Recent news coverage of the plight of asylum seekers has prompted me to re-visit an article that I wrote some years ago. It’s set in, what was for me, a dark period in late 2002. I think it speaks for itself.
Confronting the demons of the Bali Bombings was a long and painful process. Engaging in this process against the background of fear cultivated by the “Howard Doctrine” was difficult. My closest contact and partner at this time was working as a Mental Health Nurse at Villawood Detention Centre. Sometimes she returned with stories of what seemed to me like fundamental abuses of human rights. It was as if the world was teetering on the brink of the apocalypse. I was deeply grieved by the direction it was taking.
Eleven days after the Bali Bombings the Senate report on “A Certain Maritime Incident” was delivered. This tragedy had little impact on our community overwhelmed as it was by the Bali Bombings. I rather cynically felt it was because the SIVE X deaths weren’t European deaths, let alone Australian. Perhaps the report was just dwarfed by the stage managed events that followed the bombings. Sadly, suggestions of possible Australian Federal Police involvement in the harassment of asylum seekers deepened my grief, particularly since I’d seen the extraordinary work they did following the bombings.
I’d adopted an attitude of scepticism towards Howard Government policies, even so self doubts about my own sense of political reality remained. Fortunately, any notion that the official version might be correct was completely dispelled, about five weeks after the bombings, by the innocent comments of a seven year old girl called Afnan. She’ll never know just what an impact her words had on me.
Meeting Afnan was an unexpected pleasure. In late 2002 detention of children fueled mounting pressure on government. People were coming to understand detention of children both as a basic denial of human rights and also as a negative investment in their future mental health. Detention centres were not positive environments for children. Being exposed to the violence of suicides and attempted suicides, mass civil disobedience and protest accompanied by repressive reactions from custodial staff was clearly not the stuff of a healthy childhood. There was a growing concern about the long term affects of such detention particularly when so many of the children were simultaneously facing their own post traumatic demons.
By November of 2002 Australian Correctional Management (ACM) wanted to start offering respite to children from the Villawood Detention Centre and perhaps more generally. In concert with the Edmund Rice Centre for Social Justice they organized for a group of six children to be part of a respite program. The Programs Director at Villawood Detention Centre asked me to participate in the event and help evaluate its impact. The location was secret. It turned out to be the Christian Brothers retreat and conference centre called Mulgoa.
Six children were involved, Afnan and her brothers along with three Sabian Mandaean children who’d escaped possible extinction in Iraq only to end up in detention here. We were supported by a team of youth workers from the Edmund Rice organisation, the ACM Programs Director, and an ACM security guard.
Afnan and her brothers were Iraqi Muslims of a very secular kind. Their parents had pooled funds with others in Indonesia for passage to Australia. Later they were charged for their part in the May 2001 ‘riots’ at the Port Hedland detention centre. Along with 20 other detainees they were convicted and spent time in gaol. For a period the children were in detention without parents.
I didn’t know much about the Sabian Mandaean faith, but some Internet research and recent reading has revealed much of its history and basic tenets. Fundamental to the faith is devotion to the God of Adam, baptism, prayer and fasting. Prayers are said while facing north, the direction of paradise, a place of light where souls go to be with God after death. Originally from the marshlands of southern Iraq they acknowledged John The Baptist as a central figure in their beliefs. John is widely acknowledged throughout the Islamic world as the important , Nebi Yahya, so it’s not surprising that within the Arab world there are modern day followers of John. Sabians number just 70,000 globally, with a mere 5,000 remaining in Iraq.
Sabian gentleness was obvious. They seemed truly spiritual people, despite the fact that some Mandean writings are hostile towards Christianity and describe Jesus as a prophet of lies. Historically this is understandable, particularly since there is no evidence that they have continuity with the actual followers of the Forerunner or possess any alternate sources of writings about him. Their theology, expressed in three main sources, The Great Book, the Book of John and One Thousand and Twelve Questions, seems to comprise subsequent adaptations of the Gospels pertaining to John not additional sources.
We made good use of Mulgoa’s extensive grounds. Piling the kids into a trailer, hitched to a tractor, one of the Brothers pulled us to the far end of the complex. Here a remnant of woodland surrounded a small hermitage, a place for prayer and meditation.
