Michael Gordon is the National Editor at The Age. He first became involved in asylum seeker issues while covering the political debate on refugees for The Age. Gordon wrote extensively on the Tampa incident in 2001 and subsequently began to interview detainees who had recently arrived to Melbourne, in an attempt to put a human face on the political coverage of refugees. In 2005, after a lengthy effort, Gordon was the first journalist to officially visit Nauru Detention Centre and to interview some of the detainees. Gordon has continued writing for The Age. He can be found on Twitter.
More information on Michael Gordon
- “Six days on Nauru”, Inside story, 2012, Edited extract from Gordon’s book “Freeing Ali: The Human Face of the Pacific Solution” published in 2005, covering Michael’s visit to Nauru in 2005.
- “The Boat That Changed it All”, Sydney Morning Herald, 2011, Article written ten years on from the Tampa incident, about the political events that occurred at the time and how it has impacted Australia’s refugee policy.
- Freeing Ali, The Age, 2005, Review of Gordon’s book ‘Freeing Ali: The Human Face of the Pacific Solution’
Transcript of Interview
1 August 2006
Interview conducted by Tim Thwaites
MR THWAITES Today is the 1st of August 2006. My name is Tim Thwaites, I will be interviewing Michael Gordon in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Could you tell me your name?
MR GORDON I’m Michael Gordon, it’s spelt G-O-R-D-O-N.
MR THWAITES Do you have any other names or have you had any other names or nicknames?
MR GORDON No, apart from Flash was my schoolboy nickname.
MR THWAITES What’s your birth date?
MR GORDON 14th of August 1955.
MR THWAITES And your age?
MR GORDON Fifty.
MR THWAITES And where were you born?
MR GORDON In Melbourne.
MR THWAITES Okay, did you grow up in Melbourne?
MR GORDON Yeah, I grew up very close to where we are now in Hawthorn. Went to the state school a hundred metres down the road from where we’re sitting now.
MR THWAITES Any brothers or sisters?
MR GORDON Had an older sister and a younger brother.
MR THWAITES And what sort of family life, what did your father do for instance?
MR GORDON My father was a journalist and I’ve followed his path. In fact, we became a media family. My sister’s a make-up artist for film and television and my brother’s a cameraman. So, it was an all media family. My father worked for the then Sun News pictorial, and yeah, we had good family life.
MR THWAITES You said you went to the local state school. Where did you to, to secondary school from there?
MR GORDON To Carey, which again is only 600 metres up the road.
MR THWAITES And did you attend university?
MR GORDON I went to Melbourne University and studied commerce part time. I went straight from school to The Age as a cadet journalist at the age of 17 and studied part-time doing a commerce degree at Melbourne.
MR THWAITES So, you determined that you were going to be a journalist very early on?
MR GORDON Yes, but in a sense it was an easy option because I knew the journalist life and I had an obvious role model, but it wasn’t something that I thought when I was 17 that was going to be my career, when I was 50 necessarily and yet it has proved to be.
MR THWAITES So, your father didn’t necessarily say, “This is a good thing, do it”; you simply followed in his footsteps?
MR GORDON Yeah, I think he was very conscious of the hours, particularly in those days he you know, we wouldn’t see him during the week because he worked in the evenings, so, it was no life that he necessarily wished for us to follow, but was happy for me to do it once I did it.
MR THWAITES Did your family or you have any affiliations to clubs or religious life?
MR GORDON I, again St Marks Camberwell was the church that we, that I attended, although I didn’t proceed to be confirmed, and have had a fairly loose religious affiliation ever since in a formal sense.
MR THWAITES Are you married?
MR GORDON I’m married with two children.
MR THWAITES And how old are they?
MR GORDON I have a daughter who is 19 and a son who is 17.
MR THWAITES Where do you now work?
MR GORDON I work at the Age which is where I started straight from school although, I’ve left the paper and come back on two occasions.
MR THWAITES Where did you go when you were not working at The Age?
MR GORDON After 14 years at The Age I went to become a New York correspondent for the Melbourne Herald and served there for almost three years, and then returned when the Sunday Age started, to be it’s political correspondent, rose to be Deputy Editor of the Sunday paper and then went to the Australian as Political Editor and served there for I think more than four years, and then returned to The Age in my current capacity which is as National Editor.
MR THWAITES And what does that mean that you do?
MR GORDON Essentially, cover national political issues and sort of, issues of national significance, so, it includes the politics of the day in a national sense, but also issues like the Centenary Federation, like reconciliation, like our treatment of refugees.
MR THWAITES And was that your job when you first came into contact with refugees and asylum seekers?
MR GORDON Principally, no. The lead up to the 2001 election and the Tampa episode I was principally involved as you know, writing the politics of that event, so, covering the political debate essentially from Canberra, from Parliament, it all unfolded while Parliament was sitting, so, that was the start up and then from the Tampa it went straight into the 2001 election campaign. Of course there was September 11 in between. So, it was very much a khaki election and a very, you know, difficult time for the country, I think, following the, coming to terms with September 11 and then an election straight after that.
MR THWAITES So, your interest in refugees and asylum seekers stemmed from writing politics?
MR GORDON Yeah, I think one of the challenges, one of the biggest challenges initially, was there was a debate about these people, and yet we had very little idea who these people were and I think the challenge early on was to try and put a human face on them when it was so clear that the government was not wanting that to happen. So, you know, essentially from covering the political debate whether the Tampa should have been turned back, whether the SAS should’ve stormed the Tampa, whether the government should’ve then resorted to off-shore processing, you know, that was in a sense quite a clinical debate but the missing ingredient was who are these people, and because the defence department went to such lengths to see that the images of these people weren’t shown, I think that became a journalistic challenge to find out who they were and what their stories were.
MR THWAITES So, what did you do, what did that stimulate you to do?
MR GORDON Well, essentially comment on the circumstances of the time because it was not possible to interview these people, and, for you know, I guess for a considerable time that remained the case. I was essentially writing the politics because those who had been through the detention system and weren’t out on TPV’s, Temporary Protection Visa’s, were so reluctant to have a public profile, it was very hard to find these people and have these people, you know, feel comfortable enough to talk, and it wasn’t until I think the 1st anniversary of the Tampa, that I set out to do a big sort of scene-setting piece on what’s happened since, where are these people, and in the course of researching that was able to speak to one of the people who had been a survivor of the SIEVX(?) tragedy, a woman named Amal Bazri, and I spoke to one person who was, those who were still in detention from the post Tampa period mainly were on Nauru, but some of those people periodically were sent to Australia for medical treatment, and while they were in Australia for medical treatment some were at the Maribyrnong Detention Centre, so, I managed to speak to one of those young men in detention at Maribyrnong, and those were the first human stories I guess I was able to tell.
