Nauru – Getting The Stories, Getting Arrested And Getting Out

I was trembling as our plane landed on Nauru island. Anxious, alone in my seat, trying to activate the secret camera I was wearing, attaching batteries, mechanically incompetent, afraid I would disappoint Sarah my BBC ally, by not getting on film our potentially unpleasant encounter at the Immigration desk. Our idea was that if we were denied entry beyond this point at least we’d be able to demonstrate this.

In Australia, I’d been refused a Nauru visa several times. Now we were trying to enter another way. We’d made a long, circuitous but legal trip via New Zealand and a great many Pacific Islands.

I’d caused puzzlement and was questioned at the departure desk in Fiji. “Visiting friends (during a Pacific Island tour)” I’d said. This seemed satisfactory. We’d been let on board. Now we were at our last hurdle. I noticed my bags were x-rayed. No-one else’s were.

Travelling inconspicuously to Nauru was not really possible. Tall Sarah, blonde and irresistible was drawing attention, as was her British accent. She had reached the Immigration counter a length ahead of me.

Was my hidden camera actually filming? I was dizzy with fear, heat and the outlandishness of it all. My turn. “Where are you staying in Nauru?” The critical question. No visitors get into Nauru without proof of a hotel booking. The Australian Government has block booked the two hotels until mid 2003. The result of this is no one else gets a visa. Our “conspirators” had to make bookings for us however.

Why then the official wanted to know had I given him the name of a hotel in Kiribati? I was totally flustered. “I’m not good on names ….” Actually the hotel names were similar. The Oden and the Odneai. I tried to recall which was the Nauru one. But the man behind the desk was waving me on, too hot or too bored to test me further.

My feelings of incompetence were magnified even more when we later discovered that my tense struggle with the camera hadn’t succeeded in my recording anything. I hadn’t even managed to turn it on! No one who knows me well would have found this surprising, but I was embarrassed that Sarah was getting my measure rather too fast.

We got to our hotel to find Sarah was expected, not me. “You’ll find a room won’t you” I coaxed. The Nauruan staff looked as lost as I felt.

They found one. On the fourth floor, no lift and a fairly sad beach view. Two buckets of water in the shower stall. None in the taps. The power points were dead. Then the realisation “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!” as Baby Bear turned down the grimy, creased sheets on the two tiny beds. Then the power came on. Good, I thought – that should kill the smell from the mini-refrigerator in the corner.

I felt we ought to get to Topside Camp immediately and be seen by the detainees. Many were Afghan asylum seekers I’d been writing to. One, Mohammed Mehdi, a young Hazara man I’ve been trying to sponsor. I thought if they see I am here in Nauru they could complain to the UNHCR if I was prevented from visiting them.

[Topside and Statehouse are the names of the two camps on Nauru. I aimed to see the Iraqis and some Iranians who I believed to be imprisoned in Statehouse the next day.]

One of our “contacts” drove us to Topside. I wanted us to be left there with no transport back to the hotel. That would mean that “management” would have to deal with us one way or another.

We drove past dry expanses of white rock – “pinnacles” they call them. A few bits of limp foliage here and there, but mostly rubbish on either side. There didn’t appear to be a rubbish dump. This was a rubbish road; rubbish that smelled evil next to rubbish on fire. An interval of pinnacle rock, some sick looking foliage … another fire … another smelly stack. One dump after another all the way to the ultimate dump, Topside Camp, now the unhappy home of the Hazara, the despised indigenes of Afghanistan.

Sarah was looking apprehensive. I felt exhilarated. Sarah had a secret camera strapped to her. We’d decided camera operation wasn’t in my field! I was armed with my big white folio of letters, documents, recommendations, envelopes of cash and gifts, books and Farsi/English dictionaries.

Our “contact” drove us straight past two dazed looking APS sentries. I waved and smiled. At the next sentry box we stopped and Sarah and I got out. As the car drove off I pushed through the boom gates busily greeting and smiling. “Hello everybody! Can you tell my friend Mohammed Mehdi that I’m here? Hello! Hello! Hello!”

The guard in the sentry box was now very alert, hotly describing the scene to his walkie-talkie. The walkie-talkie must have been barking back instructions, because now the guard was trying to instruct me. “Move outside the fence, now!”

But I behaved as if this was a garden party, not a trespass. “Nice to meet you! I’ve come a long way. Do you know Mohammed Mehdi?” Tra La La! Toys and gifts spilling from our bags. Our charm was relentless.

But now a number of guards herded us back to the first sentry box we’d passed, out of sight of the detainees, small groups of whom were pushing their way past barriers further inside the camp. Good! We were attracting attention. That was what I wanted and the management apparently didn’t!

One of the guards told us a car would come to take us back to the HQ of the International Organisation for Migration where our right to visit the camps would be decided. We waited and waited in the incredible heat. Outwardly calm, we chatted to the guards. They were wary, irritated. We, ever-friendly.

Finally a 4-wheel-drive came to carry us off the site. We were surrounded by Chubb Security personnel, Australian Protective Services officers and IOM staff. As Sarah and I were driven off by our minders – the IOM staff who came with us – I could see the increasing crowd of detainees watching out for us through the barred fence.

I was pleased. My plan had worked. Now we would meet “management” at the Hotel Menen, where the IOM and all the other organisations – UNHCR, Chubb Security, DIMIA and APS lived, worked or just sat. (I couldn’t blame them for that entirely. This was not a country for work. It was far too hot.)

At the hotel we were confronted by members of the staff of IOM. The International Organisation for Migration, employed by our Government. Drawn from many nations, they were young, cheerful and numerous. (For them this was a career offering travel, adventure and professional advancement.)

Sarah and I said how delighted we were to meet them. They were cordial but stunned. Like the guards at Topside Camp they were slowly trying to formulate a plan. Flattering remarks were made about the “kindness” of our visit, even by the chief, a tall guy, American, Cy Winter.

Here, in the luxury of the hotel, which was their office, miles from the camps, in waterfront rooms with air-conditioning, it was possible to imagine they were running some other form of smart business, not detention centres.

By this time it was mid-day on Friday. A group of them said they were going swimming. Even when they left there were still so many. And more staff outside: builders, electricians, technicians, IOM drivers, UNHCR drivers ….

This hotel was a newly founded city, or the court of some corrupted castle. From then on I only ever thought of it as Menen Palace, with lofty Cy Winter as its monarch. His subjects – his associates and staff were the carrion feeders of the Pacific.

Here was my introduction to the growth industry of this new century – people detention.

Even the unskilled can make a buck if they are prepared to go to a site that is harsh and hard to get to. Nauru fits the bill, and at bargain rates. It is too poor to refuse.

The IOM, skilled and experienced in running refugee centres, are now eager entrants into the business of running detention camps. New players in a squalid field.


A Mr Maher and Mr Shamel Mahmoudi, were the two interpreters assigned to us by the IOM and they with a few others then took us back to Topside Camp. I had said I was confident that we wouldn’t need them as Mohammed Mehdi, the young man I was trying to sponsor into Australia had good enough English. That was accepted because they knew him too.

Almost all at once Mohammed was in front of me, and so were a swarm of others I’d been writing to. I knew them only by their letters and yet here they were. What was strange about it was how normal it felt.

Mohammed was vaguely recognisable from the television news item I’d seen the year before. He struck me as very calm, intelligent and helpful to all the people that quickly surrounded us. We were ushered into a room. Chubb Security paced up and down in front of a large window, dispersing groups of detainees, who were attempting to join our meeting. It was depressing to witness.

As we talked, Sarah was secretly filming. The large window made us very anxious about being observed by the guards. I asked the Afghanis to write down the stories of their mistreatment at sea, to write them overnight in English or in Persian Dari. I wanted the stories they weren’t prepared to put in the mail. They were too afraid. They’d been told to remain silent.

I asked them if they could take photos. They were enthusiastic. But when I gave them my stills camera, with some films I had to show them how to load film. “I can collect the letters and the camera tomorrow.” The Chubb guards outside our meeting room were starting to talk harshly to the detainees gathering around. I knew the guards wanted us to leave, and the detainees didn’t. But on balance the least provocative thing to do was to leave gracefully if we wanted to visit again tomorrow and we did. The IOM translators reappeared and ferried us back to our hotel.

Schizophrenic Saturday And Party Animals Of Two Varieties

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 of the maltreatment of each boatload at the hands of the Australian Defence Forces. So many stories. I said please write them down tonight. I’ll never get to speak to you all. At last! These were the stories I wanted – the same as those that Amnesty International had collected and translated in London.

I had read some of them but Amnesty would not release them, as they said they were held in trust. Also some detainees had been told not to speak of their mistreatment as it would affect their applications, making them appear ungrateful to Australians who had rescued them.

I think Amnesty did not want their entreaties to Mr Ruddock to suffer either, and I think it was felt that both the Australian public and the Minister would be indignant if their Defence Forces were chastised. Since East Timor the Defence Forces had earned the kind of respect they hadn’t had for a long time.

