Outback Nightmares & Refugee Dreams

When a few thousand men, women, and children sought asylum in Australia, the Welcoming Country responded with prison camps, tear gas, and forced relocation to distant island jails.

Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

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The dingo fence marches to the north, a wire barrier twice the length of the Great Wall of China. To the west and northwest are the vast forbidden zones, legacies of nuclear testing in the 1950s. It is 100 degrees in the shade as the guard, a hefty guy in his 30s, wheels up in a truck, takes my measure, and says it is all but over, that the last person will be gone in two months. He works for Wackenhut, the American corporation that operates Australia’s refugee internment camps. Leaving is never easy. One man was sedated by an intramuscular injection, a ball was placed in his mouth lest he cry out, then he was taken to the plane, arms taped to the chair, and flown back home. He also most likely left with a bill since the Australians commonly charge those who fail to qualify for asylum $60 to $70 a day for their imprisonment, a charge that can run more than $100,000 per person. Sometimes the flights end badly with the person being murdered upon arrival back home. In the camp, there were the incidents where men and women protested the conditions by sewing their lips together, others where men dug shallow graves, lay down in them, and had all but their faces buried. Sometimes people cut themselves with knives, drank shampoo, or leapt from treetops to attempt suicide. There were also the cases of teenage girls who regressed into incontinence.

I am standing outside a prison in Woomera, Australia. The name means “spear-thrower” in an aboriginal language and signifies the town’s original reason for being: From 1947 to 1982, it was a secret community hidden in the vast desert of South Australia, about 200 miles north of Adelaide, where American and British military men and scientists tested rockets with the cooperation of the Australian government. Now it is down from a peak of 5,000 souls to 250 — not counting prisoners and guards — and is a gas station, a hotel with floors named after rockets, a lot of empty houses, a few shops, and a prison in the parched outback, the heart of the planet’s driest continent. The prison itself is that commonplace of such sterile centers — huge fences topped with razor wire, the simple bleak little buildings, barren ground, and a complete inwardness so that an observer sees nothing but metal and glare. As with all prisons, people are kept out of view.

Outside the fence, kangaroos and emus wander the land; cockatoos sit in the trees. The vast emptiness and open road whisper freedom. I have come here to meet with WMA 564, formerly known as Sharam Doraji. In the system, everyone becomes a number and is never addressed by name once given a number. They tell me he has been moved to another prison. When I go to it, my paperwork is not quite in order. I have failed to file it 72 hours in advance, which is true since I first sought to visit WMA 564 in Woomera before he was secretly moved. When I finally get things in order, my time in Australia has run out. But then that was the point of my visit to WMA 564 — his asylum applications had run out and he too was rejected. Only, unlike me, he could be sedated, taken to his plane, and flown away taped to his seat.


At first, no one paid much heed to what Australia did with its refugees. In February 2000, for example, the Australian government flew Dr. Mohammed Taha Alsalami, a medical scientist and a leader in Sydney’s Muslim community, to Curtin, a prison north of the Great Sandy Desert. He found 1,147 caged people, mainly Iraqis and Afghans. And 20 of them had sewn their lips together in protest of the prison’s harsh conditions. A leading Australian newspaper, Melbourne’s The Age, gave Alsalami’s report three brief mentions of 50 words. The national radio network called the lip stitching “bizarre” and the premier of Western Australia, where the incident took place, said the refugees “had a nerve to be complaining” and decried them for not showing some “gratitude.” Then the story went away. At that time, Australia had 3,000 such people locked up in six different centers.

Australia has faced a tiny refugee migration; since 1997 perhaps 10,000 people have entered the country without permission. The refugee crisis here is a flutter from a larger disturbance, the flight of people from Africa, parts of Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia to safety and shelter because of war and because of sea changes created by the global economy. Australia, which likes to call itself the “Lucky Country” or the “Welcoming Country,” is one of the most civilized and civil places on earth. I wandered downtown Melbourne for three days before I heard a car horn. Yet this trickle of people prompted barbarism from the Lucky Country.