MR THWAITES How were those meetings arranged?
MR GORDON In the case of Amal Bazri it very much putting the word out through the Melbourne Iraqi community and it was through a community worker who eventually set up the meeting and acted as a interpreter for that meeting, and the other the one in Maribyrnong that was arranged through Julian Burnside’s wife, who had been – Kate Durham – who had been very interested in the issue and had made, had been I think visiting people in detention and she arranged to take me out there.
MR THWAITES So, having met these two asylum seekers, what impression did they make and what did that lead you to do?
MR GORDON Well, I guess the fellow and the fellow from Nauru was so apprehensive that he didn’t want his name to be used in the story. Sort of, the hopelessness of his situation, you know, struck me, but there were little options – I haven’t added that I did try to go to Nauru and put in a formal request, but that was rejected as it was for any other, and I wasn’t the only journalist who was trying to go there to interview these people – so, that sort of then sewed the seed of wanting to go there but there wasn’t anything I could do. Amal Bazri struck me just as an extraordinary woman, and at that point she’d only been in Australia, I think less than 12 months and she hadn’t spoken English at all I think before she’d come to Australia, and yet even – and the interview was through an interpreter, but there were some phrases that she used in English, and you know, as we left we were saying, I was like a camera and that the images she saw, the horrible images she saw of that period – having to cling on to a bloated body, not knowing whether her son had survived – so, there were, even though she was talking through an interpreter there was some phrases in English that were very, very powerful and she made a, you know, very significant impact on me and I – – –
MR THWAITES She was a survivor of the SIEVX, was she?
MR GORDON Yes, with her son. I later met another survivor of the SIEVX who lost his wife and daughter in the tragedy and that was, you know, a similarly quite wrenching experience.
MR THWAITES You said you had difficulty along with all other journalists in getting to Nauru. Whose decision was that, where was the road block? Was it the Australian Government the Nauru Government; did you ever find out?
MR GORDON It is very hard to know. At that stage Rene Harris was the President of Nauru and he had a very hostile, in fact, I went to him at CHOGM, and CHOGM was in Brisbane, and asked him personally, and he just turned his back on ME, over by I think what he considered the Age’s coverage’s of the issue and particularly one reporter who’d written on some of the corrupt practices of that government. So, while technically the decision was Nauru’s, and I think they probably would’ve exercised it anyway, it certainly seemed that the Australian Government was very pleased for this situation to continue whereby it was very difficult for outsiders to see the people who were in detention on Nauru.
MR THWAITES Even though, you, as a journalist, you are expected to retain as much objectivity as you can, did you find yourself responding to these people in the way that the government clearly didn’t want? In other words you’ve said that the government clearly didn’t want a human face and what you found was a human face, how did that impact you?
MR GORDON I think I have quite a disciplined approach the whole way that I was a journalist, a reporter, saying what I heard and saw. There was very – you know, yes there were occasions for commentary and there may have been some tough commentary along the way, but essentially most of the reporting was very straight and factual and the stories stood for themselves.
MR THWAITES So, having met these two asylum seekers what was the next step at that point?
MR GORDON The next sort of significant milestone I think was the following year. When – – –
MR THWAITES Sorry, what years that, where now up to?
MR GORDON That must be about 2002, end of 2002, when it became clear that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office here was very concerned about the state of the mental health of a number of the detainees on Nauru and there were – had this quite extraordinary situation were a number of families had been separated because they’d come in different boats, and the husbands who’d come earlier pre-the Tampa episode, in some cases, had been through the system, they’d spent some time in detention, been found to be genuine refugees, and were now in the community on Temporary Protection Visa’s, yet, their wives and children who had followed, were on Nauru, and the mental stress both for the men in the community here and for the women and children on Nauru was quite severe, so much so, that the United Nations representative was making representations both to Australia but seeking other countries to find some solution for these people, and in the end I think that there may have been about 13 of the families that I’ve described where the husbands were here on temporary protection and the women and children were on Nauru, and initially New Zealand came to the aid of the most urgent cases, and I think initially there were three, but in the end I think all those families were reunited in New Zealand, and through my contacts with the UNHCR I was able to get onto the story that New Zealand was going to take this step, and once the husbands had the certainty that they were going to be reunited with their families, they were prepared to talk to me, so, there were two of those men who lived in Melbourne and the other fellow was in Brisbane, and his attitude was that he was not going to say anything until he actually had his wife and child, daughter with him, such was his, you know, apprehension that it may not happen, but the two fellows in Melbourne I did meet and were both very, very impressive men who had gone through a dreadful ordeal, and the one in particular had had serious mental health issues arising from the separation, and had attempted to take his own life, and had even had shock treatment in hospital, and had, you know, the doctors here were gravely concerned about his situation. It wasn’t until much later I went to New Zealand and met the reunited families that I met their wives and children, so, that was I think a very significant development in terms of my progression with the story, and I guess the most significant aspect of it in the public sense was that the other fellow Ali Suwari, was his name, was a pool tiler, and was working for a pool company, and was an extraordinary craftsman and had, when I met him in his housing commission flat, and he showed me, you know, the letters from his daughter, he told me his story which was quite traumatic, but then I organised for the picture to be taken at his work the next day and interview his employer who was distressed, like on the one hand joyous and apparently cried, both he and his wife, when they heard that Ali was finally going to be reunited with his wife and daughter, but was distressed that he was going to lose his best worker and said that in terms of craftsmanship and quality of personality he had never struck anyone like Ali Suwari, and that it would take him six months to train up a qualified tiler to do the sort of work that this man had done, and this story appeared with a picture of Ali sitting on his knees in the pool with this beaming smile, and I think, you know, friends at the, like the Fitzroy Learning Network, for example, who have a lot of close engagement with refugees, sort of commented that this was – that picture – was very significant in trying to, or in changing, the community perception of refugees who had been so demonised in 2001, that got across, you know, these are quality people who had a lot to offer Australia, and people couldn’t understand why this bloke was being forced to go to New Zealand to be reunited with his wife and child, when he was a genuine refugee and when his skills were so valuable to this country.
MR THWAITES So, there was no mechanism under the Australian attitude or legal situation for reuniting these people with their families?
