Zahra's lullaby

Arnold Zable
October 19, 2011

Faris Shohani's wife and daughter drowned when the SIEV-X sank 10 years ago today. He survived, and their deaths still haunt him.

IT IS 10 years since the boat that came to be known as SIEV-X sank en route to Australia. The 19-metre vessel went down at 3.10pm on October 19, 2001. Crammed to triple its capacity, there were more than 400 asylum seekers on board: 353 drowned, among them 142 women and 146 children, many anxious to rejoin husbands and fathers already living in Australia on temporary protection visas.

Faris Shohani relives the tragedy as if it happened only hours ago. ''It is like a tattoo,'' he says. ''I can never wash it off.''

At any time he is assailed by indelible images. He sees his seven-year-old daughter Zahra and his wife Leyla, slipping from his grasp and disappearing into the ocean. He calls out his daughter's name in his sleep. And he awakes to the same question: "Why? Why don't we know the truth about what happened?'' Advertisement: Story continues below

Faris, 44, lives with Majida, his wife of two years, in a one-bedroom housing commission flat in Carlton. He is one of 45 survivors, and one of seven who received visas to Australia. ''I am sorry,'' he says. ''I do not want to think about it, but what can I do? I am a witness.''

When asked if he would risk the voyage again, he is emphatic. ''Of course! For 21 years I was no one. I did not have a life. We have a saying in Iraq: If someone is wet, he is not afraid of the rain."

Faris's ordeal began in 1980. He was 12 years old, a student in grade 6. His family lived in the city of Wasit, two hours south-east of Baghdad. They were Shiite Kurds who had walked across the border from Iran three generations before, in search of work. One day the immigration police entered his school and ordered Faris out of his classroom. ''I was afraid. The teacher saw my colour was gone.''

He was taken to a police station. ''I saw my whole family, my brothers and sisters, my mother and father. They took us to the Iranian border and left us there. We had no money. No clothes except what we wore. They stole everything.''

For years the family of nine lived in tents or squeezed into small rooms. They were stateless.

''In Iraq they said you are from Iran, you are not one of us. In Iran they said you are from Iraq, you are not one of us. The Kurdish people in the north were Sunni. For 21 years we belonged nowhere. My children were called names in school because they were not Persian. When I see them, it breaks my heart.''

His son Ali was nine and Zahra was seven when, in mid-2001, the family pooled their savings, bought fake passports and flew to Kuala Lumpur. They continued by boat to Indonesia, wading ashore with their children on their shoulders.

Faris sought out people smugglers in Jakarta and in the street markets of Cisarua. Ali left by boat for Australia in August with his grandmother Fadilha and an uncle and aunt. Faris, Leyla and Zahra were among 421 asylum seekers who were taken by bus to a beach in southern Sumatra in the early hours of October 18 and ferried to a boat organised by Egyptian-born smuggler Abu Quassey. While Faris was suspicious of him, Zahra called him uncle. She was overjoyed that she would soon be reunited with her brother Ali in Australia.

On a bookshelf in Faris's living room is a wooden model of a schooner, carved in Indonesia. Faris uses it to illustrate the conditions on the fragile boat. The women and children were crammed in the lower and upper decks. The men sat in the front of the boat or on the roof of the cabin. Others stood clinging to the rails. It rained incessantly, the children were sick, the passengers frightened. After 30 harrowing hours at sea, the vessel sank in international waters, south of the Sunda Strait.

It was mayhem in the water. Children desperately clung to adults. Zahra and Leyla lost their hold on Faris. Leyla screamed at her husband not to come to her but to look for Zahra. He tried desperately to find her, followed her ''like a fish''. Zahra was wearing a lifejacket, tossed by the waves. Appearing. Disappearing. Finally, vanishing.

As night fell, Faris saw two large boats and a smaller vessel darting between them. Searchlights scanned the water. He saw many survivors clinging to dead bodies and bits of debris. They swam towards the boats screaming for help, but the boats abandoned them. ''Why, my brother Arnold?'' Faris asks. ''Why?''

There are two saving graces that keep Faris afloat 10 years later. One is his surviving son Ali. They were reunited in the middle of 2002 when Faris arrived in Melbourne, nine months after the tragedy. Ali is now studying for his year 12 exams and lives with his grandmother. Faris sees him often. And there is his wife Majida. She is a constant presence. It is Majida who bears witness to Faris's suffering, who hears him screaming at night and singing Zahra a lullaby in his sleep.

Majida too is a Shiite Kurd whose ancestors migrated from Iran to Iraq. Majida was 14 years old when in 1982 Saddam Hussein's police came for her family in Baghdad. They were ordered out of their house.

''We were detained in a hall crowded with Kurdish people. In the morning we were taken by buses and dumped at night near the Iranian border.''

The families walked from first light in mountainous terrain until they encountered Iranian soldiers after nightfall. Two of Majida's brothers, aged 16 and 22, were imprisoned in Baghdad.

Her father did not care about the loss of his home and possessions, his truck-hire business. For 23 years he worried only for his two sons in jail. He had to wait until 2005, after the fall of Saddam, to learn of their fate. They were killed in prison in 1990. When he heard the news he had a heart attack. He died a broken man a year later.

Tired of their decades of stateless life in Iran, of being called names and sworn at in the streets, Majida, a brother and two of her sisters had left for Indonesia in 2000. Their boat made it to Darwin. Majida spent four months in the Port Hedland detention centre before finally settling in Sydney.

