EARLY SURVIVORSSBS Arabic Radio Program (Frequency: 97.7 FM)
Presenter: Ghassan Nakhoul
Broadcast: 10 September 2003
Translation and transcription by Dr Suhaib Nashi, MD, (New Jersey, USA) 
Transcript edited by Ghassan Nakhoul
Minor editing: Marg Hutton
[Original Arabic program researched, prepared, written, presented and produced by Ghassan Nakhoul]
PRESENTER: The tragedy of SIEVX, the refugee boat, which is also known as the Titanic of the Poor, is not over yet. Two years after the incident in which 353 asylum seekers, mostly children and women from Iraq died, a trial started in Egypt last Saturday of the man known as Abu Quassey, who has been accused of smuggling the boat and whose real name is Mootaz Attia.
In its last Sunday edition, Al Gomhuria newspaper reported that Mootaz Attia had a Tourism Agency in Indonesia, and that he appeared before the court at Abdeen after being charged with mistakenly killing 350 people.
According to the newspaper, the prosecution received a file on Abu Quassey from the Indonesian and Australian authorities.
The court date was postponed till next Saturday to allow time for the defence to go through the details of the allegations made against the defendant.
The prosecution has accused Abu Quassey of knowing that the boat was not seaworthy and that it was incapable of making the journey.
Right after the incident, Abu Quassey was arrested in Indonesia and jailed for six months for violating his Visa status. But he was not charged in relation to his role in SIEVX, and Australia failed to extradite him to put him on trial.
Ironically, these developments coincide with new investigations into the issue by our program in which we interviewed a group of survivors who have been ignored by the media.
In addition to the 45 survivors who came back from the doorsteps of death in October 2001 - and whose stories we followed in previous programs after tracking them down to where they had been moved to in various countries - there was another group that had actually left the boat a few hours after it sailed, one day before the sinking incident. This group is comprised of 23 people, all of them from the Sabean Mandaean sect. Despite the importance of their story, they had to wait until June 2003 to be interviewed by the Australian Federal Police about the tragedy. Over three days, the Federal Police interviewed each of them separately in the presence of a female translator.
This group is still in Indonesia. Only two of its members have been accepted as refugees, one of them came to Australia while the other person went to New Zealand. A few others have also been classified by the United Nations as refugees while most of them have been rejected.
One of those classified as a refugee by the UNHCR in Jakarta is Muntaha Sam Adam, a widow who has two married children in Australia - a 25 year-old daughter and a 21 year-old son. Both her parents and her four brothers also live in Australia. Although she was classified as a refugee by the UNHCR more than five months ago, the Australian migration authorities have not yet interviewed her.
Of the time since she last saw her family, Muntaha said:
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: I haven't seen my children for two years and four or five months. As for my parents, I haven't seen them for 7 or 8 years.
PRESENTER: What do you expect to happen?
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: I don't know, I don't know at all.
PRESENTER: You don't know why it is taking so long?
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: I don't know what's the matter with Australia. No.
PRESENTER: How can you manage? I imagine life in Indonesia is difficult and for two years you haven't had an income.
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: It is very, very difficult. In the past, IOM used to provide accommodation and other expenditure. Now, the UNHCR is looking after us, but the amount is very scant. Life is so difficult.
PRESENTER: Some members of the group that survived the incident of SIEVX before it sank were luckier than Muntaha Sam Adam. After they were classified as refugees by the UNHCR in Jakarta, the Australian authorities interviewed them. But their luck stopped there because since the interviews they have not heard anything further about their cases. One of them is Seham Lafta Zebari whose husband Saleem Abood Jaber lives in Sydney on a Temporary Protection Visa. The Australian migration authorities interviewed Seham and her three children ten months ago. Despite that, there is still no answer.
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: I have been waiting for ten months to hear about my flight. In November 2002, I completed all the exams and the interview with the delegation. I am still waiting for my flight. Ten months.
