Perilous journeys

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, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men, who had boarded the boat the previous day in the Sumatran port of Lampung with hopes of being reunited with loved ones who had preceded them, and of beginning life anew in Australia. She was last seen, by survivors, drifting past with her baby attached by the umbilical cord.

Amal Hassan Basry, a survivor of the tragedy who now lives in Melbourne, says that at least three women gave birth as the boat sank. One of the mothers was just six months pregnant. 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. I was like a camera,’ she tells me. ‘I can still hear the shouting, the screaming. I see the people going under, my son swimming towards me. Everything.’
More than one year later, the memory of the tragedy remains a raw wound. But before she recounts the story, Amal insists on telling me why she was so desperate to make the journey. ‘I want people to know why I stayed on the boat even when I saw it was very dangerous’, she says. ‘I want people to know who I am. Why I escaped from Iraq. Why I risked my life. Why I wanted to come to Australia. Maybe then they will understand.’

We meet in the living room of the Thornbury Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. It is a house of welcome, a place where we can talk in peace. I see the strain on Amal’s face and the lingering anguish in her eyes. As if sensing my thoughts, Amal says, ‘I’m a strong woman, believe me.’

Amal’s troubles began in 1980, when her husband, an engineer, was conscripted to fight in Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. She left her job in the Bank of Iraq, in Baghdad, to look after their three young children in his absence. The eight-year war claimed an estimated one million lives.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and in 1991, at the height of the Gulf War, Amal’s 20-year-old brother, a civilian worker, was killed by an American bomb in the southern city of Basra. ‘Collateral damage’ is the term US officials use to describe such ‘incidents’. Months later, in the wake of Iraq’s defeat, a second brother, 29 years old, was executed because he had refused to take part in the fighting. ‘He said he did not want to kill people, that Kuwaitis are my brothers and sisters’, says Amal. ‘So he got six bullets in his chest.’

In the same year, a brother-in-law was killed in Southern Iraq for taking part in a Shiite revolt against Saddam’s regime. Amal’s entire family was now under surveillance. Her husband, and two of his brothers, were jailed and tortured in 1995. In 1997, the police came for them again. The family was threatened and harassed. One brother-in-law was arrested and has not been heard of since.
It was time to escape. Amal and her family found sanctuary in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish zone, with Iraqi Kurds who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein. They lived there for 18 months, in an area that was under threat of attack. In 1999, with the help of the Kurds, the family fled to Iran.

At this time, word had it that Australia was a potential haven. They would be welcomed, Amal’s family was told. Her husband flew to Malaysia. He arrived by boat on Australia’s north-west coast in January 2000. After eight months in Woomera Detention Centre, he was granted a temporary protection visa (TPV) and settled in Melbourne.

Amal was determined to join her husband as soon as possible. He phoned her in Iran and warned her the journey was too dangerous. But Amal could not wait. Under the conditions of his temporary protection visa, her husband could not leave Australia to visit her. The family faced years of separation. Life in Iran, where refugees numbered in the hundreds of thousands, had become very difficult. Deportation was a constant threat.

In July 2001, Amal left her 19-year-old son in Iran, and together with her younger son, then aged 17, she flew to Malaysia. At each stage of the journey there were moments of great danger and payments to be made to people smugglers whose promises could turn out to be lies or half-truths.

From Malaysia Amal journeyed by boat to Sumatra. She finally arrived in Jakarta where she met people smuggler Abu Quassey. ‘He told us that he had a boat that would take us to Australia. He said it was a big boat, with a lot of space, radar, satellite, plenty of food, toilets. We had to pay 500 dollars American. We went by ferry back to Sumatra, and by bus to the port of Lampung, in the middle of the night.’

The women and children were the first to be taken from the beach to the boat, by launch, in the pre-dawn darkness, on 18 October. As they boarded the boat, now known as SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X), Amal and her companions realised that the smugglers had lied. The vessel was just 19 metres long, and four metres wide. A fishing boat of this length could barely carry 150 people, let alone the 421 asylum seekers who were being ferried to the ill-equipped vessel. ‘We couldn’t believe it’, says Amal. ‘We were crowded together. It was raining. There was little food. We were fed only bread and water. The sea was angry. We quickly became sick.’

Amal’s teenage son sat on the roof of the cabin while she remained on the deck. Others crammed into the hold. Those on board came mainly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Later that morning 24 asylum seekers, Mandaean Christians from Iraq, disembarked near a group of islands, south of the Sunda Strait.