MR GORDON No, and that was – like, you – I guess there is a difference between the, what was being said and what would have been the ultimate reality, so, I think eventually, I think the government might have buckled, but the political imperative, or the policy imperative, I think, as Phillip Ruddock saw through this whole period, was that deterrent was a lynchpin of the policy and that these people had to know that if they came to Australia, that there would be no prospect of family reunions, and that, you know, as he saw it, if they had that hope of being reunited that would simply encourage more and put more lives at risk, as in the SIEVX episode, so that the message being given to the refugees was that if you come by boat you will never – and come separately – you will not be reunited, and in fact the message to the women and children on Nauru, and I’ve been through a lot of the material they were given, was that they had no prospect of being reunited with their husbands in Australia and that their best option was to return to where they came from, which was Afghanistan for the two families that I’m talking about now, and that meant that if the husbands wanted to be, see their wives and children again, they would have to return to Afghanistan where they had been – it has already been established that they had a well-founded fear that they would be persecuted if they return. The UNHCR took the view that family groups should not be separated in this way and made representations to the government, but at this stage to know avail – at that stage to know avail.
MR THWAITES So, did you have any personal public feedback or reaction to the story of, apart from what the Fitzroy Learning Network said, to the story of Ali the tiler.
MR GORDON Yeah, and I think the paper had it. There were a lot of letters – Ian Molly Meldrum was one of the letter writers who had, Ali Suwari had worked for him and he was bowled over again by the personality, the quality of the person, and the incredible job he had done, and was, I think, quite, you know, upset that he would be treated this way, but there were, sort of, many other letters and emails as well.
MR THWAITES Now, having interviewed these two men who were about to be reunited with their families in New Zealand, did you keep in touch with them and follow their story as it unfolded further?
MR GORDON I did, and I have to check the dates, but the following year – it must have been towards the end of 2002 – that the decision was made to reunite them. I think I’m right in saying early 2003 I asked the paper whether I could go to New Zealand to interview the families, because this would have been the first opportunity to talk to the women who have experienced life on Nauru, and at this stage it was still impossible for outsiders to get into Nauru, at least, to do so officially, so, early that year I went to New Zealand and I went initially to Wellington and met the Iraqi man who’d been from Brisbane who was now with his wife and daughter, and spent a day with them and then drove up to Hamilton which was were Ali Suwari and the other fellow and his family were living, and that was particularly – well, both – were very pleasant experiences, but the – we had a combined dinner with the two Afghan families in Hamilton that was an absolute delight.
MR THWAITES Had they adjusted well to New Zealand society?
MR GORDON Yes, and I think we’re extremely grateful to the way that the New Zealand Government had treated them and were making their way, but with some difficulty, because of, I think, sort of, for Ali Suwari, for example, to start out again with no one knowing him, you know, I don’t know how big the pool building industry was in Hamilton. I know initially they worked I think fruit picking and other jobs before they eventually established themselves, but you could see that the fact that the families were back together and the children were so happy and had slotted so easily into school, at least as far as I could see, you know, it was a happy ending with a tragic sequel unfortunately in that Ali Suwari was ultimately, a year later was killed in car accident in New Zealand.
MR THWAITES So we’re now in what, mid 2003?
MR GORDON Yeah, becomes all a blur doesn’t it. I think that’s the case and I think, yeah, the issue continued on.
MR THWAITES And you were still trying to get to Nauru, you were still making representations?
MR GORDON Yes, and towards the end of 2004 I wrote again to the Nauru Government and again it was very hard to, apart from putting a formal visa application in Melbourne which didn’t seem to go anywhere, it was hard to find who was the relevant official to put one’s case to in the Nauru Government, but by this stage, the end of 2004, there was a change of government in Nauru – the Rene Harris government was gone and the new government of Ludwig Scotty was endeavouring to address Nauru’s problems, and in fact had made a number of changes to the two centres that had liberalised some of the conditions – and at that stage all the asylum seekers had moved down to the, what was called, the state house camp, and they had started to liberalise some of the conditions so that they could leave the camp during the day without a security escort, and ultimately I made contact with the Foreign Minister of Nauru who was also the Minister responsible for the treatment of the asylum seekers on Nauru, David Adeang, and ultimately he agreed to issue me a visa, and that wasn’t until the start of 2005.
MR THWAITES So, this is nearly four years after – – –
MR GORDON Yes.
MR THWAITES – – – the establishment of the Nauru camps?
MR GORDON Yes.
MR THWAITES What information had come out of Nauru prior to that time? You’ve said that journalists didn’t get visas, weren’t allowed to report on the camps up until the time of your visit, so was there any information that was readily available?
MR GORDON No, there was – essentially early on Kate Dunn, who I’ve mentioned earlier, went to Nauru as a tourist on a, you know, basically, she took the necessary steps to get there without authority, and inspected the camp and publicised this, you know, what she saw, and that was – and when she saw it was – the camp was much more crowded than when I saw it, and similarly, an SBS Journalist, sort of, undercover, got into one of the camps and was able to take some footage, and did a, you know, did a very goodo job. My approach had been that I wanted to do it in, in a sense, in the official way, so that I would be able to get, you know, be able to interview properly, interview people fully and frankly.
MR THWAITES To get access.
MR GORDON And have adequate access. I can understand colleagues, you know, and particularly the SBS journalist saying, well, if that’s impossible the next best thing was to do what you can, and she did a very, very good job, and the other thing that happened in between, I guess the, my going to New Zealand and then ultimately going to Nauru was the hunger strike, which again, I’ll need to check the date, but that must’ve been sort of, at the mid point, we’re talking 2003, end of 2003 I think, where a number of the hunger strikers took matters into their own hands, sewed their lips together, and that led to Marion Lay, the Human Rights Advocate and Migration agent being able to go to Nauru, and was able to represent some of these people and that was, you know, that was, I think, the key development in terms of some of the cases being reviewed. Marion had taken a hard line on self-harm, and said these people shouldn’t be doing this, so, I think that may have helped in terms of the government seeing her as an appropriate outsider to be allowed into this situation, but one of the compelling stories there was a fellow named Amin Janamin(?) who had worked for World Vision in Afghanistan and the United Nations, and yet when he presented his case – and I think, had some documents to prove his situation – had not been believed. He was, had become a Christian while he was working for World Vision, he was – – –
MR THWAITES World Vision having Australian contacts, doesn’t it?
MR GORDON Yes.
MR THWAITES Very much.
MR GORDON In fact, and he had – he was working on a project that had Australian connections.
MR THWAITES Okay.