Now, these were the stories that I had had hints of through eight months of writing and receiving letters in Australia. Bits of stories that had been impossible to piece together and that had driven me to come here. I realised that there was absolutely no trust from these people in any of the staff. Australian, American, Afghan. None.

And with Chubb Security only a few metres away, we had filmed. All was going well!

Until the following day.

Instead of being met by a couple of staff members, we were met by the Australian Consul General and Cy Winter, the head of the IOM operation. He must have baulked when Sarah had asked if she could take a few photos, and the list of names I’d presented included people who had lost family members. His suspicions aroused. Wham! Now 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 had been attempting to start excursion tours around Nauru for the detainees. Things were very sensitive. “How could I spoil that?” I asked him. Then he threatened me with nonsense about how the Nauruan people were objecting to my interference. I said they have not objected to my visit, nor have the detainees. They are objecting to you obstructing my meetings with detainees.

Then my visa became the issue. I was accused of misuse of my visa. I had come with “another purpose”. Sarah said we don’t have visas. We’re here in transit. But I said “I’m here to visit, which is what I put on my immigration card. What else am I doing? I’m visiting my friends. My friends in detention. Not you.” Cy then said he would personally call the Nauruan Police. They’d be very angry with me and they would put me in jail and Nauruan jail was unpredictable, “scary”. Who knows when I would get out? I could get “stuck” there. It was childish. 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 ….” He’d seen it happen. People had been held, etc. etc.

The Consul General was having a hard time. He didn’t enjoy threatening us but Cy Winter did. Cy told me “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”, a “no-one from nowhere”. I knew absolutely nothing. And so it went on.

I said I wanted to take photos for family members for husbands who hadn’t seen their wives or kids for two and a half years. “The husbands are wrecks. The wives are wrecks! There is a man with a son who is so sick, with heart problems, leg problems. No wife. No brothers or sisters. Their lives are almost unendurable.” All they craved was a photo.

I wanted photos too, I said. To show Australians the faces of the tormented. I began to cry. Cy Winter then proceeded to tell me that he’d be delighted to jail me if I took so much as one photo. I asked him “Why does this worry you, when you have actually invited journalists here?” He roared. “That’s a lie! Who told you that?” “Russell Skelton, from 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 ….” etc. etc. (Later I checked. “Yes, he invited me”, said Russell Skelton of “The Age”. “Twice. I’ve got him on tape.” Cy Winter had lied.)

I told him “I want to visit again today. I have money, goods, clothes, letters and toys to give to people. They have a right to see me. They have written me letters” (letters I had asked them to write) and I expected that I would be allowed to collect them.

“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!”

“No” I said. The Afghani ladies want to talk to me. So do the Iraqis.” “You’re not here to hold meetings” he sneered and the diatribe recommenced.

I was actually too afraid that we were losing time to be distracted into a real debate. And I was scared now. Cy and the Consul had been successful there. “Okay” I said.

We went first to Statehouse, the Iraqi camp. Immediately we were assailed by fretful Iraqis at the gates. “Help us! They tried to kill us!” “You mean the ADF?” I asked. “They hurt us. They beat us!” “But” I said “You told Amnesty to keep those stories quiet.” “No! No!” they remonstrated. They wanted to tell me about the SAS and the Manoora and the Australian Navy ship. The degradations that had been meted out to them on those 23 days on board.

The Iraqi men had the wild look of people who are experiencing shock. They were restless, moving, ceaselessly talking. I was prevented from talking to them.

“Please write it down! I’ll come back tomorrow and get your letters. They won’t let me stay.”

I was led into a room. About five women and one man from my request list were produced. I spoke to the women through the translator. I gave them the money from their husbands, letters, news. Each woman cried. Asked me when this would end. They were young, pretty, polite and defenceless. I should have asked them what they wanted me to tell people in Australia, but I didn’t dare. The translators had been co-operative, but the hour was over …

On to Topside Camp. Here Sarah and I were greeted by the Chief, Cy Winter himself – 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 stage managed, that was clear. I didn’t want to be forced to like him, to thank him. That’s what he did to everyone else. Now he was issuing new edicts. “Come on! 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” he challenged. “You’re going to buy some art. We’ve got an art show. We help the asylum seekers to do a lot of craft and art here …” and so on. The PR was flowing now. No threats at all. Just honey.

This was the ruler of the camp, the great Cy Winter, ruler of the Menen Hotel/Palace too, where all the workers in this asylum seekers industry worked and hid out, detached from the pain of the place. Here was a thriving business. There were 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. In spite of any good intentions they had, or told themselves they had, I could not help but see them as carrion feeders.

The Camps

The camps are a country within a country. The island of Nauru itself did not matter to anybody at Hotel Menen, this was a new island population defensive about its work, which 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 be 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 in the Middle East, 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. 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. A benevolent dictator, spreading largesse that Australia pays for!

So here I was in Topside Camp, getting an invitation through bared teeth to view exactly what I had not wanted to see. I said “No” to a tour 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 he wouldn’t hear anyone else’s view. He was ordering Mohammed to lead us around. He might as well have put him on 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 on it. No air-conditioning. It looked like Changi in plastic. The steel dormitories, like converted containers, 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. Cy’s face was truculent and wary: this was clearly a part he was not happy to show off or discuss. But 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 had been advised to install ground toilets, but useless Western flush toilets were ordered instead, 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, as we went.

The entire camp is barren, hotter than is imaginable. 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 out there. Children were rarely seen, although there were 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. At the time of my visit 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 had managed for about six months, unimaginable. The dark, the heat, nearly 1600 people housed in a hot, unhealthy cage. There are still constant power outages of the grotesque generator.

But now they have some amenities. The place is functional. There was building going on everywhere, more rudimentary structures were being installed. 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. Instead it was becoming an efficient warehouse for people, a factory that produced nothing at all but unhappiness in bulk, an emerging and lucrative industry nonetheless. A business with no product; profit for some, yet loss and more loss for many.

Next, 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.

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 still 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 make the attempt. There isn’t really any soil in Nauru, just “pinnacles” with weedlike foliage growing around them like cobwebs; a few coarse palms. It’s growth, but not serious growth. 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. Maybe 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 them all.” 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 to stand out of people’s way, if he wasn’t assisting them. It hurt me to see this.

I had to move on! I’d bought a few little wonderful embroideries but I was again 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 serious water shortage) but the food I was given was authentically theirs, detention food – sweet, grease with salt.

At last, we found a spot in the shade of some buildings, Mohammed’s friends 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 at them than smell them I thought” but their delicacy struck me. Even this foul place had not made them 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 said he hated asylum seekers. He was a 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 yet 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”.

When we got downstairs, we met another camp employee who wanted a lift to the party. 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. 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. The Nauruans maintained that they were excluded from the parties and from employment. The only ones at the party were pre-pubescent and teenage girl dancers, shyly displaying island dancing techniques to over-amplified music. Security men, with stubbies and decked out in leis and flower wreaths, watched without appreciation. It was repeated every fortnight we were told, 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 phones that connected them to the camps. It looked freakish: as if they were connected electronically to some organism; they did their “management” at all hours. It underscored the Orwellian madness of it all.

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 Saturday night venue. It was an enormous loud 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.

My Arrest, My Assault And My Incredulity – If They Behave Like This To Me, How Do They Treat Their Detainees?

On Sunday, the last day of my three days, I was desperate to have a last talk with Mohammed my friend in Topside Camp. I needed him but also a representative of the Christmas Island group to clarify the damning letters that I’d received on Saturday. I’d asked the detainees to write letters, as they had so much to say (but my visits at best were going to be short and managed). These letters were much freer versions of the letters I’d received in Australia (and were why I was here).

About 50 of them had been given to me in trust, the trust they would not be persuaded they could extend to letters they posted with the IOM, UNHCR or most particularly the Australian Government’s assistance. They had no trust in anyone. It sounds immodest, but it’s worse than that, at that moment probably the only person they felt they could believe in was me.

The Afghan women so distrust anything they are told, that they won’t believe the IOM who offer them the right to phone calls to their husbands in Australia. They simply refuse, even when their husbands may not know if they’re alive or dead, because they believe somehow, any communication could “affect” their applications.

Each morning of our stay I’d managed to brew “yuppie” coffee for Sarah and me with nothing more than a large packet of Lavazza and a mosquito net. We were sipping this triumph of ingenuity when I got a worried phone call from my husband. I told him I’d be arrested if I tried to visit the detention camps again. He said they couldn’t arrest me. Under Article 5 of the Nauruan Constitution a person cannot be detained without trial but if they tried it I should demand the legal representative of my choice. He hoped I’d choose him. We chortled.

He said that he was in touch with Monsieur Joinet of the UN working group on arbitrary detention. That they’d be very disturbed by any mistreatment of me or more importantly the detainees in regard of their right to visitors.

