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.