visas expired, and could be required to return to their country of origin if it was deemed safe.
Aluomer’s wife and mother could not wait any longer. They decided it was preferable to risk their lives in rickety fishing boats than remain apart indefinitely. Aluomer was advised against leaving Australia, but he could not bear the thought of his wife and mother taking the boat journey alone. He flew to Indonesia on 13 July 2001. On Friday 19 October Aluomer and his family boarded the overcrowded fishing boat now known as SIEV X. All three were among those who drowned, later that day, en route to Christmas Island.
In the past three years I have given many talks in schools and various forums, and I have asked audiences how many know of the SIEV X disaster. I have been staggered to learn how few recall it. How can such a tragedy be so readily forgotten? An entire nation, it seems, can quickly develop collective amnesia to events that make its citizens feel uncomfortable.
The boat sank during the infamous 2001 federal election campaign. The front pages of many newspapers featured photos of three beautiful Iraqi girls, Eman, aged 8, Zahra, 6, and Fatimah, 5. Suddenly, the genie had sprung out of the bottle to reveal the human face of asylum seekers who were being demonised as queue jumpers, and worse. For a brief time, the full impact of what it meant to be a refugee was looking the nation directly in the eye.
The girls’ mother, Sondos Ismael, whose father was killed by Saddam Hussein’s secret police when she was five, survived the tragedy. Her husband, Ahmed Al-Zalimi, who had supported an uprising against Hussein, arrived in Australia towards the end of 1999. After eight months in Curtin Detention Centre he was granted a three-year temporary protection visa. Like so many others who boarded SIEV X on 18 October, Sondos Ismael and her daughters were desperate to reunite with Ahmed after several years of separation, even though he had begged them not to risk the sea journey.
After the disaster, the Howard government refused Al-Zalami’s plea for special permission to visit his wife in Jakarta. Al-Zalimi was one of a number of asylum seekers who lost family members on the boat. Their agony was compounded because, as holders of temporary protection visas, they could not even visit survivors of the tragedy. For the next five months, 27-year-old Sondos Ismael grieved alone while immigration officials investigated the details of her visa application. She was reunited with her husband in Sydney in March 2002.
Of the forty-five SIEV X survivors, seven eventually arrived in Australia. Those who were sent to other countries such as Finland, Sweden, Norway and Canada, all received permanent protection. Those countries immediately recognised the trauma they had endured. Their permanent residency has enabled them to begin rebuilding their lives. Australia was the only country that imposed a temporary protection visa on SIEV X survivors. As a result their trauma has been compounded. Surely the triumphant Coalition government could finally grant them permanent protection.
The victims of the SIEV X tragedy have not been entirely forgotten. There are Australians who have become passionate about commemorating and documenting the event. There are several websites devoted to the tragedy including historian Marg Hutton’s archival site, sievx.com, and Mary Dagmar Davies’ online condolence book, ‘Jannah, the SIEVX memorial’.
One group, with writer Steve Biddulph at the helm, has sponsored an Australia wide school project by which students have designed a memorial to the victims of the tragedy. It is hoped the memorial will be erected in Canberra in 2005. An exhibition of the designs was launched in Sydney, on 26 October 2004 in the Pitt Street Uniting Church.
Among those present at the opening, were four out of Australia’s seven SIEV X survivors Amal Hassan Basry, sisters Najah and Zeina, and Sondos Ismael. Also present were Ali Al Husseini who lost eight family members on SIEV X, and Mohammed Alghazzi who lost fourteen family members. Amal wept as she recounted her experiences to the audience, and spoke openly of her ongoing battle with cancer.
There are many questions yet to be answered about the circumstances of the tragedy. There is an irony in the fact that the first ALP front bencher to step down post election was John Faulkner. His extensive questioning during a Senate inquiry into the sinking, and the Australian government’s people smuggling disruption program, was forensic and courageous.
ormer Australian ambassador, Tony Kevin has steadfastly pursued the SIEV X affair, and posed a series of disturbing questions about government knowledge of the sinking. His questions are set forth in his recently published book A Certain Maritime Incident. Faulkner and Kevin continue to call for an independent judicial inquiry to determine what the Howard government and its agencies knew about the tragedy.
The SIEV X disaster is Australia’s story writ large. It is symbolic of the drama of migration. Except for indigenous peoples, we are all, give or take a few generations, boat people. Many of our forbears braved the journey, often fleeing oppression or extreme poverty. In the 1840s a journalist travelling in Ireland noted that the people’s mouths were green because of their diet of grass. They were eating grass due to a devastating outbreak of potato blight. From Ireland’s population of eight million, about one million died of starvation, and one and a half million boarded boats for countries such as the US and Australia. Today they would be disparagingly called economic migrants and queue jumpers.
In honouring the victims of the SIEV X tragedy we honour ourselves. In forgetting them, we ignore who we are. And one day that will return to haunt us. I look forward to the day when an Australian Prime Minister will have the vision, understanding, and compassion, to lay a wreath at a SIEV X memorial. The tragedy should act as a mirror to the recent history of this nation.
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