So, now today’s project was redefined for me. I tried politely over repeated phone calls to make an appointment to see Mohammed Mehdi and perhaps another representative. Excuses were made. Calls to translators who promised they’d ring back, didn’t. Cy Winter wouldn’t take my calls at all.

My good manners exhausted, I told Sarah that I would pack my suitcase so that if I was arrested, she could get it to the airport in the morning for me. I took my toothbrush and a small pack. I sat in on her interview with the Opposition Party of Nauru and made notes. Sarah’s findings were eye-opening. Details follow this report.

After the interview at about 4.30 as we’d agreed she drove me to Topside Camp and left me there.

I didn’t want them accusing me of entrapping them on film or of making a histrionic spectacle of myself or of provoking them. As one woman alone they were less likely to dispute with me. Arrest was not my goal. Sympathy was an outside possibility.

I had 50 letters to decipher, the least I needed was a couple of hours to go through them with Mohammed. I also didn’t want to draw attention to Sarah. So far the authorities were stupid enough to assume Sarah was just a friend, and that I was, to quote Cy Winter, an interfering “nobody” with good intent but “absolutely no idea”, an ignoramus, hoist high on my “little white horse”, and probably a spoiled and clumsy do-gooder, a brat. My “non-professionalism” was used as disparagement.

Our blonde hair, our waspishness had misled them wonderfully, but if they really asked her questions, their suspicions could be raised.

Armed with four large bright clean, blow-up toys, squeaky and with bells in them, and my “official” inspector’s file of papers, we set off. I had donned a floaty white Armani dress that affected the appearance of Nurse Nightingale or a yuppie angel. I wasn’t sure. But I wanted to have the kind of dress that you wouldn’t sully or crush or mistreat easily. My clothes had to be delicate, fine things no-one would want to rough up …! Unusual logic for an activist, I admit, but clothes have always been part of my armoury, they can confuse people.

Sarah dropped me down by the main gate. We’d waved our way past the APS guards we already knew. We felt they liked us now in a fairly pitying way. As soon as I appeared, Tinkerbell with toys, cheerful asking the residents “Can you get me Mohammed Mehdi really quickly?” to the gathering crowds, the Fijian guard was confused. I was creating a minor spectacle with my coloured air-filled toys for protection. I didn’t have long and I knew it. “Please try, hurry, get me Mohammed.” “Yes, yes he knows, we’ve sent for him.” Sure enough, Mohammed came.

He beamed in his thin, worried, way. He looks like a student from anywhere, dark, almond-eyed, small featured, typically Hazara, a gentle mien, always. But he looked worried for me, and helpless. He was barked at by some Chubb security guard I hadn’t noticed before. But Chubb weren’t rude to me, although they did insist on “arresting” my toys. I had placed them inside the gate. They duly placed them outside. I thought the toys might melt in the heat, or burst. I could see that I could have played irritating games like this for quite some time, but I didn’t want to provoke a scene or a disturbance among the detainees, and they were certainly curious enough to attempt one. Even the guards might enjoy a distracting stoush, squashing a little woman in a white Armani might have been quite entertaining.

I had prepared a letter for Mohammed, because I suspected this would happen. In the letter amongst my questions, I had written a lot of reassurances that nothing would happen to me if I got arrested, and not to worry. I laughed when the APS guard tried to prevent me from passing my letter through the wire fence. I said “C’mon, c’mon, it’s just a letter.” He was embarrassed. I’d met this guard when I’d arrived three days ago. We’d chatted wanly. We’d even shared a drink at the IOM’s party at the Menen Palace.

Mian Shamel, the translator, emerged. He looked like “management” not so friendly. He was on his walkie-talkie to the IOM chief Cy Winter asking what to do. I could hear Cy’s angry voice “Get the Police, get her out of there, now … jail … security etc ….” I said “Let me speak to him and explain. I’ve been trying to speak to him all day, he hasn’t had the courtesy to ring me back.” No, they wouldn’t let me speak. I didn’t have much time left. I opened my file and showed Mohammed notes I’d made about some of the letters I’d received. “Can you tell these people I’ve read their letters, they need lawyers, I need more detail.” He was trying to memorise my notes from behind the wire. It was hopeless.

I had been weaving and ducking, smooth as butter, appearing to move in one direction and then slipping into reverse. I could see the scene as I was creating it. Then a car with two APS, one female, arrived. I didn’t relish the thought of the woman grappling with me, she obviously had a great disdain for me in my tooth-fairy outfit. She liked uniforms.

The APS officers were saying I’d broken the law. I said “No my husband wouldn’t let me do that, he’s a lawyer ….” They said I’d infringed my visa. “Not at all”, I said “I haven’t got one but I’m absolutely legal, don’t worry, the IOM don’t know about those things. My husband does.”

They must have wanted to slap me. I knew how stuck-up and spoiled I sounded, but I also knew it would protect me. “It’s Article 5, you see of the Nauruan Constitution, you can’t arrest me, my husband’s a Q.C. he’d be very difficult about this.”

I was becoming tiresome even to myself and too sad to keep the game going.

I said I’d only agree to go with them if they took me to the IOM, to Cy Winter, for a chat. As I walked to the Police vehicle I made smiling, comical gestures with my arms and legs to make the detainees laugh and relax, to show them I wasn’t afraid and that they shouldn’t feel troubled.

I won’t ever forget Mohammed’s resigned and hopeless expression. He who had done so much, been so patient, counselled desperate inmates, written their letters, translated and taught English every day since he’s been there. He’d served every interest including mine.

I might never see those noble Afghans again. Mohammed was exactly as I’d imagined when I first saw him in a news clip on television before filming on Nauru was forbidden, a rational gentle highly sensitive and intelligent person, someone who was not by nature a courageous or fearless leader. The role has been thrust on him by me and by the detainees, and every day I hope that the Australian Government won’t deport him for it. Now he has gone back.

I was not allowed to leave my joyous toys. They chimed innocently captive in the police car. Their little bells sounded like whimpered protests.

I made some remarks about the heat – I was ignored. I watched the fires in the rubbish dumps, the perpetual smoke from them was preferable to the dead smell of the heaps of filth that line the road to Topside Camp. The scene was unworldly, a moonscape with garbage.

Eventually I said “Are you security or Police?” – no answer. “Excuse me, am I officially arrested?” – no answer. I said “I don’t feel arrested. What are your powers here in Nauru?” – no answer.   They pulled in at my hotel. “No”, I said “No, the Hotel Menen …”, they didn’t speak. I don’t know if they thought I was staying there, or if they were just amused that I regarded them as a taxi service, but at least I could see I wasn’t going to jail on a darkening Sunday night. They said nothing and drove off. “No, wait” I said running after the car. “My toys ….” My toys were released also ….

I guessed Cy Winter’s room number. It would be the best room on the top storey, for the nearly 7 foot top storey man, the patrician American, who ruled and surveyed everything, from his eyrie in the Menen Palace. I climbed the stairs, arranged my pack on the ground, my toys and file in my arms and knocked. I was right. Cy Winter, the ruler, opened the door himself. His eyes bulged down at me in disbelief. They seemed to say “Why aren’t you in jail?”

I said “Hi, listen can we talk about this?” pressing slightly forward, but not close. Then his long arm did the most surprising thing. It reached out and held my neck so firmly that the heel of his palm pressed against my larynx so much that I couldn’t breathe. I bent away backwards as far as I could and then sideways to try to free myself. He yelled “It’s Sunday – GET OUT!!” and slammed his door. He’d looked so strange, as though he had thought he’d done right, and would do more.

I paused, I knocked at the door, expecting him to come out and apologise. Nothing. I wouldn’t knock again – I also am proud. I sat myself, my pack, my book of letters and my toys on the stairs next to his room and, looking out onto the only good view in Nauru, recovered myself.

But, it was getting dark. Sarah would not know where I was. It wasn’t safe to walk. There is no taxi or bus on Nauru. Fortunately, I remembered that I had the name and room number of one of the translators who’d helped me the day before. I was in luck. She was there with her husband, and very kind and welcoming. (Others arrived.)

I told her what had happened. She was astounded, and her shock was genuine. “What is happening to Cy?” She kept saying “Oh, he’s under so much intense pressure from the Government, they watch us and they want so much. It’s the money and the pressure. Money does things to people.”

I didn’t think it wise to criticise her boss endlessly. She seemed to respect him, she’d need to, to work there. I said that my impression was that he was a proud man, he ran a five star detention centre. He’d told me this camp was nothing, he’d run camps of 50,000. I’d said to him, “Yes, those were refugee camps, camps of grateful people who felt saved.” A detention camp was a different place. But he hadn’t listened, he was glib and proud of his excellent work.

I said to the translator “Cy is tall. He’s an American. I don’t think he’s realised that his attitudes have become thoroughly colonial, arrogant.” They thought about this. But I changed the subject, I wanted to know how they could work there, in hell.

