The Chronicling of Nauru: Whipping Boys

One of the most difficult and constant experiences on Nauru was the attitude of the other service providers to The Salvation Army.

Before I detail this I want to acknowledge that The Salvation Army (TSA) made lots of mistakes, especially early on. Most of these mistakes were made because we were out of our depth with regard to working in an off-shore detention environment. TSA are very proficient in responding to disasters and assumed that the process that applied to disaster response would work in off-shore detention. It didn’t. There were many changes in leadership over the first 9 months which made consistency of operations difficult.

However, we were not the only ones making this up as we went along.

In February 2013 I was asked to submit a monthly report to DIAC on-island with specific information. I did this but was then told I need to provide more information and in a different format. So I tried again. 3 tries later DIAC stopped asking. When I spoke to a friend in the Public Service I was told that DIAC should have given me a template for the report that detailed the information required in the format needed. My assumption is that such a template didn’t exist!

Moreover, Transfield sub-contracted Wilson Security who then subcontracted a local organisation, Sterling Security, to “keep people safe.” Many of the people employed by Wilson were ex-military or ex-security more used to stronger tactics. The locals often had a grudge against the asylum seekers and this came out in their attitudes. Also, I really don’t think one of the female Wilson Security employees having a sexual relationship with one of the young asylum seekers constitutes keeping them safe (yes, she was sent back to Australia)!

Of all the service providers IHMS were the most prepared for this kind of situation as they work in disaster and refugee arenas around the world. However that did not make them infallible – one asylum seeker was given ear drops for his eyes -no wonder his eyes stung!

Unfortunately, even another humanitarian organisation like Save the Children quickly followed the lead of the other organisations by belittling and mocking TSA staff and procedures.

Although mistakes were made on all fronts, which is to be expected when organisations are given very short notice to set up facilities, TSA was so often the “whipping boy” for the other service providers. We could never seem to do anything right in their eyes. Our people were too soft-hearted, too much working for the asylum seekers, do-gooders who shouldn’t be there. At the end of 2013, when news came that TSA’s contract was not being renewed, the disparaging of TSA staff by some members of the other service providers was appalling and made a sad time for TSA staff even more difficult.

I worked on Nauru to stand with some very marginalised and vulnerable people, whose suffering was, and is, prolonged by the decisions of the Australian government.

For that I am not ashamed.


The Chronicling of Nauru: A Pinch-Worthy Experience

Working on Nauru was not something I ever anticipated doing.

I had never had a burning desire to work in a less-developed country, nor to live and work in the tropics. And prior to beginning this work had not had any particular interest in working with asylum seekers or refugees.

However, there were many many days when I would figuratively pinch myself, amazed and so thankful that I had the opportunity to experience the numerous things I did working with asylum seekers on Nauru.

I find it really very difficult to describe why this work impacted me so much.

Part of it is that I felt I was actually doing something quite significant. I was in a situation that was rife with political impact. It was a unique work environment, one that many people were opposed to. Also, it was not the sort of work that many people get involved in, and certainly not people like myself who were brought up in the 1950s and 60s under the White Australia Policy in a white homogenous society.

I worked alongside people of a number of nations, often with conversation swirling around me in a Farsi, Arabic, Nauruan or Tamil, becoming comfortable with not knowing what was being said, or waiting my turn to speak while someone else interpreted. I conducted Bible studies in simple English in a group where we started with a Scripture reading in Farsi read as a prayer, followed by the simple study often interpreted by those who had a grasp of English and ending with a prayer in Tamil. Not understanding the language was never for me a barrier to communication. Good intent, body language, hand signs and the minimum of shared language could take you a long way.

So many images:                                                                                                                                                           

Mornings waiting for the bus, watching the sun come up over the ocean.                                                                          

Sitting at the bus stop up at the main centre oozing with sweat, looking out over the green undergrowth.                                                                                                                                                             

Driving to a centre between the moonscapes left by phosphate mining.                                                                          

Coming round the corner in a car to be confronted by a huge Moxi mining truck.                                                             

Finding the remains of an American bomber shot down by the Japanese during WWII and being reminded of my dad.                                                                                                                                                                                          

The eeriness of Japanese prison cells constructed between limestone outcrops.                                                          

Beautiful Buada Lagoon – serene but toxic.                                                                                                                                

A family of five on a postie bike, or two big men on a motorbike with a large tuna wedged between them.                                                                                                                                                                                                     A spear-fisherman with multi-coloured fish or lobsters hanging over his shoulder.                                                              

Small children waiting for the school bus by sitting in the frangipani tree.                                                                           

Green army tents, white marquees, sun reflecting off the gravel and burning your legs.                                                    

Lining up for meals at the mess, staying in the shade wherever possible.                                                                           

Dark-haired and dark-eyed adults and children looking lost but trying to make the best of it.

