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 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?