PRESENTER: Have you been accepted by Australia as a refugee?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: I don't know. I don't know whether we have been accepted or not. There is no answer. We were interviewed by the Australian delegation and we completed all the tests, yet we are still waiting. At the UN they say, 'We don't know. It's a matter for Australia. We cannot put pressure on Australia.' That's what we have been told at the Resettlement Section. 'It's up to Australia'.
PRESENTER: When did you last go to the UN?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: 10 days ago or two weeks. As wives of husbands living in Australia, we seek to see the Resettlement Officer every 10 to 20 days. But she keeps saying to us - 'I have no answers and I cannot put pressure on Australia. I can only call them and beg them. Australia has promised three times to come and take refugees but they haven't kept to their promise. I know nothing about Australia.' That's her answer.
PRESENTER: How can you manage with three kids?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: Australia has nothing to do with that. We just eat and sleep.
PRESENTER: Who is helping you?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: Well my husband and my brother.
PRESENTER: Is the UN offering you any assistance?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: This month they have increased the allowance but it is not a fair grant.
PRESENTER: Do the children go to school?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: What school? They used to go on the Internet but the Internet teacher has gone to Australia.
PRESENTER: So they don't have a teacher now?
SEHAM LAFTA ZEBARI: There is no teacher for the boys now. As for the girls, there is an Afghani teacher, called Ajmal, but it's not a real school. They don't have a real eduction.
PRESENTER: Seham's husband, Saleem Abood Jaber, who is in Sydney on a temporary visa, is also confused.
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: I don't know what sort of mercy Australia has. I want to ask you.
PRESENTER: Have you tried to make inquiries?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: No, I have been told, 'As long as you have a temporary visa you have no right to say what's on your mind.'
PRESENTER: So you think that because you have a temporary visa you cannot make inquiries?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: That's what I am being told.
PRESENTER: Did they tell you that after you contacted them?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: No, I didn't call. But people keep telling me that as long as I am on a temporary visa the decision about my wife's case is totally up to the authorities. When they were met by a delegation inquiring about the boat, they were told that they would hopefully be brought here in July. Now July has gone and August is about to finish yet nothing has happened.
PRESENTER: Do you think the Australians have told them they've been accepted or not?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: We are accepted in Australia on a temporary visa, but we don't know what's next.
PRESENTER: I mean your wife and your children. Were they told that they had been accepted or haven't they been given a reply?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: They told them they have been accepted by Australia. They have even completed the tests, but they haven't been told when they will come.
PRESENTER: How long is it since you have seen your family?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: It will be four years in October. They spent two years in Amman and two in Indonesia.
PRESENTER: When SIEVX sank did you think that they were on board?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: They told me they were going to take Abu Quassey's boat but I did not know which one. Then I was advised that there was just one boat for Abu Quassey. I was in detention then. After that, a friend of mine told me Abu Quassey's boat sank. I was worried so I wrote to the Red Cross seeking information. Eight or nine months later, the Red Cross wrote back and told me that they had been in Jakarta.
PRESENTER: So you did not know whether they were alive or dead for eight or nine months?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: After I was released from the detention centre, a friend of mine whose family members drowned on that boat told me that my group of people got off the boat before the incident.
PRESENTER: So for how long after the incident didn't you know that your family was still alive?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: Five to six months, or so.
PRESENTER: During those four to five months you did not know the fate of your family?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: I did not have a clue about what happened to them. I was so worried, and back then my application was rejected so I took my case to the Federal Court while I had no news about my family, those who were still in Iraq or those who left Amman. I was so worried all the time. To make it worse, it has now been more than a year since they were accepted, yet they haven't come.
PRESENTER: Have you been contacted by anybody from the Australian authorities to tell you whether your family will be coming?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: No. Nobody has told me anything. By God, I am pinning my hope on Australia being compassionate to bring them here for me. I need them so badly.
PRESENTER: Do you talk to them over the phone?
