Friday had been a brilliant day for our purposes, we were reeling. The place was so porous, people told us so much both wittingly and unwittingly. We’d had a few hours at the Topside Camp. I had met Mohammed. It was our first face to face meeting.
We’d been told the stories of the maltreatment of each boatload at the hands of the Australian Defence Forces. The stories were abundant. I said please write tonight. I’ll never get to speak to you all. These were the stories at last – that Amnesty had – but had remained silent about. The stories that I had hints of through eight months of writing letters in Australia, bits of the stories, they were impossible to piece together but they were what drove me to come here. I knew that there was absolutely no trust from these people with any of the staff, Australian, Afghan, American – none.
With Chubb Security only a few metres away we filmed and I gave them my camera for overnight photo taking. All was well! They said they’d never loaded a film, I had to teach them. They were quick learners.
Until – The following day. Instead of being met by a couple of the staff we were met by Australia’s Consul-General and Cy Winter, the head of the IOM operation there (the camp manager). He must have baulked when Sarah had asked to take a few photos, and my list of names had people who’d lost family members. His suspicions were aroused. Wham! We were hit with every threat they could invent.
Cy said he wasn’t going to have me come here and stir things up. He was attempting to start excursions for detainees around Nauru, and things were sensitive. I said “How could I spoil that?” He threatened me with nonsense about Nauru people objecting to my interference. I said they have not objected to my visit. They are objecting to you obstructing my visit nor the detainees.
Then all of a sudden, my visa became the issue, I’d misused my visa. I had another “purpose”. Sarah said we don’t have visas, we’re here in transit. They couldn’t be told that. I said I’m here to visit, which is what I said on my immigration card – what else am I doing? I’m visiting friends actually, not you. My friends in detention. He, Cy would personally call the Nauruan Police, because they’d be very angry with me and they’d put me in jail and Nauruan jail was unpredictable, scary, and who knows when I’d get out, so there. It was childish.
“Well, I said, to the Consul-General you’d help me wouldn’t you?” “Oh yes” he was having a hard time. He didn’t enjoy threatening us. But Cy Winter did. He said “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” That I’d come along on my “stupid” own, I was an “amateur, an absolute amateur”, “no-one from nowhere”, not from an NGO or any organisation, hoist up on my “stupid little white horse” that I knew absolutely nothing – and so it went on. He was like a bent head-prefect.
I argued. I said I wanted to take photos of family members whose husbands hadn’t seen wives or kids for 2 ½ years, they’d been separated, the husbands are wrecks, the wives are wrecks. “There is a husband with a son who is so sick, with heart problems, leg problems. No wife, no brothers and sisters, that all of their lives are almost unendurable. For them, what they craved was a photo of them.”
I wanted photos too. Faces, to show Australians, these are the people we’re tormenting. I began to cry. Cy Winter continued that he’d be delighted to jail me, if I took one photo. I asked “Why does this worry you, when you’ve invited journalists here?” He roared at me. “That’s a lie, who told you that?” “Russell Skelton, at the Age newspaper.” He expostulated, he blew up, he blazed red, all for the benefit of the Consul-General, I suspected. “I have never invited journalists here, I’m doing serious work here and I’m not having it disrupted by etc. etc.” Later, I checked, “yes he invited me”, said Russell Skelton – “I’ve got him on tape – twice.”
Cy and the Consul-General continued to tell me that I could be breaching my visa, that Nauru would take a dim view of me, I could get “stuck” in jail, so I said to the Consul-General “But, you’d get me out, wouldn’t you?” “Yes, yes, but it can be difficult, THEY can be unpredictable you know ….” They’d seen it happen, people had been held etc. I said I want to visit again today. I have money, goods, clothes, letters and toys to give to people there and they have a right to see me, they’ve written me letters. I wanted the letters and I expected that I be allowed to pick them up.
“Okay, you can have one hour in each camp, you’re going to be escorted by these guys, you are taking up their unpaid time off, and then that’s it.” I said “No, the Afghan ladies want to talk to me, so do the Iraqis” etc. “You’re not here to have meetings” he sneered, and the diatribe recommenced.