Australia began its European history as a dumping ground for convicts and excess citizens of the British Isles. At the time of federation in 1901, it adopted a whites-only immigration policy. After World War II, the government, with only 7.5 million citizens, set a goal of 20 million Australians who could protect the huge island continent from imagined Asian hordes. The whites-only policy continued — at first even Japanese war brides were banned and thousands of Asians and Polynesians who had found shelter here during the war were deported. In 1947, a poll revealed that only 17 percent of the population would accept refugees from the Holocaust. In the postwar labor government, Arthur Calwell, the minister for immigration, made statements such as, “We can have a white Australia, we can have a black Australia, but a mongrel Australia is impossible.” Of the Chinese he informed Parliament in 1954, “Two Wongs do not make a white.” During this same era, mixed-race children were seized from Aborigines and placed in white foster homes, a policy commonly known as “fucking them white.”

This official stance was repealed in the 1960s and had vanished from government policies by the late ’70s when the government adopted a policy of multiculturalism. But like an underground coal fire, it blazed on out of sight. In 1975, when Australia considered taking in 15,000 refugees from Vietnam, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said in a private meeting that he was “not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese…coming into the country,” and two years later, his Labor Party called for the country to stop accepting refugees who simply landed on its shores. In 1992, mandatory detention for uninvited asylum seekers became law after a small influx — less than 1,000 — of Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people occurred during a period of high unemployment and high legal immigration. Under U.N. rules, such detentions are permitted only for a few days or weeks while a refugee’s identity and health are checked and can never be used to deter future refugees. Australia, however, made detention open-ended, in short, made it imprisonment. Through these years, the policy of rigid control cracked at times — for example, after the butchery of Tiananmen Square, thousands of Chinese students were given asylum, but their arrival prompted the government to change the law so that asylum, formerly permanent, was now granted only on a temporary basis.

By the end of the 20th century, Australia, though still one of the least densely populated nations on earth, had about 19 million citizens. The government, finally facing up to the limited resources of the continent (poor soils, almost no water, paltry fisheries, limited forests, and little arable land), planned to stabilize the population at 23 million (though the growing Green Party would like half that). Then, in 1997, increasing numbers of boat people began arriving from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, and in 2000, 3,800 arrived. In keeping with U.N. accords, Australia was already slated to take in up to 12,000 refugees a year, but this small number of additional and uninvited arrivals struck a nerve. The old fears returned in force despite or perhaps because of the fact that in the previous 30 years Australia had swallowed 320,000 people admitted as refugees or for humanitarian reasons and despite the fact that 1 in 4 Australians is foreign born. In the summer and early fall of 2001, two things radically altered this effort at being kindly: an election, and what came to be called the “Tampa incident.”

On august 26, 2001, Captain Arne Rinnan and the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa were plowing the sea from Perth to Singapore when a call came from the Australian Maritime Safety Centre in Canberra that a wooden ferry was in trouble. Four hours later, the Tampa pulled up to the Palapa 1 and rescued 433 souls — including 70 children and several pregnant women — a number that overwhelmed the capacity of the Tampa and its crew of 27, a multitude that had to be sheltered in empty containers stacked on the deck.

The ship was only 75 miles from Australia’s Christmas Island — a tiny territory of 1,500 people, 1,200 miles northwest of the mainland — but still in Indonesian waters. The Australian government ordered Captain Rinnan to take the people, all asylum seekers fleeing the Middle East, to the Indonesian port of Merak, 250 miles away. When told this, the asylum seekers became aroused and threatened to jump into the sea. The captain steamed toward Christmas Island, pausing just outside the official 12-mile limit. But he had entered the stormy waters of an impending Australian election. Already that month, more than 1,000 asylum seekers had made landfall in Australia. Throughout the 1990s, support for an anti-immigrant party, One Nation, had grown and the coalition government headed by John Howard wished to placate these voters. Howard told the media that the Tampa “will not be given permission to land in Australia or any Australian territories,” and, although some passengers were near death, he sent elite Special Air Service troops to prevent the ship from docking at Christmas Island. After eight days of international protest, Howard cut a deal with the tiny 10-square-mile island nation of Nauru to imprison the asylum seekers in exchange for $20 million in benefits, effectively boosting Nauru’s gdp by 33 percent. Most of the refugees were transported to the interior of the island, a phosphate wasteland abandoned by miners and inhabited by feral dogs. This, along with a $10 million deal cut with Papua New Guinea and a hoosegow built on Christmas Island, came to be known as the Pacific Solution and was the act that finally aroused some Australians to protest their government’s policies.

