Amal Basry died five minutes after her friend Stephen Thomas and I left her hospital room.
Only two weeks before that, Amal had engineered an elaborate Iraqi feast for us. She’d prepared it, hobbling painfully on a crumbled hip, broken through by her bone cancer. Pain alone would never defeat her. Her health didn’t interest her. Everything else did.
When I first met her, I met a small almost spherical woman. She had the effervescence of a bubble, she was expecting to meet a martyr, a victim, the little bubble lady kept talking still buoyant, still keeping her head above water. It was easy to see what a lively, fun woman she was used to being.
I got another glimpse of that later, once in hospital although jaundiced she was almost shockingly beautiful without her hijab. She’d lost a little weight, her hair tumbled around her and she looked just ravishing. No wonder, I thought, these Arab beauties must cover themselves, they truly are too tempting.
Amal was a good and rapid storyteller. I asked her what it was like bobbing for 22 hours in those turquoise holiday waters of the Pacific, and she told me of the mountainous waves raising her into the light and then plunging her deep into watery valleys. She told me that the people prayed and yelled to each other, urgently at first and then less and less as they drifted and died. The swish of fish and the mysterious appearance and disappearance of ships and their lights. And then about the corpse of a woman that she clutched as a life raft. Amal said she prayed for the unknown lady. “Forgive me, my dear” she said.
Amal described what I tried to paint, 353 individuals, mostly women and children, sinking without trace. I’ve still not exorcised those images, I’ve painted at least 300 faces in that cool and blameless water, but I have to go on.
The Government’s good fortune was that there were no bodies. Even the live ones were erased off to Sweden. Only a few were kept for about seven months in a pound in Indonesia. Eventually, they were grudgingly permitted to join their families in Australia.
Amal was the only survivor who was prepared to speak about her ordeal. Grief and a “well founded fear” of DIMIA, prevented the others speaking publicly. The world’s continuing indifference had also closed those doors.
Amal always referred to the sinking of the SIEV X as the “accident” but the unpalatable truth may be that it kind of wasn’t. The Navy could so easily have saved them, no-one can explain adequately why they did not. The SIEV X certainly “sent the message”. The boats stopped.
Amal’s dreams were of saving her children, again and again she found she had more to do for them. For activists like me, she was happy to be an instrument in the tool kit, use my life, have it all, use my story, tell it, if it helps.
It did help, Amal, we are really grateful. Stephen Thomas is making a beautiful film about you, we’ll all support him in it.