Camels Hump and Pierce Trig
Rain thrashed the windscreen and unsettled me as we drove home from the pickup point on the other side of town. Our three passengers must have thought Canberra was a place of wild weather.
Ali, Mohsin and Basir had arrived in Australia 3 years previously. They had left Afghanistan and Pakistan and journeyed via Singapore and lastly by boat from Indonesia to end up on Christmas Island as asylum seekers. A month later they were transferred to detention centres on the mainland and later allowed to live in a large city within the Australian community. We were reluctant to ask too much about their journeys and experiences for fear of raising painful and disturbing memories and emotions. They were on a familiarisation trip to rural Australia and to search for work. Until a month ago they had not been allowed to work. For three years they have been waiting, living in limbo, wondering what Immigration will decide for them, unable to see the future.
We offered them what we could. Food. A free place to stay on their trip north. Chat about cricket. A friendly welcome to Canberra. A look at Parliament House and the Lake. Then they were off in the morning and returned a few days later for another night on their way back south. We drove up Mt. Ainslie for the view of the city. The use of our wifi. Small things indeed from the huge wealth of our average Australian lives. In the where-to-be-born index (QLI) we rank 2nd in the world with Pakistan a lowly 75th and Afghanistan not even rated (this measures a country’s ability to provide opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life).
As Hazaras Ali, Mohsin and Basir had left their homelands, leaving behind massacres under the Taliban, a long history of discrimination, decades of war in Afghanistan and sectarian violence in Pakistan. Hazaras are targeted by militant groups and Human Rights Watch estimates that more than one hundred have been murdered in Quetta this year. Many Hazaras have drowned from boats trying to reach Australia and the MV Tampa rescued a boatload of mainly Hazaras that were sent to Nauru.
In the morning we drank tea and ate toast before leaving early to take our three guests back over to the other side of town where they were to meet their transport. During an awkward quiet moment in the car we switched on the radio at the exact same time as the start of a news story about the death of an asylum seeker on Christmas Island who had taken his own life in despair. This had sparked riots in the detention centre where convicted criminals are housed with asylum seekers. The quiet in the car seemed to deepen. Outside the day was grey and overcast.
Cath and I dropped them off, wished them well and then drove to the mountains for our walk.
Raincoats. Drizzle. Up the steep fire trail through forest. My head was fuddled and conflicted. I found it hard to focus on the present. Thought patterns and emotional responses clouded me in. When I started conversations to make contact with some others in the group by showing courteous interest in them I ended up being harangued by a couple of insensitive older bores. Higher up we reached the cloud level and entered thick mist. Eerie. Quiet. Still. No views.I walked on my own for a while trying to clear my head and get above the clouds. Large eucalypts stood like guardians on either side of the track. The peak was deemed too dangerous to push on for in the slippery conditions. We lunched forlornly sitting and resting on the damp earth. On one side the bush was pristine and had its own dripping beauty. On the other were black stumps and dead bushes of a recent fire – occasionally new green shoots appeared. At a high point a cliff dropped away into thick grey murkiness.
The pace slowed on the long way down. Tired legs. Only the foreground to see. Head still in the clouds. Eventually I left the three somewhere up there – enveloped in their own fog, unable to see a way out or take any control, bewildered by the inhumanity of it all, the unfairness. Lower down, for me, it cleared. I could see across the valley to the ridges opposite, the green fields, a house in the distance.
Later that evening I listened to a local nun, Sister Jane, talk about her despair at our (Australia’s) treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and her plan to bear witness for the month of lent on the steps of Parliament House. The story of an African fellow who was now working in Canberra as a social worker having escaped beatings, political oppression and death threats in Zimbabwe to become a refugee here. Jon Stanhope’s scathing criticism of his beloved Labour Party and their stance on the “indefinite, mandatory, offshore detention” of asylum seekers, the lifelong trauma caused by the detention of children and a UN report detailing our torture of detainees at Mannus. And George Browning questioning whether Australia (we) was actually contributing to conditions that produce refugees (foreign aid at its lowest level, refusal to engage with the wrongs in the world like East Timor, our interference across the world like the invasion of Iraq and the resultant growth of ISIS and our refusal to join the responsible world in properly addressing climate change).
Later again as I read Tim Winton’s “Palm Sunday Plea: Start the soul searching Australia” everything cleared a little more and my perspective became less conflicted.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index (previously called the quality-of-life index, abbreviated QLI) attempts to measure which country will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where-to-be-born_Index
Insight: Pakistani death squads spur desperate journey to Australia http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/25/us-pakistan-hazaras-idUSBRE89N1LP20121025#ZS2VwGHI2DzuFhtI.97
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the guests.