The translator burst into tears. She told me how she and her husband cried at night. Stories poured out of her. It would have been unfair not to tell her to stop. She said no she’d write a book one day. I needed to phone Sarah or leave a message at my hotel. I had to leave them. I went down to the lobby to leave a message there. But I was aware I was being watched. I realised I had to return to the translators. They offered to keep me for dinner. I said they were telling me too much. I liked them, but I didn’t want to jeopardise their jobs, and I won’t publish what they said.

The translator’s husband went out for a moment. When he came back he told us he’d been collared by Cy. Cy knew that I’d been seen with them. He told me that Cy had said not to “worry”, that I was leaving. I don’t know what else he said, or if he denied assaulting me, but her husband did report that Cy had offered his wife (the translator) the day off on the following day. “Very stupid”, I thought, “bribing your staff to keep them on side.”

These two people had been so kind, yet I was anxious to leave them. They and others had told me things I cannot detail here. As with this whole story, secrecy and betrayal are difficult. One courts the other.

Eventually Sarah phoned and told me to get up to the corner quickly. She’d collect me. She had a companion, yet another person who wanted to spill their story. Guilt, we thought motivated most of it. People need bad tales told, we expunge horrors by talking about them.

Sarah, her companion and I escaped. There was a little more to do. But we’d leave the following day, we hoped without being searched and we hoped never to return to Nauru.


How to turn detainees into dollars; the profits and losses of the Pacific Perversion Policy and the carrion feeding of agencies like the IOM.

Almost everyone, it seemed had an excuse or a justification for their presence here. Some, like the IOM said they wished they weren’t. So did many of the staff we met, even the toughest. But to me the point was that they were there, making an unconscionable project a reality. They made a fist of it. They made it possible for our Government to organise this hell-on-earth; a human warehouse on a third world desert island. It was a peculiar experiment. They enclosed and filed away the most dejected and defenceless people and their stories and calmly went about the process of destroying them, bureaucratically, then summoning the excuses that would allow them to return these victims to their former horror in Afghanistan with even less hope of security than they had had in the first place.

DIMIA will send these Hazara back to a country where most of them no longer have family ties, or a village they may be safe in. Land outside Kabul is laced with mines and cluster bombs. Our own military forces have assisted the destruction of what is left.

What possible damage could these worn and sad souls do to our country? What future potential in them have we extinguished? What can those beautiful “white mice” girls, with their babies, do to survive in Kabul, while their husbands are on temporary protection visas in Australia? Their deaths are imminent. Their children’s a certainty.

Mohammad and Ali and my other Hazara friends have told me they’d rather die, because to survive in Afghanistan they will have to loot, murder and rob. That is why they fled. They couldn’t live with the fact that criminality was the only career for them. Pashtuns are still killing Hazara. Their mullahs have told them they will go to Paradise. Their vehicle, Hazara blood.

I will never recover the love I once had for my country. I will never forget those young Hazara men. I think of them and I think of their dignity, their subtlety. I will never forgive those who sacrificed them. These men are the young dead and who can claim that we haven’t killed them?

Speech Of MLC’s Friends Of The Arts Association

At the end of my post-graduate at the VCA, I felt that fine art was removed and irrelevant to the wider world. In the West, fine art had managed to elevate itself to its own irrelevant pinnacle of thought, it had so many clouds around it, few could really assess what it was.

Fine art had become a lonely island or monastery, it had nothing to do with the world of work or society. If it had jokes they were dull portentous ones. Art rebuffed its audience, while also demanding better and bigger spaces for more and more unlovely objects.

Young artists were becoming more adrift, they spoke a jargon, instead of the English we share, and rarely made anything visually stimulating, let alone beautiful. Artists were becoming more fenced in by curators and critics, so almost by way of protest, I bolted into the world of fashion and decorative arts.

This was a highly heretical act, particularly for a girl. (We are speaking, it astonishes me of the late 70’s.) Female artists were doing all they could to deny their girliness. The word “decoration” was always prefaced by the word “mere” and you were damned if you were “decorative”

I resented the anti-female inference. I was going to dump all of my large and sombre canvases and devote myself in all seriousness to frivolity and silliness to make my point.

I have always to make a point, I want to make art, but it must be saying something. I want a discussion or a conversation with the audience even a rowdy or witty one. I don’t want to be enigmatic, I don’t want intellectual respect, I don’t want to be in a Biennale.

Klaus Oldenburg had a manifesto for artists that read “I am for an art that does more than sit on its arse in a museum”. “Yeah, baby!” I thought and I still do. I moved into my “smart art” phase. I would make art that earned its living. I ran a very unbusinessy jewellery business that travelled globally. My logic at the time was that art could permeate fashion. Fashion could become more provocative and thoughtful and that art could get down off its high horse and test itself in the cruel world of the crass, if not mass, market. Fashion is a ruthless skills test. It takes no prisoners and it forces you to work against habits or even your own style.

With friends we set up the Fashion Design Council. We staged enormous fashion parades and events. My jewellery started to become copied and by the late 80’s the parades and even my most outrageous jewellery had become orthodox, I was now bored. But still searching for the elusive niche that would suit my worldview, allow me to make works of joy and usefulness and support me financially. I was by now doing a lot of commercial interiors and restaurants and nightclubs. I did a little costume design for theatre and ballet, but above all I was interested in illustration and cartooning.

I had two interesting opportunities in Japan and New York. My exhibitions were sponsored by Seibu stores and I had a strange and too obsequious agent in Tokyo. I should have been set. I won an award in New York and ‘Time’ magazine offered to help me if I re-located.

Again, I found something wrong with pursuing a career rather my real interests. I am still in many ways 16 years old and I found the Japanese and Americans very grown-up, frightening about work. I suddenly felt very timid and Australian. I liked my peers here, I know our politics. I had a weekly cartoon. I was happy.

The idea of the book “Trust Lust and Chaos and Cruelty” was a sophisticated form of reversal or regression. The drawings of girls and their expectant boyfriends came from my past, my girlhood, and would never have been accepted at art school, I was expected to grow out of any sort of romanticism.

But, if you look closely, these pictures, especially with the help of their captions, are sly and far from romantic. The characters are slightly, disturbingly, under-age. The setting is always the same. The couch is in reality and in effect a stage for the little dramas I depict. Like Victorian tableau, these drawings are saying that all romances start and end on couches. The couch itself is a rather seductive and female form and it plays an expressive part in my little stories. The stories, like fairytales, can be deceptive, there is malice here and of course the drawings play on our contemporary uncertainties about relationships and love. Illustration is a dying art in Australia, and one of the most important, but I don’t want to talk about, it’s too painful and there’s too much to say.

In the year 2001 I’d had an exhibition at Gabrielle Pizzi’s and launched this book and was planning to take the book again to Ray Hughes, my gallery in Sydney, when my husband became involved in the Tampa case, which changed all my plans. I sat in court wondering what the lawyers had to do with it, when what was happening was that 438 asylum seekers were nearly drowned. Australia didn’t want them. They would be shipped to Nauru and that would be an end to it, but it wasn’t for me. I set up Spare Rooms for Refugees, a web-based register of people willing to give accommodation to refugees released from detention centres. And I attempted to sponsor a young Afghan man I saw on television who was stuck like now 1600 others plucked from the sea and packed off into Australia’s new tip, Nauru.

Through bluffing and a dogged persistence I got the names and ID numbers of everyone there and my husband started offering the names in small groups to letter writers all over Australia. They have formed friendships which I know have saved lives, others have been lost to us. About 1100 were returned to Afghanistan after two years of misery on that benighted island.

“Activism”, as it’s now called, of this kind cannot be done in one’s spare time. The descent into these and other lives destroyed by detention has been shattering. I would say that I suffered two entire years of grief. New stories of agony, injustice, malice, daily deception, violence and cruelty have been our regular conversation for three years. I am more calloused now. This is a callous country after all.

Four Corners asked me to help them with a co-production, a documentary on the “Pacific Solution” with the BBC. I knew a legal but long way into Nauru which was refusing all visitors especially journalists. We went, we filmed secretly in the camp and all over the island. The film has been on every affiliate of the BBC’s worldwide network. John Pilger wrote that it was a wonderful film. The only country that hasn’t shown it is this. The young man I tried to sponsor was rejected and has returned to Afghanistan. I was arrested and lied to. We’ve all been lied to ever since, even by the most benign of entities such as the ABC.

I am still shocked by it, still hurt and out of love with my country. It’s three years since I’ve made any work. However, my Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi reminded me that in spite of all that I was to remember that I am still an artist, and she said that it was time to make a show. I hate the idea of catharsis as art or as therapy. My work had always tried to be an amusing bridge between my indulgence of my need to make things and to justify those things’ lack of function.

If I had to make “art” again, what could I make with conviction? I decided I would try to paint the unknown faces of the victims of the SEIV X, the mainly 353 women and children who drowned, mysteriously unaided by the Australian authorities who were aware of their departure on “a dangerously overloaded boat”, but didn’t search for them. And the “children overboard affair” where again faces, facts and the true stories have been largely erased.