Among other things, the Pacific Solution created a new legal entity, a person under Australian control in an offshore prison who nevertheless is not fully protected by Australian courts or laws. Today, some 1,500 people exist in such limbo. In October 2001, a month after the new policy of intercepting refugees and sending them to offshore prisons became law, a ferry of refugees went down with more than 353 lost, many of them children. In the speeches Howard gave while running for reelection that fall, he claimed the asylum seekers had tossed their own children into the sea for some kind of sport. There is an ongoing parliamentary investigation as to whether Australian intelligence in Indonesia sought to sabotage the frail boats favored by the smugglers of human beings.

But two things resulted from Australia’s draconian solution to asylum seekers, a solution backed up by a naval blockade: The world began to notice and the boats soon stopped coming. And, of course, the Howard government was reelected because of overwhelming support of the new policy, support that continues to this day.

There is a world that has things and there is a world that wants things, a world of flesh in motion, a wave of men, women, and children that no one wants. This story is about one grotesque collision between these worlds, one that took place in one of the most decent and civilized nations on this earth. In the summer of 2001, Australia abandoned civilized norms as expressed in U.N. conventions it had earlier signed. In part, Australia became a victim of its own history, but mainly it succumbed to pressures that will eventually face all developed nations.

There are at least 35 million displaced people worldwide and at least 10 million people trying to get into the industrial West each year. Those who officially earn the designation of refugee — meaning they are likely to be persecuted if they go home — are merely a tiny subculture within this vast diaspora. Last July, Malaysia booted out a half million illegal Indonesian workers. The United States will face about a half million illegal Mexican migrants each year for the next 30 years according to the most optimistic projections by the government of Mexico. In response to such migrations, the United States builds giant fences and Europe is slowly but surely raising its drawbridges — Greece and Italy, for example, are keenly interested in Australia’s harsh medicine as they deal with Turks and Albanians. In the summer of 2002, a memo slipped out of the Blair government revealing its interest in Australia’s naval blockade as a possible tactic for stopping boats of immigrants from crossing the Mediterranean.

When Australia’s minister of immigration, Philip Ruddock, went on tour last summer, he also found attentive ears for his nation’s refugee policy in Tanzania, South Africa, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria. Ruddock perhaps best personifies the contradictions people are now facing. He is a lifelong member of Amnesty International and wears the group’s pin on his suit as he peddles his nation’s prison system for refugees. This past summer his daughter fled Australia for the Third World to do good works in penance for her father’s actions.

The showers have paused and the sun brushes the patio as the steaks and sausages sizzle on the grill. The Fitzroy Learning Network near Melbourne University entered the refugee world when an Afghan walked in the door and asked to learn English. Now it is one of the hubs of concern that dot Australia’s cities. Most Australians are ignorant of such advocacy groups and would be hostile to their very existence. The old building is in Melbourne’s bohemian district about a block from the Labour In Vain saloon and Barfly’s Café. Fifty or sixty refugees mill around, mainly Afghans and Iraqis.

The Pacific Solution — along with the government’s strict control of press access — has kept refugees at bay and out of sight, and the mainland camps are quickly being emptied, the asylum seekers shunted off to distant Pacific islands. To learn what happened, one must talk to the lucky few who qualified for temporary visas and were released.

A., who like many refugees does not want his real name used, is 24 years old, an Iraqi from Karbala. His family was tossed out when the Iraq-Iran war began because they were Shiites and so came to live in Iran for two decades. He is just out of an Australian prison and holds a temporary visa until his final fate is decided. All refugees have the same story: fear, escape, the terror of reaching a new, safe society, and eventually a brutal rebirth on some distant shore.

A. grew up stateless, his family lacking any papers in Iran and unable to return to Iraq. “They said,” he notes of the Iranians, “‘You are Iraqi; you must go back.’ Finally, I didn’t have any choice — if I go to Iraq, they would reject me. I couldn’t find any place or anywhere to settle. They passed me back and forth like a basketball.”