I was actually too bored to be distracted into launching into a real debate. I was by now scared too, they’d been successful there. “Okay”, I said. We went to Statehouse, the Iraqi camp, and were assailed by fretful Iraqis at the gates. “Help us, they tried to kill us” etc. “You mean the ADF?” I asked. “They hurt us they beat us.” “But”, I said, you told Amnesty to keep the stories quiet.” “No” they remonstrated. “Well, I was told otherwise. Please write it down, give it to me and I’ll come back tomorrow and get your letters, they won’t let me stay.” They wanted to tell me about the SAS and the Manoora the Australian Navy ship and the degradations they had had meted out on those 23 days on board.
The Iraqi men at the gate had the wild look of people who were experiencing shock. They were restless, moving, ceaselessly talking. I was prevented from talking to them. I was led into a room, Sarah stayed in the other, about five women and one man from my list were produced. I spoke to them through the translator, I gave them their husband’s money, letters, news. Each woman cried, asked me when this would end.
They were young, pretty, polite and defenceless. I should have asked what they wanted me to tell people in Australia? But I didn’t dare. The translators were kind but the hour was over …
On to Topside Camp. We were now greeted by Cy Winter himself. IOM Chief, this time with a smile I didn’t trust. “You want to see what we do here? You want a tour of the camp?” I didn’t want to sacrifice my hour with Mohammed and the others for his tour, which would be managed, that was clear. I didn’t want to be forced to like him, that’s what he did to everyone else. He was issuing new edicts, “C’mon you want your visit. I’m giving it to you!” Was this generous? It was delivered in a truculent, challenging way. “But you have to bring your money with you, you’re going to buy some art. We’ve got an art show, the asylum seekers do a lot of craft and art here, we help them etc.” The PR was flowing now, no threats at all, just honey.
Cy Winter, the ruler of this camp, the Ruler of the Menen Hotel/Palace, where all the workers in this asylum seeker industry worked and hid out, detached from the pain of the place. It was a thriving business, there were more workers, administrators, translators, Chubb Security, psychiatrists, builders, carpenters, technicians, electricians, UNHCR, psychologists, doctors, teachers, cooks, DIMIA staff, APS staff and more, enough to run a country. I could not help but see them as carrion feeders, they were numerous, like parasites in spite of any good intentions they had or told themselves they had.
The camps are a country within a country. Nauru itself did not count to anybody. This new white population were defensive about their work. It was lucrative, builders and other staff told us they earned in excess of $5,000 a week, with perks. The staff is rotated, they are liberal with trips back home to Australia or other countries of origin. There must in excess of 1500 workers to 1500 detainees. They had strict contracts that forbade discussion of Nauru to anyone, and yet they were telling us appalling stories.
These people, well intentioned as they might have set out to be, were now the colonisers of Nauru. The IOM who had run refugee camps of 50,000 and more, were now running prisons on a desert island. And the last thing they wanted to do was recognise that.
Cy Winter lives high above everyone else. He’s American, his living quarters are high up in the hotel. He’s high anyway: about seven feet tall, lean, tanned, almost good-looking with clear, cold eyes. With long hair he would look Christ-like. The thought must have occurred to him. His behaviour to his staff appeared beneficent, but it wasn’t hard to find the condescension and the arrogance at the base of it. His height and his nationality could perhaps be blamed for that. He was a benevolent dictator, spreading largesse that cost him nothing. It was Australia’s.
So here I was in Topside Camp, getting an invitation through bared teeth to view exactly what I wanted to see. I said “No” at least three times. I said I’d seen camps before, which was a lie. I visit Maribyrnong detention centre regularly but only the visitors’ area. But as before, he wouldn’t hear anyone else’s view and he was ordering Mohammed to lead us around. He might as well have had a leash. “Not in there, Mohammed” he’d bark. But we saw, we certainly saw.
The long houses, plastic-sided, closely bedded dormitories that were just structures with roofs, every third bed had a wasted man lying in it, they had no air-conditioning and looked like Changi in plastic. The steel dormitories looked like converted containers, and were very cramped. Three to a cell, I don’t know how they breathed in there. Nowhere at all to be private, except perhaps the toilet block, but the indescribable smell would prevent any lingering there. I couldn’t make myself look in there. Cy’s face was truculent and wary: this was clearly a part he was not happy to show off or discuss. I’d seen photos anyway.
