The disaster has never been officially investigated and serious questions remain about Australia's role in and knowledge of the sinking.
The Australian writer Arnold Zable published this article in the Age this week to remember the sinking, and Amal Basry, one of 45 people who, along with her son Amjed, survived that terrible event.
She told the tale of the sinking many times, with audiences ranging from one listener to a Melbourne town hall packed with more than 2000. She would get out of her sick bed to tell it. She spoke of the "children like little birds floating on the water". She was condemned to bear witness. In a cruel irony Amal died of cancer in 2006. Her tale is a reminder of the courage it takes to risk the seas in search of a new life free of oppression.
This one sank in waters that Brandis-speak might describe as "disputed". International waters but within Indonesia's search-and-rescue responsibility, and also within Australia's aerial border protection surveillance zone. The Indonesians failed the victims of SIEV X, but so did we. We claimed ignorance and poor weather as excuses for failing to identify or help the stricken vessel.
The subsequent Senate Select Committee inquiry into "a certain maritime incident" (as bizarre a euphemism as any ever coined by a bureaucracy) mainly focused on a different scandal – "children overboard" – but its terms of reference extended to SIEV X. The report was unflinching in its findings. "It is extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles."The boat known as Siev X set out in the pre-dawn darkness of October 18, 2001 from a Sumatran port with 421 asylum seekers on board. It was a rickety overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, bound for Australia. It was the height of the Howard's government manufactured "war" on refugees. At 3.10pm the following day, the boat, now known as SIEV-X, capsized and sank somewhere between the two countries with a terrible loss of life - 353 of the asylum-seekers drowned, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men.
The Australian government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the unfolding tragedy. Yet ministers and senior officials from the beginning mislead the Australian Senate and the community over important questions. What did the government and its agencies know about the boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors?
Tony's award winning book A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of Siev X is the definitive work on the sinking (as is the website SIEVX.com) and the documentary Hope.
Marg Hutton (who established and runs the website SIEVX.com) along with Tony Kevin, were largely responsible for uncovering and telling the story of Siev X and keeping the investigation alive when all around them wanted to deny and hide the truth.
I know of 16 instances of people travelling alone or in family groups on SIEVX who were trying to reunite with other family members already here. When SIEVX foundered there were at least seven men living in Australia on TPVs whose entire families were washed away.
For those bereaved men whose families were annihilated, SIEVX was a weight too massive to shoulder and inflicted a wound too deep to heal. As survivor Sadeq Al Albodie wrote: 'We continue to suffer. The tragedy was too big. We have seen the deaths of children and women parading between the waves. Our lives have been severely narrowed by what happened to us.'
As testament to what the human spirit can survive, some of the bereaved husbands and fathers have married again and now have young families. The loss they endured is always present — it is not something they will ever recover from, but their lives go on. So there are now young kids growing up in Australia, who were born here and speak with Australian accents, who had brothers and sisters who drowned on SIEVX.
SIEVX is not only a huge Australian tragedy, it is also an international one. Philip Ruddock, Immigration Minister in 2001 when news broke of the sinking, was unmoved by the plight of the survivors. Ruddock refused to provide visas to the 45 survivors and only accepted seven into Australia because to do otherwise, he claimed, would encourage more people to embark on similar dangerous journeys.
Survivors were split up and resettled in far away countries including Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. While all of the 23 'early survivors' who departed SIEVX the day before it sunk were eventually settled in Australia it was only after a gruelling wait of many years, despite the fact that most had family connections here.
There were other cruelties meted out by our government to the survivors and bereaved of SIEVX. Sondos Ismail was travelling on SIEVX with her three young daughters, Eman, Fatima and Zhara to join her husband Ahmed Al Zalimi in Australia. Sondos survived the sinking but her three girls drowned. Her husband was unable to go to her because of the restrictions of his temporary protection visa — if he left the country he was not permitted to return and Philip Ruddock refused to bend the rules to help the couple.
Despite pleas to the government, five months passed before husband and wife were reunited in Australia. And even then their suffering at the hands of our authorities continued. In 2003 it was reported that Ahmed would be returned to Iraq when his visa expired. Thanks to a concerted community campaign this did not eventuate, but the needless pressure exerted on the couple who had already suffered so much, could not have assisted their recovery.
When Ahmed was interviewed in July this year — the first time he had spoken publicly about SIEVX — he made it clear that the tragedy continues to torment his family: 'It is very very difficult to talk about there is a lot I can't say, my wife is still so depressed and it's been 12 years.'
Australia's response to the SIEVX sinking is in stark contrast to how the Italian government responded to the recent tragedy off Lampedusa, where a similar huge number of asylum seekers lost their lives. Italy declared a day of national mourning and is reportedly providing state funerals for all 359 victims.