He tries to get recognition as a refugee from the U.N. office but fails to get any answer. He decides Europe and the United States are too hard to enter but “I hear Australia is a free country.” The flight to Malaysia costs $500, and then the next leg to Indonesia is $100. He looks up a smuggler, and that is another $1,500. Two themes emerge in most refugee tales: one, a sense of general danger rather than a specific death threat. And secondly, expense. The dirt poor of the nations of the earth cannot buy their way out on airlines. A. is a slight man, maybe 120 pounds, of medium stature, the face fine-boned, the eyes careful and darting. He frightens easily. When he left Iran, he had to sign a paper stating he would not come back. This sense of statelessness terrified him and he dreaded what might happen if the Indonesian or Malaysian police nabbed him. He explains, “I have nowhere.”

A.’s journey by sea began from the Indonesian island of Lombok, a Muslim island across a strait from Bali. There were 30 men, women, and children. They were terrified of the open water and yet strangely happy, he recalls, because “if they got to Australia, they would have freedom.” They were three days and four nights upon the water and made landfall on an uninhabited Australian island on June 6, 2001. An Australian naval ship picked them up and took them to Darwin, and then they were flown to Woomera, the prison in the outback. There the food was bad, the facilities overtaxed. Fifteen hundred people were jammed behind razor wire. Everyone was given a number and no one had any sense of how their cases were progressing. The Wackenhut guards were often teens fresh off the dole, who were provided a couple days of training. They used riot equipment, tear gas, handcuffs, water cannons, and psychological torture. A federal judge would later compare their “thuggery” to that of S.S. guards. But at the time, the Australian press was barred, the refugees’ plight unnoticed. Some people in Woomera broke and attempted suicide. A. saw people slash themselves with razors or go on hunger strikes.

“Now Australia,” he says softly, “is like Iraq or Iran for me — they don’t want me. That was horrible and painful for me. There is no place in the world for me to be settled. Why is there no place for people like me?”

All refugees enter a fog bank of international agreements and the various immigration rules of nations. They grow practiced at tailoring their stories to meet these requirements. But in the end, the stories touch the chords offered up by A.: the desire to be safe, to be free, to be settled, to be someone. And after a while, all the regulations and international accords begin to look like pious barriers erected by successful states to bar the losers of the world from entry.

And in Australia they enter a peculiar wound that warps all perceptions of them. The land here was seen as empty and so the Aboriginal population was pushed off or slaughtered without even the American fig leaf of treaties. Although for generations the white population was either brought in shackles or enticed with free passages, a national dread developed that others craved Australia, that yellow Asian hordes were poised to overwhelm this thinly populated European outpost. Even the displaced peoples brought from a ravaged Europe after World War II were segregated in isolated work camps until they had been properly Aussiefied lest they upset the resident population. The various plagues of the land, whether native dingoes or emus or introduced rabbits, were always seen as things that could be fenced out and controlled. This state of denial permeates the society and is the official face each refugee meets.

The night before I met A., a benefit — the Cha-Cha-Change A Refugee’s World Ball — was held for the Fitzroy Learning Network. Two or three hundred guests gave around $10,000. I sat at a table with a half dozen refugees and one of their principal Australian defenders, Julian Burnside, a barrister of national reputation. Burnside has a big law office in downtown Melbourne, and if he walks into a courtroom, he earns around $8,000 a day. He is a graying man of around 50 and before the refugee matter came up was studiously apolitical, a man more interested in modern art (he is a sculptor and has written a successful children’s book) than in refugees.

Recently, Burnside gave an address that tore to shreds the current policy of incarcerating refugees on the grounds that it violated both U.N. treaties and a core Australian value, that of a “fair go.” He and his wife, Kate Durham, have held fundraisers for refugees, helped finance legal relief groups, and Durham even snuck into Nauru with a journalist to film a documentary about the Pacific Solution. But in the end, his position is simple. He doesn’t care if the government policy is “bloody legal” — it is morally wrong. He explains this to me as we dine on Vietnamese chili chicken, cucumber salad, and pepper-crusted porterhouse steaks, all washed down with endless bottles of Australian shiraz. But when I ask him, “What if there were 40,000 refugees or 400,000?” he pauses and says, “Well, that would be a different matter.”

