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Does writing matter Monthly magazine - asylum seeker stories

link to Monthly Magazine article

It is a long article, well worth reading  - the stories of asylum seekers is as follows

Richard Flanagan

"Let me read a handful to you. If you want to read them yourself, go to the Guardian website where these are published, along with 2000 others."

28 April 2015
At about 2129hrs … [NAME REDACTED] approached staff in RPC3 area [NUMBER REDACTED]. She began to vomit. A strong smell of bleach was detected. A code blue was called. IHMS medical staff attended and [NAME REDACTED] was transported by ambulance to RPC1 for further treatment … At 2220hrs IHMS informed Control that as a result of their assessment it appears that [NAME REDACTED] has ingested Milton baby bottle sterilizing tablets.

28 September 2014
I was asked on Friday (26-9-2014) by a fellow teacher [NAME REDACTED] if I would sit with an asylum seeker [NAME REDACTED] who was sobbing. She is a classroom helper for the children … She reported that she has been asking for a 4 minute shower as opposed to 2 minutes. Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favours. It is a male security person. She did not state if this has or hasn’t occurred. The security officer wants to view a boy or girl having a shower.

12 June 2015
I [NAME REDACTED] met with [NAME REDACTED] in [REDACTED] at RPC1 … During the course of discussion [NAME REDACTED] disclosed that she had sex while in the community and that it had not been consensual.
CW asked [NAME REDACTED] if she had told anyone about this, [NAME REDACTED] stated that she had not told anyone other than CW that it was not consensual including IHMS. She stated that she did not tell IHMS that it was “rape” as she did not want “lots of questions” and if she said it was rape there would be “lots of questions”. [NAME REDACTED] stated that she told the man “no, no, no” and that the only man she wanted to have sexual relations with was her husband … the incident occurred during Open Centre and the man was Nauruan.

3 September 2015
[NAME REDACTED] was crying and was observed to be very shaken … [NAME REDACTED] reported that a Wilsons Security guard had just hit him. [NAME REDACTED] explained to [NAME REDACTED] that he was in tent [REDACTED] with [NAME REDACTED], [NAME REDACTED] and [NAME REDACTED] when a security guard entered and yelled at them, “Why are you in here?”. [NAME REDACTED] then reported that the security guard grabbed him around the throat and hit his head against the ground twice. [NAME REDACTED] also said that the security guard threw a chair on him … [NAME REDACTED] asked [NAME REDACTED] to show her who the security guard was. The children lead CW to area 10 and pointed at a male security guard … [NAME REDACTED] said “he hit me”. [NAME REDACTED] then asked [NAME REDACTED] “why did you hit me?”. [NAME REDACTED] then moved towards [NAME REDACTED] and in a raised voice responded “did you come in here, you are not allowed in here, get out of here”. [NAME REDACTED] then lead [sic] the children out of area 10.

2 December 2014
At approximately 1125 hours I was performing my duties as Whiskey 3.3 on a high watch in Tent [REDACTED] was alerted by an Asylum Seeker that female Asylum Seeker [NAME REDACTED] was trying to hang herself in Tent [NAME REDACTED]. I immediately responded. On arrival I saw [NAME REDACTED] holding [NAME REDACTED] up. [NAME REDACTED] appeared to have a noose around her neck. I called for a Code Blue straight away. I then assisted [NAME REDACTED] by untying the rope while [NAME REDACTED] held her and we took [NAME REDACTED] and placed her in the recovery position.

29 May 2015
[NUMBER REDACTED] yo male was on a whiskey high watch from a previous incident … [NAME REDACTED] grabbed an insect replant [sic] bottle and started drinking a small amount of its contents. CSO grabbed [NAME REDACTED] by the shoulders while his PSS offsider removed the bottle from [NAME REDACTED]’s hands. [NAME REDACTED] sat down and began sobbing over the incident.