MR GORDON In his time with World Vision this was, and as in Afghanistan as I understand it, as a person who worked for these organizations was a Christian, was very much a target for persecution from the Taliban, was forced to flee, his story wasn’t believed, and ultimately in the end he had left five young children and his wife, so, in desperation he joined this hunger strike and it was through – by this stage there a number of people in the community who had been writing to the people on Nauru, one of these people alerted World Vision to the fact that this bloke claimed a connection, and through a range of steps, World Vision investigated his claim, found his story to be true, and ultimately he was – and Tim Costello made representations on his behalf and found that Australians who had worked with him, you know, called him as a man of perfect character – so, out of the hunger strike, his case was, became clearer, and ultimately he was given a Temporary Protection Visa and now he’s, I think very close to his Permanent Protection Visa. So, the key point of the hunger strike was that it led to that case in particular, shedding new light on it, but it also led to Marion Lay going to Nauru, and this is the first time an outsider has been able to interview them, look at their files and see some of the anomalies, mistakes, and be able to talk to them and investigate some of things they were saying, to then get the evidence to say, to back up their stories, so, while again the hard line from the government before, you know, before this period was that, you know, that these people had been rejected in some cases two or three times, that their only course was to take the incentives with the economic package and return to Afghanistan, and it was only – and that was very strongly pressed right through the hunger strike – it was only immediately after that they recognised that the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated greatly, and asked the UNHCR to prepare some material on the situation there, which led to a number of the cases being reviewed, and a great many of those people were subsequently found to be in need of protection.
MR THWAITES Now, we’re almost at the stage where you’re about to go to Nauru, but prior to that, your interest in Nauru stemmed directly from the Tampa crisis and what happened to those particular people. Did your contact with the asylum seekers that you’d met up until the time you actually went to Nauru, stimulate your interest in some of the other camps and some of the other experiences, or were you particularly focused on Nauru?
MR GORDON Well, more or less on Nauru, and I guess the other camp that I had proximity to was Maribyrnong, so, there were a number of cases that I saw people and went there, but I did not – you know, I had colleagues who were very hot on the trail of the Cornelia Rowe story and by this stage some of these other stories were breaking, and, you know, the conditions in Baxter and other centres were being covered by others, so, my main focus, I guess, was still on this situation on Nauru.
MR THWAITES So, you finally received the go-ahead from the Foreign Minister to be able to come to Nauru. Were there any conditions on that particular visa?
MR GORDON No, but the situation had dragged on for quite a long time where I’d make contact with him. I sent him some, at his suggestion, I sent him some of the stories that I’d written about politics, sort of, my bone fides. I was at that point not sure whether he was going to agree or not, and decided to do a piece in any case on what, based on emails and interviews with some of the support people in Australia, basically – – –
MR THWAITES As a sort of prologue or as a sort of a – – –
MR GORDON Well, I just wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to go.
MR THWAITES Yes.
MR GORDON So, I thought if I can’t go, let’s do – try and do the best I can.
MR THWAITES Yeah, “I may as well do something”.
MR GORDON As that stage there was one couple from Nauru who were at Maribyrnong for medical attention. The woman concerned had a, was in the Kids Overboard episode and had badly injured her back when she was plucked from the water and plonked on the deck of the ship and had excruciating pain, on Nauru at one point had fallen and broken her hip, I think, which had been essentially untreated until it was discovered, so, she eventually was sent to Melbourne for the care, so, basically, I went and saw that couple. I had spoken by telephone and by email to some of the people on Nauru and certainly had to some of the support people in Australia, and thought, well, if I’m not going to go, I’ll try and do the best overview I can from afar. At this stage I think the numbers would’ve been about 54 people were still on Nauru, and I also knew that the publication of this story might blow whatever chance I had with David Adeang and I also made it plain to him. I guess I put two points to him; one was that I was keen to do a story on Nauru and how the new government was trying to tackle it’s problems, and I think he was very keen for some light to be shed on the fact that he was trying to make a difference, but I also made no bones about the fact that I wanted to have a look at the camp, and particularly I’d heard about one of the fellows at the camp who was working in the local school and in fact was teaching. One of his pupils was David Adeang’s son, so, the request was also to have a look at this fellow in particular, and basically, in the end, I sent an email saying, “Look, David you know, enough’s enough. If you’re able to do it I’ll need to go next week because the budget’s coming up, and if you’re not able to do it, well, let’s just put it to one – you know, let me know one way or the other”, and the next morning he rang and said – sorry – the email was there the next morning saying, “I’ve asked the department to process your application, you’re welcome any time”, so I was on the next flight.
MR THWAITES So, we’re now at the point were you’ve got your visa to go to Nauru. This is, what, late 2004?
MR GORDON No, this is the start of 2005.
MR THWAITES Start of 2005?
MR GORDON Well, in fact, it’s getting close to April 2005.
MR THWAITES Okay. You got the visa, you had to arrange your flight.
MR GORDON Yeah. At that time there were two flights a week, so, you could – and the next flight was, I think, you have to be in Brisbane, get the latest flight on Wednesday night to Brisbane, and then you leave there at 2 a.m. or something, and arrive in the morning on the Thursday morning in Nauru – and so, that’s what I did. The visa was dully accepted and I – yeah.
MR THWAITES How long did that meant you stayed in Nauru?
MR GORDON I think it was six days. I think it was the next plane might have been Tuesday or Wednesday.
MR THWAITES Okay. Okay. Can you describe Nauru for me at that time?
MR GORDON Yeah, at that stage, because it had been done so quickly, the only advice I’d had from Marion was that credit cards are useless, you know, you take a far bit of cash; there’s no hire, there’s no formal hire cars, there’s no taxis; there are only two hotels. I’d been unable to make contact with either. One said they were booked out and the other one I couldn’t reach, so, there was a bit of uncertainty about my arrangements. I was, when I landed, there was a member from the Australian Consul, I think, was being picked up by the High Commissioner or whatever he was called, so, I made contact with, you know, just tried to strike up a conversation with them, but they were very wary about even, you know, talking pleasantries with a journalist because it was so unusual for a journalist to be there. Nevertheless they gave me a lift to the hotel, the one that I hadn’t been able to make contact with, and I was able to get a room, and through the – found someone who was able to rent me a car.
MR THWAITES How big’s Nauru, I mean how – – –
MR GORDON It’s, I think it’s about 20 Ks circumference, so it’s a quite – and it’s, yeah, very small, and there’s a road that goes around the periphery and that – and – – –
MR THWAITES Is it vaguely circular or – – –
MR GORDON Yeah, and I – – –
MR THWAITES So it’s about, it’s about 5 kilometres in diameter or so.
MR GORDON Something like that.
MR THWAITES Yeah.
MR GORDON A population of anything from eight thousand to 12 thousand. The scars of all the phosphate mining are obvious, particularly on the moonscape, you know, at the top of, you know, in the middle of Nauru.
MR THWAITES Much vegetation?
