The SIEV X 'Landmark of Conscience' is born

by Steve Biddulph
22 October 2005

Into the whisper quiet Canberrra City Uniting Church there came a slow tidal flow of people, noise, news cameras and journalists, senators rubbing shoulders with people in headscarfs, refugee children and babies running amongst the legs and feet, and musicians setting up amps and guitars. The pews filled with a most unchurchish crowd, and there was a moment of waiting.

Jon Stanhope the ACT Chief Minister opened the evening, and right away we entered some kind of altered space. He made passing remarks about his recent national prominence for making public the new terror laws, and the audience erupted. They were demure, mostly over forty years old, but they wouldn’t stop clapping, and Jon Stanhope, pleased but somewhat embarrassed, eventually had to wave them to stop. Message received.

The Bloody McKennas, youthful musicians who had come from Brisbane just that day to sing their powerful anthem Time and Tide, were clearly affected by the moment, as they sang the bandmembers and some in the audience were already blinking back tears.

The mood of earlier SIEVX events was changing to resolve, you could feel it in the room. Amal Basry, the indomitable Iraqi woman survivor, told the story of the people on the boat. By way of answer, the Chorus of Women - a unique choir that could probably call down brimstone from the skies, sang hauntingly in apology straight to the faces of the five survivors and their family members, who had come from all over Australia to be there. Elders of the Islamic community nodded in gruff approval.

Co-ordinator Beth Gibbings, who had worked three years for this moment, then brought out of the shadows a huge computer altered image of the lakeshore in Canberra, on which was the planned memorial structure. The audience literally gasped. As someone prone to thinking the worst, I assumed it was not positive. Beth and I spoke hesitantly about the procession of white poles, each panelled with community art from communities all over the country, each honouring a single parent or child from SievX. The poles emerge from the water, suddenly diverge to show the outline of the boat, exactly in its 19.5 by 4 metre dimensions, then rejoin and continue to snake over the hills for almost 200 metres. 353 people is a lot of people.

We shouldn’t have worried, again the applause spoke for itself. When the evening ended, senators, members of the ACT assembly, officials from museums and planning authorities, and most importantly the refugees themselves, all expressed the same view. It's beautiful. It's fitting. You must build it.

The confusing flurry of inaccurate news items about it 'not being allowed to be built' have dissolved. The concept has registered. A 'Landmark of Conscience' -is more than a memorial - it's a way for church groups, RAR groups, school students, refugees themselves and notable artists, all to show their outrage and their remorse that as a country we let this, and all the terrible mistreatment of people in the last four years, to happen at all. Graceful white poles inlaid with beautiful community art will flow across the country to Canberra next year, to be stood up in remembrance.

The SIEVX memorial has evolved to be a statement of intent, that this country will grow, up, it will face its horrible mistakes squarely, and take responsibility. For this is the only way things can change.

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