An incredibly rich experience. No wonder I feel changed.

The Chronicling of Nauru: …and Who Thought That Was a Good Idea?!?

It’s about a month out from the fire of July 19. The men have been rehoused in a new camp, back to the old green tents, long waits for showers, mozzies and rats.

Into this mix the government decides to throw a curve ball. Why? Because an election is looming.

So what’s the curve ball?

Someone in Canberra decides that family groups will now be transferred to Nauru from Christmas Island. What a wonderful idea! This will show the Australian public that we mean what we say with regard to asylum seekers and that we can be trusted to run the country for another term!

And, it all has to happen in the next two weeks.

But is it anyone in Canberra who has to make this happen? No…we’ll leave that to the staff of the service providers on Nauru, the same staff who have only just got 400 men resettled after a major traumatic incident.

So, two weeks to level ground, lay gravel, erect tents, organise medical facilities, catering, welfare services, power and phone connections and increase staff for all service providers because now rather than running one centre we’re running two. For the Salvos that meant establishing new teams for education and recreation, for cultural advisors, for general support staff, ensuring that there were case managers who were familiar with working with children. For me that meant I had two sites to oversee with regard to religious needs.

For the first time in my working life I was in a position of being directly impacted by a change in government policy. Not a position I care much for!

I realised how easily the decisions of others can directly and often negatively impact the lives of people. How the decision of someone in an office is seemingly much easier to make than the work it takes to implement that decision. How political decisions are not made in a vacuum but can have a dramatic impact on the lives of many many people.

I don’t know whether politicians make decisions lightly or only after much thought and consideration. However I do know that the consequences of those decisions are far-reaching.

And the impact it had on me was nothing to the reaction of some of the asylum seekers who may have by this time spent a couple of months on Christmas Island only to be transferred to Nauru, to find themselves literally in the middle of seeming nowhere. A number of people were hysterical on arrival, so upset by where they had been taken to…and I couldn’t blame them.

As I drove down the road to the new camp I thought what it must have been like for these people. They didn’t know where Nauru was. It was so hot. The road to the camp wound around and around. The camp itself was just tents, no buildings at all. Fans but no air-con. The camp was in a valley between hills – no breeze to cool it and a rain trap when the monsoons came.

Whoever thought this was a good idea…needed to think again!

The Chronicling of Nauru: The Fire Changed Everything

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.

The Chronicling of Nauru: Come see Nauru

This week’s post in this series comes out of an exercise at a writer’s group I attend where we were challenged to write a travel article, and as such is lighter in tone and longer in length than usual:

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world,” wrote Mary Anne Radmacher.

Have you ever looked at the moon from a different angle? I don’t mean looking at it upside down as kids are wont to do for no reason in particular. Have you ever looked at the moon and it looked upside down?

Now before you remind me that the moon is round and that there is no up or down side to a circle, I’m talking about a quarter moon or a crescent moon. Have you ever seen a crescent moon where the crescent just doesn’t seem to be in the right place?

That’s how it seemed to me when I lived and worked on Nauru for a few months.

Nauru, the Pleasant Island, is a tiny island nation just 23 km around, lying in the Pacific Ocean 30km south of the equator and some 2800km north-west of Australia. It is a typical tropical island – palm trees, warm blue seas, smiling locals and cheap food.

A reef encircles Nauru, with the ocean floor dropping away to a depth of over 2km at the edge of the reef. To swim or snorkel to the “drop off” is on the bucket list for expats who fly in-fly out for work to Nauru.

Other bucket list items include walking or running around the island – this can be done in around an hour for a fit runner or between 3.5 and 5 hours for walkers depending on fitness. There’s also the freshwater caves running under the hills that make up the centre of the island. These caves are said to lead out to sea and at least one local has been known to have died trying to find the route, after a night of drinking.

On another sombre note the Japanese invaded Nauru during World War II and there are a number of physical reminders of this tragic time in Nauru’s history. Concrete “pill boxes” or gun emplacements can be found on the coast line. Jail cells were constructed in between the pillars of limestone which the tropical plant life has not been able to obliterate. An anti-aircraft gun that shot down a US plane is still in place, and doing the “Bomber Trek” is a popular after work exercise route for many expats.

