Drowned in indifference
June 01, 2002
TODAY'S column concerns a voyage of the damned. It's about the drowning of 353 people on the boat Canberra codenamed SIEV X. And it's a greater mystery than the Marie Celeste. There were 397 on board when it sank en route from Indonesia on October 19 last year - including 150 children and many women. Some victims had family in Australia. Only 44 survived.
Armed men (The military? Local police?) had packed the 19m fishing boat with more than 420 people. This was done under duress, at gunpoint. Panicked by the overcrowding, people pleaded to be put ashore. Only 10, who managed to pay the armed men bribes of $400, were allowed off.
Boats of comparable size to the SIEV X reached Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef during the same period. They'd carried between 200 and 230 passengers. Even that was regarded as grossly, dangerously overloaded. To cram twice as many on SIEV X, a boat with a long crack in the hull and which required baling from the start of the voyage, was murderous.
I'll never forget reading the story of the mass drowning, as reported by Don Greenlees in this newspaper. Surely it would jolt Australians into a different view of the boatpeople. Surely the horrors of the event would make us more welcoming. If anything, the opposite was true.
Some months ago Tony Kevin, who'd served as ambassador to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Cambodia in a distinguished career, approached me with concerns and questions. The implications of his one-man investigation were so disturbing that I was reluctant to believe them or broadcast them. It was only when his analysis was tabled in the Senate inquiry into "a certain maritime incident", and was covered by parliamentary privilege, that I invited him onto Late Night Live to voice some of his suspicions.
Since then, Kevin has been waiting for the media or her majesty's Opposition to take up where he left off. Or at least to challenge his analysis. But it seems Australia was unwilling to face the terrible implications of what occurred.
On Friday, October 19, between 2pm and 3pm, the SIEV X's engine failed and the vessel turned over in the ocean swell. Many drowned as the boat sank, trapped in its holds. Others survived by clinging to planks. The survivors claimed to have seen "large boats" in the night. The scene was surveyed by searchlights but no attempt was made at rescue. Scores died during the 22 hours in the water. Then, about midday on the Saturday, two Indonesian fishing boats arrived. They'd seen floating luggage and were curious. The survivors were loaded onto one boat that headed for its home port, Jakarta, 300km away, and were met at the quay by Indonesian immigration police and UN officials on Monday, October 22.
In at least three ways this tragedy benefited the Australian government's border protection agenda. Overnight, Indonesia abandoned its previous opposition to hosting a conference on people-smuggling and began quietly to accept the forced towing back of SIEV vessels by our navy to Indonesian territorial waters. And the tragedy was an enormous setback to the smuggling industry in Indonesia - sending, as Philip Ruddock had wanted, a "powerful deterrent signal".
When asked if survivors would be allowed to come to Australia, Ruddock was adamant. No, that would "send a very clear signal to others that simply embarking on these dangerous voyages can lead to more positive outcomes".
Most of the survivors have now been dispersed to resettlement countries. As far as we know, only two have been admitted to Australia: Sondos Ismail, the mother of the three drowned little girls who featured in media accounts, and Zaynab Alrimahi, a 12-year-old child who lost all her immediate family - father, mother and three siblings. She is now in the care of her uncle in Sydney.
The first issue Kevin put to the Senate inquiry: Was SIEV X sabotaged? Kevin believes that the voyage was set up to end in tragedy. "This judgment comes from all the circumstances . . . one reaches a point when the string of coincidences is simply so long it cannot be attributed to coincidence any longer." Although, as to who might have sabotaged the boat, Kevin acknowledges that it's "hard to see how any Indonesian agency stood to gain".
The second issue is: What was known in Canberra about the voyage, by whom, and when? The commander of Australia's navy, Rear Admiral Geoff Smith, had told the Senate on three successive days of sworn testimony in April that neither the navy nor Operation Relex had had knowledge of the vessel that sank. Yet Australia's intelligence on the departure of such boats was highly detailed.
How it was that, in the middle of a massive whole-of-government exercise to detect and intercept, information on the most dangerously overcrowded vessel of all had never reached Relex or Jane Holden, chairwoman of the people smuggling task force in the Prime Minister's Department?
Now, as with the "kids overboard" issue, the fibs and obfuscation are unravelling, providing evidence of a cover-up of the calamity. A few days back, the admiral was forced to reveal that, yes, many individuals and agencies had known about the boat. The only excuse for failing to organise the usual air surveillance sounds lame and unconvincing - waffle about information reliability. The surface ship rescue action should have been mounted - even before the boat sank. Hundreds of lost lives would have been saved.
Did the rear admiral and his naval colleagues, in a perversion of a proud naval tradition, hold their telescopes to blind eyes? As Kevin stated to the Senate, "This would cast a serious slur on the honour and competence of our navy and ADF generally; a slur that I do not believe should be laid at that door.
"I cannot believe that the navy or associated agencies in Operation Relex, all imbued with the mariner's sacred safety of life at sea obligation, would have been so coldly indifferent and operationally negligent of the fate of this obviously unseaworthy boat, unless under intense political pressure to avert their eyes."
As Senator Andrew Bartlett, the Democrat member on the committee, commented this week, "Evidence appears to indicate massive indifference to the fate of these asylum-seekers."
We spend millions searching for, and rescuing, adventurers or lone yachtsmen from our oceans. Yet on this occasion 353 men, women and children drowned without Australia lifting a finger.
"Perhaps it's time that official Canberra began to tell the whole truth," says Kevin. "Because each time a cover-up is exposed, it's strengthens suspicions that someone is really anxious to hide something bigger."