MR GORDON The – it was, yeah. There was a fair bit of green when I was there. I think when the asylum seekers first arrived there’d been considerable drought, so I think it was not as lush then, but a country that was clearly very impoverished, and in that first couple of days there were – I went to a couple of things. One was a seminar for school teachers trying – where Australian experts were trying to encourage them to teach, you know, things like how – the importance of having, of growing some sort of self-sufficiency and growing vegetables, tending the soil, and clearly this was a big, you know, it was a very big challenge, and while the people concerned were very impressed with the attitude and the resilience of the Nauruan people it was clear they had had to adapt from this massive shift from being, you know, one of the – in a per capita basis the second most wealthy people on the, you know, on the globe – I think the Saudi Arabians being the wealthiest – to one of the poorest, because they’d, through a combination of mismanagement, bad luck and, you know, downright corruption, had squandered their fortune which was based on the phosphate reserves.
MR THWAITES So you were there for about a week. How much time were you able to spend in the camp during that time?
MR GORDON In the end it was I had one full day in the camp. I went to the camp pretty well on that first day, spoke to the fellow who ran the camp who was very pleasant, but said I need a letter from David Adeang saying I had his authority to go there. It took a couple of days to organise that. I went back to him and he said, well, he was happy for me to do it, but from his point of view one day would be sufficient, so there was one day where I’ve, the Monday would have been the next opportunity, and said I could go there when the camp opened and I could stay there for the duration, and that – that was what I was able to do. In the meantime, as I said, people under the new arrangements there, the residents of the camp, were able to leave in daylight hours, and basically around Nauru there weren’t many options but there was, there’s one place where you could use the Internet, there was one place where you could swim, there’s a sort of little where the Chinese court, or where there were some shops, so you – I could try and make contact with some of the residents before my official visit to the camp, as it were.
MR THWAITES Did you do that?
MR GORDON Yes, and I was particularly keen to meet this one fellow I had heard about, Alan Mali, who was a young Afghan who had, you know, pretty well not much English and not much in the way of computer skills when he’d arrived on Nauru, but had used his time to develop both those skills. Initially he encouraged the people in the camp to go to the, when they were allowed to go to Nauruan schools, and helped teach English to the people in the camp, but as the numbers in the camp had declined, he’d been encouraged by the Nauruan school system to help teach their children, so I was keen to try and find Ali Mali, and sure enough, on the first, the first or the second day I found him. The schools were closed that day but he was outside his school hoping that the principal would – they’d been on school holidays – he was hoping to get into the classroom to check all the computers were going to be okay for when school resumed on the Monday. So, I introduced myself to him – we’d already spoken via email – and we had a very pleasant afternoon talking at the school, and then we each – the way the system works is a bus circumnavigates the island at regular intervals and picks those who want to return to the camp, and they have to be back at the camp by 7.00 p.m, so he suggested I could get a lift back to the camp with him, even though I wouldn’t be allowed in the camp, so we walk along the road in the twilight, and while I think it was, it’s fair to say that the Nauruans generally had very little to do with the the residents of the camp, Ali Mali had became quite well known because he’d taught so many of the kids at school, so as we were walking along the road you’d hear kids shout from their homes, “Hi Ali”. A number of them, because of Nauru’s connection with Australian Rules Football, had had the names of Australian Rules footballers, so Dunstall came up and had a chat with Ali, you know, we took a photo, so it was a very pleasant afternoon, and then the bus duly came, I got I left with the bus, just – as I say it was in the twilight – and having said goodbye to Ali Mali, you could see the other men, a number of other of the families were returning to meet the 7 p.m. curfew, and again a number of them were people that I either had spoken to there, people who were in contact with them, or had direct contact with them. At that stage there were two family family groups still on Nauru and I was keen to – in fact, I had made connection with them and that evening saw one of the families as they returned, and told them I’d be able to return and talk to them properly, so that was where, you know, that was the first contact.
MR THWAITES What was your first impression of the camp? What did it look like, can you describe it?
MR GORDON Yes, well, earlier that day, I’d gone and met Chanelle who was the IOM, that’s the International Organisation for Migration, who runs the camp, the man who’d said that I require that the letter from David Adeang, and he’d been very pleasant. We’d had a cup of tea and he’d given me a tour of the camp. Essentially it was quite empty because people were either asleep in their rooms or out and about, but essentially the, you know, the conditions seemed to be okay in the sense their were a number of buildings on the one side where they could – there was a modest library, there was an area where they could write – and on the other side there were their rooms, in the mean time there was a flat area where they could erect a volleyball court and had some excercise.
MR THWAITES Was it bear or dusty, or was it was it vegetated or what?
MR GORDON A mixture, you knowo. There was a bit of grass, it wasn’t, as I understand it, on the top side camp where soil was a bit better that they maintained a vegetable garden, the residents, the Afghans who in particular I think had – and I think that was still used for, you know, that was still maintained – but on the in the state house camp where they now were, there was no vegetable garden, there was no playground equipment, but you certainly didn’t have the sense that this was a, you know, comparing with some of the immigration detention centres in Australia on the mainland where they do resemble a prison, there was no sense of that outside the – on the way going in there’s a boom gate and a century post – but not, you know, not razor wire or barbed wire or – so it was far – – –
MR THWAITES So there wasn’t high fences or?
MR GORDON There was a fence you know high wire, you know just fence, but not with barbed wire or on the periphery, but the actual entrance was not a gate, it was a boom gate.
MR THWAITES Were there guards or – – –
MR GORDON Yeah, there were certainly – – –
MR THWAITES Security people?
MR GORDON Both at that stage. Chubb Security and Federal Police was – and Chanelle sort of made – his point was that they were there for the security of the residents, they weren’t there to police the residents, itt was more they were there, you know, to ensure their safety, you know, he called them either residents or migrants, not illegals or any pejoratives. It made – he introduced me to some of the psychiatrists, and the interpreter, and it was quite clear to me that the staff were well motivated and certainly not antagonistic.
MR THWAITES So there were plenty of – there was support staff, medical people and et cetera, et cetera.
MR GORDON Yes. Yes. Well, I am not sure on the medical. I think there were some issues earlier on the medical side with medication and so forth, but in terms of the the psychiatrists and the interpretors, you know, I think it was basically, you know, a pretty well run camp.
MR THWAITES Okay. Now you mentioned two camps. What happened there; was one shut down when it – – –
MR GORDON Yeah, like at the peak there had been more that 1200 assylum seekers on Nauru and they were divided between the top house which was higher, higher up, and this one called State House which was, is lower, closer to the, you know, walking distance to, sort of more community centres, and the – as numbers had got declined, they’d all – they’d all concentrated in the state house.
MR THWAITES Okay.
MR GORDON Earlier on I think the conditions had been much, you know, they had benen living in, you know, the lack of air conditioning and the lack of fresh water, there were a lot of issues that, you know, a lot of discomforts, whereas, you know, as the numbers declined it was possible to, you know, they had their rooms, but in terms of material comforts, I don’t think the conditions were that bad.
