Dispatches from the Front Lines is intended to document a very few of the many acts and actions that are taken by ordinary people to push back against Australia’s system of indefinite mandatory detention, without charge or trail, of asylum seekers. Some of these accounts will be of very personal acts of compassion and kindness. Some will be of deliberate and explicit defiance of laws that breach basic human rights. All will attempt to show by example how we can collectively push back against the racism, cruelty, injustice, erosion of human rights and basic democratic principles that are inherent to the treatment of asylum seekers by successive Australian governments over more than 20 years

A Woomera Story – Part Two

This is the concluding part to an account of the participation by six friends in the protest by some 1500 ordinary Australians that occurred at the Woomera detention centre over the Easter long weekend in 2002. In Part One we saw an account of the trip by the six companions to Woomera and the initial escapes on Good-Friday. Part Two carries the story forward from the early evening of Good-Friday after the protesters had returned to the protesters’ camp site in the wake of the breakouts. The group of travelers are now faced with the challenge of helping two escaped refugees that they’ve discovered taking refuge in the protest camp. The names of people participating have been changed. The home towns of people described have be obfuscated.

One moment I will never forget is that moment around midnight on a Saturday night, the week after Easter in 2002, when I came quietly upon Farhod in the dark. Farhod who’d been sitting in the desert for more than a week, waiting alone for rescue for nearly five days. On seeing me he jumped up, exclaiming in a thick Iranian accent “Teo, I doooon’t believe, I doooon’t believe”. I think I can honestly say that I have never seen someone so pleased to see me before or since. We hugged and I asked how he was. He’d run out of food the day before and when I checked his water he had only a litre left. This guy had really stuck it out as long as possible.

The phrase “I can do it” that had set me on the path to this midnight rendezvous in the Woomera desert had been uttered eight days before, on Good-Friday. Once I’d declared that I was the one who could sneak Ali and Farhod through the police lines around the protest camp I had to make good on that assertion. At that point I don’t think any of my travelling companions believed it could be done.

Our group of six travelling companions gathered around our camping spot within the protest camp, trying to work out how we were going to help Ali and Farhod. There was some disbelief I think that we could do what I was suggesting that we do. I explained my thinking.

‘It’s Friday night. There’s a police cordon around the camp. There are police road blocks up already, they will be stopping and searching all vehicles. Tomorrow there is sure to be an air search. We are here until at least Monday, but we are leaving eventually. At some point the police are going to search the camp. So we have to get these guys out of the camp tonight and find a place with overhead cover where they can hide. We can give them enough supplies for tonight and resupply them on the following nights. We solve the immediate problem at hand and work out solutions for the rest over the coming two or three days.’

Nobody else was presenting any better ideas or showing the level of confidence that I seemed to be exhibiting. I’m not sure that my friends realized that it was not so much confidence that I was displaying as yielding to the logic that this was our best option. I don’t actually recall that Farhod and Ali were consulted in any great detail. They were at a loss and I think relieved just to see that there were some people who seemed committed to helping them. In any case, there were no other even marginally realistic ideas on the table and so choice and debate did not really enter into it. Well just got on with the job that we accepted had to be done.

While Greg and others others in our group set about collecting the required supplies, Paul and I applied ourselves to the question of how we were going to get Ali and Farhod out of the camp site.

The convergence camp had it’s own well defined perimeter formed by parked vehicles that we’d driven to Woomera in. This make shift fortification had been in response to the attempt by the AFP to evict the advance team from the site on Thursday night and was a precaution against another effort to do something similar.

Heading east on foot was quickly ruled out when we tested the eastern perimeter and were challenged by police officers, “Where are you guys going?”. Peering farther out into the darkness we could see a line of police, spaced at about twenty meter intervals preventing anyone sneaking away in that direction. Exiting via the north perimeter would be taking Ali and Farhod towards the detention center and the exclusion zone. This was ‘cop territory’ and out of the question. South took you straight into the Woomera township, that did not seem such a good idea.