The oceans around Nauru readily yield tuna, wahoo and barracuda and a fishing trip with one of the locals can be easily arranged. For the more adventurous there’s the opportunity to learn to free dive off the drop-off; just be prepared for bleeding ear drums at least on your first dive. However the prize of fresh red lobsters is worth the pain to those who attempt this. For those less hardy a trip around the island in a local fishing boat, not much larger than a dinghy with an outboard, and without life jackets, can easily be arranged. Pods of dolphins often play along-side and if you’re lucky a barracuda or small tuna can be caught just by trawling a line behind the boat.

Fancy fresh coconut? Just ask a local and someone will shimmy up a tree for you. Coconuts are also used to line the edges of gardens and driveways, and at Christmas are wrapped in coloured foil paper like huge bonbons and decorate the fronts of homes.

I hope you like Chinese food as that’s what’s on offer at most of the little restaurants on the island. For expats it is recommended that you limit your culinary adventures to one of a half dozen “safe” restaurants. The restaurants at the Menen and Od’n Hotels are fine, as is Zong Wah’s across the road from the Menen. The Bay at Anibar serves Western and Indian meals, while Moon River and Jules night club round out the eating places that can be sure not to overly excite an expat’s digestive system.

For those who wish to “see the sights” there’s the Nauruan Government building, the Civic Centre, the Nauruan Olympic team office (and yes, Nauru is a medal winning nation in power-lifting), the Australian High Commission and the ruin of the former President’s home. This home sits at the top of one of the island’s hills overlooking the sea. It burnt down a number of years ago, but in its heyday it sported a swimming pool and servants’ quarters and was a very beautiful building.

Accommodation can be found in one of the two hotels on the island. Both the Od’n and the Menen have been grand hotels in their day but the descent into national poverty when the phosphate mining dwindled have meant that neither have been maintained to a level that would gain even a one-star rating in Australia. That said, the Menen has reasonable rooms, all of which have an ocean view. The rooms range from a small double room with own bathroom to a one bedroom suite. Just be prepared for water pressure to vary between good, with hot and cold water, to non-existent or cold water only.

Getting to and from Nauru is via Our Airline. The staff are friendly and very helpful. On both arriving and departing Nauru one is tempted to pray that the plane either comes to a halt or takes off before running into the ocean, as the airstrip is built onto the side of the island, with the Pacific Ocean only metres below each end of the runway.

With the influx of expats working fly in-fly out jobs the local economy is growing with the addition of a second large supermarket. Small “$2 shops” abound with China Town being a popular place. Shops sell everything from soft drinks and chips to motorbikes and washing machines.

I have seen the moon, if not quite on the other side of the world, but certainly a long way from home. Doing so has enabled me to assess my place in the world and to discover that not only is the world bigger than I expected it is also much smaller. No matter whether big or small no country can any longer claim to be an island unto itself.

The Chronicling of Nauru: Ashamed to be an Australian

June 2013.
Change of role.
Full-time Religious Liaison Officer (RLO) with the job of ensuring that the religious and faith needs of the asylum seekers were met.

In the four months since my last visit, the Processing Centre underwent a huge change. Most of the old green ex-Army tents made way for pre-fab double story accommodation blocks housing 80+ men. These were a vast improvement on the tents: 2 to a room instead of 8-10 to a tent, bunk beds replaced stretchers, a lockable cabinet for each man to hang clothes and store personal items, flyscreens on all windows and doors.

Every week a local priest would hold mass in the centre for 80-90 Catholics. It was wonderful to see how the men had transformed an old green tent with a tacked on marquee into a sacred space in the middle of a Processing Centre on a little island in the Pacific Ocean. The men would leave their thongs at the entrance to the “Chapel”, lined up around the edge of the duckboard flooring. As I sat at the back of the chapel one Friday I was struck by the importance of sacred spaces for people of faith and they could and would be created regardless of circumstances.

There was one other large green tent in the Centre which was used for extra English classes and occasional group meetings between stake-holders (government, welfare, infrastructure and medical) and the asylum seekers. These meeting were usually held in cultural groups with a couple of interpreters. The purpose of these meetings was to be a forum for the men to give feedback regarding the services provided. Looking back this was farcical as the conditions were primitive and the stakeholders couldn’t do enormously more than they already were given the limitations of the island, transport constraints, and regulations of both Nauruan and Australian governments.

At the first of these meetings I attended as RLO each stake-holder rep gave a brief talk about what service they provided and then the floor was open for questions. The men were much less interested in getting longer showers than they were in finding out about their refugee determination processing. One man spoke at length about this; all he really wanted to know: how long will I be here? The immigration official then said words I will never forget and that caused me to hang my head in embarrassment and shame. He told the group that in effect although the Australian government had transferred these men to Nauru to comply with Australian government policy, it was not the responsibility of the Australian government to process them; it was the responsibility of the government of Nauru. The stark and unpalatable reality of the situation struck me like a blow: these people who had fled persecution in their own country and had sought asylum in ours were now basically being discarded by the very people who they had turned to for aid.