MR THWAITES There was air conditioning?
MR GORDON I think so, yeah.
MR THWAITES How, I mean is the weather, is it hot?
MR GORDON Yeah, the weather – the climate is, you know, quite, quite oppressive.
MR THWAITES Humid?
MR GORDON Yeah, hot and humid and, you know, a baking sun, I guess.
MR THWAITES And you mentioned th at one of the camps was higher up. Does that mean that Nauru has a sort of a mountain or some sort of – or is it relatively flat?
MR GORDON It’s, yeah, no, I think where the where – where the phosphate was mined, you know, it’s as I say almost like a moonscape, but it is quite high up.
MR THWAITES So, you had arranged to go back there and you went back there for one day.
MR GORDON Yeah.
MR THWAITES What was the progression of the day? Was it a series of interviews or what did you do?
MR GORDON Yeah, the – I arrived there – Ali Mali was among those who was there to greet me, and it was clear that he was going to offer whatever help he could to facilitate others talking to me, and Chanelle had suggested that there was a room available where I could sit down at a desk, and if anyone wanted to talk to me they could come in and talk to me. Initially I went and visited some of the family groups, and at a certain point Chanelle said had said this wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t the way to go, that I could do whatever I wanted from my room he’d assigned to me, and henceforth inteviews should take place there, but for the first interviews, I had gone into the – did the – at that stage there was there was an elderly couple, the one that – or when I say elderly, they looked elderly, but they were middle aged – who were having treatment in Australia; there was a second Iraqui couple, so I interviewed them; and there were the two family groups; and there was a group of young Iraqui men who I interviewed in their own quarters before going to my designated room to do other interviews, and what’s struck me, one of the families, they’d – like I think people generally responded one or two ways, they were either sort of, despaired at their situation and sort of turned inward or they tried to work out some way of passing the time and trying to make the best of the situation – and one of the families, the both the husband and wife did incredible embroidery, and they showed me what they’d done, but it was clear that their – they were very concerned about their children, the fact that the children were alone, that they were lonely, that they were, you know, that there wasn’t even a playing equipment – one of the little boys had sort of rigged up a kind of a swing in the little room the they lived in – but that was the closest thing to any play equipment, so it was – you know, both their situations were, you know, were quite – not quite desperate but very, very depressing. The other family, there was a teenage girl who, basically under, you know, their culture, couldn’t go anywhere without her parents in a camp that was overwhelmingly made up of young men. It was very, you know, difficult for her, and in that family there was a young boy who again struck me very powerfully in that he looked – he was quite palid, he was – apparently when, the last time they’d been rejected, he just turned – turned inward, and you know, they’d taken him to the doctor and basically the word was that there was nothing they could do for him, you know, what – that it was basicalliy loneliness and hopelessness that was responsibnle fgor his condition, and him not eating and his – so, both those families were in a pretty bad way and I think they were the most urgently in need of some sort of remedy. From there I spoke to a group of the young Iraqui men in their room. As I say, at that point they suggested that I then go to this other room, and basically I set up shop there, had a, I had, from work a really good camera, I had my tape recorder, so I sat at this desk, Al Mali regularly gave me a cup of tea or a can of Coke, and basically for several hours I sat there as people came in, told me their stories, then went out and the next person would come in, and that went on and we broke for lunch and went to the area where they eat and – – –
MR THWAITES What sort of food did you have?
MR GORDON It’s like a bagne marie situation. There was Afghan, like middle eastern food, as well as plainer foods available. The staff ate in the same area as the residents, which I think, you know, there was a positive and a negative. It was something that someone remarked to me that they didn’t approve, you know, appreciate having to to eat where the security people were as well, but I think, you know, the motivation of the people running the camp was to try to keep it as relaxed as possible and I think that was probably the – I think most people probably thought it was a positive.
MR THWAITES What did you learn by going into the rooms of the people when you first started out?
MR GORDON I guess how people had tried to make the best that they could with what they had – you know, in the family situations, you know, adapting a curtain into a swing for the young boy. Later on when all this was done, I went to Ali Mali’s room, and it was interesting how he’d accumulated a number of thingsm because at people had left they’d pass on a, you know, a chair or a coffee table or something to them, so he’d built up a number of possessions that he would then pass on if he had the opportunity to go, but it was – they were very small rooms and if, you know, if there was noise from next door, or whatever, it could be – it was hard to sleep and I think there were, when people were going through bad periods they would, you know, it would be very difficult for people to be unaware of that, and whether their way of dealing with it was to have loud music all night or whatever, it could be quite difficult for those who were next door.”
MR THWAITES Clearly Ali had an impact on you. Were there any of the others that had a particular impact?
MR GORDON Well, they all had an impact, but, the, I think, some of the young Iraqi men, their stories were very powerful. In two of the cases they had brothers who had, who were on temporary protection visas in Australia, who had left, you know, had come to Australia earlier. One of them had left after they had been forced to flee after the first Gulf war had gone “the right way”, he’d been in a refugee camp he had been accepted to Australia, he now was living with his family in country Victoria. He’d made it known to the government that he was more than, you know, he wanted to take responsibility for his brother and care for his brother, and yet his his brother,l who had fled in remarkably similar circumstances, fleeing the same sort of people some years later, was deemed not to be deserving aof protection, so, you know, their plight was quite moving or very moving. A number of the Afghans stories were remarkably similar, but that didn’t make them less compelling. The number who had family members who were in Australia, who believed that their case – you know, mistakes had been made in their files that, things that were easily proved hadn’t been checked, and there was one fellow that at the end of all this, before I was leaving, it was twilight who I hadn’t interviewed, who came up to me and was just clearly in a dreadful state, was saying how he was, you know, surviving on more sleeping tablets than anyone else seemed to be just to get through his life.
MR THWAITES Dreadful mentally you mean, rather than physically?
MR GORDON Dreadful mentally. His eyes were red – and I didn’t even get to know his name at that point, but I learnt later that his case had been one where it had been acknowledged that he had, he was a torture victim, that there were issues under the convention on torture that were relevant to his case, and yet he had been rejected in the stict refugee convention criteria and had stayed there, and his case was one that I later wrote about through learning more about it through emails, and he was, you know, eventually given protection in Australia, but the sheer desperation in his eyes, you know, I will remember forever. So, it was – the whole day, was a pretty draining day after which you go back in the battered old car to a hotel that had only, I don’t know, a handful of guests who you wouldn’t see and just sort of have, you know – you almost felt like the need to debrief after the day but there was no one to sort of, talk to, so you’d – but it was a momentous sort of day in my journalistic career, I guess.
