One woman lies catatonic in hospital after being raped and beaten. Another was raped and immolated. This is the world awaiting refugees released from detention on Nauru. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Nauru rapes: ‘There is a war on women’

Nazanin, an asylum seeker who was raped and beaten on Nauru.
Nazanin, an asylum seeker who was raped and beaten on Nauru.
Credit: Supplied

They say God never gives you anything you can’t handle, but Dabal is not so sure. When I call him, he’s just returning from the Nauruan hospital where his 23-year-old sister lies catatonic, entering her second week being sustained only by nutrients pumped intravenously into her. Her kidneys are shutting down; her body has shrunk.

In May, Nazanin left the Nauru refugee camp one morning on a day pass, happy to be visiting some friends who had been settled on the island – she and her family had been in detention for 26 months. “She used a bus, and I called a friend and he said she was there,” Dabal tells me. “My sister was happy to leave this camp for a day.”

She never returned. At 6 o’clock that evening, Dabal and his mother reported her absence to security guards. Something wasn’t right. In response, the guards floated theories of missed buses or an innocent loss of time, benign explanations for what the family felt was a sinister disappearance. By 7pm, several hours past Nazanin’s curfew, the camp authorities began to wonder, too. “They realise it was bigger than the things they thought,” Dabal says.

Dabal joined two security guards as they drove to Nazanin’s friends’ house. The friends confirmed she had been there, but that she had left some time earlier to return to the camp before curfew. At this point, no one knew where she was. Dabal felt sick. This wasn’t like his sister.

The guards contacted police, and gave them photos of the missing woman. Dabal was taken back to the camp to join his mother, and the pair was placed in an isolated room to wait for news. Which they did, for hours. As they waited they brooded upon how small the island was – 10,000 people occupying just 21 square kilometres – and the unlikelihood of an absconded refugee. Something terrible must have happened to her.

Police found Nazanin naked, bruised and disoriented, about 9pm that night. She was alive, but badly beaten and numb with trauma. She couldn’t speak much. It wasn’t until 11pm that Dabal and his mother were notified. In those two hours they mulled their darkest apprehensions. They didn’t know at that time that Nazanin was taken to the police station rather than the hospital. They didn’t even know if she was alive. No one told them.

1 . Rape allegations denied

Much of the reporting of Nauru focuses on the camps, or regional processing centres. But there is another reality lived outside it, once refugees are settled. For many months now, hostility towards refugees has grown among Nauruans. Local resentment about the 2013 riots has metastasised, mixed with anxieties about employment and culture. Many settled refugees have been assaulted, and there are frequent threats to storm the camps themselves.

Among this, the Australian companies MDA and AMES – jointly run by the consortium Connect – provide settlement services to refugees who have been released from the detention camps. Counselling, accommodation, teaching and employment services. While Connect finds accommodation for refugees, the Australian government pays the rent. 

However, two sources have told me that the accommodation sought for refugees is woefully inadequate and leaves women vulnerable. There are doors without locks – merely flimsy latches – and single women who have been placed in the most remote parts of the island, where they have subsequently been sexually assaulted. 

Connect denies this, saying they haven’t heard any allegations of rape. “Single women are housed in the community where appropriate accommodation is available close to other members of their community,” a Connect spokeswoman, Laurie Nowell, tells me.

“We are not aware of any allegations of rape. We are not aware of any reports of rape made either to the local police or through Connect’s incident reporting process.”

It’s unusual that they haven’t encountered any allegations of rape or sexual assault, because there are many. Such as the story of Beth, a young refugee who was released into the Nauruan community in May. Allegedly Beth, whose name I have changed, was sitting on the beach with some other women when local men gave her a drink. Beth began to feel woozy, before being dragged into bushes by two or three men and raped. They then poured fuel on her and set her alight. I have seen photographs of her after the assault. Her left breast is so badly burnt that the skin has blackened and lifted from the flesh. 