Perhaps, I thought an artist might again have a clear function, to visualise, represent, illustrate and stir the dried beds of the collective imaginations of people who have been untouched by these tragedies.

Artists like Gericault with the “Raft of the Medusa” came to mind? Artists painted epics, because without imagery many stories don’t cohere in the mind. Without photographs, we are lost, we no longer seem to have the visual mental ability to imagine events in our minds, and our government knows that. Asylum seekers are the least photographed and least spoken to people in Australia today.

Families like the Bakhtiari’s and the Kadem’s who’ve spoken up about violence, lying and bureaucratic torment pay a huge price. No-one speaks. As for me, I’m using oil paints for the first time in 25 years, it’s a romantic medium because I wanted to treat my subjects tenderly, not harshly, angrily or grotesquely say – like Peter Booth.

It’s hard to paint drowning or dead people sweetly. It’s harder to paint them in those glorious holiday waters of the Pacific. I wanted to paint them like the tiny islands like Nauru that I’d flown over or visited, little faces upturned in the water. Could I paint 353? The oil and diesel that choked them. It’s not until you try that you realise how many people that number represents. But my pictures are an effort to keep account, to keep testimony. I’m not sure if it’s art or illustration, I’m out of my depth actually, I’m not even sure if it’s kitsch or worthwhile.

I do know that I don’t resent the three years I haven’t been working as an artist. When I do hang this work in Gabrielle Pizzi’s gallery in November, I’ll know if it works or not. In either case it will be my personal acknowledgment of decent people locked in camps, returned people of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq whose experiences here left no trace on this increasingly crude country, a country that speaks of excellence and “best practice” in all things bar human rights.

I’ve been absent without leave from art for three years, it’s not significant, except to me. I wouldn’t charge anything. Despite the despair I’ve felt, I’ve emerged with a sense of myself that I would never achieve from art alone. Even though I prefer to think modestly of myself, refugees have offered me a way of completing myself, of doing genuinely good things. My art on the other hand will do nothing for them, but my care of them has helped. It’s been an honour to be entrusted with their stories and their friendship. They have freed me from the struggle I spoke of at the start of this piece, my lack of usefulness and agency which is the lot of an artist.

I didn’t save the young man I began writing to in 2001, he was packed off back to Kabul. By way of compensation, we have an Afghani boy studying nursing who has lived with us since February, he’s helped us to understand the problems of refugees more deeply, we help him if not hundreds, having him with us is consoling and we’d hate him to leave.

I’m glad you’re interested in art, and where it’s at, but in the next 10 years as artists or as citizens, take an interest in politics, design and draw yourselves as whole people, nourish your mind and your moral values.

This lovely school is a little like art, it’s an invented object and is also like an island or a monastery set a little apart from the world. Parents send you here because they care for you, but remember as art should, there’s a world out there and it needs your attention, be an artist by all means, but be mindful, be moral.

Media Release (Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery)

In the year 2001 at my exhibition here at Gabrielle Pizzi’s gallery I launched my satirical book “Trust Lust Chaos and Cruelty”. I was planning to take it also to Ray Hughes, my gallerist in Sydney.

When my husband, Julian Burnside, became involved in the Tampa case this changed all my plans. I set up Spare Rooms for Refugees, a web-based register of people who were, like me, willing to give accommodation to refugees released from detention centres. And I attempted to sponsor a young Afghan man who, like 1600 others had been plucked from the sea and packed off into Australia’s new tip – Nauru.

Through bluffing and a dogged persistence I got the names and ID numbers of almost everyone there and my husband started offering the names in small groups to letter writers all over Australia. They have formed friendships which I know have saved lives, others have been lost to us. About 1100 were returned to Afghanistan after two years of misery on that benighted island.

“Activism”, as it’s now called, of this kind cannot be done in one’s spare time. The descent into these and other lives destroyed by detention has been shattering. I would say that I suffered two entire years of grief. Stories of agony, injustice, malice, daily deception, violence and cruelty have been our regular conversation for three years. I am more calloused now. This is a callous country after all.

I’ve been absent from art for three years. In this third year, I’ve emerged with a sense of myself that I would never achieve from art alone. My art will do nothing for refugees, but my care of them has done something. It’s been an honour to be entrusted with their stories and their friendship. It is the lot of an artist to lack usefulness and agency.

Traditionally, artists painted narrative and epic paintings, because without imagery many stories don’t cohere in the mind. Today, without photographs, we are lost. Asylum seekers are the least photographed and least spoken to people in Australia today. My pictures are an attempt to introduce characters, people even though they’re imaginary. These pictures are not “political”, they are about a tragedy.

It’s hard to paint drowning or dead people sweetly. It’s harder to paint them in those glorious holiday waters of the Pacific. I wanted to paint them like the tiny islands like Nauru that I’d flown over and visited, little faces upturned in the water. Could I paint 353 or the oil and diesel that choked them? It’s not until you try that you realise how many people that number represents. I’m not sure if it’s art or illustration. I haven’t finished this work, there’s yet another face and another wave ahead.

This exhibition is dedicated to Amal Hassan Basry, a brave woman who kept herself afloat clutching a dead woman’s body in the water for 22 hours. She is now battling bone cancer.

Speech: Jill Singer – 1.30 pm

KBD Documentary

I am proud that I assisted this documentary, I am as in awe of the BBC as I am ashamed of the ABC, this government, this opposition and this Australian media.

I knew many of the detainees on Nauru by letter and fax. My attempted sponsorship of Mohammed Mehdi enabled that and I was able to collect names, stories and news via fax and letters from Nauru.

Most of my efforts to share the information I was getting were gracelessly ignored by Australian media. These were claims of hunger, thirst, inadequate accommodation, jailings, riot, missing people and drownings.

The eloquence and pain of their letters was always commented on, but never put into print. I had received some of John Pace’s documents for Amnesty that alleged brutality, mistreatment, deprivation or the deliberate spiking of food for children with chilli or salt, humiliation, beatings and abuse, designed to get the people to leave the boats of rescue like the Tampa and to comply with their aggressive captors, our SAS, and our defence forces and submit their freedom and their fates to cruel detention in the care of the carrion feeders, the IOM and the Nauru government, intent on turning these detainees into dollars; the new Pacific Perversion. Amnesty, for their own reasons did not release the documents they had collected, translated and studied in London.

I begged the detainees to reveal those stories to me, but they were too afraid to trust them to the mail system in the camp or of Nauru.

They’d been told such revelations would damage their claims for asylum. Tomorrow, Carmen Lawrence will launch Spare Rooms for Refugees’ report – “Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers”. I had to go to Nauru myself to get the primary documents (about 60 of them). Amnesty’s documents and mine dovetail, it’s concise and you can read it tomorrow, please recommend it to your friends. It’ll be on Spare Rooms for Refugees’ website.

In the BBC’s documentary “The Pacific Solution” Sarah Macdonald reads from those handwritten documents, boldly stating the brutalities Nauru’s detainees claimed to have experienced. No Australian journalist would touch them, the defence forces are very popular since East Timor and the ABC told me these were mere “allegations” against the SAS, the Navy and Army.

However, the IOM’s translators many of whom had been reluctant witnesses told me how true the stories were, and in far more lurid detail.

Modest Hazaras, Afghans and Iraqis were concerned not to complain vociferously because they knew that criticism from them could be construed as ingratitude. And in addition they were told they would be rewarded by silence, it was in their own interests. How betrayed they were.

The young man Mohammed Mehdi (ID No. 105) who I am still forlornly trying to sponsor took enormous personal risks for Sarah and me. Daily, he taught English, prepared letters and translations, he poured over rejection letters, critiquing their inconsistencies, errors and malign findings. It was all to cost him dearly.

He is the most sensitive, intelligent and world-weary 22 year old I’ll ever meet. His reward is none. Ostracised by the authorities he took the $2,000 compensation prize back to Kabul. He last contacted me over three weeks ago by fax; homeless, cold and afraid of looters, unable to receive aid, he could not give me an address to send help/money. He like the others is probably on the run in Iran, they can’t go to their former villages or afford to stay in swollen Kabul.

We’ve sent them back to conditions that are worse than when they thought they’d found a saviour in a people smuggler. In spite of Hamid Karzai’s polite request not to have any more returnees until April (the end of Winter) our detainees are threatened with forced removal, if not voluntary repatriation. On Nauru they know well how we exercise force. Peter Reith sanctioned it. David Marr’s upcoming book will tell you how.

There are five million people on aid in Afghanistan. Our government is demonstrating its concern for Afghanistan’s task of rebuilding itself, by sending our refuse back to them covered with our contempt. How could those poor Nauru detainees deserve this further insult? They can’t help Afghanistan, they can’t help themselves their lives are simply broken, irreparable. Their country ravaged by our war and laced with little reminders like cluster bombs, smashed houses, orchards and fields, the fundamentalists regrouping, torturing musicians who dare to play at weddings.