MR THWAITES You mentioned earlier that apart from Ali, there wasn’t a great deal of interaction, or didn’t seem to be a great deal of interaction between the Nauruans and the people living in the camps. Did you get any impression of the attitude of the Nauruans to these people that had come to live on their island?
MR GORDON Yeah, I think general – look as I detected it, the attitude was one of, “We want the camp there because there weren’t many well paid jobs on Nauru”, and in fact, any employment in the camp was a livelihood and that had flow on consequences for big families, so, people wanted the camp there and, in fact, you know, the view of the local storekeeper was, “Look, let’s beef it up again, let’s get it back to the numbers that they had in 2001”, whereas the general attitude of the population was, you know, “We want the economic benefits but we don’t, we’re not particularly interested in them”. You know, I guess it’s a thing of they were different, they to would had perceptions about, you know, queue-jumping, undesirable, so I think there were not a lot of the people, certainly, in my impression weren’t wanting to, you know, build bridges, yet, where this did happen the experiences were very positive.
MR THWAITES What about the authorities, the people in charge of the camps; what was their attitude to the residents?
MR GORDON Again, my impression was quite positive, but I think – and I later discovered – that it probably had changed over time, that – and when you’re there for more than four years you could imagine that it would change – but certainly early on there was, there could be quite a tough line taken on discipline, and, for example the, when they were allowed out of the camp if they weren’t back precisely at the designated time, that would be considered a breach of their visa that was punishable by going to the local lock-up overnight, and apparently, you know, stripped, and lot of mosquitoes there, you know, quite an unpleasant experience, and when I returned to Australia, meeting some of the other earlier refugees who’ve been on Nauru, who, you know, told similar tales of for quite trivial offences being sort of sent to the lock-up, but, you know, the point that I think Ali may have made to me, or one of the others was that, you know, as time went on and they had more interaction with the staff, the staff realised that they, you know, what sort of people they were and there was a lot – you know, the attitudes, you know, changed dramatically, and I guess one of the more remarkable things was by the end of it, a number of the stronger support people for those on Nauru were those who had been either the catering staff or the security staff, and in fact when the last, when a number of the people I interviewed finally won their freedom, a number of them went and, you know, one was staying with a security guard in Queensland, a former security guard, you know, one was being held by a former catering staff, so that some of those bonds were very, very strong.
MR THWAITES So, you had this enormous day of talking to people. You must have been absolutely drained. You slept overnight, and on the plane the next day?
MR GORDON I think the plane was going around lunchtime, so that it was opportunity to see Ali Mali in the classroom, and so I went to Nauru College were he was going to teach. I’d previously at that education workshop that I mentioned to you, had spoken to his, the principal, so I’d made my known to her and she was happy for me to watch him in the classroom, and that was quite a remarkable experience because the – the power’s down, as it is for several hours a day, most days on Nauru, so he had no power and yet he was – and he was ostensibly the teacher’s aide – but the teacher, the Nauruan teacher, clearly deferred to his knowledge and basically, you know, he took the lesson, and because he had his own little portable powered laptop that a family in Australia had sent him, he used that as the teaching aid, and he had this – you know, there was no light, no air conditioning, the temperature inside was, I don’t know, it would have been in the mid 30’s and yet, first the boys then the girls took turns, were all around Ali as he was teaching them, you know, how to basically to do this desktop publishing on his laptop, and they were transfixed by his teaching, so much so that when the bell rang no one heard it and it was, you know, it was another five or so minutes before Ali said, “Hold you’re supposed to be at playtime”, and yeah, some those, I took a couple pictures there of, you know, the kids gathered around him and, you know, once they’d forgotten the novelty that I was there, the expressions in their faces were quite amazing, and a real tribute to his ability as a teacher.
MR THWAITES So, you viewed him as this almost a natural teacher, would you say?
MR GORDON Yeah, and the way he got on with the kids. You know, bearing in mind he was the teachers aide and yet they – the respect that they obviously had for him was terrific.
MR THWAITES Has he been able to take that on here?
MR GORDON He’s studying at RMIT and he’s going, doing well, so, I guess that’s the next step to it, that after I went, I guess maybe six weeks or so after I went – and again each time something would appear, you know, the immediate reaction from official levels would be that these people are not refugees, that they, you know, they’ve been assessed and reassessed several times – and yet they were, one of the outcomes of going, was saying well if there is new material you know, will it be looked at and they said, “Well, of course we’ll look at new material”. Essentially, a lot of the new material was there for anyone to see if they’d looked but initially it might’ve been seven of the 54, then the Iraqi couple, then the other Iraqi couple, then gradually, gradually, there were, I think, only about 27 left and then towards the end of that year, which is last year, the last big group of 25 were given – were able to come to Australia, some on humanitarian visas, some on refugee visas, leaving only two still on Nauru. So, you know, the next step was seeing how they were coping in Australia and – – –
MR THWAITES Before that, though, you came back and presumably wrote about what you’d seen?
MR GORDON Yes. Yeah, and that story, I think, did have a fair bit of impact in terms of – you know, you talk about the human face – well, the paper devoted a lot of space to, you know, allowing these people to tell their stories, so that there was the overall narrative, I guess. describing the trip, but there were then 15 or 16, you know, pen portraits of these peoples stories with their pictures and, you know, I had a terrific response to that, I guess.
MR THWAITES In what way, what, letters or?
MR GORDON Letters to me, letters to the paper. In a number of cases yes, they were people who you would say were on side, who had made contact with these people, you know, but there were a number who hadn’t and, you know, a number who’d said that, you know, that they hadn’t been as affected by, you know, stories like this before. So, it did have an impact I think.
MR THWAITES So, and after that, these people gradually began trickling back to Australia. Did you keep in touch with many or all of them, or some of them?
MR GORDON Yeah, I guess a significant number. A number of them came through Melbourne. So, there were you know, when Ali Mali and Aslam, they arrived together, just the two of them in Melbourne, and that was a very emotional arrival, I’ve kept in close touch with both of them and then, you know, there were a stream of arrivals subsequent to that, and stream of, sort of, functions welcoming them and, you know, generally, they’re all doing well, except the problem of no permanency is still very real for them, and particularly those who have children and siblings who are still either in Afghanistan or have fled to Pakistan or Iran.
MR THWAITES Are they finding places to work?
MR GORDON Yeah, generally, you know, quite quickly, but also – and a number of organizations do a fantastic job, you know, providing support – but I think the resilience of these people is quite staggering, and the way they can cope with revisiting, you know, what they’ve gone through, and I think whether it’s headaches or bouts of depression or bouts of you know, illness, you know, they’re not all having a, you know, it’s not easy for them, and yet they’re doing their absolute best to make a go of it, and with the hope of one day being reunited with family.