This left the west, which required crossing the main north-south running road that bounded this side of the convergence camp. This route was very exposed but it did lead to open desert, which was an attractive place to try and disappear into. Not only was there street lighting but the police had brought in diesel powered lighting units as well. Additionally there was a bright moon up as there usually is on Easter-Friday. However, the fact that this route was so exposed meant that the police were probably not expecting anyone to try it. They did not seem to be watching this perimeter anywhere near as closely as they were watching the very poorly lit eastern perimeter for example. So with my backpack full of supplies and kitted out in my hiking gear which I’d thankfully brought with me, I decided to test the west perimeter.

Sandra was a temporary collaborator with our group. She and I walked straight across the open and well lit road as calmly and casually we could. The police saw us but did not react. We were either too white or too casual or both. Once across the road I realised it was an unnecessary risk to cross back to collect Farhod and Ali only to have to cross the road a third time with them in tow. There was a fence line nearby that ran westward perpendicularly away from the road and disappeared into the darkness of the desert. Pointing this out I turned to Sandra referring to Ali and Farhod, “Go back and send them across, I will meet them at the end of that fence line”.

While Sandra went back over the road to fetch Ali and Farhod I walked westwards towards the dark end of the fence line as inconspicuously as I could. I knew that if the police stopped me with all the gear I was carrying it would be completely obvious what I was up to. There was a decent chance of me getting arrested or detained. That would not be such an issue for me, they could hardly charge me with walking through the desert with hiking and camping gear. It would however scupper our plans to help Ali and Farhod.

As I walked I could see that I was casting a clearly discernible shadow on the desert floor. This meant that I was well illuminated and likely quite visible. I felt a strong urge to scurry to the relative security of the darkness some 150 meters or so ahead of me. However, I knew that sharp and sudden movements would be more likely to be noticed and attract attention. I knew it was best just to move at a normal pace. Concentrating on controlling my breathing, keeping calm and walking as smoothly as I could, I reached the darkness at the end of the fence line. I crouched down and waited quietly for my two charges to arrive.

More than just ‘send them across’, Sandra and Beth walked arm in arm with Ali and Farhod, straight across the road under full illumination and in full view of the police. Again the police did not react, at least at first. Once Sandra and Beth had delivered Farhod and Ali to me they crossed back over the road to the camp. Then the police certainly did take notice. Four going across the road and only two coming back is a bit of a give away.

Long after Easter when stories were being related it was common to notice that people were admiring and impressed with what I did that weekend. I often thought and stated that they were overlooking the fact that it was Sandra and Beth, two complete beginners at activism, who’d taken the biggest risks. If these two women had been arrested walking Ali and Farhod over the road, they would have been charged with harbouring or possibly aiding and abetting an escape. These were not trivial charges. I still think that what they did was the most daring of the things that were done by our small group that weekend.

Within a few minutes of Sandra and Beth crossing back into the safety and anonymity of the tent cluttered camp the police sent out search vehicles into the desert. Farhod, Ali and I found ourselves crawling along on our bellies over the rather sharp and stony ground in order to avoid the police search lights. I was pleased to see that both these guys knew how to crawl without sticking their bums in the air, forearms flat to the ground, arm over arm.

During the first several minutes of crawling away into the dark two police vehicles came as close as ten meters without spotting us. In spite of the police search I was not very worried about being seen. In the absence of night vision gear, which seemed likely to be the case, I knew that it’d be very hard for them to spot us. We would however have to keep our focus and concentration. It was all about seeing them before they saw us and being patient, quiet and careful. Just like when I used to bow-hunt feral animals many years before, only this time I was the one being hunted. Nevertheless I knew that the most risky part was over. We were now in a scenario where we had a huge advantage, for the time being at least. I just had to find Ali and Farhod somewhere to hide out.