Mohammed is 33 years old and comes from Ghazni, a Hazara community. Western Afghanistan is largely Hazara and until about three centuries ago was part of Persia. The Hazara are descendants of the army of Genghis Khan and hated by the dominant Pashtuns and reviled by the Taliban. Mohammed fled Afghanistan in 1999 because his friends were disappearing. He borrowed $7,500 from family members to get to Australia and left behind his wife and children. He departed Indonesia with 38 people on a crowded boat for a four-day voyage that took 10 days. They ran out of fuel and were down to bare rations of water when they hit an uninhabited Australian island on January 26, 2000. Next he was in Woomera, where he spent seven and a half months with 1,700 other people. They had one kitchen, one dining hall, no television, radio, or telephone. In the early days of Woomera, there were but two toilets for 700 inmates, and tampons were rationed to the women.

After five months, the protests began. And then one day, the inmates toppled the fence and hundreds of them walked into Woomera and simply stood around the public park, a peculiar place studded with missiles from the secret town’s Cold War glory days.

Mohammed was eventually released with a temporary worker’s permit in August 2000. He cannot go back to visit his family — any refugee who leaves Australia for any reason is denied reentry. So he works six days a week setting tile.

“No one,” he teaches me, “wants to be a refugee. For me, there is nothing to dream. My children are there. My daughter has died from disease. My son and wife and my mother are alive. My future is dark. Everything is bad, bad, bad. I lost once. Maybe I will lose again. I am a loser.”

I ask him if he finally feels safe.

He says, “Exactly.”

He pauses and says with almost admiration, “People in Australia don’t know reality. I escaped from something and I don’t want to see it again.”

I never meet a refugee who was not horrified by his time in Australian prisons, nor do I ever meet one who has had a single bad experience with Australians after getting out. Australia and the United States have different histories. Americans are hostile to illegal immigrants but programmed to believe in Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Australians are trained to dread invasion and yet cannot stomach being unkind to any stranger. When I talk to Australians in bars and coffee shops, they tell me the refugees are lying, tearing up their documents, damaging the prisons — basically a bad lot of blokes, “whingers.” But when I talk to the refugees they are all but in love with the Australians and their kindness.

The light streams into the almost bare room of the sixth-floor apartment. Shoes are lined up at the door of this small subsidized unit of the public-housing project in Melbourne. The three brothers serve coffee. Mohammed, 38, has been out for a spell. Hussan, 32, and Kamal, 40, just finished a year of detention on Nauru. Back in Baghdad the family was well-off with a chain of clothing stores. But then the trouble came.

Mohammed, trained as a physical therapist, began his journey 12 years ago when he got into trouble with the regime. He is vague on this point, but six months after Desert Storm swept through his world, he moved to Jordan with a six-month visa. Then he tried Turkey for three months and filed a refugee application with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The Turks arrested him and he spent two months in jail, a stint that prevented him from keeping his precious appointment with the United Nations. He was deported to northern Iraq, the Kurdish area where he was safe from Saddam. He began his true statelessness. After a seven-hour walk through the mountains he landed in Iran, where he lived illegally from 1993 to 1999 and earned little beyond room and board. In those six years he was deported to northern Iraq six times. During one border crossing in 1997, a land mine went off, killing his three companions and injuring Mohammed. Then in 1999, Iran gave him two months to clear out. He landed in Australia in February 2000, was tossed into prison at Woomera, and spent half a year there.

Now he works in a nursing home and acts as a guide to this new land for his brothers. Mohammed thinks that if the borders were open every single person in Iraq would come to Australia. The brothers ask me if I know about the story of 4,000 Israelis being warned not to go to work at the World Trade Center on September 11. I tell them the story is a lie. The oldest brother, Kamal, then asks me if I am a Jew.

“What are your dreams?” I ask.

Kamal says, “If you offered me the entire United States, I’d rather have Saddam killed.”

Mohammed says, “You think in our situation we have a right to dream? We have nothing.”

Hussan says, “Find a safe place to live.”

When Mohammed learns I am a U.S. citizen, he asks if he might see my passport. I hand it over.

