I am sat at my computer 3 weeks after returning home from a 9,000km round trip that has changed me forever. I had no idea where I was headed emotionally and physically and I actually went with no expectations, but one thing I knew for sure and that is my life would never be the same again.
There has been much controversy over the offshore processing of refugees on Manus and Nauru. I wanted to find a way to seek the truth and I was feeling helpless and overwhelmed as I watched the cruel regime of our government and it’s treatment of refugees. So I planned to go to Manus to play music and document the trip…Why? because I wanted to use music to connect with the friends that I had made there and then show the world that the men on Manus are just regular human beings like us. Like mine and your sons, our brothers or cousins. Thank you to local film maker Tim Maisey for trusting in me and taking the journey with me and for doing a fantastic job of documenting the experience.
Around 2 years ago I noticed that my very good friend and textile artist Ruth Halbert was becoming more involved in the very politicised issue of offshore processing on Manus Island and Nauru. I wasn’t really aware of what it was all about and after all I was way too busy with my music career and my family to fit anything else into my life. But then she started writing letters to the Prime Minster Malcom Turnball every day….I mean every day. She was writing for every woman, man and child in offshore detention. I was slowly starting to notice more and more facebook posts that were damning of the Australian Government and the name Peter Dutton kept coming up. I don’t have a TV so I had not idea who he was but I could see he was creating a few problems. Then in June 2017 Ruth was asked to contribute her work to the Denmark Festival of Voice, so she asked members of the community if they would read aloud the letters for 30 mins at a time. So i put my hand up to be one of the readers and I felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea but I did it and it was a very moving experience. People there were very moved by the readings and it was an incredibly powerful way to share the stories of the refugees and to bring more awareness to the issue.
I was playing at the Festival of Voice and it was time for me to start taking a stand for these people who had been detained indefinitely for 4 and a half years in terrible conditions. So this was when I started to dedicate one of my songs to the refugees. The song is called “Cross to Bear” and I sang it for the first time with real purpose. Then something happened in August….I liked a post on Ruth’s facebook page and it was a video of a song played at a protest in Melbourne. The video was written by a refugee on Manus, “Moz” and a lady in Melbourne called Dr Emma Obrien who had a recording studio recorded the song with a bunch of amazing musicians. The song is called “All the Same”
I received a friend request from ‘Moz’ and we started chatting, I was scared because I had only heard about the refugees being terrorists and criminals on the news although I knew that couldn’t be true. I found myself chatting with this beautiful, charming courteous intelligent young man who was in a terrible situation. We talked about music and shared songs and I realised then what Ruth was doing, she was being a voice for these innocent people who were not able to defend themselves from the lies and deceit of our government. I found more friend requests coming in and I became more and more involved.
We arrived in Port Moresby on March 16th and then on Manus on March 17th. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left we were taken care of by the refugees, they organised a place to stay and they brought us food everyday (from their own rations) and they joined us for music and they sat and shared their stories – it was heart breaking and heart warming at the same time.
I had to do something – I’m an artist (singer/songwriter) and that’s my job to ask the tough questions.
So before I had time to even think about what I was doing I had started the crowd funder to go to Manus. Donations came in quickly then an incredibly unbelievable thing happened while I was on tour in NSW. While in Gosford I met a total stranger at a coffee shop. She told me later that she was so taken by my passion and drive to do something that she offered to pay the balance for the trip, it was a very emotional moment….I cried because someone actually believed in me and she cried with the gratitude that she could help. It was a moment in time that I couldn’t have organised if I had tried…..the stars were aligned and I was going to Manus. Below is a reflection that I wrote on the way home from Brisbane.
5 DAYS NOT 5 YEARS ON MANUS REFLECTION
We’re on our way home and I just don’t know where to start. There’s just so much to process and right now I am filled with rage and compassion all at the same time. I can’t imagine the torture these guys have endured and I can’t imagine the pain they are carrying. I am amazed they still have the warmth in their hearts to greet us after all that they have endured under our government our sovereign nation under the guise of our National Anthem which use the words “with those who come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share”.
Today on our last day William (name changed) came and his story is tragic. He was flown to Darwin for a small infection on his wrist then back to Manus where he waited a year to have the operation in Port Moresby. He said the doctor said it would be back to normal in 6 weeks. The doctor cut the nerves in his wrist and his hand is now paralysed. He is in pain all the time and he takes Tremedol, panadeine forte and anti depressants and 2 other medications for his stomach, kidneys and liver. It’s been 12 months since the operation and he no longer has the use of his left hand and he feels he is half a man now. He is 31 years old and he has children back in his homeland in Iraq. He came to the Hotel to give us some discs with x-rays and medical records, for me to pass on to the person coordinating all the medical misconduct cases.
He is so traumatised by it all that he can hardly function. He’s a beautiful kind grateful young man and as I sit next to him to listen to his story I am filled again with shame of the government that we have accepted as our leaders.
There is no leadership in this government, no leadership traits; honesty and integrity, commitment and passion, good communication, accountability, delegation and empowerment, creativity and innovation. I saw more leadership in all of these young men, they are all incredibly smart but they are more than that they have courage and wisdom beyond their years. They have open hearts despite having it sliced into so many piecesby the systematic torture that they have endured on a daily basis for 5 years. Every part of their being has been shattered into many pieces and thrown into a hole so dark and deep that any regular person would never have survived. Yet these guys have managed to salvage the shards and found a way to hold them together and maintain integrity and generosity for others. They carry a huge amount of the guilt and blame themselves for what is happening to them.