A Hike in the Desert

Before long we were upright and walking generally southwards. I had some idea that we might be able to find a culvert along the Indian-Pacific rail line which seemed an achievable distance away. While culverts may seem superfluous in the desert, they are needed to cope with occasional rainfall. This would be good protection over the course of the next day from both the hot sun and the anticipated air search.

In moving through the desert I was keeping in mind the need to remain inconspicuous. This included keeping off high ground that could see us silhouetted us against the night sky, and generally trying to avoid presenting a profile against a homogeneous background. I was also mindful not to walk along any dirt tracks as the police were sure to be using these same tracks as they drove about searching the dark for us.

We were walking steadily but carefully when we came up to a track which cut perpendicularly roughly east to west across our southerly line of march. Without thinking why, I stopped short of crossing the track. I thought to myself “Why did I just stop?” and then quickly understood why. My old bow hunting instincts and skills had surfaced. The danger was that there might be a police patrol on higher ground further up the track, waiting and watching down the line of the track. I knew that’s what I’d do if I was searching for escaped refugees trying to sneak about in the desert. It’s far easier to spot someone crossing a light coloured sandy track than it is to spot them just walking through the great expanse of empty desert.

Catching Ali and Farhod by the elbows, one hand for each of them, I gently pulled them to a stop. They were a bit impatient and did not understand why we had halted. I just tugged at them gently indicating for them to crouch down with me and wait. I very carefully scanned the higher ground to the left and right of us, up and down the track, but I could not see or hear anything to cause concern.

After what seemed like a rather long wait I was starting to consider just crossing the track when we heard a diesel engine start up. About 150 meters along the track, just below the low ridge line to the east, we saw a pair of headlights come on. Some police had indeed been waiting and watching for someone to cross the track. At least one police officer knew about the best way to try and spot people sneaking about in the desert. The fact the police vehicle was parked below the crest on the track also suggested that I was not the only person being careful not silhouette himself against the night sky.

The police troop carrier came slowly down the track in low gear with the characteristic clackety clack of a low revving diesel engine. They had the back-facing doors open with two officers sitting, facing backward with the legs hanging out, scanning the desert. They went passed without spotting us. I noted with quiet satisfaction that this was the third time that searching police had been within ten meters of us that evening. If I’d been a little less patient than the police in that vehicle had been, we’d have been spotted crossing the track for sure. In contrast to my performance earlier in the afternoon, now I was doing it right. Correct mind set, right tactics, staying focussed on the few simple rules that counted.

It’d been about four hours since we had slipped through the police lines when I began to be concerned about Ali’s ability to keep going much longer. Then, very fortuitously, we stumbled on what was perhaps the highest standing vegetation for many kilometres in any direction, albeit dead. Later I realised that several rarely-flowing creeks drained into this area and this is why there were stands of dead reeds all about. At a meter or so high they were high enough to crawl under and give some shade and cover from searching aircraft. This spot also had the advantage of being well away from any roads or tracks, making it harder for any searchers to stumble upon.

Farhod was acutely aware of his companion’s condition. He stopped immediately, saying “Here is good. We can hide here”. So I carefully plotted the coordinates with my GPS and doled out the meager supplies. It was not much but it only had to last until I resupplied them the following night.

After explaining I’d be back the next night I set off back to the protest camp. By the time I got back to my friends I had been away for something like 6 hours. I’d managed to slip back into the camp without being spotted by the police, which was important. I did not want them suspecting what we were up to and I certainly wanted to avoid being caught with a GPS unit that had the coordinates of our fugitives saved in it’s memory.

I was very tired and my companions were very pleased to see me. Beth greeted me with a huge hug. They had kept some food for me, but I was too tired to eat. I just went to sleep on the back seat of the van we’d driven to Woomera in. It was not so much the physical exertion of the walk that had made me tired. It had been less than 15 km all up and not much more than half of that with a full pack. What was really exhausting is the state of constant alertness and concentration, trying to think on your feet and make good decisions. The weight of responsibility for two escaped refugees can’t be measured in kilograms.

