|Less than five years after surviving the horrific sinking of SIEVX, Amal Basry lost her three year battle with breast cancer. She passed away on Saturday afternoon 18 March in Melbourne's St Vincent's Public Hospital in the presence of her son Rami and daughter-in-law Daniella. She was fifty-two.
Amal and Rami were rescued from the Indian Ocean on 20 October 2001 after spending nearly twenty four hours in the water fighting for their lives. Amal and Rami defeated the odds - only about one in ten passengers aboard SIEVX survived and most of the 353 who drowned were women and children. Unlike most of the other survivors they did not lose any immediate family members, although they did lose cousins, nieces and nephews.
In June 2002, eight months after the sinking, Amal and Rami were finally permitted to come to Australia on temporary protection visas (TPVs) because they had proven family connections here. Amal's husband Abbas Akram had made the journey to Australia on an earlier boat arriving on the north-west coast in January 2000. He spent 8 months in Woomera Detention Centre before settling in Melbourne on a TPV. Only seven survivors of the sinking were permitted to settle in Australia; the remaining 38 were resettled in other countries where they were very quickly granted permanent residency. Unlike the 38 who went to other countries, Amal and Rami had to endure an inexplicably cruel three year wait before being granted permanent protection visas. It is difficult to imagine how this needless bureaucratic obstructionism affected these already deeply traumatised people. They wanted nothing more than security and were forced to wait for years never knowing if they would be allowed to put down roots and make their home here. It was not until the middle of last year (2005) that they were finally granted permanency.
I never met Amal but I did hear her speak once.
On the first anniversary of the sinking - only days after the first Bali bombing - I attended a memorial service at Edwardes Lake Park in Reservoir. At exactly 3.10pm, a year to the minute since SIEVX sank and 353 people perished, Amal bravely took the stage supported by Gabrielle Fakhri of the Thornbury Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and recounted, first in Arabic and then in English, the story of the sinking.
To hear Amal speak was an unforgettable experience. She had a powerful presence - strong, courageous, poetic, dramatic. Speaking haltingly in English but with conviction she moved the audience to tears as she told of her son kissing her goodbye for what they both believed would be the final time.
I taped Amal's speech. Although the sound recording is very rough and some of the words are indistinct, the tape provides a glimpse of an exceptional woman. Below is a transcript:
Good afternoon. I would like to welcome you all. It means a lot to me. It gives me hope .... because this time last year I was fighting for my life, fighting like many others who were with me last year. When our boat sank we felt we were going to die. Everyone... screamed - 'God, God, please help us, save us please'... I can never forget the unbelievable pictures in front of my eyes. Some people... in the water, some swallowing the water and choking and choking. I will never forget the bodies lying on the sea. And the moment that pushed me into... the....water and... I saw my son fighting for his life as well... finding a piece of wood, my son started to scream 'Mum, Mum, we will choke, we will die. God please save us.' At this point I was anxious to get where my son was but I saw a dead woman's body beside me. And with my heart burning I feeling very scared and try to hold the hand of the dead body to support myself to swim to my son's side. Thank God I could arrive near my son. We kissed each other. [sobbing] Then he said 'Give me a kiss mum, we are going to die'... where some other people were still fighting for their lives. The screaming still rings in my ears. And one man screams 'All my family drown' and my friend who was holding onto a piece of wood had all her children's dead bodies floating around her. Next morning while we were still waiting for death the Indonesian fishermen help us and save us. And now I am living in Australia with my family and all my dreams come true. Thank you.
One thing Amal did not mention in this speech was her role in saving the life of her son. When she was rescued by the Indonesian fishermen her son was not among the survivors. Amal prevailed on the captain to turn his boat around and continue the search and her son and ten others were eventually found clinging to a small piece of wood.
Amal believed she had survived for another purpose as well - to tell her story. She wanted the world to know what had happened to the people of SIEVX. As she said to Geoff Parish of SBS Dateline, the story of SIEVX is 'a disaster that deserves to be written down by someone. People bought death in seeking freedom'.
During her four years in Australia, Amal recounted the story of SIEVX many times. In August 2002 she told her story to Michael Gordon of the Age:
At her new home in Broadmeadows this week... [Amal Basry described] in near forensic detail how almost 400 people were coerced into boarding a small, unsafe and ill-equipped boat: the trip in five buses with curtains drawn to the apartments where they prepared for the voyage; the demand that the women and children board first, apparently to ensure the men followed; the refusal to return mobile phones surrendered the previous week; the attempt to plug a hole with material from a pair of jeans; the decision of the men not to let on that the engine had failed and could not be repaired; the sound of women screaming as the boat sank; the two mysterious lights in the distance as she clung on to the body of a drowned women; the rescue by Indonesian fishermen alerted when they saw floating luggage and bodies.
After saying all this through an interpreter, she looks at me intensely and says in English: "I was like a camera. I remember everything."
Amal's story travelled far and touched many. I don't know if she ever knew that the harrowing account of her survival as retold by Arnold Zable in an essay in Eureka Street was incorporated into a London production of Pericles - a joint production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cardboard Citizens. The Australian folk singer Suzette Herft also credits Amal as being the inspiration for her song 'Journey on the Wind'.
Amal was a patron of Jannah the SIEVX memorial, an online condolence book established by Mary Dagmar Davies - the first memorial of any kind to the SIEVX dead.
Amal was also involved in the national SIEV X memorial project begun by author and psychologist Steve Biddulph and Uniting Church Minister Rod Horsfield.
She attended the opening of the Memorial Exhibition in Sydney in October 2004 where she gave the most remarkable speech. Mary Dagmar Davies described the occasion:
When [Amal] reached the lectern she started with the words 'I am still in the water with the dying' and then she looked across the room and suddenly saw Sondos Ismail the mother who lost her three little girls... Seeing Sondos with her little daughter Allaa who was born in Australia and looks so much like her three little sisters that she will never meet overwhelmed Amal and she broke down in tears. For a moment it looked as though she could not go on. But Amal, who is fighting cancer, is an exceptionally strong woman and she knew she must speak for Sondos as well. And Amal continued with tears rolling from her eyes. She was so articulate her voice rang out loud and clear... She spoke for less than four minutes. She spoke of her cancer and her experience on SIEVX and in the water. She told us more about SIEVX than any of us knew because she was there. She was poetic. She was compelling. She was the truth. People listened intently, some cried, and in the packed church a pin dropping would have sounded like a thunder clap.
Amal was haunted by the SIEVX tragedy. In an interview with Helen Lobato in 2002 for 3CR radio's 'Women on the Line' she spoke of how SIEVX had diminished her, how difficult it was for her to do normal every day things and how afraid she felt. She told Lobato : 'I lost something in myself in this accident'.
But Amal didn't let her fears or her illness prevent her from bearing witness to what she had endured. In 2004 she made the long journey to Brisbane to give evidence at the committal hearing of Khaleed Daoed, one of the organisers of the SIEVX voyage.
Amal was always prepared to stand up and speak about SIEVX on behalf of the survivors despite her illness and the fears she carried with her from the trauma of SIEVX. In many ways she was the public face of SIEVX.
More than 140 women lost their lives on SIEVX. We don't know their names and cannot mourn them as individuals. But over the last four years many of us have come to know Amal and she will be deeply mourned both as the warm courageous person she was and as a symbol of all the nameless women who drowned on SIEVX while seeking sanctuary and a better life in Australia.
Our thoughts are with her family both here and overseas.
Sources - in order of publication
Obituaries & Tributes