At dawn on 19 October, says Amal, one of the Indonesian crew informed the passengers they had moved into international waters. They were well on the way to Christmas Island. A group of children saw dolphins swimming by. For a while the refugees’ spirits lifted and their fantasies were revived. ‘What do you think Australia looks like?’ the children asked. ‘Like paradise’, was a common reply. Others thought of the husbands and fathers they would soon be reunited with. ‘Everyone had their special dream about Australia,’ says Amal. At one in the afternoon, the engine broke down. The backup motor proved useless. The sea was becoming rougher. ‘We were very afraid. We were crying. The children were crying. We prayed to God. Everybody was praying.’

At two o’clock the boat began taking water. Passengers were instructed to throw luggage overboard. Some joined the crew in bailing water with improvised scoops. As the boat listed heavily, panic began to take hold. Soon after, the top-heavy vessel capsized. Many women and children were trapped in the hold. Amal closed her eyes, lost consciousness, and came to underwater. Somehow she managed to propel herself to the surface.

When she opened her eyes, the boat had resurfaced and was beginning to break up. Amal saw people drinking water. Shouting. Drowning. ‘The doors to hell opened to us. One man was screaming—all my family are gone. My wife die. My daughter die. Then I thought about my two sons, my husband, my daughter and her children in Jordan. I had to live for them. I had to find a way.’

Amal speaks with a sense of urgency, as if driven by a need to record each detail: ‘I saw a dead woman in a life jacket, floating. I cannot swim, so I held onto her. I remembered that when I was a child I read a story about a body that could float. That memory saved me. Then I saw my son. He was holding onto a piece of wood. He said, mother I want to give you one last kiss. He took the life jacket off the dead woman and helped me put it on. Then he said goodbye mother. Maybe I will see you in Paradise.’
Amal clung to the woman’s body. As night fell she was floating alone. She disappeared into the dark. It was cold and still raining. Says Amal: ‘I spoke to the dead woman. I said, forgive me, but you save me. I was drinking in water. I was waiting for the time of my death.’

Amal saw a shark circling. She believes that it did not attack her because her clothes were saturated with fuel. She saw a whale spouting water. That night she saw lights. She could hear other survivors calling for help. She came upon friends clinging to debris, planks of wood. They moved together towards the lights. For two hours they fought the waves as they tried to reach the mystery boats. ‘When we came closer, I saw three boats, two bigger and one smaller boat. I heard their horns. We cried for help, but they did not save us.’

At dawn Amal saw no-one as she drifted on. Later that morning, she saw an Indonesian fishing boat. A crew member jumped in to take her on board. Only when he touched her did Amal finally let go of the woman’s body. She had clung to the corpse for about 20 hours.

On the boat there were about 40 asylum seekers the fishermen had rescued. Amal was frantic in her concern for her missing boy: ‘I cried: My son! My son! Some people told me they saw him half an hour ago. I wanted to jump in, to go after him. I asked the captain, please turn back, and he did it. One hour later we found him. He was holding onto a piece of wood. He kissed me. He held onto me. He was sitting next to me like a baby.’

One of the rescued was a twelve-year-old girl, Zeinab, who had lost her entire family—her mother, father, two brothers and two sisters. Says Amal: ‘She was crying. She was saying, I’m all alone now. I told her I will take you. You can be my daughter. We were in the fishing boat for three nights. I dreamed of sharks. I woke up and saw it was not a shark, but my son.’

After a seven-and-half-month wait in Jakarta, Amal was granted a five-year temporary protection visa and was reunited, on 7 June, with her husband in Melbourne. But after all she had endured, her future remained uncertain. She envied those survivors who had been taken in by Scandinavian countries where, Amal claims, they have been treated far more sympathetically, and given permanent residency. At one point, in Jakarta, she had implored UN officials to allow her to go to Norway. She felt it was better to bring her husband over there where she could get on with her life with greater certainty. Australia had become the most feared destination for survivors. ‘We thought Australians do not like us.’

Amal credits the softening of her feelings to ‘some good people’. She speaks glowingly of the
volunteers who work at the Thornbury Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and of her teachers at
Broadmeadows TAFE. ‘They are beautiful. They give me new hope. I know good Australian people who stand by me, and help me. I want to learn computer. I want to work. I want to help my son who is in Iran. He is still in danger.’

The memory of the tragedy pursues her. On the 19th day of every month, Amal relives the sinking. Every day she glances at her watch, at about 3.10pm, and is seized by the memory of the boat capsizing. The watch was a farewell present from Zeinab, her ‘adopted’ daughter, who was reunited with relatives in Sydney. ‘Think of me when you look at the watch’, she had asked Amal, before they parted in Jakarta.
Almost every night Amal dreams she is sleeping on the ocean: ‘I can’t breathe. I am alone. Then I see people who are shouting: Turn back! Turn back! You’re going to drown. I put out my hand to stop, and I wake up with my hand still held out. My husband hears me call out and he turns on the light.’

