Steve Biddulph

on Saturday, 12 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Action Motivated Leadership

Steve Biddulph
Author and Psychologist Founder of the SievX Memorial Project
Steve Biddulph


Siev X Memorial Project 

On October 18th 2001, a fishing boat equipped to carry a hundred people, set sail from Lampong in Indonesia, watched over by armed police. The boat was 19 metres long. On board were crammed over 400  refugees – the great majority of them mothers and young children, from Iraq and Afghanistan. In some cases their husbands or fathers were already in Australia in detention and unable to rejoin them. These women and children had little choice but to board the vessel, they could not stay where they were, and they could not go back where they came from. They were told that the vessel would take them to a larger ship out over the horizon.  policemen with guns made sure that everyone got on board, and a police vessel "escorted" the heavily laden boat as it left the harbour. The Siev X, as the boat came to be called, after a hellish night of sailing in terrible weather, foundered and sank in international waters, with the deaths of 156 children, 152 women, and 65 men. There were 42 survivors, including 27 year old mother Sondos Ismael, whose three daughters aged 6, 4 and 2 were drowned, and who was not permitted by Australian authorities to join her husband in Australia until seven months later. Sondos and seven others are now on temporary visas in Australia.  

Survivors interviewed by UN staff in Indonesiatold of seeing vessels in the middle of the night, which shone powerful spotlights on them, but then sailed away. The survivors were picked up after 22 hours in the water, during which many more had drowned, by fishing boats. Only four children survived, one a boy whose father managed to keep him afloat. In reply to questions in Parliament by Senator Bob Brown, it was found that Australian Federal Police have a full list of names of those who died but are unwilling at this stage to release it. 

The Siev X National Memorial Project was begun by Steve Biddulph, author and psychologist, and Rod Horsfield, minister at Pilgrim Uniting Church Launceston.  It is supported by several organisations working jointly - including Rural Australians for Refugees, and the Uniting Church in Australia.  Steve told an SBS interview “The political, and the justice aspects of this, are important, but that is not our job. What we are doing with this memorial, is saying - these lives mattered. And every Australian should know about these terrible events. We need to make sure nothing like it ever happens again."


Interview with Steve Biddulph

How did you come to be involved with the Siev X Project?

As a child my parents used to tell me about the war, and how the Germans were not bad people but their government, the Nazis, had made them do bad things. Even at six or seven, being a worrying kind of child, I used to worry - what if our government did bad things ? What could we do? Many of your readers will know I have been writing about and caring about parents and young children for thirty years. My books are in a million homes in Australia and I talk to parents all over the world.

The refugee crisis, with young desperate families being locked away in very harsh conditions caused me huge disquiet, as a psychologist I had access to reports on the abuse and mistreatment of families in detention that made me ashamed to be Australian. For the next three years, 2001 - 2004 I dedicated all funds from my worldwide lecturing to helping campaign for more compassionate treatment, and materially helping improve things for refugee families here and overseas. Because the SIEVX sinking was the worst point in this dark time, I felt as an Australian I wanted to do something to remember these people, their courage and their sacrifice, and founded the memorial project with friends in the Uniting Church, and Rural Australians for Refugees.

What is the Siev X Story about?

The Siev X sinking was the biggest maritime disaster in our region since World War Two. 353 lives were lost, 288 of them were women and children. A group of Australians have worked for three years towards building a 
memorial to the Siev X families, on the lakeshore in Canberra . Our goal is to say - these lives mattered. Had this been a Qantas airliner, flying from Los Angeles and crashing a hundred miles off Sydney , think of the grief, investigations and efforts made to honour and remember. So why not for the victims of SievX ?

What has been done so far ?