They told me how each night 80% of the men can’t sleep because as soon as they put their heads on the pillow the pain of torture runs out of control, regrets and what if’s keep running round and round and they just can’t sleep. Some of them sleep sat up. Farvard said ‘I can’t sleep lying down but I can’t get up because I am so tired then around 4 – 5 am I fall asleep till lunchtime’ …..approx 80% of them live like this and have done for the past 5 years.
Lukini lodge was a good choice because the men were willing to come to visit us. Lukini lodge was in town and the men don’t usually go into town on Saturday or Sunday or after 5pm each evening because it’s not safe. There is a big problem with alcoholism amongst the locals and robbery is the main problem. It’s a bit different to Australia because if you don’t hand over your money or phone there is a high chance that they will knife you.
Each day new men arrived and shared their pain, they all had the same disposition. They sat politely in the chair or on the edge of the bed, shoulders slightly hunched, head tilted slightly forwards. As the stories unfolded of the torture they had endured and the pain they had experienced I found myself sitting helpless. They all began with the same words. We have been here almost 5 years, not 1 day, not 5 days, not 3 months not 8 months but 5 years and some of them would say the actual number of days. Then they would say again 5 years almost 5 years holding out their hand with 4 fingers and a thumb showing.
Hazara believed that the Australian people hated them and he said “we thought Australia was different to where we fled from, but they hate us”. When I explained that many people didn’t know the truth about Manus and that the government had been lying to its people for the past 5 years he was shocked. It was the first time that he had heard that, he really believed that everyone knew and that they were all filled with anger and hatred towards all refugees.
Some of the guys actually believed that the guards, teachers and caseworkers were an example of all Australians. The guards were all horrible, abusive and total rednecks. The refugees believed that this must be what all Australian’s are like. There were some really good teachers and caseworkers but they usually left because it was too traumatic to witness such inhumane conditions or they spoke up and were sacked. Many were cruel and very unkind. When the refugees went to the caseworker they felt they were not supported and they were left to feel like no one cared and no one could help them.
Najaed said we don’t want to go to Australia we hate Australians. Then there were the ones who know there are many wonderful people in Australia and that is was the government.
Something else I heard over and over again was we are dead, we are all dead inside and we have nothing left for them to take. I would say to them “yes I can see that, I can see the life has left, but in all of you I see a tiny sparkle in your eyes” and they would show me a huge smile. A huge smile. The guys I met all still had a glimmer of hope but there were many who didn’t come to the hotel too and I know there are many men staying in their rooms or in the camps feeling helpless and very depressed most of the time.
Sometimes when I was talking to some of the guys I felt like I was talking into air, air that was filled with no hope and I would feel this wall rise and I felt like an idiot. Like what am I saying? Nothing I say could possibly be of any help to them and I almost felt like I was needing to dig myself into a hole to get out of the mess I had gotten into.
I was explaining that we wanted to take footage and take it back to Australia and show the people what we have seen so that we can help shift their views. But I felt like my words were empty like what the hell can I do it’s 5 years too late. How many people have been before and said the same thing only to do nothing or have no impact no matter how many people they tried to talk to or write to. Because every time people take action the government tell more stories of boarder safety and terrorists and the red necks all jump up and follow the governments lead. The advocates are all called ‘do gooders’ and are shut down. Dutton changes tact and makes up new rules.
Isaac was there in 2013 and he watched as the Australian guards and PNG police for no reason attack his friend Reza Barati. Reza was tall and he looked strong and they “piled on him and beat him till he was dead” the refugee said he watched his friend get murdered by Australian guards and PNG police officers. This refugee was only 20 yrs old when he witnessed that by our government under our watch.
Isaac sits in the chair in the hotel room in Port Moresby. He has been living there for 9 mths. He went there after some refugees were offered the option to go there to “integrate”. That door closed very quickly and recently refugees were sent back to Manus. Isaac felt it would be a better option to go to Port Moresby to keep his mind busy. He works 14 hours a day 6 days a week for 200 kina (approx. $85).
He sits in the chair slightly hunched over and shoulders slightly forwards. He is 6’4” and he has a beautiful strong face and that same sparkle in his eyes. He tells the story from a place in him that is devoid of emotion, that’s how they all share their stories from a place that keeps them safe from the pain. Just enough expression to get our attention.
We need to be strong and we don’t want to burden them, Abdul said “it’s too much for people, many case workers and psychologists have left because they can’t cope.”
* I have changed the names of the guys to protect them from retribution or hindering their chance to go to the USA.
Here is the link to the full length documentary
Here’s Farhad Bandesh and myself having a bit of fun on Manus Island.
Where from here? Artist and Musician finding her path
On the home front I have been busy with gigs and a week after I got back from Manus Island I was asked to play at Arcadia Wines for Easter Sunday which was a real treat and I’ve come back with a new perspective on my work as a musician and artist. It was lovely to catch up with Gaye and John again and to get back into the swing of my regular work if you know what I mean but I also have a new vigour and passion for my work. I now know that I have to play my original songs when I perform and I am happy to do a mix of originals and covers for a 3 hour gig but I have to do my original music in the mix. I know this means I won’t get some gigs because some venues think that the audience wants all covers and there are the venues who want musicians to play covers to entertain the audience as they slowly get drunk . This is not my opinion I have been told this by venues. The brief usually is to play covers and lift the beat towards the end of the night to get the punters buying more alcohol. It’s just how it is in the music industry in Australia. I’m not sure how it is overseas but I would love to find out one day.
The week after that I was booked to play at the Three Anchors where I haven’t played for ages so that was a lot of fun too. I am now gearing up for a couple of gigs in May and then it’s the Denmark Festival of Voice.
Then my very very big news is that I am off to Townsville in August for the Townsville Cultural Festival. I will keep you posted on that news next.