July 19 2013.
Significant for off-shore processing on two levels: one was the change to government policy regarding resettlement of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat, and second was the fire that destroyed nearly all the processing centre on Nauru.
I was back in Australia on respite when the fire occurred and returned early on a specially chartered flight. I arrived in Nauru to a significantly reduced team – down to just 30 people. The team meetings were held each evening under the cabana at the hotel restaurant because we no longer had an office – everything was gone.
It would be three or four days before I went up to the centre – staff were kept to a minimum in the to ease the trauma of the asylum seekers who had once again lost everything and had nowhere to sit or sleep except on the ground under marquees and where flattened water bottle boxes were a luxury item to sit or lie on.
Twisted blackened frames was all that was left of what had been the accommodation blocks. The old kitchen and mess were still there, as was the new recreation building which quickly became the administration hub for all the service providers. It was a traumatic time for everyone. Not only was it the asylum seekers who had lost everything, so had everyone who worked there – computers and all the stored information, personal items left in the office on evacuation, the entire medical facility – everything was gone and we had to start from scratch.
Despite now being in a new and mostly unscathed building I mourned the loss of the quaint old building that had housed the Salvos, IHMS and DIAC. The new building had sharp edges to it and was bland in colour – there was no character. Strangely, burnt pages of the Bible were found floating around the site for a week or two – some from the King James Version and some from a Singhalese Bible. These scraps along with a small piece of the old building’s cladding I put into a frame as a memorial of what had been lost.
But it was the men who touched me the most. The man who looked at me with blank eyes and said: “They’ve taken it all.” The leader of one of the cultural groups who had been rounded up and taken to jail, and later released having been found to not be involved in the riot, who represented his group and questioned the service providers about this group’s treatment in jail: “Why did they do that to us?” The man who pre-fire had been cheeky who sat at a community meeting fingering his prayer beads relentlessly. The Christian pastor released from jail on bail, later to be cleared of all charges, on whose face I read such shame. Another man, also on bail, who said to me: “We have no family here, but you are here.”
Powerful images, not to be forgotten.
The fire changed everything – including me.