As a result of the rape, Beth became pregnant. A solemn Christian, the thought of abortion appalled her but she decided to go through with it. Beth was flown to Brisbane for the termination where, not long after, she attempted to hang herself with a bed sheet. She is now back on Nauru. 

Then there is Sophie’s story, a 25-year-old woman released from the camps six months ago. I have a letter from her. In April, she says, she was waiting at a bus stop when a car pulled up beside her. The bus wasn’t coming, the men said, and if she waited at the stop she would fall prey to “dogs which eat humans”. They offered her a lift. “So I told myself that the driver might say truth so I said ok. But when they arrived where they want, they said get out of the car. I understand what they want. It was one man who wants to rape me that is why they told me to get out the car. The other man I don’t know where he has gone. Only one man left with me. I tried to beg him but that was impossible. What he want he got it from me.” 

These are not isolated incidents. I have another letter, also written by a woman, who recounts a similar story. Sarah, whose name I have also changed, was offered a lift by a man at the supermarket’s bus stop. “In car, man said I have to get something from my home first. When we got there dogs came out barking. Man said get out of car, dogs won’t hurt you. Dogs came close to attacking me. I asked him to call dogs away. He said get inside the house – they don’t know you – if you go inside they think you are part of family.

“I went inside. Dogs came in too. Man took off all his clothes and showed me his private parts. I wet my pants and soiled my pants. This is reason I left [my country] – this fear of rape – I see it happen to many. Then he said I don’t care and hit my face very hard. He said dogs will kill you if you don’t suck my private part. Then I have no choice.” 

Refugee women say the local men know where the vulnerable ones live, and speak about the “50 dollar man” – a man who serially molests women in their homes, then drops a $50 note on them afterwards. “There is a war on women there,” a source tells me. 

2 . Nazanin's worsening condition

Nazanin was also raped. Nauruan police admitted the fact belatedly. Dabal tells me they were reluctant to admit it. She now lies in a hospital bed, entering her second week without voluntarily taking food or water. Her condition is described to me as “catatonic”.

The last time Dabal remembers his sister speaking to him, before her disintegration, is about two weeks ago. After two suicide attempts. She rested her head on his chest while she lay in a hospital bed, and asked him to help her. “My feelings are getting destroyed,” he tells me. “We didn’t make trouble. But this inhumane thing – my sister is now in this condition, damaged mentally and physically. I got anger – the most defenceless creature in the world – seeing her bruised… they are animals. We wait and pass time being calm, but that did not help us. And now things are getting worse and worse.”

After about four days without food, the brain is starved of its principal energy – glucose – and the body begins pragmatically breaking down fatty acids to nourish it. Body fat and muscle are robbed to feed it. Potassium and magnesium levels begin to deplete in compensation. The body starts shrinking.

After two weeks of fasting, the body experiences a profound deficiency of vitamin B, resulting in neurological disturbance. There are irregular heartbeats and psychological tumult. Dabal speaks of his sister not being in a “normal place”. “Two days ago the doctors told us her kidneys are at risk of failing,” he tells me. “They have been rehydrating her, but potassium levels are very bad. And her heart does not work well.”

Dabal is 20. He has watched the sharp decline of his sister from her bedside. He has held her hand. Has whispered succour. Sought counsel from a Christian pastor in Australia. Dabal tells me his words – actually, he refers to everything he says as “sentences” – are just for his sister. “It’s like when you seeing your love is drowning but you don’t know how to swim.”

I ask him about religion, and if faith has provided any support. Dabal is conflicted – he pits the worth of his anger against the scorn of his God. “If I lose [faith] I will hurt myself or maybe die. I have complaint sometimes from this world. Why? What did we do that we have to see and experience these traumas?

“I know that this trauma can happen anywhere in the world, in Canada, in the US this thing can happen. But it is what happened afterwards, how she was supported. It is no good. The police, the hospital. None of this is good.”

