20 November 2004
The electrified fences, razor-wire, electronically sealed doors, x-ray machines and elaborate security procedures to gain entry were initially intimidating and daunting, but seemed incongruous when we met the gracious men, women and children they were established to contain.
As we talked with these people we heard of the situations from which they had escaped, we listened to the pain of separation from their wives, children and families, to their sense of boredom and despair after being imprisoned for four, five, or in one case seven years, and to their sense of incomprehension as to how a country they had believed offered a hope of a new life had treated them in this way. Above all I heard the desperate yearning for freedom for which they had risked so much.
I was inspired by the generosity and commitment of the ordinary men and women who had come to visit those in the centre. Some of them regularly travelling long distances to support and encourage those they had befriended. Most of all however, I was inspired by the spirit of the detainees themselves, their courtesy, gentleness, appreciation for our efforts on their behalf, their concern for each other, their faith and their courage. Nevertheless as one man said to me “people are surprised I can still talk and smile – but inside I am destroyed.”
We visited twice, once in the morning and once at night. The final visit was especially poignant and memorable., The group of twenty or so visitors and detainees sat around several tables that we had pushed together and shared conversation, laughter and the food the visitors had brought with them, for almost two hours. For a short time I was able to forget where we were but the end of the visit was the most harrowing experience of the whole time we were in Port Augusta. Prior to our departure the visitors were gathered in a sealed outside room behind a glass partition waiting to be checked and counted. No longer able to hear each other, visitors and detainees, could only look through the glass that separated us. As we prepared to return to our cars, and a freedom and lifestyle that our new found friends could only dream about, I was acutely aware of the immensity of that separation. The sadness of the faces and the anguished plea of the young man with whom I had just been speaking continue to haunt me. “I only want to be free”.
I left deeply saddened, ashamed, angry and struggling to understand. Why? What is the point of all this? Could this really be happening in Australia? How can anyone, let alone someone who claims to follow the gospel, condone such a situation?