Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Once You've Been to Baxter You Can't Sit on the Fence

A story from the Baxter 05 convergence written by the NUS National Environment Officer.

I spent this Easter in the desert. I spent this Easter protesting at Baxter detention centre to draw the world's attention to the injustice of Australia's racist and inhumane mandatory detention system and treatment of asylum seekers.

Thursday morning as I heaved my pack onto the bus outside UTS, Sydney, all I was feeling was tired. Although I'd been planning for Baxter for months now, getting posters out from NUS and trying to get new students involved, I felt so unprepared. I'd even forgotten my hat.

Most of the people on my bus, including me, had never been to Baxter before. On the TV screen at the front, as the small towns hurtled past on the 25 hour journey, we watched footage of the last Baxter convergence, in 2003, and the convergence before that at Woomera. Watching footage of the fences being pulled down was so beautiful. Even more beautiful was the fact that there had been no police there to stop it!

When we got to Adelaide and to the Uni, I wished I'd had time before we left to make some placards and banners. I had so many ideas in my head but they weren't much use there now. Marching to Amanda Vandstone's house in the hot sun with only a small group of us on the pavement through suburbia wasn't the start to the full-on weekend I'd expected, but soon we moved to the road and as we walked up the hill the momentum built.

Waiting for us were the Melbourne crew, and our numbers doubled as we started chanting in front of the lines of cops protecting the residence of one of the people responsible for perpetuating some of the worst human rights abuses in Australia.

I made a speech. It was the first time I've made a speech into a megaphone. I had written it at breakfast this morning because I'd learnt some of the scheduled speakers had pulled out. People listened and I hoped they couldn't hear my voice shaking. I wondered if the police behind me were listening too, of if they were tuning out. The media microphones and cameras pointing at me freaked me out a bit. But people afterwards told me it was a good speech, and I was quoted in The Australian which was exciting for my mum (hi mum!).

After we'd had a meeting and decided where to camp, we set the tents up and marched down to the detention centre. The lights around the perimeter fence were so bright they burned the backs of my eyes. A police helicopter flew above us with a spotlight relentlessly searching the ground for any signs of activists on covert missions, or asylum seekers lucky enough to have escaped from the fortified prison. Not that there was any chance of anyone escaping this weekend; there were as many police as protesters there, as we soon learnt.

The white wooden fence posts in front of the barbed wire electric fence were shaking that night as we drummed and sung and chanted and made as much noise as we could, trying to let those imprisoned inside know that we were here, that we were here for them, that we cared, that not all Australians were racist and willing to lock them up in the desert for the "crime" of seeking asylum and fleeing from persecution.

We stayed until exhaustion set in and our throats were sore, then marched back to the tents where I fell into a deep sleep amongst the red desert dust under a full moon and a night speckled with the stars you just can't see in the city, interrupted only by the police helicopter and its intrusive lights. Just over the hill were the asylum seekers in the hell-hole of Baxter. I didn't know if they were sleeping or awake, but I hoped they knew I was thinking of them as I fell asleep.

Saturday morning, and another 3.5 km march down to the detention centre. We wanted to walk around the whole perimeter of the centre and we carried balloons to fly over the centre so the detainees could see them. They can only see up, not outwards. Only sky. And hopefully, our coloured balloons gave them hope.

The police didn't want us to march around the perimeter. We knocked down the first fence and kept going. I was wishing I hadn't worn thongs as I found myself at the front and staring at the heavy police boots. We chanted so the detainees could hear us and to keep our own spirits up. AZadi - freeDOM - AZadi - freeDOM echoed from all of us to the beat of the drums we carried.

My own drum was just an empty water container tied over my shoulder by a scarf. It was soon lost in the police scuffle as they charged on us, marching in blue and khaki lines into our linked arms. It was scary. I was scared. It felt like a war zone. A line of us, a line of them. We began to retreat. Then the horses charged, at a trot. A row of white horses. A woman fell over and the horses kept going. She could have died. People were screaming and crying. The media just kept taking footage. My blue thong was lost in the crush but a reporter went closer to the cops than i could have, and handed it back to me. Thankyou. Small acts of kindness in a crazy situation.