We wandered free amongst the trees, their trunks studded with discarded cicada shells. I began gathering shells and attaching the spiky leg casings to my shirt. The children were fascinated and soon we all walked festooned with cicada shells, slipping effortlessly into a timelessness play space, feeling a knowing oneness, completely free in the present.
The Brother began a short commentary on the hermitage, it’s solar panel and self-sufficient water supply drawing on a recently installed rainwater tank, it seemed well appointed and comfortable. I thought of the simple hermitages used by my friends, the Brothers at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery on the far off banks of the McLaughlin. I’d learned so much from them about living in the moment of the Holy Spirit.
Opening the door the Brother led us inside. Immediately, my attention was drawn to Andre Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity at the far end of the room, not something I expected from the Christian Brothers. My response was to approach the icon, the Brother noticed my interest. Drawn out of tour guide mode by my obvious interest he wryly observed , ‘It’s not an original”. I laughed. It was the most he’d said to me. I felt an immediate bond between us, a sense of spiritual strength and authenticity merging with the playful feelings I’d drawn with me into the room. An upwelling of harmony, the Balinese might call it Dharma, or as we might say, the Holy Spirit, was so evident in that moment.
In this place of sanctuary there was no fear, no anger. It was a space that invited reflection. I slipped into thoughts about my friends in Bali. How were they? The bombings had been a devastating experience for them yet their response had been most temperate, in stark contrast to the fear based impulses nurtured by the ‘Howard Doctrine’. Politically this act of mass murder was our 9/11, both government and media seemed comfortable with such a nuance. Yet in Bali the response was more complex.
I’d already witnessed the overwhelming scenes of love and compassion expressed by the volunteers who came to the aid of blast victims. There had been a constant stream of emails and sms communications amongst those of us who’d been involved in the relief effort. A mass de-briefing in cyberspace and a constant flow of information kept us up to date with developments in Bali. Yet this was outside the formal public discourse in Australia, it was unseen. I knew that despite the emotional trauma I still felt, I’d been touched by something far greater and more powerful than the vengeful negativity of the disordered personalities responsible for this act, or the fear inherent in official responses to such terrorism.
I recalled the words of Asana Viebeke L, head of the Council of the Banjars for Kuta, Legian and Seminyak, they’d arrived in an email, some time earlier. In this place of sanctuary his words had gentle resonance, a new meaning.
“Who did this? It’s not such an important question for us to discuss. Why this happened – maybe this is more worthy of thought.”
“The overwhelming scenes of love and compassion at Sanglah Hospital show us the way forward into the future. If we hate our brothers and sisters we are lost in Kali Yuga. If we can Love all of our brothers and sisters, we have already begun to move into Kertha Yuga. We have already won ‘The War Against Terrorism’.” (From my own emails at the time – Full text in English and Indonesian available)
In this space we seemed to transcend the pain we had all so recently experienced. From here we drifted into an afternoon of craft activities, sensitivity, mutual regard and widening trust.
The Sabian Mandaean children weren’t allowed to sleep at Mulgoa, their parents wanted them back at Villawood each night, so an ACM officer was assigned to drive them to and from the venue. That evening a uniformed officer arrived to drive them back to the detention centre. He was wearing a standard ACM uniform. Suddenly Afnan, who’d been deeply engaged in creative puppet play looked up and noticing the uniformed officer exclaimed, “I don’t like officers, they came into our room and smashed our television set”.
Such spontaneous and unguarded comments from children have an immediate and undeniable air of authenticity. I had no reason to disbelieve her, quite the contrary. She shattered the last vestige of the belief that there was any justice for asylum seekers, once behind the razor wire.
The moment also resonated with a sudden awareness of the similarities in our experiences. For eighteen years I’d felt secure and safe in Bali. Thousands of Australians had adopted Bali as their play space, a space now cruelly violated.
Both Afnan and I confronted a new world, one in which fear and anger, not love and compassion, were the vital instruments in a war prosecuted by fundamentalists. This was a war in which both sides were willing to sacrifice the innocent in the pursuit of their goals. How could these children expect love and compassion, or even justice, in this climate of fear and anger? Words, once spoken on the Mount of Olives, came to mind:
“And many false prophets shall arise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”
Matthew 24:12. Authorised King James Version of The New Testament
[i] Parum Samatiga A tripartite body representing the village councils of Kuta, Legian and Seminya,.