MR THWAITES And the community is accepting them?
MR GORDON Well, yeah I think it’s the same story as with Ali Suwari, you know; once people have contact and a positive experience, it has a knock-on effect, and certainly in Dandenong where a number of the refugees live and work the, people you know, factories are readily employing them because they know how hard they work. I think it’s sad that I – it is of concern to me that there isn’t enough sort of, support to let them go on to use their talents to their full potential, and those who have got, you know, whether it’s skills as tradesmen or potential to be tradesmen, you know, it’s a hard slog for them, but they go very hard.
MR THWAITES What was the aftermath of your visit? You’ve talked a little bit about how you’ve kept in contact with some of the people, have there been – have you written anything since that time and kept the story going, kept the story alive?
MR GORDON Up to a point. The stories aren’t finished in the sense that there are a still two people on Nauru, and I keep in close contact with them and have written about their situation a number of times.
MR THWAITES Did you meet those two people while you were on Nauru?
MR GORDON Yes, and they were at that point, they had been found to be refugees, but they were awaiting security clearance, so, when I spoke to them that was the situation, and during the interview with me they had expressed concern about the way the interview, the ASIO interviews, had been conducted, and they had some misgivings about that, and they subsequently told me that they’d been accused of not cooperating with the interviews, which they denied. So, it was then some time later that, you know, several months later, many months later that the, they were told that they had in fact not passed their security interviews and were viewed a security threat to Australia, and would not be able to come to Australia, and that situation remains to this day, although, they have been reinterviewed by ASIO and there would seem to be some prospect that’s that adverse finding in both cases may be overturned.
MR THWAITES Now, you also have released a book since that time, have you not?
MR GORDON Yes, which basically summarises the, you know, the experience that I’ve described to you over the four year, five year period.
MR THWAITES What was the response to that?
MR GORDON I think pretty positive. I think, you know, my hope is that for some of the people concerned they’ll have a record there that they can show children, grandchildren, of what they endured and it will be, you know, it’ll be a part of the record of this period of our history.
MR THWAITES And, sorry, the book title is?
MR GORDON It’s “Freeing Ali”, which is kind of a generic title although, Ali Mali is one of the central characters in it, but Ali’s a bit like John in both Iraqi and Afghanistan, that there are a lot Alis in the book and it’s basically a generic title to all of the asylum seekers that I write about.
MR THWAITES Did people get in contact with you on the basis of the book?
MR GORDON No, there wasn’t much more additional research to do in terms of the book, although, I guess one aspect was a number of emails were, some of the people I’d written about, people who had written letters to them then got in touch with me – – –
MR THWAITES Okay.
MR GORDON – – – and filled out some of the stories, and some of those emails are, I think, a remarkable testimony to the impact of the Nauru experience on these people, and, you know, while we spoke before about how in a real sense the material commission were quite good – you know, the food was fine and the number of the medical assistance was, you know, was up to scratch, the interpreters, you know, the psychiatrists were very caring professionals – the sheer uncertainty, remoteness, loneliness, was incredible pressing in on these people, and that was what struck me about, you know, the cases at the time and it certainly reinforced by some of the correspondence I would see later, and, you know, the mix of emotions that they have including guilt that, you know, while their family are still in peril on, you know, whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan, that here they were powerless to do, you know, to make any contribution to the families situation, so, you know, aside to all these other emotions there was also guilt and, you know, the images of, you know, one of the young men who, you know, would say basically how he’d go to a corner of the camp and look at the stars and just, you know, cry at night by himself, and that – I don’t know if you would like me to do it, but I’ll read one of the emails – – –
MR THWAITES Yeah, go for it.
MR GORDON – – – that he sent to a supporter, and I think captures it quite well. He says, “I am a boy who is powerless and lonely burning inside the fence. I am a boy who is solitary, has been grabbing with discrimination in the circle of human being. I am the boy whose brain is full of sorrow. I am a boy whose body is full of wounding feeling at pain, doesn’t have a rest for a while. I am boy who sees dark and dark, and a minute is passing like an hour, a month like a year, and have no sleep without tablet, no medicine available for reducing the pain except rolling tear on my cheek. I am the boy who in the mid of night most of the time lonely sitting in the corner side of the fence, looking at the blue sky at stars, weeping tears during that time none is moving around.” This was, in a sense, typical but this is the fellow who described this experience to me in the interview and then to see it described so well in his – in email was, you know, was clearly very moving, and I think that sense of, you know, hopelessness was very, very common, and the number who were relying on tablets to sleep, medication to get through day to day, and having no sense of time, and very little sense of purpose was quite powerful.
MR THWAITES You’ve mentioned a number of times how moving all this was. How about yourself? I mean, what impact is living through all this had on you?
MR GORDON Well, it’s, you know, (A)it’s convinced me that the Australian policy response was not the right response and that a far more compassionate approach was required, but secondly, I think it’s enriched, you know, my life because some of these contacts were so important to me and will continue, and to watch Ali Mali’s progress and Aslam’s progress, and a number of the others as they, you know, proceed down there journey which is not over, will be, you know, something – an abiding interest for me.
MR THWAITES Had you had much contact with people from their cultural background before this experience? Was that something that was new to you or was – – –
MR GORDON Yeah, no, I think that certainly was the case. I think the whole, the dynamics of the post September 11 period means that for journalists there is a greater need to understand what’s happening in the various communities and allow them the opportunity to engage with the wider community, and so that aside from, you know, my contacts with – some of the Arabic speaking communities have grown sort of simultaneously with covering this, not directly as a product of this, and that’s been, you know, that’s helped me as a journalist, and hopefully it’s played some small role in a wider community understanding of these communities.
MR THWAITES So, it sounds like you feel like you’ve gained both professionally and personally out of all of this?
MR GORDON Absolutely, yeah.
MR THWAITES Is there anything else that you would like to add, that you would like to say in terms of your reaction to – – –
MR GORDON I guess the only thing that comes to mind is that, and it struck me very much when the last big group arrived in Australia which was the group of 25, most of whom came to Melbourne, and a number of them it was the first, well was the first, time I’d seen them since I’d seen them on Nauru and it was quite emotional, and they displayed a range of emotions from across the spectrum, from worrying about, you know, those who are still there to, you know, the gratitude, but the thing that wasn’t there was any bitterness over the way they’d been treated, bitterness towards Australia, you know, even bitterness towards the government, and I thought that was quite remarkable but, you know, that there is an acceptance of the way they’ve been treated without bitterness, and to say that says a great deal about these people.
MR THWAITES Thanks a lot.
MR GORDON Thank you.
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