Amal has another recurring dream. She is walking. It is dark. She sees a door. She opens it and can see paradise. Inside, she sees all those who had perished in the disaster. ‘In the dream they are happy,’ she says. ‘But I do not want to go in. I close the door, and return to life. My true dream is to live with my family, in peace.’

A frayed visa document, a learner’s driving licence and an interim Medicare card are all that remains of Zainalabaden Aluomer’s 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 nightmare began when his father was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1982. Aluomer escaped to Iran in 1991 and languished for eight years in refugee camps both 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.

Aluomer arrived in Australia by boat from Indonesia in September 1999, and was transferred to the
Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. When he was finally 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 transitional accommodation in a flat in West Heidelberg. Early in 2001, Aluomer learnt that his wife and mother had arrived in Jakarta and were looking for a boat that would enable them to make the final run 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, including those arriving by boat, who were found to be genuine refugees, were granted permanent protection visas, subject to health and character checks. This visa entitled them eventually to sponsor family members they had left behind.

In October 1999, the Howard Government introduced a new visa regime. Asylum seekers arriving by boat, and judged to be genuine refugees, were to receive three-year temporary protection visas. They were required to wait 30 months before being eligible to apply for permanent protection. Until then they could not be reunited with their families. If they left the country merely to visit their loved ones they could not return. In effect, this meant they could not hope to see their wives and children for years. They could also be required to return to their countries of origin at the end of this three-year period, if it was deemed safe to do so.

Aluomer’s wife and mother could not wait any longer. They decided it was preferable to risk their lives in flimsy fishing boats than to remain separated from him indefinitely. Aluomer consulted with Haider Al Juboory who was then a caseworker for the City of Darebin and the Ecumenical Migration Centre. He was contemplating the possibility of joining his wife and mother even though it meant losing his visa. He was advised against leaving Australia, but he could not bear the thought of his loved ones taking the boat journey unprotected and alone. He flew to Indonesia on 13 July 2001.

On Friday, 19 October 2001, Aluomer, along with his wife and mother, boarded a leaking fishing boat in Sumatra. They were among the 353 asylum seekers who drowned when the boat sank later that day, en route to Christmas Island.

Aluomer’s tale was publicly recounted on Friday, 2 November 2001, at a memorial service for the victims of the SIEV X tragedy, held at the Migrant Resource Centre in High Street, Preston. Among those present were asylum seekers who had lost family on the boat. I have rarely seen a group of more devastated people. Their distress had been compounded because, as holders of temporary protection visas, they could not even visit survivors of the tragedy.

Some of those present at the memorial service had an additional reason for feeling bereft. Just weeks earlier, on 27 September 2001, the Howard Government’s revised visa regime had become effective. According to the new provisions, asylum seekers who, en route to Australia, have spent a continuous period of seven days or more in a country in which they could have sought and obtained protection, can now never gain permanent residency. Instead they must apply, every three years, for a renewal of their temporary visas. In effect this means they can remain in Australia, but cannot be reunited with their families either in this country, or anywhere else, indefinitely—unless they are prepared to forfeit their right to protection.

The predicament of TPV holders was highlighted by the plight of Sydney-based refugee, Ahmed Alzalimi, who lost three daughters in the boat tragedy—Eman, aged eight, Zahra, six, and Fatimah, five. Ahmed had arrived in Australia before his wife, and spent eight months in Curtin Detention Centre, before being granted a three-year temporary protection visa. The government refused his plea to visit his grieving wife, Sondos Ismael, in Indonesia, unless he was prepared to forfeit his right to return to Australia. For the next five months, 27-year-old Sondos Ismael grieved alone as Australian immigration officials investigated the details of her visa application. She was finally reunited with her husband in Sydney on 21 March 2002.

Hazam Al Rowaimi, a 29-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker, was fruit picking in Mildura when he heard the news of his tragic loss. Al Rowaimi, who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1999, lost his wife, Akhlas, his mother, Hamda, and four children: Noor, aged eleven, Fatama, eight, Nargis, five, and Mohammed, three. Al Rowaini had warned his family, by phone, not to embark upon the dangerous journey from Jakarta. But almost three years of separation was too much to endure. Again, the travel restriction on his temporary protection visa was one of the major reasons his loved ones chose to risk the journey on an
unseaworthy boat.

