The Human Tide

Ghassan Nakhoul
Walkley Magazine
Summer 2003

After 353 asylum seekers drowned in their attempt to reach Australia Ghassan Nakhoul found it impossible to remain a detached oberver.

Journalists are supposed to remain emotionless and cool. Otherwise, we might be accused of bias. But that day I breached my professional standards. I was overwhelmed by the emotions around me. They spoke volumes as two dozen men were crying and squatting on the floor in a circle and just crying and crying.

It was Wednesday, October 24, 2001, and I was at Ali Mahdi Al- Sobbi's place in Sydney. The man had just learned that all his family - a wife and three young daughters - had drowned in the ocean. They were among 353 asylum seekers who perished at sea in the desperate attempt to reunite with families in Australia. Only 44 survived the tragic sinking of the boat that was later called SIEVX.

It had been two years since Ali last saw his family. He'd been longing for that warm hug, but his dreams were suddenly shattered - forever. Like thousands of refugees on temporary protection visas around the country, Ali was deprived of his family reunion through decent means. His family had to deal with the devil. They resorted to ruthless smugglers who overloaded battered boats.

I established my contact with the survivors within the first few days of the horrifying incident. I wanted to know how the tragedy developed: how the sinking started. Did the refugees try to save the boat? How did they find themselves in the water? For how long did the poor souls huddle on the brink of life? How did they feel on the doorsteps of death? How were they rescued and what happened later with the police, the UN staff and the smugglers?

I discovered that the oldest of Ali's daughters did not drown. She was accidently killed. A nail penetrated her chest when she tried to improve her position on a plank. It must have been a dreadful slow death.

One the the women, Amal Basri, had clung to a stranger's body for all of the 18 hours the survivors had to spend in the water.

Sadek Razzak managed to save his two year old daughter. Whenever she fell asleep, he would give her a little smack to prevent her from swallowing salty water. He had to keep her head up so she wouldn't drown under the waves in the darkness. This went on for long hours. How many of us could imagine ourselves in such a situation? Yet that heroic act never made a cover story. I wondered what sort of awards would be bestowed upon that father if he were Australian.

SIEVX was the boat of extremes. On it's worn out deck, life and death had their wildest tango. There were deaths and survivals, facts and emotions. Above all, the human face was overwhelming, yet the incident was shrouded in mysteries. One of the most puzzling was the story of the boats that came at night and ignored the survivors. There were three mysterious boat lights.

Initailly, none of the survivors mentioned the mysterious boats to me. The first time the story came to my attention was a month after the incident when I watched an uncensored videotape featuring the survivors in Jakarta with a visiting cleric from Sydney.

I contacted the source that had provided the tape. They promised to put me in touch with the survivor who had made the claim. Weeks later, nothing was done. I realized I had stumbled over a piece of information that was supposed to be edited out.

By then it had become difficult to talk to the survivors. They had been moved to other locations in Indonesia and some of them had already been settled as refugees in other countries.

When I tracked them down weeks later I challenged the credibility of their story on the mysterious boats. I asked why they had suppressed it in the first place. They were too scared to mention the boats before. They believed the story might hinder their resettlement, as it would implicate the Australian government.

With more talks with the survivors, other mysteries surfaced. Most intriguing was the story of the boat being photographed before it had sailed on its doomed trip. The photo was shown to representatives of the survivors during questioning by police and immigration officers in Jakarta. The photo was black and white. The survivors had the impression it had been taken via satellite. It was among 20 photos taken in an aerial mapping of the Indonesian shore. Two Australians were present during the questioning. After many inquiries, the Federal police would neither confirm or deny the story.

I believe that spy planes also produce the same type of photos. I have wondered since if refugee boats have always been under constant surveillance.

Worst of all, the organisers of the doomed trip were not from a sophisticated international racket, but were refugees themselves. Khaled and Maysam had been under the protection of the Jakarta office of the UN High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), when they became involved in criminal activities with the team behind the boat deaths, Abu Quassey. But they had no sympathy for their fellow refugees - they wanted their money and jewellry.

The Indonesian police arrested Khaled and Maysam and interrogated them for many weeks. The were later released after the UNHCR intervened on their behalf. To make things worse, Abu Quassey could himself become classified as a refugee. The UNHCR refused to rule out an application from him.

Navigating myself through these mysteries, I found myself in conflict. Was I a journalist or an investigator? An objective observer or a subjective humanitarian? An Australian or an Arab?

Swaying between independence and bias, I was hungry for facts, but my feelings took the better of me. When terrorism hit home through Bali months later, every colleague was in the same position. Perhaps we are not journalists after all. We are just humans.

Ghassan Nakhoul has been with SBS since 1991 and won the 2002 radio feature documentary or Special Walkley for his Arab language broadcast of this story.

RADIO: Feature, Documentary or Broadcast Special

WINNER; Ghassan Nakhoul,
Arabic Program, SBS Radio, "The five Mysteries of SIEVX."

Ghassan Nakhoul has been a journalist since 1979. He graduated in journalism in 1983 and 1984 in Political Science from the Lebanese University in Beirut and worked as executive editor of two magazines in that city.

Ghassan migrated to Australia in 1989. He's written for the Australian Financial Review and the Australian newspapers and the Bulletin magazine. He joined SBS in 1991 and in 1994 won the Phillips Electronics Award for outstanding current affairs report on young people. In 1997 he won the New South Wales Premier's Youth Media Award.

Nakhoul's Arabic language series followed the developments of the SIEVX saga for more than 9 months, revealing the human face to the tragic sinking of the doomed boat and the drowning of 353 asylum seekers. The piece reveals the 5 mysteries behind the horrific saga, including the revelation that the man thought to be behind the "boat of death" could become a refugee. The piece works around the voice of Ali Mahdi Al-Sobbi, who lost his entire family while he was in Sydney, waiting for a reunion that would never take place.

JUDGES COMMENTS: A gripping series of eyewitness accounts of the sinking of SIEVX which played out the cultural complications of the story. Adventurous and gripping radio the documentary also raised important questions about the incident and the aftermath. The judges were impressed by the efforts of the journalist to track down a disparate group of survivors. They also noted the skilful structure and production values of the program using limited resources.

Nakhoul's script demonstrated a wonderful turn of phrase.

"For the Australian government the boat is another statistic; a cursed one. It has called it SIEVX, for suspected illegal entry vehicle. And X for unknown, although every person has heard of its sad story."

"For many people however, it is the Titanic of the Poor, or the boat of Misery. And because of that, no-one would care about its debris or the bodies of the miserable people who were on board."

"But the boat of misery was rich... it was rich with mysteries. Not even one contemporary boat has so much been engulfed with obscurity.

"At this stage, the mysteries of SIEVX can be summarised into five at least, although the list of secrets may grow since there are still so many questions without answers."

Translated from the Arabic.

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