We moved back and along to the front gates. Some had been arrested, some hurt, but most of us were fine. Singing and dancing and drumming and chanting outside the gates again, stopping the normal flow of the centre's regularity. Regulated torture. Rules for breaking people down. Dehumanising them. Numbers not names. We stayed until mid afternoon then headed back in the heat to the tents.

Saturday evening a small group of us headed down to the centre again bearing kites. A woman had been arrested last year for flying one but the charges had been dropped. We had made beautiful ones and hoped we could get them over the fence so the detainees could see them. The sun was setting over the desert and it was incredibly beautiful. I wished the people behind the bars could see this and be here with us now. We take our freedom for granted in Australia.

The police soon appeared when they realised we were coming with kites. One woman was flying a kite by herself when a line of about eight police marched towards her in formation. 'Run' we screamed, but she didn't. She walked towards them as if to ask what was going on, and they grabbed her. She was arrested. Some kites were seized. We headed back, only to find the rest of the camp marching towards us on the road. They'd heard we needed support and so came down. If only they'd been there half an hour before!

They continued down to the gates to hold a vigil that night. I went back to the tents to sleep. Apparantly at the gates someone got drunk and naked and played guitar to the police. Of course, that's the bit the media showed. I wish people would think about the consequences of their actions before they act; and that applies just as much to activists as it does to Amanda Vandstone and John Howard. At the camp that night we heard news from some of those at the vigil that they could hear the detainees shouting and chanting back to them through the fence.

Easter morning I woke up to the singing of one of the Aboriginal elders, the custodians of the land. I thought of all the Australians that would be going to church this morning. Teaching their 2.5 kids about the Christian values of compassion and loving thy neighbour (unless they arrive on a boat and are not white). Jesus was a middle Eastern man persecuted for his beliefs about social justice. Would he be given asylum in John Howard's Australia?

We held one last march to the detention centre that morning. Rosie and I held the banner we wanted to fly as a kite, held up with tens of helium balloons. It read Freedom; close Baxter, and then freedom written in four different languages. I wasn't very excited about the prospect of being arrested for flying a kite, but at least today I wasn't wearing thongs. Before we really knew what was happening, police lunged and burst the balloons holding up our kite-banner.

I let the string go so it could fly into the sky but it was too late; the balloons were burst and in shreds on the ground. Bright red balloons. Like kids toys. I kicked myself inside for not letting go sooner so it could have flown up above us all, a sign of hope made by Sydney Uni students. Instead, we marched on to the gates.

We amassed at the fence and made as much noise as we could. We flew kites. The police charged through the fence and over the pipeline to confiscate the kites. We kept one and I helped someone put it back together. He flew it as he was running from the police. A few hundred metres down the line, we heard shouting and saw police and police horses hurrying there. Apparantly someone tried to climb the fence.

The cops went crazy, punching one of my friends in the face, jaw and stomach; and throwing another one into a saltbush where her face was badly scratched. They held another one of my friends down over a barbed wire fence. Some more were arrested. It was horrible.

Fighting with police is not why we came. Sure, it got us media, but it was all about the violence. Most of the media were not on our side. I heard the channel 9 (or channel 7 maybe?) cameraman talking to some of the high school activists. People are tortured in there, they go crazy and they end up killing themselves, one girl was telling him. "So what?" he replied. "People top themselves all the time".

I didn't realise I was shaking until I was nearly halfway back to the campsite with my friends from Newcastle. The weekend had been so full-on. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. Packing up all my gear was excruciatingly hard in the heat. My lips were sunburnt and starting to swell. I lost my sleeping bag and my sleeping mat in my confusion and heatstroke. I just wanted to sleep. But all my friends were around, from all over the country, and as usual, they made me feel better.