Ten days after the memorial service I met a group of eight asylum seekers, now released from detention, who are caught in the noose of the new temporary protection visa regime. Their countries of origin include Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen. All have wives, children, or other family members who remain in the country they fled, or within refugee camps in third countries. They live in Melbourne’s northern suburbs where several hundred TPV holders are now concentrated.

All eight had been found to be genuine refugees. Some had been tortured or threatened with death in their countries of origin. They had all lived, for varying periods, in third countries en route, and had arrived in Australia by boat. Several had lived in a series of refugee camps for up to a decade.

The men I spoke to did not wish to reveal their names. They fear they could be put in jeopardy by speaking out. There is an irony in this. As one of the men put it: ‘We chose Australia because it was a democratic country. It was our dream to live in freedom. This is why we risked our lives.’

The pain of their situation was evident in the tears that came to their eyes as they spoke. Some have nightmares in which they have seen their families beyond reach, beyond touch. Others wake up screaming their children’s names. Those who are able to speak to their children by phone sometimes break down during their conversations. One regularly walks the streets all night, rather than return to his terrifying dreams. He has come to fear the night.

The men all spoke of their sense of vulnerability and anguish: ‘September 27 was a black day. Since then we have not felt safe or protected. We feel that the government has set a trap. They want to break us. We are knocking on closed doors. We do not know when this will end. We feel like animals caught in a steel trap.’

Several of the men I spoke to said the most difficult aspect of their ordeal was being unable to practice their hard-won skills and qualifications. The group included a journalist, a metallurgical engineer, an artist, a surgical technician and an economist. They say they have so much they wish to offer their new country. But when potential employers discover they are on temporary visas, they are overlooked for the job. Instead they work at whatever comes along. Many travel to country areas in the fruit-picking season. Others work in the abattoirs, or in other menial jobs.

Said one: ‘I am floating between sky and earth. We are in Australia, but we are not a part of Australia. I want to show Australians what I can do. But in this situation I cannot focus. I feel shattered. My mind goes blank when I think about my family. Australia is a beautiful place, but we cannot enjoy it. This legislation is a rope around my neck.’

According to caseworkers I have spoken to, TPV holders exhibit both physical and psychological symptoms of trauma. Some are suicidal, others severely depressed. All suffer from a sense of guilt for not being able to help their families, especially those who have relatives still being persecuted in their country of origin. The men I spoke to feel like outcasts. They believe many Australians are against them. They know the Howard Government cares naught for their plight.

The new legislation is also retrospective in impact. It not only applies to people who have arrived since 27 September 2001, but also to anyone who had been previously granted a TPV, but had failed to lodge their application for permanent protection by that date. There was no warning or amnesty period offered by the government.

There is an additional catch. Asylum seekers who decide they have had enough of this agony are, in some cases, not even able to return to their families because they do not have the papers that would enable them to do so. Others cannot return because it could mean further persecution or even death.

On 11 January 2001, The Age published a story I wrote about a TPV holder, Mohammed Arif Fayazi. Mohammed is an Afghan refugee, and a member of the much-persecuted Hazara minority—he had fled because his life was in immediate danger. He now lives in a high-rise flat in Fitzroy. He left behind a wife, teenage daughter and baby twins. Several days after the article was published, I received an irate message on my answering machine. ‘That Mohammed character is having you on. How could anyone leave behind his wife and children?’ the anonymous caller complained.

He was ignorant of the history of migration. In all countries from which there has been significant migration, for reasons that range from political persecution to extreme poverty, it has been a common pattern for fathers to leave first to pave the way for their families. Often the family has pooled together their resources to allow one person to make the journey. This has been the case for emigrants of all backgrounds.

There is a sad sequel to the story of Mohammed Arif Fayazi. In mid 2001, he received news that his wife had escaped to Pakistan. But he had lost two of his children. His older daughter, and one of the twins, had died as a result of disease brought on by famine and lack of appropriate medicines.

The news was a devastating blow. In the ensuing days he spent many hours in his Fitzroy flat curled up like a shadow. He had often dreamt of the moment when he would be reunited with his family. His deep depression has been intensified because, under the conditions of his temporary protection visa, he will not be allowed to see his wife and remaining child for at least two years. And possibly much longer.
In January 2003, Mohammed Arif Fayazi received the dreaded letter. His TPV was coming to an end. He has been offered a sum of money in exchange for his voluntary return to Afghanistan. Mohammed’s
Hazara friends, fellow TPV holders, who are still in touch with relatives, report that the situation in post-Taliban Afghanistan is deteriorating. Outside Kabul the country is returning to the control of rival warlords. ‘Now we are dealing with many Talibans’, Mohammed tells me. ‘Even in Kabul there is little security. For ordinary people the situation is getting worse. They live both in fear of their lives, and in extreme poverty.’