Hatching a Plan

The next day was Saturday and I did not participate in the protests. In fact I did not participate in any of the protest actions for the rest of the weekend. Instead during the day I planned, prepared and rested. During the nights I hiked and sneaked through the desert.

Over the course of Saturday our plans firmed up. Beth, Tanya and I took the 180 km trip into Port Augusta to see what the situation was with Police road blocks. As predicted there was one leaving the Woomera area, with another unexpected one closer to Port Augusta. We also saw the expected air search. A small fixed wing aircraft was trolling about south of Woomera, close to where our two fugitives were hiding out. So there were two responses from police that we had predicted and circumvented. We felt a little pleased about that.

While three of us had been scouting road blocks the rest of the group had found some activists from Melbourne who were willing to drive back up here in a week to pick up Farhod and Ali. We assembled enough supplies to last a week by talking to other protesters and explaining that we were trying to help a couple of escaped refugees. The whole camp was infused with an amazing attitude of ‘What do you need? I am willing to help’. It was 1500 people who were saying to the police, the government and the whole country ‘This policy of detention is shit and we are just not going to tolerate it any more. If that means breaking the law, if that means giving my last few dollars or the shirt off my back, then so be it’. And people did do these things. We had no difficulty in collecting food, clothes, cash and camping gear. There was a tremendous feeling of solidarity.

A plan in action

Over the next two evenings I hiked back out to the hiding place and stocked Ali and Farhod up with the supplies we’d assembled. On the Sunday night there was more to carry that I could manage by myself, so Greg came with me.

Farhod and Ali did not come into sight until we were only meters away from their hiding place. ‘Welcome, welcome’ they said as they invited us to sit down with them. They offered us a drink. I thought ‘Bloody hell, these guys are in one of the most desperate situations that you could think of and they are still trying to be polite and treat us as guests’. I reflected briefly on how that compared to the hospitality that this country had shown them since they arrived here seeking asylum.

We sat and ate a little, drank a little and reflected on the occurrences of the weekend. I joked “We whipped Ruddock’s arse” referring to the hard line immigration minister and that in some small way we’d won a victory and caused some embarrassment for him and his government. Initially Farhod and Ali did not understand what I meant, so I stood up, leaned forward and began spanking myself on the arse, “We whipped Ruddock’s arse!”. Greg followed suit and Farhod and Ali now understanding the joke joined in. There we were, two Australian activists and two escaped refugees from the other side of the world. Four men standing in the middle of the South Australian desert in a bent over posture and spanking our own behinds while laughing perhaps a little too loudly given the circumstance. It was a moment of connection and a point of common reference, even if a rather absurd one.

After having a laugh I explained in English and my very few words of Farsi the plan that we’d hatched. The group I was with could not wait about for the road blocks to come down as this could take several days. So the plan was for Ali and Farhod to wait here until midnight on Shambe, Saturday, six days from now. The two collaborating activists from Melbourne would come back with me to pick them up. These activists were hooked in with a fledgling sanctuary network and they’d be able to keep Ali and Farhod hidden from the authorities.

Greg and I gave them a mobile phone and I told them that I would call every day at midday. This was important to reassure them that they had not been abandoned, especially in the case of Ali. I really had doubts about his mental fortitude and stamina. I was hoping that the older, steadier and clearly less traumatised Farhod would be able to help him through. I was wishing that they’d both be able to stand the wait. I knew that it was a huge ask, but it was the best plan we could manage with the time and the resources that we had to hand.

Once this was all explained and we’d given them all the supplies, Greg and I said our goodbyes and set off for the convergence camp site.

A Hard Wait

The next day was Monday. The protesters broke camp and we all headed back to our various homes all over the country. I remember the police painstakingly searching through the buses and vehicles that were carrying people home. At the road block they searched our van and picked through our trailer.