15 January 2015
I (SCA CSPW [REDACTED 1]) was speaking with [REDACTED 2] in the grass above the security entrance of Area 9. [REDACTED 2] informed me that her husband [REDACTED 3] had reported 4 months ago to her that he had been in a car with his [NUMBER REDACTED] year old son with two [REDACTED] Wilson’s Security officers. [REDACTED 2] stated that according to [REDACTED 3], [REDACTED 4] was sitting in-between himself and the security officer. [REDACTED 2] stated that this car was taking the two from Area 9 to IHMS RPC3. [REDACTED 2] alleged that [REDACTED 3] informed her that their son [REDACTED 4] had said to [REDACTED 3] that one Nauruan officer had put his hand up [REDACTED 4’s] shorts and was “playing with his bottom”. [REDACTED 3] … removed [REDACTED 4] from the middle of the car and placed [REDACTED 4] on his lap but did not say anything as he feared the two [REDACTED] officers in the car with him … [REDACTED 2] informed me that approximately five months ago a [REDACTED 5] Officer had ran his hand down the back of her head and her head scarf and said to her “if there is anything you want on the outside let me know. I can get you anything.”

26 June 2014
[REDACTED 1] informed SCA caseworker that his partner [REDACTED 2] tried to commit suicide by overdosing on medication pills. [REDACTED 1] stated that the couple changed rooms without permission. There were some family pictures on wall of the old room and [REDACTED 2] was trying to rip them off the plastic wall … Wilson security officer entered the room and tried to stop [REDACTED 2] from damaging property. [REDACTED 1] stated that Wilson officer then stepped on her son’s picture and kicked them and told them to shut up. After that [REDACTED 2] got upset and went to her room and took the pills.

5 May 2015
On morning bus run [NAME REDACTED] showed me a heart he had sewn into his hand using a needle and thread. I asked why and he said “I don’t know” … [NAME REDACTED] is [NUMBER REDACTED] yrs of age.

27 September 2014
Witnesses informed CM that a young person had sewn her lips together, one of the officers [REDACTED 1] had gone to the young person’s room to see her. The officer then went to his station with other officers and they all began laughing. Witnesses approached the officer asking what they were laughing about, the officers informed witnesses that they had told a joke and were laughing about it. Witnesses then stated that the young person’s father had approached officers the next evening seeking an apology from officer [REDACTED 1] for laughing at his daughter. The young person’s father at this time was informed that the officer [REDACTED 1] was at the airport, allegedly this is the reason the father then went and significantly self-harmed.