Iraqis, the world over are incredulous about the callous way its escaped nationals have been tormented, locked up, drowned and abused. Iranians are being returned to a country that debates whether it should boast of its tortures, removal of hands, limbs and eyes to the outside world.

Many of the sufferers of Nauru’s camps were the best and brightest of their former homes. Like all refugees they could have revivified and enriched our country and sent direct aid, hope and aspiration to their loved ones left behind. Those same loved ones who sacrificed all to get their young out of perpetual trouble. Out into a fair and democratic world, the “free world” as George Bush calls it or “Tomorrowland” as Walt Disney did before him, only to find that freedom and tomorrow belong only to those who already have possession of them.

Back in June, Sarah Macdonald of the BBC introduced herself to me and spoke of her wish to get to Nauru, and to use my help.

While I was thinking about it, she said dryly “Your government is so corrupt it reminds me of the last days of the John Major government – the BBC is fascinated by your appalling politics.”

I liked her immediately and as I’d found out about a lengthy pacific air ticket that allowed three days transit visit to Nauru without a visa, I said “let’s go!” I had been unable to persuade any Australian journalist to get there with that ticket, when they whined about Australia’s visa restrictions.

We don’t live under an extreme conservative government, we live under an authoritarian corrupt and ruthless government, though John Pilger who reviewed Sarah’s BBC production called our government extremist and it is.

And our dreary Australian media is unwilling to admit that they can’t handle big subjects any more. They won’t research and they won’t report. Yes, they let anti-government commentators stray onto their screens and pages but they can disown them by finding someone to provide what is euphemistically called “balance”.

“Balance” can’t eradicate facts. But facts aren’t sought by journalists and nowadays they shudder at the thought of stories about asylum seekers. “It’s been done” they tell me. They behave like everyone else, clutching excuses for their treatment of these delicate, unhappy people. Bemoaning the caution of our times, of our editors and blaming the public.

They behave as if they have an audience to please, I have a letter from Michael Gawenda editor of the Age saying just that. The readers are tired of it and you are losing the battle. The truth is, our fearless reporters will report it when our movement shows some signs of success.

They say the people support Mr Ruddock, he is a success, but they’ve made him a success by accepting his department’s lies, refusing to report stories without a “balanced comment” from Mr Ruddock or a mignon of his. Therefore if DIMIA choose not to comment the ABC won’t report it.

As I am just a failure and the media are not interested in my views, I turn to you, please monitor the media with vigilance, complain to editors and producers about their coverage critique and time it, tell them you’re not getting good service, demand that they demand access to the camps, push the Refugee Review Tribunal to answer for itself.

Interview DIMIA staff, ask immigration lawyers what’s being withheld, for god’s sake, tell them there’s more to this issue than the fate of children in detention. And tell them this asylum seeker issue is a test of our national character, it challenges each of us to assess the strength of our beliefs and to exercise the privileges that we have for those who don’t.

And tomorrow, please phone or email, the ethnic press the mainstream press and television if you don’t see decent coverage of Carmen Lawrence and our report “Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers.” It’s our last appeal to decency, if it sinks without trace like the Siev X and many others forgotten and put aside in favour of a story about Shane Warne’s shoulder you’ll know what kind of journalists we have and what kind of country we’ve become.

I think Sarah Macdonald’s documentary is clear and coherent unlike most of what’s been presented to the Australian public, and the disgrace is that it should have been made by us.

Kate’s Account of Visit to Nauru

From September 2001 I made three attempts to obtain a visa to visit Nauru in
order to gain first hand knowledge of the conditions under which asylum
seekers were being kept and to hear their stories.

In particular I wanted to speak with Mohamed (family name undisclosed), an
ethnic Hazara with whom I¹d established written contact. I¹d engaged a
solicitor to put into action a sponsorship plan and formal application for
me to sponsor Mohamed through DIMIA. My wish was to take full financial
responsibility for Mohamed in the event he could be brought to Australia,
either under a migrant or humanitarian program. Mohamed struck me from the start as an articulate ambassador for his people.

All attempts to gain a visa were fruitless. The only reason given was lack
of accommodation and that all hotels are fully booked. This is not true.
I eventually obtained a visa to visit Kiribati which allowed me a three day
stop-over in Nauru. (Interestingly New Zealanders don¹t need a visa for
Nauru but Australians do).

On my arrival in Nauru on May 31, 2002 I passed through customs without any
trouble. Also on the flight was a BBC journalist called Sarah (who travels
on a NZ passport) with whom I¹d planned the trip.

We were met by separate contacts and taken to our hotel which is said to be
the “second best” in Nauru. It was dirty, there was no running water,
electricity was rationed to brief periods during the early morning and
evenings (which also regularly failed) and very limited telephone access.
Any calls to other hotels had to be booked through the hotel and no phone
contact could be made with anyone else on the island. All attempts to call
Australia failed.

There were Australians all around the hotel, primarily security staff for
Chubb and Australian Protection Services APS.

Sarah and I headed straight for Topside camp.

The road to it was lined with smouldering rubbish and smelt like a tip.

The heat was the most intense I¹ve felt.

Sarah had a hidden camera on her. I had five letters for female detainees
from their husbands who are in Australia on TPVs along with personal affects
for them and their children; legal letters from solicitors searching for
survivors of certain maritime incidents who were entitled to participate in
pending coronial inquests; cash for detainees and a stills camera.
We drove past the first sentry point after saying we were visiting, smiled
and waved ourselves through.

The next sentry-box had a boom-gate and two Australian guards whom I told I
was a visitor ¬ while they were trying to stop me I walked around into the
camp which appeared to be like a series of gate stock-yards. There were
about thirty detainees and I asked them for Mohammed. More detainees
started gathering around me as the guard started to panic and got onto his
walky-talky. Two more Australian guards came.

We were forced to accompany the guards back to the first sentry-box and
after about half an hour an IOM car came and picked us up.
We were taken to the Menen Hotel where IOM management, UNHCR, Chubb security
and DIMIA all reside and work.

We met Cy Winter, head of the IOM who was on his way for a swim, he cheerily
greeted us, praised us for our compassion and left us to talk with other IOM
staff. I told them why I was there and they didn¹t ask Sarah the purpose of
her visit.

They stated concern that our presence would cause a disturbance in the camp
and suggested they would bring some detainees out of the camp for us to
meet. They asked for a list of whom I wanted to meet and were despondent
when I gave them a list of roughly thirty names and ID numbers.

Eventually they arranged to take us back to a room on the perimeter of the
camp and said they would bring all the listed detainees out to meet us. As
it turned out roughly twenty were brought out including Mohammed. Those on
the list who were not brought out and whose existence was denied by IOM were
people who¹d written to me in Australia telling me they¹d lost family
members in failed rescues at sea. I knew they were in there.

Our two hour visit was observed by Chubb security as many other detainees
clamoured to meet us but were ordered to keep away like cattle.

While security was distracted we filmed our visit and took statements on

I also showed the detainees how to work my stills camera and left it with
them. Additionally I asked them to write their recollections of dealings
with the Australian Defence Forces as I¹d heard numerous disturbing accounts
of how detainees had been treated aboard the Tampa and Australian ships
including the HMAS Manoora and HMAS Tobruk. ( I eventually obtained about
fifty accounts which are attached).

IOM then returned us to our hotel.

The next day we were met by the Australian Consul-General and IOM head Cy
Winter. Winter was very hostile and said our presence would disturb his
plans to start excursions around Nauru for the detainees.

He also claimed that Nauruans objecting to my presence. I told him it was
nonsense that any detainees or Nauruans were objecting to my visit, that any
objections they had were to his obstructing my visit.

Suddenly my visa became an issue and Winter claimed I¹d misused my visa.
Sarah explained that visas were not an issue as we were legally in transit.
As I¹d said on my immigration card, I was in Nauru to visit friends. Those
friends happened to be in detention.

Winter said he was going to call the Nauruan police and have me jailed, that
their jails were unpredictable and frightening and who knows when I¹d be

(the police we¹re talking about here are predominantly Australian. As Nauru
only had about three police, APS members have been inducted in to the
Nauruan police force)

I turned to the Consul-General and said that in that event he would of
course be helping me. He agreed that of course he would but was obviously
feeling very uncomfortable with Winter¹s threatening us.

Winter kept abusing us for daring to visit Nauru. I told him I wanted to
take photos of family members for husbands who hadn¹t seen wives or children
for more than two years. He said he¹d be delighted to jail me if I took a
single photo.

They said that while the Australian government would help me if I landed in
jail, there¹d be very little they could really do if Nauru decided to take a
dim view of me.

After prolonged argument about my wish to hand over letters, money, goods,
clothes and toys to detainees I¹d been in contact with it was eventually
agreed I¹d be escorted on a brief visit to each camp.

At Statehouse Iraqi people are detained. The men looked as if they were in
shock. They were ceaselessly moving, talking and restless. I was prevented
from talking to them.