The first day back I rang the phone we’d left with Ali and Farhod at midday as arranged. Farhod answered and the first news he had for me was that Ali had struck out for Adelaide on his own on Tuesday. He did not even wait 36 hours from the time I last saw him, clearly not believing that complete strangers would come back for him as promised. The ability to trust other people is one of the many things that detention destroys within people.  Later we learned that the first car that Ali tried to flag down turned out to be a police vehicle. That was the end of that flight for freedom. This was not the end of Ali’s story, but we won’t go into that entertaining tale here.

Over the phone I reassured Farhod that I’d be back at midnight on Shambe evening as arranged. I continued to ring Farhod each day until his battery ran out. All the while we were working out the details of how we’d retrieve him from the Woomera desert.

The plan we ended up with was that I’d fly to Adelaide on the Saturday. The Melbourne volunteers would hire a car, drive up and meet me. We’d then continue to Woomera together, arriving about 10 pm or so. They’d drop me off at a suitable spot. Using my GPS to navigate I’d hike out into the desert and find Farhod in time for the midnight rendezvous I’d promised. Then I’d bring him back to the road where I’d call in the car to pick us up. The two drivers would go back to Melbourne with Farhod, dropping me in Adelaide on the way. There I’d catch my return flight back home, arriving Sunday afternoon. Once back in Melbourne the two drivers would pass Farhod on to the newly forming sanctuary networks.

In the event it turned out exactly as planned, it all went perfectly smoothly.

A Happy Ending

After we parted company in Adelaide the Sunday after Easter in 2002, I never saw or spoke to Farhod again. I did hear through the grape vine how things had gone for him.

Farhod never went back into detention. He went into the sanctuary networks that were being set up at that time. That might make things sound a bit grander that they actually were.

It’s important to remember that at this time the government and the Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock were completely intransigent on this issue. They were deaf to reason and appeals for compassion and unwilling to compromise under any circumstance. While there was political utility in attacking refugees and being cruel, that’s exactly what they would do. However there were increasing numbers of Australians of good conscience who were coming to the view that when injustice becomes law, then resistance becomes duty. In the face of such intransigence what else was there to do but directly challenge the system? It’s people like this that supported and harboured Farhod for several years.

Around 2005 the political climate around asylum seekers changed. Now the agenda of the Liberal government was to just resolve long outstanding cases in an effort to placate dissent on the back bench and growing community unease with long term detention. The refugee rights campaign was getting more traction and in particular the policies were cast in a very negative light after the Baxter 2005 convergence, which was modelled after Woomera 2002.

More than a few escaped refugees, including Farhod, were able to negotiate solutions to their situations that did not involve going back into detention. Farhod himself was granted a permanent protection visa.

So I think we probably saved him four years of detention or something of that order. Without us he’d have either had to agree to go back to Iran and face his persecutors, or endure a total of something like five years in detention. That much detention is often enough to destroy people or at least leave them with very long lasting damage.

The last I heard Farhod was living in Brisbane, had become and Australian citizen, gotten married and was in business for himself. Something to do with house construction or maintenance I believe. I think he’d started off just as a self employed tradesman. But as is typical for people who have to give up everything that they know just for the chance to live in safety and free of fear, they are damn well determined to make the most of a second chance at life. To this day I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to have participated in some small way in allowing that to happen.

Lessons Learned

It’s been more than 10 years since the iconic and historic protest at Woomera, over the easter long weekend in 2002. But some of the lessons we learned from that event still resonate today, even more so.

At the time and often later I reflected how unreal that whole situation seemed. It was like the script of a World War Two French resistance movie or something. I often wondered if we were just exaggerating the seriousness of the situation to justify our pretending at being heroes and serve our own egos. On serious reflection I can say that we definitely were not.

People were being held in indefinite mandatory detention without charge or trial, often incommunicado for months at a time. People were self harming, going on hunger strike and attempting suicide in detention. Children, even unaccompanied and alone were being held in hell holes like Woomera for years. What we did at Woomera was the minimum moral and ethical response to wilful and deliberate human rights abuses.