The toilets are off the scale for filthiness, because there is so little water to clean them with, let alone flush, waste is hard to remove. They were advised to install ground toilets, but useless Western flush toilets instead were ordered, a mistake that is, I am told, made in every Australian aid project.
In one sense it was quite a comical visit. Seven foot, Messiah-like Cy Winter followed by Mohammed, followed by me in a sober grey gauzy outfit with pretty blonde Sarah and trails of Afghans of all ages thrusting letters in our hands and bags.
The entire camp is barren with no trees, hotter than is imaginable. It’s a soupy Bain Marie kind of heat. It’s no wonder that the children avoid the newly installed play area. I didn’t see it in use once in my three visits: a child would simply cook. Children were hard to see, although there are some hundreds here, but it could not be safe to let them out of the family quarters.
All babies born in the camp will be stateless, not Nauruan, yet another problem those babies will have to contend with the rest of their lives. Five babies have been born since Tampa. I didn’t see them either, although I saw a baby clinic and a medical clinic. I saw a building site sized generator, without which the camp managed for about six months, which is also unimaginable. The dark, the heat, nearly 1600 people were housed in a hot, dark, unhealthy cage.
Now they have some amenities, a grotesque generator the size of a house, and the place is functional. There was building going on everywhere, more rudimentary structures were being installed but they had the eerie look of permanency. I wondered, as we were marched about, how much happier I might have been if this awful place had looked a bit more provisional, more temporary. This was becoming an efficient warehouse for people, a factory site that produced nothing at all but unhappiness in bulk, an emerging and lucrative industry nonetheless. A business with no product; and profit for some, yet loss and more loss for many.
We were hustled through the kitchen which made reasonable food, but all starchy, sweet and oily. Fruit and fresh vegetables would simply wilt there. I wondered how they had fed anyone, when they’d had four months without power, and how they cope with the still constant power outages.
We saw laundry troughs, only about eight of them. How the detainees washed their sheets, towels and long dresses was hard to say when water is scarce and soap rationed. It’s all much better than it was, I kept being told, and told. Water is rationed, I believe now they are allowed only salty brackish water for two hours daily.
We saw a sad little vegetable or herb garden. Not a tree anywhere; plants don’t really make the attempt. There isn’t really any soil in Nauru, just “pinnacles” and weedlike foliage growing around them like cobwebs. It’s growth, but not serious growth. There is also the problem of the heat. The ground all over the island is so exposed that a perpetual updraft of heated air carries away any moisture and intensifies the already burning heat; it drives off the rain-clouds, we were told.
We were stopped at a building said to be the Afghan Women’s Centre. I was a little dazzled as I entered: here to my left were the first refugee women we had seen. They were in timid little rows, staring at us, as if in fright. Their shawls and head coverings were pale, and so were their faces: such unusual faces, they took my breath away. They looked like medieval Flemish paintings of saints or nuns, oval smooth faces, almond eyes, and pale, tiny delicate features like rows of pretty white mice; and so young.
The translators – UNHCR IOM, I wasn’t sure which – hovered annoyingly in this very crowded hot, hot space. Here was an exhibition of art and craft the detainees had produced. I was astonished by the sewing these women had done, it was beautiful, and in glorious colours. I passed biro drawings of Tampa, decorative calligraphy of poems that pleaded for freedom, for wings, for rescue. Craftwork of great skill and odd aesthetics; paintings mostly done by Iraqis, primitive in style, but each was a protest, a reliving and retelling of boats on fire, of Australian soldiers, of prison. These paintings were neither attractive nor picturesque.
Some Iraqi men collared me, pleading with me to help them. “How long” would they be there? They seemed to look right through me. They knew I had no answer.
I wanted the paintings, I said changing the subject. “Which” they asked? All of them. I’d like to exhibit them all in Sydney and Melbourne. May be auction them. I didn’t know, I wanted to sort it out later. I lost my nerve. I knew that my husband, Burnside, would say “Yes, I’ll have all of them.” I would have loved the effect of that, but I wasn’t here for effects, I was really anxious that I had very little time left, and whilst everyone was slipping me letters, I’d spoken so little to Mohammed who looked resigned as if his life’s work was standing out of people’s way, if he wasn’t assisting them. It hurt me to see this.
