Still at Sea

Karina Machado
Who (pp. 54-5)
8 November 2004

Haunted by the loss of their three girls, Sondos Ibrahim and Ahmed Al Zalimi want to rebuild their lives in Australia.

Sometimes, in the deep of night, Sondos Ibrahim forgets that her three little girls are gone. The 29-year-old Iraqi refugee "jumps out of bed, looking for them, wanting to know where they are," says her husband, Ahmed Al Zalimi. Their children died in October 2001 along with 350 other asylum seekers when the fishing boat they were travelling on, Siev X, sank en route to Australia from Indonesia.

"I feel like an empty shell," whispers Ahmed who had been granted refugee status here before the disaster. "They were my life, but my wife's pain makes me forget some of my own."

In the lounge room of the family's western Sydney unit, Sondos's features form a mask of stoic calm as she tends to the children born after she was reunited with Ahmed in March 2002: Mohammad-Ameen, 10 months, bustling about in his walker, and inquisitive Allaa, 21 months.

Oct. 19 marked three years since their big sisters, Eman,8, Zahra, 6, and Fatimah, 5, were drowned in the Indian Ocean.

But "this scar," says Ahmed, 40, "is permanent." The family - awaiting the outcome of a recent interview with immigration officials about their chance for residency - crave stability above all else.

"Being here in Australia," says Sondos, "I feel that I am close to the girls."

The family's tragic tale began with repression and fear in their native Iraq. When Sondos was 5, her father, a political dissident, was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime. At 15, she fled with her mother and five siblings to Iran, as had Ahmed, and the pair wed two years later. But life there proved just as harsh for the couple, who soon had three children to support. Desperate, Ahmed made his way to Indonesia and in 1999 boarded a boat illegally bound for Darwin, where he hoped to be accepted as a refugee and sponsor his family to join him. "We heard that Australia was a land of freedom where even animals have rights," says Ahmed, a teacher of religious history.

Arrested on arrival, he spent most of 1999 at the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia before being declared a refugee, but his temporary protection visa (which the family remains on today) didn't allow his wife and children to join him. Back in Tehran, despite Ahmed's protests, Sondos also turned to people smugglers to try to satisfy her girls' unceasing pleas to see their dad. After flying to Malaysia and sailing to Indonesia, Sondos bought passage to Christmas Island on the woefully overcrowded boat labelled Siev X (which stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel). "It was hot and there was heavy rain," says Sondos, who first thought the rickety 19.5m vessel was a transfer boat. "Some people felt that they were about to suffocate because of the overcrowded conditions." (Estimates are that Siev X was designed to carry the weight of 100 people, rather than the 397 who were onboard.)

Sondos cannot bring herself to discuss what happened to her girls when the boat foundered on the third day, but Ahmed recounts what his wife has told him: "She said, 'I held on to the girls tightly and tried to climb out of the cabin; I found everything closed. I prayed for the children; I kissed the little one. She said, "You kiss me once, I will kiss you a thousand times - we want to see Dad." They kept holding on to my clothes as I felt the pressure of the rising water. They held on until the boat broke and they became separated.'" Sondos, wearing one of the 70 life jackets on board, clung to a piece of flotsam all day and night until two Indonesian fishing boats rescued the 44 survivors. She says: "I didn't really look forward to being rescued."

"They're very brave people," says Tony Kevin, whose book, A Certain Maritime Incident, explores the tragedy. (Kevin, a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, questions the Howard government's knowledge of the boat and its fate, and calls for a judicial inquiry into the sinking.) "Even though they've got very little certainty in their lives," he says, "they just keep going."

The future is shaky and the past is just a nightmare away. Asked for a photo of her daughters, Sondos emerges from her bedroom with a snapshot of three grinning beauties in party dresses. "What happened to us is like a mountain that's sitting on top of our chests," says Ahmed, as tears stream silently down his wife's face. "It's too heavy for us to move." Sondos returns the treasured photo to the pages of her Koran, where she keeps it - safe and sound.

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