Nowadays, the Maribyrnong River looks beautiful and peaceful as it passes through Footscray and the surrounding areas abundant with parks, walks and wetlands. You still wouldn’t swim but you can boat, and, on a peaceful Sunday, you can stroll along the banks for miles, enjoying the sunshine and exchanging pleasant greetings with picnickers.
But that’s not the European history of the river. Until the 1960s, the river meant blood and death. Footscray was where the abattoirs were, among the largest and most advanced in the world. Tallow was the first source of Melbourne’s wealth. During the abattoir’s peak, tonnes of blood a day went straight into the river. Industrial waste and acids from the factories flowed into open sewers. And more sinister things, too. Footscray had the developed world’s highest infant mortality rate. Often the bodies went straight into the river, to join those thrown off the five prison hulks in Willamstown; these were places of torture and horror. A tenth of Footscray’s people spent time in these rotting ships, which also had a high rate of deaths. These days, of course, we keep that offshore.
Thirty-year-old Rezene Mebrahtu Engeda often used to walk along the Maribyrnong’s banks, dreaming of a future in Australia. Rezene came from Eritrea, one of the world’s five most repressive countries, described as ‘a giant prison’ by the international Red Cross. Virtually all young men aged 18–35 (and sometimes as young as 11) are forced to work on useless, backbreaking ‘development projects’. They work far from their families, ragged, starved and forced to buy food and clothing from meagre wages. What little money the government has – a substantial portion from Australian mining for gold and potash – is now scarcely enough to maintain the elite part of their army, recruited from foreigners who don’t have local contacts or speak the language. Border guards desert. Young men escape. They make the long dangerous journey across the sands to Sudan or to Ethiopia. Ten years ago, it was a hundred refugees a month; by 2012, over 600. Today, it’s more than 1000 a month. Eritrea is emptying.
When Rezene left, he took the northern route. He crossed Ethiopia, entered Kenya, avoided the huge concatenations of misery, disease and death that are the Somali refugee camps near the border, and arrived in Nairobi. Like Cairo, Jerusalem or Tripoli, it’s a city prosperous enough for a poor person to eke out some kind of living, supplemented by funds scratched together by disadvantaged relatives overseas and shared around. He was young, strong, quite intelligent.
Five years ago, he also seemed lucky. An Eritrean woman in Australia had an affection for him. Ineligible for an Eritrean passport, Rezene got one the usual way – bribery – and entered Australia on a spouse visa.
But the relationship did not work out. There is no suggestion that Rezene was a bad man, or unkind to his wife. Perhaps it was simply a difference in personalities; perhaps, as so often happens within refugee communities, the woman adapted to a changed conception of marriage better than the man did (a problem that refugee communities here are working to educate their communities about). Perhaps she wanted to be free to continue her search for a father to her children. For whatever reason, DIMA (now DIBP, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) was contacted.
Rezene Mebrahtu Engeda was in a desperate position. He had no status in Kenya. The only possible destination was Eritrea, where he was considered a deserter. In Eritrea, army deserters are executed. People who flee for other reasons usually also meet this fate, or imprisonment, or vicious torture and starvation. This is not mere casual brutality: the study of how to keep people alive for as long as possible while inflicting the maximum agony is a refined art. UNHCR, the International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have issued strong advisories that people who have fled Eritrea are not to be returned (‘refouled’). During 2008–12, various countries such as Egypt, Libya, Israel and Mali forcibly returned people who had left Eritrea. In the Egyptian case, one planeload of 118 returnees was driven screaming onto the plane with boots and rifle butts. The International Red Cross has, in almost all cases, been unable to find any trace of these asylum seekers after their return.
Rezene applied for refugee status, and began the long, tortuous process of trying to prove that status to DIMA. But the very compromises that he had needed to make just to save his life were held against him. He was in a Catch-22: it seems that DIMA does not consider people refugees simply because on their return they will be killed.
The process dragged on for three years. Even for educated citizens, communications from the government can be incomprehensible, sometimes frightening. To someone who needs to pore over every letter with friends and advisors to make any sense of it, they can be very frightening indeed. Rezene had no work visa and was not entitled to benefits; he supported himself by his proficiency at small building jobs and relied on the kindness of friends.
During the week ending 31 January – ironically, New Year for much of the world – Rezene’s time ran out. He received a letter from (the now-named) DIBP telling him to attend a meeting the next Wednesday. It was clear to him that at this meeting he would be given a deadline to return to Eritrea. That Sunday, Rezene – now aged 35 – invited a friend out for a beer. The friend was too busy to accept (a memory that he now says is ‘Like a dagger in my heart’). On Wednesday 5 February, Rezene farewelled his flatmates and set out for the meeting. He did not get there. Later that week his drowned body was removed from the Maribyrnong River.
This, the fifth or sixth drowning in the community in the last two years, sent the community into shock. At a large meeting at Flemington, members grieved for the popular, compassionate young man. Michael Atakelt’s death in 2012 was recalled, and the endless meetings with police that brought promises that were broken, prevarication and few answers. The community reflected on how much, how often, and over how many years they have tried to form partnerships with the police, have invited them into their communities, all of which has made little difference to misunderstandings and profiling.
Christians and Muslims alike have joined in to raise funds to return this young Christian man’s body to his ancestral graveyard. Their shock and grief was at the loss and the damage to the community; they did not share my own Buddhist metaphysical horror at suicide. That the Maribyrnong River is turning into a symbol of fear for them is based on recent memories, not on the supernatural. But it is difficult even for me not to conclude that for Rezene Mebrahtu Engeda, a young man who came to Australia full of hope and who was about to be delivered to torturers and murderers, there was very little other choice.
Thomas Kent gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr Berhan Ahmed, members of the Eritrean Community of Australia and the African Think Tank in preparing this article.