SALEEM ABOOD JABER: I talk to them sometimes but it is not enough. It has been a long time - four years. If they were dead, I would have forgotten them by now. All this time - four years - they have been under the care of their mum only. While in Sweden, people who went there two or three years after I arrived here, have been accepted and they have even been reunited with their families. As for us, we don't know our fate.
PRESENTER: We raised the fate of this family and other members of the group that had left SIEVX before it sank with the office of the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. However, his spokesperson, Steve Ingram, was concise in his answers. He said that the department sent its reply to some of the asylum seekers two weeks ago and that other responses would be given in the next two months, and that the department would not comment on individual cases.
In addition, we have spoken with other people in Jakarta, including Mrs Raquia Aziz Sanhir who has disclosed to us important information after explaining her situation.
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: We met the delegation and completed all the security, private and medical requirements, and everything was fine. However, we don't know when the answer will come from Australia. We are stuck. We don't know whether we have been accepted or not, so we could be transferred to other countries. This has been the situation of the whole group since November 2002.
PRESENTER: Did you inquire with anyone?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: Yes, we have inquired with the Settlement Department at the UNHCR. They told us that they have been contacting the Australian government, but they have not had any reply. They said to us that the Australian government is difficult.
PRESENTER: Do you know if Abu Quassey has any one in Australia?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: Yes, he has his wife's brother, and his wife is an Iraqi national called Linda.
PRESENTER: Where was Linda during his time in jail?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: I don't know.
PRESENTER: What is the name of his wife's brother who is in Australia?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: I don't know, but we have heard from some people that he came to Australia from Indonesia by sea.
PRESENTER: When was that?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: In 2001. I think it was in the second or the third month. He arrived with about 21 people on a trip organised by Abu Quassey.
PRESENTER: Were they all his relatives?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: No. I don't know. There were many people. Some people here gave us this information.
PRESENTER: Who gave you this information?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: Some refugees. They told us that his wife's brother was on a trip with them.
PRESENTER: So he reached Australia and stayed?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: Yes and he was accepted in Australia.
PRESENTER: Since 2001?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: Yes since 2001. In March.
PRESENTER: You don't know his name?
RAQUIA AZIZ SANHIR: No, by God I don't know his name.
PRESENTER: With this information given to us by Raquia Aziz Sanhir, we spoke with the Department of Immigration. But the latter declined to comment stating that this issue didn't fall under its jurisdiction. The department suggested we call the Federal Police. When we contacted them, the Federal Police noted down our inquiry, yet nobody has got back to us.
While bringing into the spotlight the issue of the group that disembarked SIEVX before it sank, one must ask why did these people leave the boat and what exactly happened? Basam Helmi Jabbar Hammadi, a member of that group, told us the following story.
BASAM HELMI: Before we entered international waters, and after we had just passed the last Indonesian island, the waves became high. We sailed in international waters for 45 minutes while the waves were getting higher. We felt that the boat wouldn't be able to make it. Some of the boat's wood had already started to break and fall apart. In that moment, the captain said that we should go back to a safer place, so we asked to disembark.
PRESENTER: So the captain decided to go back and when he did that you left the boat?
BASAM HELMI: Why did the captain say we should go back? Because the boat wasn't able to take it anymore and there was a real risk that it would crumble under any high wave. Some people started shouting and crying because death was almost inevitable as the waves were becoming higher. Some of them started blaming us for what was happening. They said if it weren't for the presence of the non-believers Sabean Mandaeans on board, the waves wouldn't have got that high. At this point, we decided to get off the boat. So when the captain went back, we decided to leave straightaway. When we reached a calmer spot, God sent us a small fishing boat. When we started shouting and waving, they spotted us and headed our way.
PRESENTER: Where? On the island?
BASAM HELMI: No, we were still in the middle of the sea.
PRESENTER: So while you were in the middle of the sea, you spotted a boat. Did that boat take you to the island?