I was appalled and for the first time in my life ashamed to be an Australian. I love Australia. I think it is the best place in the world to live. And so obviously did these asylum seekers, and we, the citizens of said best country, washed our hands of any responsibility for their refugee processing.

Later that year, in an attempt to keep separate those who had been transferred to Nauru prior to July 19 2013 and those who arrived under a different policy after that date, that man and most of the other 400 men on the centre at that time were transferred back to Australia and are now having their refugee determination processed under Australian law! In a wonderful postscript, I have met this man again in Australia where he is living on a bridging visa.

Justice still has her day

The Chronicling of Nauru: An Unexpected Return

February 2013.

I got the call. The one I never expected to get. The call to return to Nauru.

It took a bit of organising, a bit of explaining and coaxing. But I returned. Not to the classroom but into admin – and the loss of innocence began.

I walked into inter-office and intra-office politics. Expectations were rife. And everyone was making it up as they went along. Government, Salvation Army, other service providers. Some groups had more experience than others but largely this was a new field and there was no manual for how to proceed. You just tried not to make the same mistake twice.

I was conflicted. I felt I had let the men down because I wasn’t returning to the classroom – they asked me over and over again, why I wasn’t teaching them? But how wonderful it was to see them again! Four days spent in isolation with “mushy butt”, the local gastro bug, meant that 1/5 of my deployment this time was away from work – I felt I’d let the staff down too.

During this 3 weeks I first encountered the very strange sense of being an alien in my own organisation. The Salvation Army employed people from many different backgrounds, and although employees did not have to be Salvationists they did have to abide by our ethos. But many resisted that on a practical level. There was resistance to the distinctively Christian outlook that the Salvos team had in terms of daily prayers before shifts. It was unsettling, to say the least, to have to “fight” to have the Salvo way of doing things respected and enforced.

I also had the privilege of meeting with local pastors and hearing their concerns about the possibility of the men being released into the community. It was clear that although the Nauruan government had agreed to the Processing Centre being there, that many on the island were fearful. Representative government isn’t always representative!

It was also during these 3 weeks that I felt the undeniable call to return to Nauru full-time. A new staff structure was being implemented and as I watched the presentation by the island contract manager I realised that there was no place for me; that as an officer I sat outside the employee structure. This was both confronting and reassuring. I knew that being outside the structure meant that I could largely be my own boss but it also meant an isolation, as there would be few who would “get” where I was coming from in terms of ministry. And yet, I knew this is what I needed to do. And so I sent an email to Salvo headquarters and within a month of sending that email I had a change of appointment, although it would not be for 2 more months before I would land in Nauru full-time.

A smaller yet quite significant thing was that during this deployment I had to organise the euthanizing of my dearly loved cat, Boris. He had been off-colour before I left and emails from the vet he was boarded with allowed me to see that he was not going to get better. A bizarre and surreal thing to do at the best of times, more so thousands of kilometres away on a little island in the Pacific. However, Boris’ passing meant that there was nothing to stop me from taking on the fly-in/fly-out work.

June 2013 saw me take up the role of Religious Liaison Officer at the Regional Processing Centre on Nauru.

The Chronicling of Nauru: A Time of Innocence

November 2012 was a time of innocence and naiveté in my Nauru journey. I was blissfully ignorant of the dynamics behind the scenes. All I saw were the needs of the men and I tried to find ways to be “with” them in this situation.

I went back into a classroom situation for the first time in years – and loved it! It was daunting at first. I’d taught basic English to children, but never to adults. But humour and patience and a love to see people learn can take you a long way.

The classroom became an oasis of thankfulness. Each lesson men would shake my hand as they left class saying, “Thank you teacher.” I had never been so thanked for teaching anyone anything. It was such a joy to teach people who wanted to learn. Although they may not have had much English, the men could still show their senses of humour, they were still cheeky and asked personal questions that I would fend off with a laugh.

Each morning men would sit along the edge of the common area and wait for the classroom door to open and then they’d rush to get in to get the best seats! One lesson I sang “Waltzing Matilda” for the advanced class who then tried to come to terms with such notions as a jumbuck or a swag.

Then there was the day it rained (when does it not in the wet season?!). Men came to class bedraggled with their notebook under their shirt. Others who had made it to class in-between the downpours would laugh at the ones who came in dripping. Others decided that a soccer game was the way to go – the soccer “field” was calf-deep in water, the footy boots were thongs and the field itself only gravel. Grazes, lost thongs and a water-logged ball were no deterrent to men who were going play football regardless.