Mohammed says that Hazara TPV holders are now extremely depressed: ‘A lot of the young Hazaras are now like old men. They feel that their life is worth nothing. They do not smile or laugh. They have no energy to laugh.’

The Howard Government’s visa regime has very little to do with ‘protection’, or with upholding the rights of refugees as defined by UN conventions. The regime is punitive. It was designed to break the spirit of asylum seekers in order to deter others from making the journey.

In most spiritual traditions it is said that the cruellest fate that can befall a human being is to live in limbo. It is described as a predicament worse than death. Many of our refugees now belong to a new underclass, and are condemned to live in an eternal twilight zone in which they cannot even begin to rebuild their lives, or even hope to be reunited with their families. As one of the asylum seekers I talked to put it: ‘We feel there is no end in sight to our agony.’

 

There are many questions that remain unanswered about the sinking of SIEV X. Former Australian diplomat, Tony Kevin, who has pursued the case with great tenacity, summed up the issues in a damning speech delivered at the Perth Writers’ Festival on 8 February this year.

Kevin asks two principle questions. First, what happened in Indonesia ‘for this boat to embark in so obviously unseaworthy and overloaded condition’? And second, what ‘happened at sea, for the highly resourced Australian border protection military exercise [Operation Relex] not to detect this boat in danger, and to take emergency action to try to save lives’?

Kevin asserts that it is now established that the vessel sank in international waters, at least 50 nautical miles south of Java, and not in Indonesian waters as the Howard Government maintained in the days following the sinking. There is evidence in the form of a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cable, recently declassified, that Howard and his senior advisers knew the details of the sinking within four days of the tragedy.

The cable, issued on 23 October 2001, is remarkable for its detailed account of the SIEV X journey, the route taken, and the position of the boat when it sank. It traces the fatal voyage from the time the asylum seekers departed at 1.30am on 18 October, to the arrival of the rescued survivors in Jakarta on Monday evening, 22 October. These details have been confirmed by survivor testimonies.

The sinking of SIEV X warrants, at least, an independent judicial enquiry. On 10 December 2002, the Senate passed a motion—with the support of the ALP, Democrats, Greens and Independents—calling for such an enquiry.

There are other unanswered questions. Who manned the mystery boats that apparently did not respond to the pleas of survivors? Was this the logical outcome of the precedent set by the refusal to allow the Tampa to land in Australia? And those of us who have come to know some of the seven survivors who live in Australia, and have witnessed their continued distress, want to know why they have not received permanent residency. Why do they continue to live in limbo, caught between a terrifying past and uncertain future?

It is a cruel irony that the Australian government, which supported the invasion of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and now supports an attack on Iraq, and rightfully described these regimes as despotic, continues to treat those who have had the courage to flee these countries as criminals and illegal migrants.

There is a recent sequel to the events surrounding SIEV X that gives cause for hope while highlighting
the continued agony of TPV holders. In February this year Sondos Ismael, who lost three daughters in the tragedy, gave birth to a daughter in Sydney. Because she and her husband, Ahmed Alzalimi, remain on temporary visas, they cannot look forward to the future. Sondos Ismael has said that she would rather die than leave Australia because this is closest to where her daughters drowned. Alzalimi’s visa expired weeks ago and he still has not heard from immigration authorities. Perhaps the Howard Government is awaiting the outcome of the prospective war in Iraq, in the hope that it will provide an opportunity to send Iraqi asylum seekers back home.

The Australian government should release into the community all asylum seekers who continue to languish in detention, and are not a security concern, and grant permanent residence to all refugees currently on temporary protection visas. According to figures released in January 2003 by the Department of Immigration, there are currently 8607 TPV holders in all. They have committed no crime. They came here as asylum seekers, as is their right according to UN conventions to which Australia is a signatory. They have suffered far more than enough. They are entitled to begin life anew after their perilous journeys towards freedom. ?

Arnold Zable is a Melbourne author. His most recent book, The Fig Tree (Text Publishing, 2002), is about the lives of immigrants and displaced peoples.

An earlier version of Amal’s tale appeared in The Age on 19 October 2002, and an earlier version of Aluomer’s tale was published in The Age on 13 December 2001. Tony Kevin’s February speech, as well as the recently declassified cable, can be accessed at www.sievx.com.

 

 

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