SIEV X, the boat that sank

Tony Kevin
July 30, 2008

Viewed at a distance, it looks like a neat child's display of family snapshots or holiday postcards, a symmetrical array of small rectangular pictures, covering most of a gallery wall.

Coming closer, one sees these are paintings of drowning people, heads or bodies suspended in metallic seawater, whose original tropical blue has been darkened and flattened by the spreading oily sheen of diesel fuel from a disintegrating wooden boat.

Their faces gaze out at the viewer, calm faces that do not shriek or even accuse, but just say quietly, this is me a human being, and this is you looking at me as I am dying.

There are 353 images, mostly children and women, for it was mostly children and women who boarded the boat. They are all different, yet all similar. Like the photographs of Khmer Rouge victims at Toul Sleng, their repetition eventually overpowers the emotions, as the viewer begins to gasp for breath.

The Artist speaks hesitantly, searching for the right words to introduce us to her strange imagined world of water and death. This might be the moment of their drowning, she says quietly. Or, they might just be floating at peace, resting, still wanting to stay alive.

They could be waiting for rescuers who never came, or remembering for the last time all the joy in their lives and in those whom they loved, or saying their last prayers to God before giving up the ghost.

What a penance it must have been to paint these many paintings one after the other, what an act of love.

They took so long to die through the long cold hours of night, one by one, quietly, drifting apart and disappearing. Some of the mothers, unencumbered by safety jackets, must in desperate instinct have struggled free from the trap of the women's below-deck area, only to die later in open water.

But many of the children would have been trapped inside the broken capsised hull, bobbing like corks in their securely tied little lifevests (for the smuggler only supplied lifevests for children), crowding the shrinking air space, unable to swim down and out. The inflowing water cruelly buoyed up their little bodies, butting heads into hull planks, until finally there was no more air for them to breathe.

Strange military boats came a few hours later, searchlights played on floating bodies and feebly waving survivors, but there was no rescue till fishermen arrived the next day. By then, only a few still lived.


Let us now visualise a viewing of the Artist's work. And let it clearly be said, these characters exist only in my imagination and their words are mine.

Here first is a group of Parents and Survivors. Six years later, they still grieve. Will they ever stop grieving? We had no other way to come, to reunite our family, Papa had already gone and we were still here. I remember my daughter's last call to me, from a cheap phone shop Daddy, wait for us, we are coming, in a few days we will be with you again, in Australia I remember how she rolled that unfamiliar word around her tongue.

Here are my children's last photos, in their best clothes. We were poor, but we were so proud of our children. We always wanted the best for them. We held hands in the water for hours, keeping each other going, but eventually I lost her grip and she floated away.

A young father says, my baby son could not swim but I could, God gave me strength, and somehow I kept him above water, on my shoulders, for 19 hours. He was one of two children who survived, a boy and a girl. We never knew the name of the boat, it had been scraped off. We had been motoring in the boat for over 30 hours, we were far from land, and we thought we were nearing our destination, Australia. Then the engine and the pumps failed. Or, the captain stopped the boat, to give the engine a rest, he said. It started rocking from side to side in the swell, and then just tipped over. Why did God in his infinite wisdom save me, when he let those whom I loved most die? I wanted to die with them, I should not have lived.

A Senior Australian Official squares his shoulders and says firmly, I can confidently say that despite some scurrilous and defamatory stories going around, nobody from my Agency would have had anything to do with this. We did nothing wrong. We operate under a strict moral code of ethics.

A National Security Expert says quietly, choosing his words carefully, national security imposes hard policy choices. We have to deter violations of the integrity of our borders. There can be hard choices of means. Things can go wrong, there might at times be collateral damage. Maybe this tragedy helped to prevent future larger tragedies, for the boat people stopped coming after this. The truth may never fully be known, what really happened here. Perhaps nobody was to blame.

A Realist says coldly, those people got what they deserved, they had no right to try to come here, it's our country not theirs, and it was their fault to board an obviously overloaded, unseaworthy boat. Stuff happens. Nobody cares about this boat any more. Get over it, much bigger things have happened since. There's a new national agenda now, forget these old stories.

A Historian works away quietly year after year, disciplining emotion, patiently piecing together the jigsaw of incompletely known facts, searching for truth in dark places, knowing that truth in history matters.

A Politician says, please understand this. We're in government now, we are trying to govern well, to rebuild our damaged society and country. Whatever my private views might be, I'm bound by the collective judgement of my Party. We only got in by three per cent, and it's still the same electorate. There's an election only two-and-a-half years away. Howard nearly lost the 1998 election, and Rudd could face a tough next election too.

A Playwright says, I tried to show in my play how it might have been for decent people of loyalty and conscience, working in a chain of command answerable to a group enjoying absolute power and who seemed quite indifferent to the lives of Others. I didn't expect to be so reviled, but I'm proud of what I wrote for the stage.

A Writer struggles with recurring waves of self-doubt. He says, I gave this my all, hoping that my passion, my outrage, would arouse public conscience, that the People would rise up and say to Authority, we demand to know the truth, what really happened here when our nation had a responsibility to protect life? What crimes of callous indifference might have been left to happen? But I was mocked and shunned as a slanderer and fantasist, an obsessive nag who could not let go. By the end, I was boring and irrelevant, same old same old. It's hard to see now if I achieved anything, whether it was worth the stress and moral exhaustion, the happiness-sapping alienation from my society.

A Priest replies consolingly, what you did will not be forgotten. You cared. You and the others put the story of these poor people on the map, you gave their boat a name, and their story will live on quietly now in our libraries and our national memory, until one day when the full truth of this becomes known.

A Memorial Builder stands quietly by. Sometimes, he says softly, it is better to go around prejudice and hatred, not to confront it uselessly head on. We have found a good way to remember this, to honour the memory of these fine people who wanted to become Australians, to show our love for them. Yes, accountability matters, but maybe it has to come slowly? We must take things step by step.


Let us give the last words to The Artist. She says, I cared so much about this, I took part in so many meetings and petitions, but in the end nothing was working, nothing was really taking. So I returned to what I know I do best, to my painting. I hoped these works might convey something of what I feel about this. I know I won't gain sympathy if I harangue people or give them horror. And the time for grand Gericault-style epic painting is past.

But it took me a while to realise the vastness of this project I'd embarked on, to paint 353 people in a lot of little individual pictures. For me, it's no longer about slogans or sending messages. It's saying, here I am witnessing this, it's not fiction, it did happen. It's through the sheer volume of the people I painted, one by one, that I'm hoping to have an effect. *****

Author's Note: This essay was originally inspired by his viewing for the first time, in Canberra in March 2007, of Kate Durham's magnificent cycle of SIEV X paintings, now in the custody of the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland. He also drew on her DVD interview, 'Kate Durham's SIEV X Paintings', which may be seen here.

Tony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He is the author of the book A Certain Maritime Incident, about the fate of the Indonesian fishing boat SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 'unknown'), which sank in international waters on 19 October 2001 with more than 400 asylum seekers on board.

The above essay was the Winner of the 2008 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award. Elsewhere we have photos of the awards presentation, and our media release announcing the awards.


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