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How many of the 1500 asylum seeker lives lost at sea since 2001 could have been saved?
Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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MEDIA

GOVERNMENT
The 45th Survivor

by Marg Hutton
14 June 2005

Recently I came across an important contemporaneous article on the SIEVX disaster that I was previously unaware of, written by Jakarta based journalist, Chris McCall a week after the sinking. This obviously well sourced article which appeared in the Courier Mail on 27 October 2001 contains a wealth of information on the voyage including:
  • the first public reference to ships being in the vicinity of survivors on the night of the sinking - (up until now the first public mention of these ships was thought to be in an article by Vanessa Walker published in the Australian in December 2001).
  • confirmation of the story that some children received free passage on SIEVX
  • corroborative information for the probable sinking in the Operation Relex zone - (ie the boat reached the Indian Ocean after 24 hours at sea)
  • further testimony concerning the unseaworthy state of the boat before it sailed (ie the boat put to sea with a small hole in the hull)
  • further corroboration of smugglers working with Indonesian police, the forced loading of the vessel at gunpoint and survivors later threatened by smugglers not to reveal too much about their ordeal
  • mention of Indonesian immigration officials attempting to incarcerate survivors when they were returned to Jakarta
  • and confirmation of the story of the rescue of the 45th survivor.

The story of the 45th survivor has long intrigued and puzzled me. Up until now the only media reference to this story that I was aware of was an article by John Aglionby published in the UK Guardian on 25 October 2001 which states:

Indonesian fishermen have found another survivor from last Friday's disaster in which some 374 people trying to reach Australia drowned in the Java sea, the International Organisation for Migration said yesterday...

An IOM official, Jose Remigio, said the Surya Terang fishing boat picked up another survivor, Sabah Latif Ali, on Monday morning.

"He had obviously been separated from the rest of the people and so was not rescued with the others," Mr Remigio said. "They saw him floating in the sea and took him in."

Mr Ali, whose age and nationality are not yet known, lost his wife and daughter in the tragedy. He and the 44 other survivors are being treated at a holding centre 20 miles south of Jakarta.

Chris McCall's account of the 45th survivor is not as detailed as that of Aglionby. However, it does contain some disturbing new details:

Earlier this week the number of survivors grew by one to 45, after one more was picked up separately -- the only survivor of a group of about 20 who had been adrift for 37 hours, nearly twice as long as the others.

Recently Mary Dagmar Davies, founder of Jannah the SIEVX Memorial website spoke with SIEVX survivor Amal Basry who confirmed this story. According to Amal there was indeed a man who arrived back in Jakarta later than the other survivors and who had been in the water 'much longer' than the main group of 44. This man whose name she gave as 'Abu Ali Alkowghri' (phonetic) was known to the survivors as 'Sabah'. He lost his entire family - his heavily pregnant young wife and three children. Amal told Davies that the man has since been resettled in either Norway or Finland.

The fact that there was a lone survivor who was rescued much later than the main group of 44 is also confirmed by official Indonesian and Australian documents. For example, the Jakarta Harbourmaster's report of 24 October 2001 states that 44 survivors were rescued by the Indah Jaya Makmur and later transferred to the Arta Kencana 38. Yet the list of survivors provided to the Australian Senate by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) contains 45 names (most of which were blacked out).

Also there is disparity in the media reports of the sinking with some reporting 44 survivors and others 45. This anomaly can now be explained by the later rescue of the 45th survivor by a different boat.

Intriguingly the DFAT cable of 23 October 2001 also refers to a single survivor being picked up by a second boat, along with four dead bodies. However, the sex of this person is given as female and 'she' is said to be missing. Also the cable implies that all the survivors were picked up at approximately the same time by the two vessels:

7. Saturday 20 October - The survivors remained in the water for approximately 19 hours, with many of the survivors perishing during that period. At approximately 1000, the remaining survivors were approached by two fishing boats. One vessel took on board 44 PIIs (41 adults and 3 children), with the second boat picking up 5 PIIs, of these 4 were already dead and the remaining survivor was a female...

11... The whereabouts of the 1 female PII on the second rescue boat is also unknown. (see Appendix, pp. 33-6)

So it now appears that the rescue of SIEVX survivors involved at least three vessels - Indah Jaya Makmur, Arta Kencana 38 and Surya Terang - and that it took place over approximately two days in the aerial surveillance zone of Operation Relex.

Presumably the vessel which found the lone survivor did not stumble upon him by chance. It seems reasonable to assume that one of the earlier rescue boats (ie Indah Jaya Makmur or Arta Kencana 38) arranged for another boat to sweep the area to ensure all the survivors had been located.

Given that there must have been considerable radio activity between all the vessels involved in the rescue and the Indonesian mainland, it does seem extraordinary to this writer that Australian authorities claim not to have been aware of the sinking until three days after it occurred when the survivors arrived back in Jakarta.

The story of the 45th survivor raises more questions than it answers.

How long was the lone survivor actually in the water? Were others in his group still alive after the Indah Jaya Makmur left? And if so, how many died before the Surya Terang arrived?

Was there a document similar to the Jakarta Harbourmaster's report that was lodged with BASARNAS that details the secondary rescue? If so, this document would very likely provide further corroboration of the sinking occurring in the Operation Relex zone after factoring in the drift as per Professor Tomczak's assessment of the South Java current, assuming the time of rescue was known.

Neither of the two newspaper reports regarding the rescue of the 45th survivor gives a precise date and time of the rescue or the arrival back in Jakarta. Both articles imply that there was a long delay between the initial group of 44 survivors arriving back in Jakarta and the arrival of the 45th survivor. The DFAT cable of 23 October contains mention of the 45th survivor and it was written less than 24 hours after the main group arrived. Is this the same person? If so, why is there no mention of the 45th survivor in the media for another 2 to 3 days?

If it is true that the lone survivor arrived back in Jakarta aboard a vessel that also picked up several dead bodies - what happened to them? Who were they? Where are they buried?

Did other vessels later return to the sinking site and retrieve the rest of the bodies?

There are so many aspects of this disaster that remain unknown - a shocking lack of detail that would not be tolerated if the victims were Westerners. But careful compilation of all available information is slowly building a picture - and this article from the Courier Mail fills in another gap.

--------------

[Editor's note, 27 October 2011: Contact was made with Sabah Latif Ali El Mazloum by Ghassan Nakhoul by phone on 22 February 2007. El Mazloum was then resident in Norway. He told Nakhoul that he had been rescued just before dawn on Sunday 21 October 2001. He lost his wife (named Wasan [phonetic spelling]) and two children, Mohammed and Ali. The group of people he was with included Yasser Al Helou, his wife and three children (names unknown) as well as Um Kawthar, Ahmed and Mohammed - all of whom died. They all died on their planks sometime before midday on Saturday. Sabah Latif doesn't remember the name of the boat that rescued him. He didn't talk much with the people who rescued him. He remembers seeing a boat and lights on his face. They threw him a rope with something attached to the end of it. They told him to catch the rope and it took four men on the rescue boat to haul him aboard as he was so exhausted. He remembers the people on the boat telling him that they had rescued 44 people already and that "you are number 45". Sabah Latif stayed in the sea on two different boats for three days before getting back to Jakarta.]

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