Sarah and I were taken to different rooms.

Five women and one man from my list were produced and I spoke with them
through a translator. I gave the women their husband¹s money, letters and
news. They each cried and asked me when this would end. They were all
young, pretty, polite and defenceless.

At Topside camp we were met by Cy Winter who had suddenly switched into PR

I didn¹t trust him a bit. This is the man who rules the camp and the Menen
Hotel where all the workers in the asylum-seeker industry worked and hid out
in cool air-conditioned comfort with ocean views ¬ detached from the pain of
the place.

It is a thriving business with enough administrators, translators, Chubb
security officers, builders, carpenters, technicians, electricians, UHNCR
staff, DIMIA staff, APS staff and more to run a country.

These are the carrion-feeders of the industry. We saw builders and other
tradesmen fly in business-class. Carpenters told us of being paid $5,000
Australian per week plus perks, with contracts insisting on absolute

Electricians were being paid more than $5,000 per week.
If only as many experts were assisting Nauru, with its meagre population of
11,000 impoverished and ailing citizens.

Little wonder there are signs that Nauruans now loathe what Australia has
done to their island.

There is graffiti around the island such as OUT IOM and AUSTRALIA CARES?
I personally witnessed a violent attack on Australians by a Nauruan. A
dance was being held at the Bondi Club. Some Australian builders arrived
and a Nauruan smashed his fist through the windscreen of their land-rover
screaming “I hate all whites”.

He was not arrested. Other Australians at the club said it was a common
occurrence and they did what they usually did ¬ which was to leave.
Nauru is a disaster.

Apart from power and water shortages, petrol is rationed.

IOM and UNHCR vehicles without petrol locks have their petrol siphoned off
and stolen.

The situation causes constant tension and creates an environment in which
business is impossible to conduct.

There is no reliable source of information and news. There is no newspaper.
The food supply is appalling with no access to fresh fruit, milk and
vegetables. According to translators any attempts to fly fresh produce in
generally see the food perish due to the intense heat and transport

Cy Winter treated me to the best on offer in the camps ¬ a plate of greasy,
sweetened noodles.

The water for detainees comes from the Solomon Islands and tastes foul.
There are serious health problems in the camps. Bacterial skin infections
are common and persistent due to hygiene problems. Detainees have no water
to wash their hands after toileting. They bathe when there¹s rain which is
an uncommon event. Soap is rationed to one block per detainee per month.
Detainees have great trouble washing their clothes and bedding. Against
advice, Australians have installed flush toilets, which have no water to
flush them. They overflow with human waste and are insect infested.
Many detainees have been hospitalised outside the camp after suffering blood
diarrhoea and other endemic parasitic and bacterial illnesses.

Nauru¹s small and struggling hospital has a permanent rotating population of
psychologically traumatised detainees even though Nauru was assured by
Australia that this would never happen.

Local Nauruans have been told there is a bed shortage at the hospital and
requested to bring mattresses with them when admitted.

Drugs are in short supply.

The medical and baby clinic at the camp is under-resourced. Six babies have
been born in the camp. These babies are now stateless.

In all, I visited the Topside camp on three occasions. Children could not
even approach the newly installed tiny playground as they would fry. It is
totally unsheltered. Everywhere you look there are listless men lying on
their beds, too hot and dispirited to get off them.

Men are regularly jailed in Nauru for walking outside the camp, for
expressing distress or causing any sort of disturbance. They are jailed for
up to three weeks and are kept naked in prison in case they attempt suicide
with their clothing.

Muslim men told me this indignity is the worst humiliation they have

Everywhere in the camps there are signs of ongoing expenditure. The
building works suggest permanency.

Translators told me that they feel guilty about what is happening to the
detainees, that they love these people and feel protective about them. Many
say they are reduced to tears at night.

There is a lot of pressure being put on staff to convince detainees into
taking the Australian Government¹s “package” and return home.

Translators and other staff say they are being pressured to bully the
detainees and feel they are being spied upon by DIMIA.

On my third day on Nauru I was apprehended by four APS officers after I was
trying to re-visit Topside. I told them I knew I was acting within my legal
rights and that the detainees also had a legal right to receive visitors.
They told me I was infringing my visa.

I referred them to article 5 of the Nauruan constitution which allowed my
presence there.

They called Cy Winter who ordered my arrest.

The APS officers then refused to say if I was in fact under arrest but
agreed to my request to be taken to the IOM at the Menen Hotel.

They drove off after depositing me at the Menen Hotel. I was assaulted around my neck. I will not accuse the person who did this in print. As I know the detainees will suffer as I will from new restrictions and possibly a ban on communication. I do not know if it hasn’t already happened. No-one at the camp has answered my letters, emails or faxes.

I fled to a translator¹s room where I told a number of Australians working
in Nauru what had just happened to me. They believed me.

They told me they were under a lot of pressure from the Australian Government.
They also gave me numerous and lurid accounts of what they themselves had
witnessed aboard the HMAS Manoora.

Among other atrocities, children were witnessed having their mouths burned
with chili in order to force their mothers to disembark.

The Nauruan opposition (leader David Adeang) wants to know where all the
money that Australia says has been paid is going and is calling on
Australian lawyers to help them trace the money-flow.

PM Rene Harris and cohorts are said to have purchased a fleet of cars from
Japan. When challenged on this he says the cars are not for personal use
but are part of a new business enterprise he¹s setting up to benefit Nauru.

Nauruans are living just as badly as ever while the Australian dominated detention
centre industry on the island is thriving. It’s a parasitic business to be sure.

If you would like to write to or assist detainees on Nauru, we have an informal guardianship scheme. Why not send a self-addressed business envelope. We’ll assist you to contact a small group of detainees on Nauru.

Defiant Dandenong

Dandenong Annual Arts Prize

Dear Dandenong,

Defiant Dandenong, look at you, how you’ve grown. I remember you, but not like this. Dandenong you are like a council of nations. Here in this intricate city is an Ark, as if from the bible, representatives of every breed, clan or culture are assembled here, a gathering has taken place, Moses would be pleased. What did this city know of the bewildering displacement, the loss of art and cultivation, the self-expression or the needs of the people of the world? Or how to welcome their tentative steps towards a cautious resettlement, in an often hostile terrain?

What is the purpose of the shelter, the vessel, the shield you have made here? The purpose is a very human one: to allow people to represent and to reproduce themselves, and their lives; to find passage to future generations, to stretch their allotted time and space on this ground, to leave the sea of turmoil. Like those animals in the Ark, people seek, if not deliverance from a place of evil, then a place to stay, the way a creature needs a habitat.

The people of the well-named Greater Dandenong recognised as an opportunity, other’s need to find a resolution to the search, a nest, a home, a full stop. With them, they also knew those exotic people would bring their freight of ancestry, their knowledge,,, their joke-bags, their grievance and losses, fears and expectations.

Their great enterprise will be to flourish, but also to pass on an indefinable essence, to pass it on, and to pass it on. Like the game Pass The Parcel: here is my gift, it may get smaller, but keep it, please keep it.

I’m picturing Dandenong, twenty years from now. Take yourself there now, on a little mental voyage. You may discover, that for the first time in a long while, white people, and certainly white females like me, even with the price of a ticket, can no longer travel to more than a quarter of the world’s surface, its prohibited or at least risky. White people are astonished, they have been the ones fussing over, visas, tickets and border control . We, no longer rule the world. we start to experience ostracism, mistrust and boundaries, like those immigrants only a generation ago.

The travel Industry, has not shut down, a vast commercial machine like that won’t rest or die, it will simply restrict or invent our horizons in a manner that suits its business model. They are already doing it. Travel is re-focussing, its offering has changed. In the 70’s the idea was to experience otherness, other cultures, other vistas. Nowadays its imperative to experience more about YOU. You, trekking, you on a mountain. you, snorkelling, you chilling on a beach, any beach. You taking a short trip around Europe within the sanitary and speedy confines of an ersatz Las Vegas: Disneyland for grown-ups, time – poor and afraid of anything but the highlights…

Some of you and some of these artists will remain here in Dandenong. Most of you will possess far more than highlights, you will have the fine grain, the memory, the advice of your former politics and parents. You will have a culture that is not thin, not dilute, but strengthened by its hybridity. Dandenong will be well known for its cultural curiosity and learning.

The artists in this show have something in common, mostly their otherness. In the future, artists like Valamanesh will not have such close, direct insight into Islamic Art and its cosmic gaze, but they’ll have this artist to guide them so the past won’t be so misunderstood. I’ve followed this artist for a while, admiring his cool austerity and wit.

I also know and have desired artworks by Guan Wei, also witty, with an out-sider’s idiosyncratic eye in relation to Australia.

Rhubaba Haider’s work spoke immediately to me of her feminine Hazara heritage. She has morphed that knowledge into something strong yet fragile and contemporary, and philosophical. Whilst retaining a great deal of typical Hazara woman’s discipline and personal restraint.

