Refugee Boat Tragedy Retold in Film
Larry Schwartz
Sunday Age
27 October 2002

Among countless people to flee as Saddam Hussein's forces crushed a popular revolt in southern Iraq in 1991, refugee film maker, Hadi Mahood remembers seeing American helicopters in the skies above his hometown.

But he says despite US assurances it would support an uprising, it failed to intervene to prevent the Iraqi bombing of Samawah, more than 260 kilometres south of Baghdad.

Although he endured hard years behind barbed wire in a desert refugee camp on the Saudi border until permitted to settle in Australia in 1995, Mr Mahood was unprepared for the trauma he encountered recently while documenting the accounts of some of the 44 survivors of the ill-fated, Australia-bound boat referred to by Australian officials as SIEV X. The boat capsized and sank south of Indonesia just over a year ago. More than 350 asylum seekers, including 150 children drowned.

'When I interviewed the survivors, I was crying behind the camera,' says Mr Mahood, 'and I was crying when I checked the footage and did the editing'.

He showed excerpts from a one-hour doucmentary nearing completion at his house in north-western Melbourne, where he lives with his wife Khulud, from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and 13-month-old son, Adam.

On the day, The Sunday Age visited Mr Mahood, a Senate committee reported it had found it extraordinary that the overcrowded SIEV (suspected illegal entry vessel) X sank in the vicinity of major Australian operations without any concern being raised by intelligence agencies or other authorities.

Mr Mahood says survivors have told him a man who organised the voyage, and was sentenced to six months' jail, had an Indonesian police radio and the hotel from which they had left was owned by a senior Indonesian police officer.

He has taken the film's title, Sinbads, from a hero in the classic The Thousand and One Nights, whose survival despite shipwrecks and other adversity on seven sea voyages, which he says is, in some ways emblematic of the predicament of millions of Iraqis seeking refuge in countries such as Australia.

'Every Iraqi is like Sinbad' the 42 year old film makers says.

Nine survivors from SIEV X and a woman from another vessel, whose daughter was among several to drown after it sank off Indonesia months earlier, are among those appearing in the documentary.

One man in his mid-40s lost nine close relatives, including his wife, son, three daughters, borther, sister-in-law and their children. 'By God, I saw my wife three metres away from me' said another survivor in the documentary. 'I went to save her and heard my daughter scream...' Both drowned.

One man in the documentary described a newborn infant attached by an umbilical cord to the mother in the long hours before rescue by an Indonesian fishing boat. Another, who had clung to timber in waves up to four metres high, said: 'Around the evening, Dr Al Battat, God bless his soul, was about two metres from his son. He couldn't swim and had no jacket on. He wanted to get closer to his son who was calling, 'Dad... help me...' Later we found his body floating.

In the documentary it is revealed boats approached in darkness, raising hopes of rescue. A person caught in a spotlight from one boat had yelled repeatedly for assistance but said 'it came close and then withdrew'. Another said 'The lights were flashing at us... but they didn't... try to save any of us.'

A newsreader on local Arabic radio, Mr Mahood has made several documentaries in Australia, including a film on a Blue Mountains-based Iraqi writer known as Jailan. As a student in Baghdad, he won an award for a film called Bird Seller.

He says his latest film was delayed through lack of resources until he posted his proposal on an Iraqi community website and subsequently found assistance from people including a student film maker Larry Lawson; Julian Burnside, QC, and his artist wife Kate Durham; film production manager John Banagan and editor Paul Williams.

The Senate Committee last week called for an independent inquiry into alleged 'disruption activity' on asylum seeker vessels in Indonesia. It wants scrutiny of activity Australia set in motion through its partners in the Indonesian Government and its own network of informants.

Mr Mahood is committed to documenting the survivors' stories despite inevitable distress: 'I must record this tragedy.'

Back to