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Book Review: The asylum seekers at Woomera and their lives of sorrow

By Natasha Cica - posted Tuesday, 16 September 2003

Desert Sorrow, by Tom Mann. Wakefield Press.

I didn't meet Tom Mann when I visited Woomera detention centre with an official delegation in mid-2001. I did meet some of the DIMIA and ACM personnel who appear in Desert Sorrow, Mann's account of his time working in the camp as an education officer. Possibly I also met some of the detainees Mann taught there that year. Maybe the smiling-sad Iranian women who tried to tell me their babies were cold in winter. Maybe the men patiently listening to a local policeman's lecture about Australian values (decency, respect, justice and so forth). Maybe the small, sloe-eyed Iraqi boy who didn't want me to leave without his gift of a tiny red plastic lobster.

I often think about that child. What was his story, and where is he now? Is he still giggling and giving? Or, like another little boy named Shayan Badriae, did he later see things in Woomera that made him withdrawn, listless, ill and possibly damaged forever? Riots, fires, hunger strikes, baton-wielding guards, water cannon, suicide attempts, self-mutilation, blood, madness.


In Desert Sorrow, Mann bears witness to what he saw, what he did, and what he heard in the camp. Much of this involves recounting, without undue narrative flourish, the stories of the people he knew in Woomera. People like Aref, a middle-aged agronomist from Afghanistan who had worked on irrigation schemes for government departments and for Médecins Sans Frontières, was arrested by the Taliban for suspected human rights activities, then spent his days being kicked and his nights hearing other inmates scream as they were whipped and beaten. People like Alex, a Kurdish medical student from Iran who was active in student politics, then arrested and imprisoned for speaking his mind.

What did people like this find in Australia? In detention, a Sabian Mendean called Masoud saw a video of the Great Barrier Reef, and "went into raptures about God's creative handiwork". Mariam, a 24 year old Iraqi, found Abdullah, a 33 year old Chechen. They married in Woomera where "music, singing, dancing and clapping were heard across the compounds until 11 pm as detainees celebrated and congratulated the happy couple". Abdullah's case officer considered the marriage bogus, and soon afterwards DIMIA released Mariam but rejected Abdullah's visa application. Afghan detainee Hassan claimed he saw "violent behaviour and abusive language" by security officers, alleging a young Iranian asylum seeker was "stripped, bashed and held for two days in a police lockup" and that a woman "was handcuffed and confined in a cell in Woomera for two days without food and water". A detainee called Rezai said he shared a donga, eight by three-and-a-half metres, with 16 other men, and that people would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, because "Woomera is a place that tears your mind".

Outside the razor wire, Woomera escapees Amir and Aziz were spotted by a truck driver five kilometres out of Pimba. He called the police and they were quickly recaptured. On the outskirts of Port Augusta, fellow escapee Javed was picked up by a van driver. These two men "could not understand each other" but the driver took Javed to Adelaide, where one of his friends gave the fugitive shelter, food and clothing.

How can we explain such polarised knee-jerk reactions to the plight of people like Amir, Aziz and Javed? Why could Sister Dot from the Catholic Church in Gawlor see and say that Woomera "reminded me of the cattle sales", while the Minister and Prime Minister responsible did not? And what of the many other Lib-Lab parliamentarians who have declined to speak out honestly about what Australia's mandatory detention policy really does, and truly means?

Mann could have remained similarly silent, and never written this book. We should be thankful he did not. Woomera has closed, but the stories Mann brings us remain alive for many former detainees and staff, and are still unfolding in places like Baxter and Nauru. We need to know these stories. We are collectively responsible for writing them, and they define the core of who and what we are as Australians today. In Mann's words,

In 50 years' time a historian will add another shameful page to Australia's history. Enlightened people will ask how it could have happened. The world came to our doorstep and as a nation we retreated into fear and darkness. Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech in 1994 · talked about liberating ourselves from our fears and liberating others. We did not choose that way.

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An edited version of this review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 6 September 2003.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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