He sits there on the sofa, slowly turning the pages, fondling each and every one. He says nothing but I can guess what he is thinking: If he possessed one of these documents, no one could touch him. No one.

In 1999, while Michael Osama was visiting a city in his native Syria with a cousin, an attempted revolt took place. As they were leaving the city to return home from this holiday, their identity cards were noted. The next day, his cousin was taken away from his job and has not been seen since. For three weeks, Osama hid with friends; then he vanished into southern Syria for three months. He gave a smuggler $2,000 and was promised passage to South Africa. Eventually, he wound up on Lombok and boarded a boat. For three days he did not eat or sleep, simply smoked cigarettes and feared drowning in the ocean. He arrived in Woomera at 1 a.m. He thought this was okay, that in a day or two they would check him out and release him into the community.

The months roll by. Afghans start digging graves, climb in, and are buried save their faces. Osama joins a hunger strike. Then the fence goes down and he joins the march into Woomera. The inmates shout, “We Want Freedom!” During these few hours of liberty, Osama talks to the Australian press. He is a natural leader.

When Osama speaks, he looks off at a 45-degree angle. He can make out forms — that is all. He had to quit the university in Syria because of a progressive eye disease and gave up his schooling at about the same point he gave up his belief in God.

Now he works in a factory and gets around by bus or cab.

“No refugee can be illegal,” he asserts. “I want to save my life. When someone, a gunman, wants to kill you, you should not have to write a letter and wait for an answer. There is no light at the end of my tunnel. And when there is no light, you cannot see. I have nothing. Nothing.”

He taps out a number on a cell phone, and then a cab comes for him.

He says, “I am on a holiday from misery.”

I ask him if the Australians have abused him since he left Woomera and he looks at me with shock.

“No,” he almost snaps. “They have treated me wonderfully.”

His temporary Australian visa runs out in the summer of 2003.

Under Australian law, you cannot be a legal immigrant unless you first file the paperwork in your country of origin. The Iraqis are terrified of going near foreign embassies. The Afghans lack documented identity — decades of war have destroyed doodads such as birth certificates. And so all such refugees, due to their clerical negligence, have failed in this preliminary filing and thus are banned from being legal immigrants. Also, under Australian law, in order to be a refugee a person must file for asylum within seven days of reaching a secondary country, meaning that an Afghan who manages to get to Pakistan has one week to file with the Australian Embassy. Failure to do so makes one ineligible for permanent asylum upon reaching Australia. The lucky few who manage to reach Australia are imprisoned and checked out. The government has spent at least $1.6 million running each refugee’s speech pattern through a Swedish software program that can allegedly, for example, ferret out Afghans from Pakistanis and others pretending to come from harsh places. The software is keen on slang and other peculiar uses. It is fashioned by immigrants who have not been home for years and years and is thus out of date. These are just a few of the series of little hurdles facing refugees or those claiming to be refugees.

Against this apparatus, small legal organizations such as the Refugee Advocacy Service of South Australia (RASSA) in Adelaide wage legal appeals. Aleecia Murray, 23, will be admitted to the bar later this year, but for now she works 60- to 80-hour weeks helping refugees. So far, out of 170 cases, RASSA has won 8, and victory simply means that the refugee gets the chance to seek a temporary visa yet again. (By the end of 2002, refugees held on Nauru and denied visas had little choice but to accept Australia’s offer of $2,000 and a plane ticket home. Meanwhile, riots erupted in Woomera, Christmas Island, and throughout the rest of Australia’s gulag archipelago.) Until harsher laws were passed in the wake of the Tampa incident, the lawyers who formed RASSA won about 60 percent of such cases.

Murray says, “I think if someone has left a life and taken a risk and gotten here and then is subjected to detention, all you want to do is get them out. The biggest issue that concerns me with the refugees is that people don’t care that we lock them up.” On her office wall is a quote from the Australian national anthem: “We’ve boundless plains to share. With courage, let us all combine …”

One of RASSA’s clients, Huassan Varasi, a 27-year-old Hazara, knows the new reality in his bones. He paid $4,500 to get to Australia and spent 28 days on a tiny Indonesian boat with 73 others. He became one of the revolt leaders in Woomera after the Afghans asked him, “How long can we stay in this death house of liberty?” He led a hunger strike in which 80 Afghans sewed their lips together.