In Port Augusta we held a rally in solidarity with the local indigenous community who have experienced a lot of racism and vicious attacks. It made me think about Lake Cowal, where I spent last Easter. At that time I was with a lot of the same crew from Sydney Uni who came to Baxter, only they were in first year then and I was one of the editors of our student paper.

Now the first years are in second year and have become amazing organisers in the refugee campaign, in newly established anti-racism collective, and of course still in the environment movement. Lake Cowal is still under threat from Canadian company Barrick Gold who want to mine the sacred ephemeral lake using cyanide leaching. Asylum seekers are still treated disgustly.

But things are changing, I can tell. Every convergence, every protest, every progressive media article, every person questioning the government. We will change things for the better.

"The world shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage".

By Anna Rose 29 March 05


Detention Centres, Solitary Confinement
On Friday night the NSW Council for Civil Liberties awarded Sydney solicitor John Marsden honorary life membership. Julian Burnside was invited to make the speech in Marsden's honour. In the course of his speech, Burnside referred to the unregulated use of solitary confinement in Australia's immigration detention centres, criticising it as inhumane and also as unlawful.

MP urges asylum seekers' release
A federal Coalition MP has called for the release of all asylum seekers being held in immigration detention centres.

Rau ordeal a raw deal
Ms Rau spent time in a Queensland prison and a hospital before being handed to immigration authorities who kept her in detention for another four months.

Australian held in Baxter detention centre
It has been revealed an Australian resident has been locked up in Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia for the past four months. Authorities had been unable to establish her identity since she was found wandering in far north Queensland last September.

Lawyers want Baxter detainee released for treatment !
Lawyers acting for a hunger-striking detainee inside South Australia's Baxter detention centre have asked the Federal Court to order a psychiatric assessment for the man, saying he needs to be in mental health care, not detention.

Baxter protesters 'being denied water, sleep'?
One of the three Iranian men has been on the roof of the gymnasium since Sunday last week, with two others joining him on Tuesday.

Detainees urged to abandon rooftop protest!
Kathy Verran from Rural Australians for Refugees, says one of the men has since come down and has been taken into the management unit. [solitary confinement for Xmas?]

Advocates warn of detention centre riot risk
A prominent refugee advocate warns South Australia's Baxter Detention Centre is on the brink of a major riot. A protest involving about 25 male detainees broke out at the centre on Tuesday, over a new system which is delaying the process of dispensing medication to detainees.

Villawood detainees go on hunger strike
A refugee advocacy group says up to 200 detainees at the Villawood Detention Centre, in Sydney, have begun a hunger strike to draw attention to their situation ahead of the federal election.

Afghan children lose High Court battle against detention
Lawyers have lost their constitutional challenge to the detention of four children at a South Australian immigration centre. Four siblings from Afghanistan, aged between seven and 15, have been in detention since they arrived in Australia in 2001.

Australia's "GITMO" System
Australia's "GITMO" System In June 2002 on the PM program on ABC radio, PHILIP RUDDOCK is quoted as saying: "Well, let me just say, detention centres are not prisons. They are administrative detention.

Senior cleric damns Baxter as 'disgraceful'
A senior world religious figure has called on the Federal Government to scrap its mandatory detention policy after visiting the Baxter detention centre in South Australia's north.

Detention centre media ban criticised
The Howard Government has been criticised in a report by media freedom advocate Reporters Without Borders for stopping journalists covering the conditions in refugee detention centres.

Baxter detainee continues hunger strike
A detainee at the Baxter detention centre near Port Augusta in South Australia has been on a hunger strike for a week. Sri Lankan Zeldon Daggie, 23, says he has been detained since arriving in Australia four years ago.

Democrats to keep up pressure over asylum seekers
The Australian Democrats will maintain their pressure on the next federal government over Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, if the party can retain its strength in the Senate.