Today the abuses and consequences of Australia’s policies are even more severe. We’ve even had a murder in detention that involved staff employed at the centre. None of this has shaken the resolve of the Abbott government in pursuing these policies. Even Ruddock in 2002 baulked at the prospects for hunger striking refugees dying on his watch. The current government is even more cruel and intransigent than Howard and Ruddock ever were.

One of the more surprising lessons from the Woomera convergence came from how weak the government response to the protest was. At the time of the breakouts I was thinking ‘They are going to cane us in the media. They will be calling us violent terrorists’. In fact the government response was unexpectedly mild.

Howard at one point commented something along the lines of ‘I don’t think this is very useful for their cause’. Was he giving us campaign advice now? The best that the Justice Minister could muster was ‘The government absolutely condemns the actions of the protesters’. Well duh, we did not think you’d applaud us! I was confused, why were they not going after us more viciously?

Then it dawned on me. They don’t want to give the story oxygen. They don’t want the general public appreciating that 1500 mostly very ordinary people came out into the desert to directly defy government policy, actually helped refugees escape, and got away with it! They did not want the message carried by our actions to get out. That message was ‘The people on the inside of these places are not fundamentally different to me, they are fundamentally the same as me. They deserve the same human rights as I do and I reject the racism and the fences that the government uses to seek to divide us’.

Therefore the government’s only tactical option was to say as little as possible and hope that public attention moves on to the footy results or the latest royal gossip in the shortest possible period of time.

This was a very important lesson to me. It means that we should not be afraid of directly challenging the laws and the politics behind them. It means that we should be ambitions and believe that we can intervene in the political process. It means that we should do these things, even though we are socialised to think that our political participation should be limited to voting once every few years and choosing between two potential governments who have almost exactly the same policies.

But the question remains, if we can’t appeal to an opposition to pursue a different policy, and history suggests that we can’t, if we can’t hope in any acceptable time frame to make progressive refugee policy broadly attractive in the electorate, then how can we win this campaign? Well the answer is surprisingly simple and totally achievable.

Because the ALP and the Coalition both pursue and support almost identical policies, and in particular because the ALP has been completely resistant to taking up arguments against the policies, it is not correct to conceive of solutions in terms of one or other of the major parties adopting an electorally successful and progressive policy. We hoped that this is what we’d get with Kevin Rudd in 2007. Ultimately we see that this failed and we ended up with a set of policies under the ALP that were even worse than under Howard. This only enabled and emboldened the Abbott government to implement even worse policies again.

The ugly truth is that almost the entire political class in Australia are committed to these policies. Some gleefully, some reluctantly, but almost all committed nonetheless. There are very few exceptions. This is because almost all our politicians see political utility in these policies. Therefore we must think of solutions in terms of the interests of the entire political class, not just one party or another within that class.

What the political classes in all regimes and political systems really fear is a population that is politically engaged and active. The political classes generally prefer the populations they rule to be passive and disinterested in politics and to just leave the whole thing of running society to them. This is certainly true of the dominant factions or sections within the political class. This absolutely includes the people who are the power brokers and the deal makers.

This is a critical lesson for our campaign for refugee rights and increasingly the human rights of us all. The ruling factions in the ALP are as afraid of mass engagement as the Liberal party are. Direct actions and mass mobilisations frighten risk averse politicians. They are afraid that we might learn just how much power we can have when we act together, in good conscience, with humanity in our hearts. They are very afraid that such a consciousness for collective action might spill over into other policy areas like industrial relations, health care, education or defence policy.

In a political environment where both the major parties have effectively identical policies we must have tactics and strategies that are scary to them both. This means that the very least we must have a significant minority that is politically active, engaged and mobilised. The best research shows that there at least 2 million adults in this country who are already opposed to current policies. Our primary task must me to mobilise as many of these as we can. It’s more than enough of a constituency to scare the hell out of both the ALP and the Coalition. It may make them think that the best course of action to maintain the duopoly of political control in this country is to make some serious concessions on asylum seeker policy.

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