3 . Camp conditions an abuse of power

We have built camps in our name that house damaged children, yet denude privacy and employ guards without background checks. Camps that encourage abuse, intimidation and the hypersexualisation of children. Camps that cannot provide nominal release dates to its subjects, creating purgatories. Camps that repel journalists with exaggerated visa fees, and punish detainees who speak to them distantly.

On Nauru, aid workers have been traumatised, discredited, sacked without explanation and had their exoneration ignored. We have criminalised their disclosure of child abuse. Have, in fact, created a distant exclusion zone for mandatory reporting; a black site whose governing legislation is a repudiation of our own laws. “If I see child abuse in Australia and I don’t report it, I can get into enormous trouble,” David Isaacs, a paediatrician, said last week. “If I see child abuse on Nauru and I do report it, I might go to prison for two years.”

We have created a camp where unvetted security guards enjoy the power that flows from the indifference of local police, and a situation where these guards can spy upon Australian senators and our government is not stirred to condemn it. It is a grievous hypocrisy. The men and women of this government, fat with ostensible love for our institutions, appear unmoved by former nightclub bouncers stalking its own parliament’s representatives. Apparently a defence of our institutions may only occur if in doing so it doesn’t imply a failure of policy.

We have established these camps in partnership with a corrupt government, the government of Nauru, so obscene in its cupidity that it squandered its status as one of the world’s richest nations per capita and now relies upon our immigration policy for income. A government that has largely exiled its political opposition and sacked its judiciary. A government that expelled its coroner – the Australian magistrate Peter Law – once he began an investigation into the strange and brutal death of the wife of its finance minister, David Adeang. This is worth detailing. In May 2013, Madelyn Adeang was found burnt to death in her garden. Law says no photos were taken of the scene, nor interviews conducted with neighbours. He also said that police were frightened of David Adeang. The finance minister insists it was an accident – that his wife was carrying fuel and unintentionally triggered her own immolation – but no investigation occurred.

We have created a settlement program where lone teenagers are released upon an island where their existence is detested, and they face no prospects of education or employment. By phone they tell me they are routinely assaulted, and send photos of their injuries. They say they would prefer the relative security of the camps.

It’s a settlement program that releases vulnerable single women to remote parts of the island, where they are preyed upon with impunity, and for whom justice is thwarted by their frightened reticence and a compromised police force. To this day, no convictions have been recorded for assaults on refugees.

In Australia, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and the minister’s office, did not respond to detailed questions about the sexual assaults reported in this piece and conditions on Nauru for settled refugees.

4 . Humanitarian disaster

A crude generalisation: the left never properly grappled with deaths at sea, the fact that, as a distant island, the journey here was unusually treacherous, much different to the contiguous land crossings of the majority of asylum seekers. To question the sincerity of the Abbott government’s invocation of these deaths does not absolve the problem, and I don’t doubt the tears of those parliamentarians who spoke of the boat that fatally smashed upon the rocks of Christmas Island in 2010. The pure policy question – if you could separate it from political incarnations of xenophobia – was should we discourage such journeys? And if so, how?

But the question was never so pure, and nor was the answer, and we are left with a terrible contradiction: that to prevent one humanitarian disaster we have created another. And so it is hard to listen to declarations of humanitarian success when the operations of a place so opposed to them continues to function. We will look back upon this long era in disgust.

5 . “Mentally she is destroyed.”

Nazanin’s condition has deteriorated rapidly. “She is just a piece of meat on the bed,” Dabal tells me. “Mentally she is destroyed.” He is emphatic that she should receive “proper medical assistance ... And I want, I ask, for nothing else.”

Late Thursday night, Nazanin was airlifted to Australia. She had been on a 24-hour drip, and doctors were concerned that cardiac arrest was imminent.

Dabal is struggling to maintain his faith, but is terrified of losing it. I ask if he has a Bible in the camp, and he tells me he does. Reading it, though, does not confer the comfort it once did.

Police appear no closer in apprehending Nazanin’s attacker. It has now been two months. Dabal says bitterly, “They tell us they haven’t had any progress.”


National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2015 as "Nauru rapes: ‘There is a war on women’".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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