Like birds on the water. That’s how one survivor described the sight of over 300 bodies of fathers, mothers, and children, scattered over kilometres of ocean when the sun came up on October 20th 2001.
These people, mostly refugees from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, had travelled in some instance for years in search of somewhere safe to live their lives. Many of the women and children were on the boat because their husbands had come on ahead to Australia, only to be caught in our changing political tide and locked in detention or a newly devised Temporary Visa system which took away their rights to re-unite. Left without support, these mothers and young children were easy prey for people smuggling operators.
Crowded onto a fishing boat only 19.5 metres long, packed so tightly that teenagers had to climb on the roof and mothers hold children on their laps, the passengers were terrified even before they left port. One man attempting to take his family off was pistol whipped and forced back.
Armed Indonesian military supervised the boarding. A patrol boat escorted the leaky vessel out of the port of Lampong. Another sped by the vessel later that day. As the boat got into difficulties, passengers heard a twin engine plane overhead and set fire to clothing to try and signal for help.
When the engine failed in heavy seas, the SIEVX tipped over and sank. Over a hundred people survived the sinking, but no rescue came through a whole afternoon and night. But something appalling and inexplicable took place; reported by all survivors later to United Nations interviewers in Jakarta. Two large military vessels arrived in the night, shining spotlights on the water. A Zodiac style boat was launched. The people in the water started calling and swimming towards the lights, but the boats restarted their engines and sailed away. Dozens more people died, some giving up in despair and just allowing themselves to drown.
Eventually, the next day, after 20 hours in the water, fishing boats came across survivors, including Faris Kadhem a father whose wife and seven year old daughter had drowned, and Amal Basry, a mother who had lost sight of her teenage son when a big wave dragged them apart. Both begged the fishermen to search, and about forty more survivors were eventually found. Amal’s teenage son was among those found alive. But 353 others had died, either in the original sinking, or during the long night without rescue. Rescuers reported an awful sight, the body of a tiny baby, born during the nightmare of the sinking, still joined by its umbilical cord to its dead mother, afloat in the water.
The people of SIEVX were brave people, trying to give their children a decent life. They could so easily have been safely living among us now, their kids at school with ours. In a modern era, with planes going overhead, satellites, radar, GPS, such a mediaeval tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. And in an era of serious climate change, when millions more refugees will be created in coming decades, we need to have systems in place to manage this more competently.
The SIEVX Memorial takes a simple first step. It says - these lives were sacred. We won’t forget them. Over a thousand Australians, most of them children but also churches and community groups from every corner of the country, have made something beautiful, haunting, and full of power, to try and bring about a better Australia.
We hope your life is enriched and your heart moved by visiting the SIEVX memorial. It’s one of the most hopeful sights in Australia.
The name SIEVX is a naval acronym, standing for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X – or unknown. The navy applied numbers to over ten vessels it intercepted around this time. SIEVX was not numbered by the navy, but given the number X by Australian diplomat Tony Kevin who first queried the official account of the sinking. As the real name of the vessel is not known it has become the name that stuck.