We got married on 29th November 2002 inside Port Hedland Detention Centre. It was in an interview room close to the isolation room I was inside for the hunger strike. I was just in normal clothes, without any friends. Just me and my fiancé and two witnesses from outside, who were friends with her. I wasn’t happy at all, because getting married inside jail, you know, it wasn’t right to me.
Ali Bakhtiarvandi is an Iranian refugee who arrived in Australia in 2000 at the age of 34. Before receiving his citizenship 2009, Ali was held for four years in three different detention centres around Australia. His story is part of a new oral history project called Behind the Wire, which documents the experiences of men, women and children who have lived in Australian mandatory detention since the policy was introduced by the Keating government in 1992. The site, which launched last month, presents a series of extended interviews with current and ex-detainees, giving them a platform to tell their stories in their own words.
Behind the Wire was created to counteract the twin narratives which dominate most media portrayals of asylum seekers: namely the alarmist dogma which seeks to characterise them as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘economic refugees’, but also the more subtly denigrating representation of asylum seekers as helpless, silent victims who are desperate for our charity.
‘A lot of reporting and commentary simply doesn’t have a framework of putting [these] voices first,’ says André Dao, one of the organisers of Behind the Wire. ‘Often putting those voices first would be contrary to various political aims.’
Dao is bullish about the need for us to stop speaking on asylum seekers’ behalves, to the extent that he was hesitant to provide comment for this article, not wanting his voice to drown out those recorded on Behind the Wire.
And with the Abbott government’s recent implementation of the Border Force Act, it is even more important to listen to asylum seekers’ voices. The controversial policy makes it an offence for offshore detention centre staff to disclose ‘protected information’ involving the operations of mandatory detention, leading to accusations that it could prevent whistleblowers from reporting instances of abuse.
The stories told by the asylum seekers on Behind the Wire – on the site they are referred to as narrators – are certainly harrowing. Ali went on an extended hunger strike when his application for asylum was denied, and was eventually force-fed by detention centre staff:
Day 48 they opened the door, I was lying on the floor. Five or six big security guards. I was feeling sick and shocked as well. What do you want to do to the person who didn’t eat anything for a long, long time? Two of them hold my legs while I was on the floor. Two of them hold my hands, this is four. Supervisor, she put my head between her knee. Another officer with video camera filming it. Nurse and doctor try to use tube from my nose to my stomach. And doctor inject some liquid thing.
Other narrators speak of fellow detainees attempting suicide, sewing their lips shut, and starting fires in the compounds. Sara, an Iranian translator currently living in Melbourne on a bridging visa, witnessed instances where detention centre staff would allow certain ‘young girls’ extended internet privileges in exchange for sexual favours.
But while Behind the Wire is concerned with documenting the narrators’ suffering, it presents a much more nuanced, human portrayal of their experiences. ‘This is a narrative about really resilient people and the solidarity that occurs in detention and after detention as well,’ says Dao.
Many of the narrators who have been resettled are now dedicated to helping other asylum seekers going through the tortuous process of seeking protection in Australia. ‘Most of the refugees I’m involved with at the moment are in the community and they are waiting a long time for processing their application,’ Ali says. ‘I talk to them and using my experience back from 2000 to 2004 to tell them what they should do to cope with this situation a little bit easier.’
The organisers of Behind the Wire were mentored by staff from Voice of Witness, an American not-for-profit founded by writer Dave Eggers, which attempts to create a more ‘empathy-based understanding of contemporary human rights issues’.
Though the voices on Behind the Wire are edited for clarity, they are presented largely as they were spoken by the narrators, with little framing narration and the grammatical errors left in. ‘It’s all about counteracting the potentially homogenising effect of making everybody sound the same,’ Dao says. ‘In terms of retaining the particularities of someone’s voice, it’s a way of staying true to what they have to say. It draws in the reader and brings that narrative to life.’
Hoping to avoid the systematic, intrusive mode of questioning that characterises many asylum seekers’ interactions with Australian authorities, the Behind the Wire interviewers create a space for an open discussion, allowing the narrators to take their story where they want.
From a humanitarian point of view, these stories are important as documents of the asylum seeker experience, but it is the vitality of the voices, the unexpected ways that they subvert the narrative of suffering and subservience, that makes these stories essential reading.
Take, for instance, Ali describing the ceremony he attended to receive his citizenship. An ostensibly happy occasion, it was marred by his feelings of resentment towards the Australian government and the $227,000 bill he received for his time spent in detention.
I wore a black shirt to my ceremony. There were some Liberal members of state parliament and the local council and some other people there. They said ‘Congratulations’. I said ‘Don’t think I’m a happy person to be here for this piece of paper you call citizenship. For this piece of paper I spent nine years of my life. Four and a half years in the detention centre, then carrying a huge bill on my shoulders, and now nine days ago I lost my sister.’ Some of my friends, plus my ex-wife were there and they said, ‘don’t say anything, don’t worry about it.’ I said, ‘No, they have to know, if you play games with people’s life, it’s really dangerous.’
In another story, Ali Reza, an Afghani-born refugee, poetically recounts the journey he made as an unaccompanied minor from Indonesia to Australia:
Every single minute, I prayed. I said ‘Oh my God, just help me, just help us.’ And for three days everything above in the sky was blue, everything below in the water was blue. Even each second in my mind I was like, ‘I am not going to alive, I am not going to be alive anymore. This is my last few breaths of my life and this is my last beating of my heart.’ I thought maybe this boat will break down in this big ocean, just like a tiny leaf. On that leaf there are 127 insects that are alive.
Speaking at the launch for Behind the Wire in June this year, barrister and human rights activist Julian Burnside was strident about the site’s important role in documenting the human rights abuses that have occurred in Australian detention centres: ‘Without telling the stories I can’t see how people are going to understand how shockingly we’re behaving and I really hope that sometime in the future there will be something like the apology to the Stolen Generation.’
Dao agrees that the stories will act as a record, that ‘future Australians will look at these policies with a mixture of horror and a plain inability to understand how their parents and grandparents were okay with it, and how they seemingly didn’t kick up too much of a fuss.’
Ali hopes that his story, and the others collected on the site, will change the way that we see asylum seekers. ‘I don’t want visitors to come here and cry for us,’ Ali says. Instead, he wants people to spend some time to get to know him, and for ‘everybody to be happy, because that makes me stronger, you know’.