There is a connection between me standing here before you and a child sewing her lips together – an act of horror to make public on her body the truth of her condition. Because her act and the act of writing share the same human aspiration.
Everything has been done to dehumanise asylum seekers. Their names and their stories are kept from us. They live in a zoo of cruelty. Their lives are stripped of meaning. And they confront this tyranny – our Australian tyranny – with the only thing not taken from them, their bodies. In their meaningless world, in acts seemingly futile and doomed, they assert the fact that their lives still have meaning.
And is this not the very same aspiration as writing?
In the past year, what Australian writer has written as eloquently of what Australia has become as asylum seekers have with petrol and flame, with needle and thread? What Australian writer has so clearly exposed the truth of who we are? And what Australian writer has expressed more powerfully the desire for freedom – that freedom which is also Australia?
That is why Australian writing is the smell of charring flesh as 23-year-old Omid Masoumali burns his body in protest. The screams of 21-year-old Hodan Yasin as she too sets herself alight. Australian writing is the ignored begging of a woman being raped. Australian writing is a girl who sews her lips together. Australian writing is a child who sews a heart into their hand and doesn’t know why.
We are compelled to listen, to read. But more: to see.
The ancient Mesopotamians thought the footprints left by birds in the delta mud were the words of the gods. If the key to those words could be found, the gods could be seen. We need to use words to once more see each other for what we are: fellow human beings, no more, no less. To find the divine in each other, which is another way of saying all that we share that is greater than our individual souls.
I say see, but of course there are no images. There are only leaked reports, which contradict so much of what the government claims. If there was an image of a woman just raped, of the back of murdered Reza Berati’s bloody head; if there was just one image – just one – we would face a national crisis of honour, of meaning, of identity.
And though I wish I could, I cannot speak for Omid Masoumali. I cannot speak for Hodan Yasin. I cannot speak for the unnamed who have tried to kill themselves swallowing razor blades, hanging themselves with sheets, swallowing insecticides, cleaning agents and pills, and then were punished for doing so. I cannot speak for that girl with sewn lips. I can only speak for myself.
And I will say this: Australia has lost its way.
All I can think is this is not my Australia.
But it is.
It is too easy to ascribe the horror of what I have just read to a politician, to a party or even to our toxic politics. These things, though, have happened because of a more general cowardice and inertia, because of conformity; because it is easier to be blind than to see, to be deaf than to hear, to say things don’t matter when they do. Whether we wish it or not, these things belong to us, are us, and we are diminished because of them.
We have to accept that no Australian is innocent, that these crimes are committed in Australia’s name, which is our name, and Australia has to answer to them, and so we must answer for them to the world, to the future, to our own souls.
We meekly accept what are not only affronts but also threats to our freedom of speech, such as the draconian section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act, which allows for the jailing for two years of any doctors or social workers who bear public witness to children beaten or sexually abused, to acts of rape or cruelty. The new crime is not crime, but the reporting of state-sanctioned violence. And only fools or tyrants argue that national security resides in national silence.
A nation-sized spit hood is being pulled over us. We can hear the guards’ laughter, the laughter of the powerful at the powerless. We can hear once again the answer made all those years ago in a schoolyard as to why one human could hurt another, the real explanation of why the Australian government does what it does.
Because it can.
“All I say,” Camus wrote in his great novel, The Plague, “is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”
Our country’s vainglorious boasts, of having a world-leading economy, of punching above its weight, of having the most liveable cities, and so on, are worth nothing unless we can bear this truth. We can be a good nation or a trivial, fearful prison. But we cannot be both.
There is such a thing as a people’s honour. And when it is lost, the people are lost. That is Australia today. If only out of self-respect, we should never have allowed to happen what has.
Every day that the asylum seekers of Nauru and Manus Island live in the torment of punishment without end, guilty of no crime, we too become a little less free. In their liberation lies our hope; the hope of a people that can once more claim honour in the affairs of this world.
For Camus, resistance was the heroism of goodness and kindness. “It may seem a ridiculous idea,” he writes, “but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
Camus understood moments such as Australia is now passing through with asylum seekers not as wars that might be won, but aspects of human nature that we forget or ignore at our peril.
“The plague bacillus,” Camus writes, “never dies or vanishes entirely … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and … the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
We in Australia were well contented. But now the rats are among us; the plague is upon us; and each of us must choose whether we are with the plague or against it.
A solidarity of the silenced, a resistance of the shaken, starts with what Camus understood was the necessity of weighing our words, by calling things by their proper names, and knowing that not doing so leads to the death and suffering of many.
It is by naming cruelty as cruelty, evil as evil, the plague as the plague.
The role of the writer in one sense is the very real struggle to keep words alive, to restore to them their proper meaning and necessary dignity as the means by which we divine truth. In this battle the writer is doomed to fail, but the battle is no less important. The war is only lost when language ceases to serve its most fundamental purpose, and that only happens when we are persuaded that writing no longer matters.
In all these questions I don’t say that writing and writers are an answer or a panacea. That would be a nonsense. But even when we are silenced we must continue to write. To assert freedom. To find meaning.
With ink, with keyboard. With thread, with flame, with our very bodies.
Because writing matters. More than ever, it matters.
A version of this essay was delivered as the inaugural Boisbouvier Lecture at the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival.
Richard Flanagan is the author of The Sound of One Hand ClappingGould’s Book of Fish and the Man Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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