After 16 days the strike ended. Now he works in an auto factory and has a temporary visa.

Varasi first decided to leave Afghanistan when he was 18. And not because of the Taliban — persecution of the Hazari predated their reign. True, he was beaten in the streets, and also whipped. But he left because he has “a problem with fanaticism.” He wanted to be free and live in a democracy. He has just bought a computer and is about to write a book about his ideas on the need for individual freedom.

Now he dreams of Canada because he thinks, just maybe, it might be “a rational country.”

Everyone is waving their arms and talking at once. I am on Lombok, the Indonesian island from which so many refugees boarded the rickety ships of smugglers and sailed off into their Australian dreams. But since October of 2001, the ships have stopped coming. The Australian navy has put up a blockade, and the Pacific Solution, with its eerie echo of the American tactic of locking up Afghans in Guantanamo Bay, has apparently worked. And so for a year or more, close to a hundred Iraqis have been marooned in the town of Mataram on Lombok. They are mainly Shia, and the island is Sunni. They are not loved here and a local fatwa has allegedly been pronounced. Some of the women have been attacked in the street. And now the Iraqis have seized the ground around the office of the International Organization for Migration, an entity that works closely with the United Nations, camped out under the trees, and demanded that something be done about their fate. One man pulls off his shirt and shows me the scars from being tortured with electricity in Saddam’s prisons. There is the man with scars from the fan treatment — tie the wrists to a ceiling fan, turn it on, then add weights to the body. One man has four children but one hand, a result of the war with Iran. A few days earlier, I am told, two teenage girls decided to make a point. They poured fuel on their bodies and struck a match. I am shown photos of them in their hospital beds. The IOM office is locked and no one within will deal with this throng. Basically, these people are doomed. To go back is death. Australia is off the table. And the local people have come at them with machetes.

And of course, as my local Muslim guide points out with contempt, the Iraqis are rich. He bases this on the fact that some have cell phones. He himself earns $45 a month because he knows English. And perhaps the Iraqis are monied. But their wealth avails them not at all this time.

We are supposed to do something — after all, there are tens of millions of refugees wandering the earth. We have U.N. accords to deal with this; we have our criteria. The small children press in on me as I take notes. Back in Iraq, one favored technique for prompting answers during interrogation is to torture your children in front of you. Or rape your women. Sometimes nails are driven into a person’s skull to initiate a conversation. We can be appalled by the Australian response, one that at least in its naval blockade and indifference to death at sea seems taken straight out of our own playbook in dealing with Haitians. We can cringe at the thought of men and women stitching their lips together. We can recoil in horror at drugged inmates being taped onto airplane seats for their voyage back to their native hell, a bill tucked carefully into their pockets. We can even, perhaps, file appeals of individual cases in courts here and there.

But can we truly look into the regions of the uprooted and face all these helpless people? I am being overwhelmed by only a hundred men, women, and children, and I am both incompetent and incapable of sorting out who earns the lottery ticket as a genuine refugee. And I know they are simply a beginning of wave after wave that will inevitably splash against all our worlds.

Later, I go with my Muslim guide to a seaside restaurant. His life is in economic ruin due to the recent bombing on nearby Bali. No one comes to Lombok now. He tells me he has to feed his family. He may have to leave. He asks, What can I do? Earlier, he had taken me to the public market where I bought Osama bin Laden T-shirts. He said many of his friends admire bin Laden and have doubts about America.

I ask why.

He says, “Because Americans always make war, war, war. No one can beat Americans.”

And then we have beer and fish and other items on me, a tally that runs to about a third of his monthly wage. He has never been to the neighboring island of Bali. He cannot afford such a visit.

Back at the IOM office, the Iraqis have draped signs over the fence. The office is on a quiet side street and the signs are likely to be read by no one save uncaring Indonesian eyes. They read: HELP ME!!! HELP ME!!! WE DON’T WANT TO DIE HERE. HELP ALL CHILDREN FOR THE FUTURE. ALL CHILDREN WILL LOSE THE FUTURE.


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We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with the Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

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