BASAM HELMI: Yes. When the boat appeared, we waved to it. 23 of us left the old boat. Five other Mandaeans could not leave with us.
BASAM HELMI: Because the other people around us were hysterical and they were pushing us off to the fishing boat. They wanted us to leave in any way so the trip would not be discovered. We had to leave very quickly and we didn't have time to bring the other family with us.
PRESENTER: Did they force you to go to the other boat in the first place?
BASAM HELMI: No.
PRESENTER: But why are you telling me that you couldn't save that family?
BASAM HELMI: As I have told you, the people were very hysterical. When the 23 of us left the boat, that family had to stay. It included an old woman who was overweight. She had with her two children, a boy and a girl, her nephew and another refugee whose name was Atheer . We couldn't bring these people with us because the woman was unconscious. However, two people, Doctor Bassem and Atheer, volunteered to help the woman and her family leave the boat. But when the people pushed the small boat, the captain of the bigger boat had to get his vessel moving. So they couldn't make it.
PRESENTER: OK. What was the small boat doing in international waters?
BASAM HELMI: It was a fishing boat.
PRESENTER: An Indonesian fishing boat?
BASAM HELMI: Yes.
PRESENTER: A fishing boat in the middle of the high seas? How come it was there?
BASAM HELMI: I don't know really, but they are used to fishing there. I don't know. God, the Lord of the World, sent it to us.
PRESENTER: That boat took you to the island?
BASAM HELMI: Yes it took us back, but not to the starting point. It took us to an Island called Lampung (phonetic).
PRESENTER: This Lampung is the last Indonesian Island. Right?
BASAM HELMI: No. It is a part of Sumatra. As for the small boat, we were the ones who waved to it and it was not really close to us. At first, it looked like a small dot. The men took off their shirts and started waving and shouting. With the help of God - the Lord of the World - it headed straight towards us.
PRESENTER: There was no radio or a wireless set on the boat?
BASAM HELMI: No. There was nothing.
PRESENTER: No walkie-talkie?
BASAM HELMI: There was no radio or a wireless set in the boat that sank.
PRESENTER: So there was not even a broken radio there? There was no device in the first place?
BASAM HELMI: There was nothing.
PRESENTER: Did they detain you when you returned?
BASAM HELMI: Yes, they detained us and we ran into a lot of trouble. The small fishing boat that had saved us reported us to the police after we were dropped off. They told them that they had taken us off a bigger boat that was full of people. They also told them that the original boat was organised by smugglers, and that the people on board were Iraqis and other nationals. When the police detained us, they kept us in a mosque in Lampung.
PRESENTER: How many days did you stay in police custody at the mosque?
BASAM HELMI: We stayed in police custody there from the morning till noon.
PRESENTER: Were you sent to Jakarta after that?
BASAM HELMI: After they checked our names, we were given protection documents from Sumatra's immigration in Lampung and we were taken to Jakarta.
PRESENTER: Some said that Abu Quassey's assistant, Khaled, who was also a Sabean (Mandaean), was the one who alerted you to leave the boat so he could save you. Is that true?
BASAM HELMI: If Khaled really wanted to help us, he would not have put us on that boat in the first place. In addition, we lost a family of five. If Khaled really wanted to help us, he should not have taken us and put us on the boat. There is also another thing, Abu Quassey and Khaled could not afford to let us go because each one of us had paid them between $1250 to $2000. We were the highest paying people. As for the others who had families of six or seven people with them, they did not pay more than $100 or $200 per person. We paid the most. We were 28 people. Five of us died and 23 returned.
PRESENTER: So your group alone would have paid about $50,000?
BASAM HELMI: Yes, approximately.
BASAM HELMI: Yes.
PRESENTER: To whom did you pay them?
BASAM HELMI: Some of us gave the money to Khaled while others paid Abu Quassey.
PRESENTER: How long did the transfer to the fishing boat take?