''This is why I understand Faris,'' she says. ''I knew about him and about SIEV-X before I met him. When he came to me in Sydney and asked me to marry him, he told me everything. He said he was always sick and worried. He showed me his tablets. He told me he cannot sleep at night, and that sometimes he did not want to talk to anyone. I told him, no worries, I want to be with you. I could see he was a kind and honest man."

Whenever I visit them, Majida fills the living room table with nuts, her home-baked cakes and savouries. As we chat Faris's trauma is palpable. He is often elsewhere. His gaze is haunted. He recalls new details of the SIEV-X's sinking at any time. ''When the three boats left us,'' he says abruptly, as if returning from the ocean, ''100 per cent of my hope was gone.''

Something broke inside him. He no longer cared. It was late at night. He put his lifejacket under his head as a pillow, lay back, folded his hands on his chest and fell asleep on the ocean. He awoke to lightning and rain. He started yelling. ''Where are the people? Where are the people?'' He didn't see anybody. ''I was alone. I was with the winds. I was with three dead bodies - a teenage boy and girl, and a young boy."

THE bodies stayed by his side and rode the waves with him. He fell asleep again and awoke to a rising sun. The bodies were still beside him. In the distance he saw three Indonesian fishing boats. They were too far away, he thought, and he no longer trusted anyone. He suddenly realised he was hungry and thirsty. He looked about and saw a black plastic bag.

He swam to it. Inside he found a bottle of water, three red apples and two packets of biscuits. ''I started with the water and drank all of it. Then I ate the apples. The biscuits I put in my trousers for later.''

He still has those trousers. They are in the flat along with the shirt he was wearing then.

''I saw a whale. I thought, Faris you are finished now. It dived and I did not see it again.''

Faris headed for the fishing boats. ''I saw something amazing. When I came closer to the boats, the three bodies separated from me. They went one way and I went the other to the boats. The fishermen threw down a rope and pulled me up. They gave me a shower. They gave me tea. They hugged me. They were crying. They were sitting beside me. I showed them photos of my wife and daughter.''

The fishermen told Faris they had seen floating luggage, followed the trail and discovered him. They wanted to return to Jakarta. Faris pleaded with them to keep searching. He was the first of the 45 people who were saved.

''My brother Arnold, why?'' Faris asks again. He is obsessed by the unanswered questions. ''Why didn't the three boats we saw at night rescue us? Why did Abu Quassey put us on this boat? He knew it wasn't safe. He knew the weather was no good. He knew the engine was old. Why wasn't Abu Quassey brought to trial in Australia but sent to Egypt where he served a light sentence?'' The questions allow him no rest.

Faris was very pleased when, in September 2002, Senator John Faulkner called for a full judicial inquiry into the tragedy and the many disturbing questions about it, most notably the possibility that Australian and Indonesian authorities may have been involved in covert disruption activities on boats, including SIEV-X, before they set out on their voyages.

Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X set sail in the lead-up to the 2001 federal election, and just days after prime minister John Howard's people smuggling taskforce had discussed ''beefing up'' people smuggling disruption activity. To this day questions remain about the nature or extent of this ''activity'', what activities were acceptable or sanctioned, whether there were accountability measures, and whether lives were put at risk.

It is a mystery that tortures many survivors. For years Faris was in regular phone contact with fellow survivors in Norway, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand and Canada. "We are like brothers and sisters," says Faris.

They all wanted to know why SIEV-X was so unseaworthy and why the three unidentified boats deserted them. '''You are in Australia,' they would say. 'You are closer. You should know more than us.'''

In a desperate attempt to find out for himself, Faris travelled to Jakarta in 2008. ''My heart told me to go,'' he says. He visited old haunts. He searched for the fishermen who saved him. ''I wanted to take them presents. Flowers. A cake. To say thank you, but no one could help me. It was like a big secret.''

The survivors who were accepted as refugees by other countries were immediately granted permanent residency in recognition of their trauma. In a cruel twist, instead of the certainty they craved after the tragedy, the seven Australian-based survivors remained on temporary visas.

''I expected something like this,''' says Faris. ''When the Australian immigration told me, I thought, so what, this is not new. This is my life.''

When he finally received his Australian citizenship, Faris was ecstatic. ''I was temporary. I was nothing. Hopeless. Now Australia is my mother. When I meet new people from Iraq I tell them I love Australia. The people are kind to me.''

Faris has just two possessions of his daughter Zahra - a small doll and a handbag. She had left them in Jakarta, and he retrieved them after the sinking of SIEV-X. It is all he has to remember her by, apart from the lullaby he sings to her in his sleep.

Majida has learnt it. She recites it in Arabic and translates it: ''Don't cry, your mum is coming back soon. She's bringing you toys, a bag full of toys. One of the toys is a duck, and it goes quack, quack, quack.''

Faris lights up at his daughter's memory. ''Zahra learnt this song from an Egyptian man, Ibrahim, when we waited for the boat in Jakarta,'' he says. ''He had a four-year-old daughter, Sara. Then my Zahra taught it to me. She tickled my stomach whenever she said 'quack, quack, quack'.''

For a moment the memory returns him to what once was. Then he sags back in his seat. His tortured gaze returns.

''I feel hot all the time. Zahra, Leyla, the Egyptian man, his daughter Sara, 353 good people - all gone. And the boats didn't rescue us. My brother Arnold, why?''

Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer. He tells the story of SIEV-X survivor Amal Basry in his latest book Violin Lessons (Text) $29.95


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