In 2003 a group formed from Uniting Church and Rural Australians for Refugees members. In 2004 we wrote to every secondary school in Australia . Around 200 schools enrolled in the project, and we sent educational materials including the video documentary Untold Tragedy, which we had made to tell the story of the voyage. Art classes around Australia worked on designs for a lakeside memorial, and we received hundreds of beautiful and original designs. This collection has been exhibited in Sydney , Melbourne and now Canberra . Survivors of the voyage, and bereaved families have responded warmly to the exhibits. A design that especially caught the eye of the public, by a Brisbane  boy Mitchell Donaldson, uses poles outlining the shape and size of the vessel. This design has been adapted to suit the lakeside site.

Will the Memorial be allowed to be built ?

This is the question everyone asks us. We can see no possible objection to this being built. Designers and landscape and planning experts have helped us from the inception, and we have been in dialogue with ACT authorities for two years. The biggest obstacle is the guideline that memorials be for events that have taken place more than ten years ago. A Spanish Civil War memorial has only just been completed ! We feel that in this case, there is a different kind of significance. People normally build memorials to something they want to remember. This is something though that most of Australia either does not know about, or would rather forget. The memorial is a positive, healing symbol that faces our dark side as a nation, our tendency to retreat into greed and fear, and the terrible consequences of this. It is needed now to reaffirm our better values. Facing Siev X 
and our role in it can help us to grow up as a nation.

Why are you advocating that Australians should be interested in the Siev X Project?

The Siev X refugees were vulnerable people, who were knocking at our door for help. In many cases, the husbands of these families had come on ahead, to make sure it was safe. To their shock it was not, they were put into detention centres, in very harsh conditions, then put on temporary visas which prevented their re-uniting with their families. We did not think about how their families would survive without support in Indonesia , sometimes waiting for years.

The Siev X was overloaded far beyond its capacity to sail safely. Families were prevented from leaving at gunpoint when they became frightened. Armed police watched it embark. There are huge unanswered questions about the SievX. We profoundly hope that Australia did not contribute in other ways to causing these events.

We cannot bring back these precious lives. We can only show our remorse that it happened, and our resolve that by telling the story we can re-unite Australia in a wish to do better.

What are your plans for the Memorial ?

The memorial will consist of a procession of painted poles, snaking across the landscape from the waters edge. Each pole will represent a person who died. A few metres from the shore, the line of poles will divide to form the shape of the actual vessel, and its exact size - 19.5 metres long. Each pole will be decorated by a community, a school art class, an individual student, or a well known Australian artist. The poles will be brought to Canberra and assembled for the fifth anniversary event in 2006. We will continue to work with planning authorities to have the memorial made permanent. Visiting schools, tourists, and Australians will one day be able to see its 
haunting shape, experience the sheer number of lost lives, and stand in the outline of the tiny 19 metre vessel. The SievX - and our response to it - will find its place in Australia ’s collective memory, and we will may feel a little more proud of our country again.

How can Australians help you with your Project?

People can buy a copy of the video Untold Tragedy. This short video sums up the events of the SievX voyage, through the life story of one of its passengers, and is an ideal tool to show why people were on the boat, the horrific events including the warships that watched the people drown, and some of the unanswered questions. The video only costs $15 posted, and all proceeds go directly to the survivors in Australia, all seven of whom are still struggling to make a life, and need urgent help. Send $15 made out to Families of SievX to PO Box 62, Evandale TAS 7212.

You can also join our mailing list and if you would like to be involved in Making the Memorial, helping to paint or decorate the 353 elements that will remember each individual person who died, let us know at">


Other Siev X Links:

The site is proudly independent, not connected with any political party, organisation or other individual. While many people are active on the issues, both independently and within political parties, and some of their writing is archived here, no-one speaks for or represents except its owner, Marg Hutton

A Certain Maritime Incident, book on the SievX story by Tony Kevin

Tony Kevin was the Australian ambassador to Cambodia. He was the first person to publicly ask questions about Australia’s role in the tragedy, and presented damning evidence to the Senate Enquiry into the Children Overboard affair when it briefly focussed on SievX. Now he dedicates himself full time to investigating and seeking justice for those who died.

His book, A Certain Maritime Incident was the winner of the 2005 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW Award; Short-listed for the 2005 Age Book of the Year non-fiction award info@sievxmemorial