BASAM HELMI: It was pretty quick. I didn't work out the time, but the transfer from the big boat to the smaller one was very fast. We did not even have time to take our luggage.
PRESENTER: Were your bags left on the boat that sank?
BASAM HELMI: We did not have time to take them.
PRESENTER: While you were being transferred from one boat to the other, how was the sea?
BASAM HELMI: We were then in a calm area.
PRESENTER: Was it because you were near an island?
BASAM HELMI: Yes indeed.
PRESENTER: Do you know the name of that island?
BASAM HELMI: No, by God. It was the last island and very far away. I think no people were living there.
PRESENTER: So it was uninhabited?
BASAM HELMI: Yes, uninhabited.
PRESENTER: When did you first hear that the boat had sunk?
BASAM HELMI: We heard about the sinking of the boat when we were still in Lampung, in the mosque where the police had put us. We heard a rumour first that the boat might have sunk.
PRESENTER: From whom did you hear it? Was it from the police for instance?
BASAM HELMI: No, one of the refugees who was with us had a brother in Jakarta. When he contacted him, he said that they had heard that the boat had sunk. They did not believe we were still alive when we contacted them.
PRESENTER: Muntaha Sam Adam also confirmed this story.
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: The waves were very high and the Captain did not want to go ahead, but they forced him. First, he did not budge and stressed that if we moved forward we would sink. But they did not agree with him. They threatened to kill him in front of us. They drew a knife on him.
PRESENTER: Who drew a knife?
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: The people around us.
PRESENTER: On whom did they hold the knife?
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: On the Captain.
MUNTAHA SAM ADAM: They wanted to kill him because he did not wish to proceed. He told them that it was very dangerous and that the boat might not make it. But they insisted.
PRESENTER: However, Mrs Amal Basry, who had to stay for about 20 hours in the ocean waters after the sinking of SIEVX before she was rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat, has a different version of the story as to why this group left the boat before the incident.
AMAL BASRY: They were experienced people as they had tried before to go to New Zealand. Back then, they were captured by the Immigration authorities and returned. Before that, they had a sinking incident while they were travelling from Malaysia. The Immigration authorities also captured them. So they had experience in boats and they knew more than us if a boat could safely take people.
PRESENTER: Some of them told us that their group was persecuted by other passengers and that they were called non-believers and were told that they had to leave…
AMAL BASRY: Let me give you one example about these people. We had been living together in the hotel and we had been on good terms with each other. We were like one family. We used to eat together without any discrimination or differences. We had a very good relationship. However, whenever they would visit the United Nations, they would change. They started claiming that the Muslims were persecuting them and harming them. They would also say that we were not clean. They would say things that did not happen.
PRESENTER: Amal's son, Rami, has also strongly denied the claims of pressure being put on the group that left the boat in the early stages of the trip.
RAMI AKRAM: That is not true. I was up on the deck. No one put pressure on the captain. However, when the engine stopped and the boat started taking water, one of the men, Haidar, who died later and whose nickname was 'the Monster', got angry when he saw the women and children crying while the engine was silent and the boat was taking water. He thought that the engine was deliberately shut down. So he broke the glass and held a piece of it and shouted at the captain to start the motor. The captain showed him that it was not working. Nothing happened after that. He did not hit him.
PRESENTER: Did that happen before the group left the boat?
RAMI AKRAM: No, no, no. That was after the group had left. It happened just one hour before the sinking.
PRESENTER: Did anything else happen before that?
RAMI AKRAM: No. No one held a knife on the Captain.
PRESENTER: Were there any arguments between this group and the rest of the passengers?
RAMI AKRAM: Do you mean with the Sabeans?
PRESENTER: Yes. With those who got off the boat.
RAMI AKRAM: No, nothing happened. A few Sabeans stayed on the boat. If there were any problems with them why didn't the rest leave? A friend of mine was a Sabean. He was with me and died. His name was Atheer. He was related to Khaled. He was his cousin. They had a lot of money so they did not have to continue. They would say, 'If we can't go now, we can try later'.