That month I asked over and over: what do I do with this when I get home? I knew the experience was expanding my internal capacity, that I was being changed, but I didn’t know what it would all lead to.

The innocence of that month for me is summed up in an event on my first full day of work there. I was given the IDs of about 6 men who I had to find and then ask a series of questions about their age, home etc. I started off squatting next to one man I was working with. Another man gave me his chair. Then as I was trying to fill in the answers another man brought me a flattened water bottle box. He had seen that I needed something to lean on and he gave me what he could. That is one of the most significant gifts I have ever received: a man who literally had nothing to give gave me of what he had.

I went home in early December, never anticipating that I would return.

The Chronicling of Nauru

In 1950 the first of a new series of children’s books was published. By 1956 the series was complete. The first book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, has gone on to become a children’s classic. In this series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” C. S. Lewis introduced us to a world within a world, to Narnia, first accessed through a wardrobe in a spare room of an old country house during World War II. The “Chronicles” allow us to journey initially with four children who go on to live two lives, one of the ‘normal’ English childhood and the other as kings and queens of Narnia.

To chronicle something is to give an orderly account of a series of events, generally events that are out of the ordinary. Over the next few weeks I will be chronicling a ‘more than ordinary’ series of events in my life, in an attempt to bring some sense to them.

When I first went to Nauru I signed a confidentiality deed with the Australian Government, represented at the time by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Penalties for breaking this code may include fines and imprisonment. The main purpose of this confidentiality deed is to inhibit the transfer of information, especially that which the government may see as damaging to itself or its operations.

I willingly and naively signed that confidentiality deed because I trusted our government to act humanely and with compassion, as that is what I believe lies at the heart of our Australian psyche. I didn’t know that doing so would place me in a position where increasingly there would develop a clash between what I held to be ethical and humanitarian behaviour and the limitations the government placed on being ethical and humanitarian in off-shore processing at Nauru and Manus. In these “Chronicles” I will endeavour to honour that agreement. But as I will be chronicling my responses to different situations and experiences there may be instances when that agreement is breached. So be it.

So welcome to “The Chronicling of Nauru.”

When I first volunteered to assist The Salvation Army in its Humanitarian Mission Services on Nauru I only put my hand up because I couldn’t think of a reason why not to! I didn’t have a burning desire to work with refugees. I didn’t especially want to work in a third world situation. I never saw myself as working for the government. I certainly didn’t think I would cope well with tropical conditions. But in the end I did all of these and more.

On the first day there I woke up and thought, “Oh my goodness. I’m here for a month! What have I let myself in for?!” Little did I know on November 6 2012 that I was embarking on an experience that would become the most significant of my working career, which would change me beyond measure, and in which my heart would be broken both for those who were seeking asylum and for my nation.

Intentional Presence

In the last few weeks I have started doing some meditation. Just spending time intentionally being present. Being still, body and mind. It’s actually hard work. My mind is so busy and thoughts intrude. But each time they do I acknowledge them and let them go.

As I was driving on the weekend I tried to transfer this practice of intentional presence to my driving. No, I didn’t close my eyes as I usually do when I’m meditating. But I did try to stay totally present with the drive, endeavouring to enjoy every moment of the time I spent in the car. Again, it was easy to let the mind wander, particularly forward to what I would do when I arrived home. But each time I just let the thought go and reminded myself to stay here.

By doing this, as when I meditate, I became much more aware of what was going on around me. I noticed the light, that yellowing light of winter and the shadows that stretched and elongated across the road. I noticed the clouds, their shape and often intense whiteness. I deliberately listened to the cars that came past me on the road, the hum and roar of the engines and tyres. Then there were the random things, like the signpost with the paint weathering on it, the brown letterbox for a property, the sheep yellow-white in the paddock, the fallen timber under the gums.

The interesting thing was that I enjoyed this drive so much. This was a road I travelled so often, I was very familiar with it and the temptation to drive by “remote control” was strong. But this time because I was intentional about being present for the drive I just loved it, I saw things I often missed and I arrived rested and content.

Contentment. That was an unexpected benefit of this mindfulness, this intentional presence. The intensity of the contentment was amazing and not something I had experienced before. There was a sense in which the intensity of presence overwhelmed me, filling me completely up. And all whilst driving!

I know that one of the benefits of meditation is the ability to be more focused and present in all situations. I was glad to discover that the same sense of focus and mindfulness could be experienced whilst doing a task. It didn’t need to be confined to being still and silent.

I will practice this intentional presence more often, in different places and settings. It will be interesting to see what difference it makes to my day.