Hundreds of teenagers fill a school hall. They sit on the floor, cross-legged, silent, chins tipped upwards, eyes locked on the stage. Speaking at the microphone is Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia and director of the Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney. Leaning forward, fingers gripping the lectern, his gaze is direct, arresting. “Throughout history,” he tells the students, “it is young people who have changed the world. The anti-apartheid movement, women’s movement, peace movement, the environmental movement – all led by young people.” His voice is deep and assured. He tells the students they have important decisions to make, that it is up to them, “and if people tell you that you can’t make a difference, they are lying to you”.
The next time I see Glendenning he has a pronounced limp. We meet in Brooklyn, a tiny township 50 kilometres north of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River, where there’s only one road in and out, and where the river’s dark edge is met by the silver-brown sheen of ancient rock face and dense, rugged bushland.
At the local pub Glendenning is preparing to play in a band. They’re old mates, haven’t played together for more than 15 years. First time was in 1978 at The Clock Hotel in Surry Hills, where they earned $14 each. They’ve not practised for tonight, “just in case we fuck it up”.
The locals are gathering; there are handshakes, kisses and waves, a hearty sense of community, of family. Glendenning rests his schooner on the table, laughs. “It could be rough.” He looks like an ageing rocker: black top and pants, boots, clipped beard, grey hair curling on the ends. Betraying the hardy exterior are his eyes: deep brown, gentle and sympathetic. They lack the defence the rest of him has to what he’s encountered, witnessed, felt.
Music is one of his escapes. When’s he not playing “loud and thrashy” songs, or watching the Rabbitohs or sitting in a tinny on the Hawkesbury, Glendenning is advocating human rights. He searches for people the Australian government has forcibly relocated. Travels to Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Rwanda, Colombia. Finds people alive, missing, dead. “We found over 30 people killed in Afghanistan, sent back by the Howard government. Nine dead in Sri Lanka; four in Colombia, two of them didn’t even make it out of the car park; two in Iran; a whole number in Iraq.”
The refoulement of people is against international law, yet Australia is still doing it. “The Afghan government issued a request not to forcibly return people. The Pakistanis, Iranians, Scandinavians, British, the French – they all abide by it.” We are the only country sending people back, putting their lives absolutely, fundamentally at risk. “In this country we have a bipartisan consensus to punish people.”
I ask Glendenning what he’s seen, and he starts with a massacre site in Rwanda. Just an ordinary school, blond brick, on a hill. He walked from classroom to classroom where limed bodies where piled to the roof, arms wrapped around each other. “One little girl in a T-shirt that said, ‘I still believe in Santa Claus.’ You couldn’t tell if those people were black, white or brindle, but you could tell they were human.”
He continues, matter-of-factly: “We are in the blessed and cursed position in this country of not knowing what war is like, how it smells, tastes, feels in the guts.” In Colombia he watched as huge gunships forced street pickers into a crowded rubbish dump. “The people were less interested in the fact the guns were coming in, and more interested in needing to find food amongst the rubbish.”
Glendenning is tough, smart, quick-witted and funny, deeply compassionate. The sort of bloke you’d like to have around in a crisis. He’s been arrested, had guns pointed at him, bombs go off nearby. Members of the Taliban stuck a gun in his ribs, another under his mate’s chin. “Everything just slowed down,” he says, chuckling. “Yeah, it was pretty hairy”.
“Within 48 hours I was home, still shaken, but home in Sydney, standing in my brother’s backyard having a beer. All because I had a passport and was Australian, and because when I get to the border of this country, I’m welcomed into it.”
He taps the table, tells me there’s something about Australians and boats, that historically we’ve never addressed the original dispossession of people. “Maybe people who come by boat hold up a mirror to the rest of us, as what Patrick Dodson refers to as the ‘unfinished business’. People have been coming to this island by boat for centuries. More people come by plane seeking asylum, but you don’t hear Alan Jones saying, ‘Tow back the planes.’ There’s something about us and boats that is deep; it goes to the marrow of the non-Indigenous community in this country. We think we’ve got a problem with boat people? Ask an Aboriginal person.”
He hasn’t always properly looked after himself, he admits, and has been the “captain coach” of post-traumatic stress disorder at various times. “The smell of the massacre sight in Rwanda is a smell on the brain, it stays with you. The smell of fear.”
How does he manage, I wonder? You need to build closure, he tells me. You can’t come home and be a spectator in your own culture. Also, there’s laughter: “You go to an Aboriginal community and spend a lot of time laughing. Same with Afghanistan.” Often when people have their humanity stripped down to its bare essentials, what’s left is really good. “You don’t ever meet people in these places living lives of quiet, suburban disappointment.”
So, back to the limp: he injured his knee in Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific, an island so drowned by climate change that water bubbles up through its earth. The injury’s serious, needs surgery. But he’s expected in Paris next week for the United Nations conference on climate change. “Tuvalu and Kiribati are unique cultures that will be lost if we don’t take the problem seriously. Climate change needs a human face, the people in Tuvalu and Kiribati are it.” He’s postponed the surgery. Until then, painkillers and a walking stick will do.
There’s a call from the band; they need their frontman. Glendenning hobbles back, straps the electric guitar across his chest and plugs it in. For a brief moment he closes his eyes. Guitars sound. Launching into the lyrics of “Daydream Believer”, his voice fills the room. As well as everything else, the man can sing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2015 as "Bearing witness".
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