PRESENTER: Did they ask to leave?
RAMI AKRAM: Yes, they wanted to go back. As soon as the boat stopped, some of them wanted to jump while others thought that if many people wanted to leave, it would have been a big mess, especially if everyone wanted to return. So they tried to balance the numbers and did not want everyone to go back. They said, 'Anybody who wants to go down to the other boat let them go'. However, some others started encouraging people to stay by claiming that the boat was good. They did not want the trip to be aborted. They knew that if everyone wanted to go back, the trip would be foiled. So they decided to stay.
PRESENTER: How did the transfer of passengers from your boat to the other one proceed? How did you spot that boat in the first place?
RAMI AKRAM: The boat was near us as we had been sailing. The waves were very high.
PRESENTER: How come it was so close? Were there other boats?
RAMI AKRAM: No, there wasn't. But the area was close to the coast. We were not outside Indonesia. That group was with us from 6am till 11am. They did not stay with us for more than five hours. When they left I wanted to leave too. My friend Atheer, Khaled's cousin, wanted to leave as well. We started looking for our luggage but we couldn't find it, so we decided to stay. How could we leave if we did not have money or our bags? We would not have clothes. So we decided not to go. I was one of those who would have left at that time if I had found my bag.
PRESENTER: Since you are talking about the bags, they are claiming that they left without their luggage.
RAMI AKRAM: No, that's not true. They all took their luggage. They even delayed us so they could look for their bags.
PRESENTER: How long did the crossing to the other boat take?
RAMI AKRAM: It took about 10 minutes. The boat came. It stopped next to us. We gave them the ropes, we just tied the two boats, they jumped in, some of them took their bags and they were gone.
PRESENTER: Was it difficult? Were there high waves?
RAMI AKRAM: It was not that difficult.
PRESENTER: In any case, and no matter what really happened there, the stories of both Basam Helmi and Rami Akram are very similar in one respect. Rami told us previously in our documentary on the mysteries of SIEVX that high-ranking police officers were present when their boat sailed off. And here is Basam's version - two stories that should be noted in the trial that is currently under way in Cairo.
BASAM HELMI: Before we started sailing, four police generals came to the beach. They were with Abu Quassey...
NOTES (by Marg Hutton, sievx.com)
1. We are grateful to Dr Suhaib Nashi who very generously responded to a request for assistance that was posted on sievx.com and who provided a complete first draft of this transcript.
2. Bashar Lafta was accepted by New Zealand as a refugee. Source: 'List of 23 Survivors who disembarked SIEVX prior to Sinking', compiled by Basam Helmi, 26 October 2003.
3. Shortly after this program went to air, Raquia Aziz Sanhir, Seham Lafta Zebari and her three children, Evon, Evan and Ann were all granted Temporary Protection Visas and are now living in Australia. (Sources: Ghassan Nakhoul to Marg Hutton, 28 October 2003; 'List of 23 Survivors who disembarked SIEVX...', Basam Helmi, 26 October 2003.) As of December 2003, there is a total of seven members from this group of twenty-three living in Australia. [Editor's note: As of November 2011 all 23 of the Mandaean group who departed SIEVX before the sinking are living in Australia. Source: Basam Helmi to Marg Hutton, 6 and 9 November 2011.]
4. This appears to be the boat codenamed 'Gelantipy' by DIMA which was rescued off Christmas Island in March 2001. For further information see: 'Vanstone Blunders On Quassey's Pre-SIEVX People-Smuggling Record', Marg Hutton, 29 April 2004.
5. This appears to be the Al-Zoohairi family. See 'For the sake of the children', Kelly Burke, SMH, 27 October 2001
The audio version of this program can be heard in Arabic at: http://sievx.com/sound_clips/20030910GhassanNakhoul.mp3