I had to get out. I’d bought a few little wonderful things but I again was face to face with the ubiquitous Cy Winter. He was now offering us luxurious bottled water (detainees do not get this, unless there is a shortage) but the food I was given was authentically theirs, detention food. I wouldn’t have been proud of it – sweet, grease with salt.
We found a spot in the shade of some buildings, they gave me my camera back with films. They said with great gravity “You told us you don’t have time, that we should not be polite. We have taken some impolite photos” – their eyes were downcast. I guessed these were of the fetid toilets “better to look after them than smell them I thought” but their delicacy struck me. Even this foul place had not made crude or harsh. I explained that we may not see them again, that the IOM was not happy with us. They knew … There was little point talking, nothing surprised or angered them it seemed, they had no expectations. It was all over, these were young men, dying. Dying of hope and hope disappointed. They were truly gentlemen.
Back at our hotel whilst considering seriously the selection of clothes for the two “parties” we’d been invited to, I was disturbed by Warwick, one of the many $5000 a week Australian tradesmen in our hotel. Warwick was chasing his mates around the hotel with plastic replica guns. As a pretext to get into conversation, I told him that he’d scared me. He was ex-army, he hated asylum seekers. He was prime Aussie bigot, the job suited him perfectly but he was also a boasting fool, so he told me far more than he should have. Even he had guilt and misgivings about what was happening at the camp, and what it all cost Australia, which he said had a “great lifestyle”.
We met another camp employee who wanted a lift to the party, when we got downstairs. On the way there he told us how much he regretted his job. He was nice, this place troubled him. He was attached to a little Iraqi boy, about his son’s age. He told us lots and he was smart, he said he was convinced we were journalists, which I at least could deny. He didn’t care anymore. This would be his last stint in Nauru, he’d seen too much. He was probably the nicest Aussie we met on Nauru.
We entered the party area – outdoor patio, with barbeque and a groaning board of countless salads, a giant blue birthday cake, crates of booze. It felt like an average sized wedding – about 150 people. The catering was for twice that.
We were seeing firsthand how the IOM kept itself: in conspicuous style. So conspicuous that the Nauruans also noticed and resented it. The island has anti-IOM graffiti dotted around. They maintained that they were excluded from the parties and from employment. The only Nauruans at the party were pre-pubescent and teenage dancers, shyly displaying island dancing techniques to over-amplified music. Security men, in stubbies and leis and flower wreaths, watched without appreciation. It was repeated every fortnight: the same party, the same dancing girls, the same Fosters hangovers.
Sarah was taping away with her secret camera. We worked separately, talking to as many people as we could.
Cy Winter, the king himself, was now my host. Why? Why doesn’t he ask us to leave? In contrast to the afternoon just ended, he condescended to talk to us without insults or threats. What he told me was interesting to me: it betrayed his perfect ignorance of Australia, his lack of curiosity. He made platitudes about Nauruans, not one of whom was invited to his dreary bacchanal – I noticed. He was just dull after all.
I moved away from him, leaving him to Sarah. He and the head of Chubb Security were wearing large black earpieces that connected them to the camps. It looked freakish: it was as if they were connected electronically to some organism; it meant that they did their “management” at all hours, and it underscored the Orwellian madness of that.
The party was excellent for information gathering, the “guests” were getting drunker. Anyone seemed to be there, as long as they were white.
The Australian Consul-General chatted with me as if to atone for that morning’s threats. He was kind; he’d been a refugee himself, much earlier in life. He was clearly uncomfortable in this outpost of incivility. Like everyone else Sarah and I were bored.
We had another party to go to. Nauruans had invited us to the “Bondi Club”, their local loud Saturday night venue. It was an enormous dance bar in a rundown tin shed. It wasn’t long before we danced badly with the locals.
But later I was standing in the car-park talking (away from the noise) when a group of Australian builders and “tradies” drove up. They, like everyone, had tough land-rover type vehicles. A drunken Nauruan stepped towards one of the vehicles and punched his fist through the windscreen of the car. The Aussie driver blinked, shattered glass all over him. He looked startled for a moment, but not surprised. The Nauruan shouted “I hate all whites!” Some of the locals tried to talk him away from the scene … he wasn’t finished, he’d just started. By now, the Australians who’d just arrived were saying “It happens every Saturday night. It’s home time”. They advised us to leave. As an imperialist Australian, I knew I wasn’t wanted. Being ashamed of my nationality was a new experience.