Khaled Sabsabi”s work turns like a Dervish on Sufi themes, that strange metaphysical branch of Islam which is becoming endangered. Thank you Khaled for preserving it.

Gosia Wlodarczak’s unsettled lines following and chasing life, restless and unfixable, charting her relationship to objects. She makes a cartographic record over time and space.

Kosar Majani’s work is highly symbolic and resonant. It speaks of unrelenting rituals and repetitions that we’ve never known or encountered, in our young country.

20 years from now we may find ourselves grateful that Greater Dandenong ignored the ”Team Australia “slogans of some of the worst leadership known in this country. That Prime Minister tried to frighten us about the living and cultural aspirations of others, demanding to know whose side we were on, challenging us to mistrust foreigners or the unfamiliar.

Fortunately we barely remember that Prime Minister, he left no relics or artefacts. Unlike these artists who have joined us in a gathering just like this to fill this once slight and shallow space with all our lives, heredity, children, art, adventures and exploration on the vast subject of US and WE. Not THEM or THEY.

Thank you Dandenong, dear Dandenong: you are the Ark. Pass it on, pass it on.

I’m An Abolitionist

I’ve titled this next piece I’m an abolitionist WHO ARE YOU are you an abolitionist too?

It’s my paraphrase of Emily Dickinson’s I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?

For me it has a resonance because activists are mostly nobodies. If they were somebodies they’d be given another name, it might be based on their profession or job – lawyer, journalist, politician etc. Those people are the insiders, activists are so-called because the names for them are so blurry, they’re such outsiders, such nobodies and then such activists. You can see how the word pushes people further away. But nobodyness, when used correctly can be a tremendous source of power. Think of Pauline Hanson. She was very stupid, but still too smart to be called an Activist.

Activist – the word is repellent, and it generally makes the person described by the word repellent too. It’s a word that parcels and labels people in a generic sense, it dismisses them.

And yet it has been taken up by Beauty Editors I’ve read in the sillier magazines of “skin-care activists”.

When that happens you know the word if it was ever useful is now utterly debased.

But words are so expressive that we must always attempt to find words that fit specifically and authentically because they in turn exert a discipline over ideas, sentiments and rationality.

If the words are sloppy, the activism will be too. That is why I say I’m an abolitionist, not an activist I’d rather assert my own self-definition than put up with someone else’s. There is also strategy, it may also make the listener curious.

If I say I’m an abolitionist I am more likely to be asked “What’s that?” which will provoke a conversation and that’s what I want most.

As an abolitionist I will say that I want two things abolished, long-term detention for asylum seekers and the temporary protection visa.

Because I believe that I have the material and the facts to support my case, I rate my chances of getting people to agree with me pretty high, when the lies are put to one side.

Then all that is left to discuss is when, where and how will the abolition begin.

If I could turn young people into abolitionists I would be very proud. The Early Abolitionists were opposed to the evil of their time – SLAVERY.

We can use the same word to put an end to the evil in ours.

Young people are especially creative in finding tags for themselves, forms of self-identification, this is “what I am” statements; I am a vegetarian, I am an animal lover, I’m a conservationist etc.

It compels those around that young person to endorse or decry that choice, which side of that line does the listener fall into.
It requires no special political activity or behaviour but it’s one of the ways people express the gravitational leanings of their interests and will affect their choices of friends, careers and aspirations for that period or for life.

Young people in my experience have their hearts in the right place but they make unreliable committee members. Traditional “organising” is all a bit alien.

But young people have a particular strength that we gradually weaken in. Something I think all young people share is a passionate attention to friendships. It might sound artificial, but through the Hazara Association – Spare Rooms for Refugees wants to implant friendships between very young Hazara men and boys with their Australian peers.

We want you to take a couple of names, and go clubbing or to have a coffee or some-such and regularly phone that Hazara kid. He will be on a TPV and facing another tribunal hearing and possible deportation.

Gabrielle Pizzi

Gabrielle was an artwork herself; a puzzle, a treasure, a great and gentle woman.

Gabrielle was as disobedient as a minxy school girl.

Her feather-light manner disguised her deep defiance, which cannot be measured by her talk but by her wilful and committed acts.

She was responsible for my last show. It was hers also.

The show was her idea not mine; when I lost confidence and time, she gave me both. I am grateful to Gabrielle; my show was little. Gabrielle always thought big. I will aim to borrow that thought, thank you Gabrielle, rest now.

Fitzroy Learning Network Speech March 2005

Clearly, I am standing before a room of great ladies, my mother’s one of them, Anne Horrigan-Dixon’s another, and I’ll talk about her soon.

But, before I can, there is a lady whose status was earned from a level of suffering that is beyond us to imagine, but I’m going to ask you to try.

This woman fled Iraq with her youngest son to join her husband in Australia, she boarded the ill-fated S.E.I.V. X (which means dully, suspected illegal entry vessel No. 10), she floated in the water supported by her life raft – the body of a dead woman, for 22 hours. She heard and saw the goodbyes of many of the 353 mostly women and children who drowned.

She was not rescued by Australians, but by fishermen. Sick, her skin in blisters, she and her son and 60 or so people took another two days to return to Indonesia, where she was again abandoned. Seven months later she was grudgingly granted a temporary visa by our government. She arrived and contracted breast cancer, now she battles bone cancer – Amal Basry is her name, it’s a simple name, it ought to be famous.

Amal believes she was saved in order that she represent her story and the story of the 353 that drowned, and that is why, Amal, you struggled to come here tonight. I asked you, Amal, because I knew that in this room you’ll meet women who would be pleased to befriend you, if they can in as many ways as there are women here. They’ll find you to be the surprising, warm and loving creature that you are, which will be their reward.

Which brings me to the formal love target of the evening, which for me is the Learning Network, its volunteers and Anne Horrigan-Dixon.

After four years of Activism or Advocacy, my preferred time, I do know EMC, RILC, the Refugee Council, the Hotham Mission, Sister Bridget Arthur, RAC, Rurals for Refugees, Adjust Australia, the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, Spare Lawyers, the Uniting Church, Welcome House and my own Spare Rooms for Refugees etc.

Trust me please ….

  1. This group is not accountable to Federal funding or church bodies, for reasons that are very depressing, groups with those affiliations often take a very cautious or “policy” bound approach to their responsibilities.
  2. The Fitzroy Learning Network is not constrained that way, it has a quiet but respectable relationship with the State Government, through Richard Wynne and John Thwaites – highly useful, gives independence, they’ll teach English to whom they want to.
  3. There don’t seem to be any discernable politics here. There is no empire builder. There are no career or warpaths. Fitzroy Learning Network just responds to need, no matter what it is.
  4. Fitzroy Learning Network is misnamed, because it’s an aid organisation providing learning, teaching and crisis and life support.
  5. All of the Afghanis know this. All of the people who came from Nauru were met at the airport with flowers, all were found flats, beds, pillows, heaters, clothes, doctors, dentists and jobs by this organisation. No-one else.
  6. Fitzroy Learning Network doesn’t teach, it treats people beautifully. As if they matter.
  7. The parties

I’ve been to so many parties in my life. I love them. But I’ve never been to parties such as theirs. Their parties are loving, funny and profound. Everyone helps, the sun seems to shine. At each party you notice something or someone new, you see people transform, sometimes in a party, sometimes over time. But this place changes everyone. There was one party – when I opened the door and saw a pony – I thought I was imagining it. Magic is also supplied, or a hundred wrapped Christmas presents or a Santa, music or a belly dancer, it’s always fresh.

Sometimes parties of about 70 people have gone away for the weekend. Sometimes to Canberra to fit in a bit of lobbying. They can and do turn their hands to anything.

Now my subject turns to art, I am an artist. I know art when I see it.

Kam Yama Kam, was a semi-professional play, which used actors, writers, producers, directors, real life asylum seekers to tell the refugee story. The idea came from Anne and it was acclaimed.

The truth is that Fitzroy Learning Network’s strength is its wit and its art. This is an art that is always in process, it’s a teaching organisation, it’s an aid organisation but it does more, it builds and restores people, it fixes problems and mends minds, it’s a creative force, it’s Anne Horrigan-Dixon and it’s very beautiful.

Support it, visit it, love it, there is no other, there’s none like it.

Fitzroy Learning Network Nov 2005

The Fitzroy Learning Network has become a second family home for me – Kate Durham, and Julian Burnside, my husband.

It a second home to newly arrived migrants and refugees from every part of the globe.

Fitzroy Learning Network has created an informal but close family structure that cares and responds to any small need or large emergency. It does far more than teach.

Like a family, it protects its members, and involves itself intimately with sourcing jobs, beds, houses, clothes, doctors and dentists, whatever is required. It has the flexibility, love and imagination not to question, but just to help.

It’s a home to go to, even for us, being so closely involved, we do marvel at the small but daily miracles they perform there.

Become part of the household and join us there.