Opinion

Janet Galbraith
Vulnerable, brutalised and returned to Nauru

I have known Arezo for a little over 15 months now. This is not her real name. For her own sake, it cannot be. For most of the time I have known Arezo, she has been held in the detention camp on Nauru. We often speak of ways of surviving sexual assault, having both been victims of sexual assault and rape as children and victims again as adults. But where I am free, where I have not had to flee, am safe and well supported, she is imprisoned in a country she has never known. Those who are supposed to assist her are those assaulting her.

A few months ago, Arezo was brought to Australia for medical treatment. Her severe illness had been untreated for a long time and, as a result, she has lost her ability to carry a child. For her this is devastating. I have had a similar history with severe gynaecological illnesses, and cannot have children. I feel her sorrow and her grief. But again, I was given adequate medical care and was supported through this. Arezo was not. Last week, still awaiting the surgery she was told she needed, Arezo was woken in the night and forced back to Nauru. Back to the place where she was sexually abused, where she had attempted suicide, where through maltreatment she had lost her ability to have children.

Arezo is a woman trapped by abuse. Her story first appeared in The Saturday Paper last year, before it became part of the Moss review into conditions on Nauru. She told the review of how – barely conscious after a suicide attempt – she was sexually assaulted by a male nurse contracted to fulfil the responsibilities of the Australian government. She detailed her experience of guards masturbating and laughing as they accompanied her and the other women from a medical appointment. In the published document of the Moss review, much of Arezo’s testament is redacted. But immigration and others are aware of the abuse Arezo has endured. 

Arezo had filed complaints before giving evidence to Moss. She was told that the police had investigated and had found no proof. Arezo was given a document saying she had attended an appointment with Nauru police, although she had not. The document said the investigation was now closed. “After a few months they told me, ‘We didn’t find anything.’ Just they said sorry. I said, ‘Please check your camera.’ They said, ‘Sorry, all cameras in [the hospital] are always off.’ ”

After giving evidence to the review, police asked Arezo for a statement. “They were kind of obliged to interview me.” When I asked Arezo if she had seen the nurse who assaulted her since, she said she had and had pointed him out to a Wilson Security officer who dismissed her complaint.

Requiring medical treatment

Arezo has cysts on her ovaries. “I have a lot of pain and I have other sicknesses related to women.” She has previously had surgery for this, but the cysts have returned and grown bigger – this was confirmed by sonography on Nauru, although they were not treated. She was told by doctors they would heal naturally. 

“Having had previous surgeries, a doctor in my country warned me that if I have another cyst and I don’t take it seriously or get medical help soon enough, I will lose my ovary or my womb,” Arezo told me. “Today I told the doctor: ‘If you say I’m good, then why do I have such pain? If you say I am good, why can’t I control my urine?’ The doctor told me: ‘Why do you want to show yourself sick?’ They tell me that I don’t have any physical problem. Again I told the doctor that I have urine control problem. I said: ‘Isn’t it a problem?’ She said: ‘Almost everyone here has this problem and they pee in their beds.’ I said: ‘Is it really normal?’ She said: ‘No, but it’s not dangerous.’ The only thing that is not important here is a human being’s life.”

When Arezo was finally brought to Australia for treatment, she was taken first to MITA (Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation), a detention centre in Broadmeadows. I was in Perth at the time, but a support worker who visits there, a woman with much experience helping women brutalised by Australia’s immigration system, told me she had “never in all my years seen a group of women so severely traumatised”. Before Arezo had left Nauru, a guard had threatened to rape her.

In the early hours of April 27, 2015, Arezo and a group of terrified people were transferred to Darwin. There were reports of force and handcuffs used against the women, men and families. The transfer meant it would be easier for Australian immigration to move these people quickly and quietly back to Nauru. We were also aware that in Darwin it would be very difficult to keep track of Arezo – the advocacy support systems, although well developed, collaborative and effective, are unable to keep up with the large amount of people being sent there. A man, a friend of Arezo, called often through that night, greatly distressed. “We have to protect her,” he said. “We must keep her safe.” 

In Darwin, Arezo finally saw a specialist doctor. She received the news she would be unable to have children and that she would have to undergo more surgery. She was very upset by this. She was also constantly afraid that she would be returned to Nauru. Her nights were filled with terrors and little sleep.

I lost touch with her for a while. Communications are largely and strategically restricted in detention. But in the early hours of June 24, I started receiving panicked messages from people detained with Arezo. The days following were fraught and I was unable to make contact with her. Finally, her first message arrived: “I am sad. I am in Nauru.”

Sorrow and frustration

I felt anger, frustration, fear, sorrow, grief. There was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. What could I say? I said: “Darling, I am so so sorry. Ohhhh, I am so sorry. Please hold on. I love you.” Arezo replied: “I have six sisters and you are my seventh. I will not give up.” 

Later she sent me an account of that terror-filled night. Of how this system we have built brutalises the most vulnerable people, how it punishes innocence and makes torture from uncertainty.

“We were all sleeping at night when the sound of dogs woke me. It was about 1 o’clock in the morning. I saw through the window of my room that about 40 anti-riot guards with dogs had attacked on the front doors of the rooms of people whose names were on a list to be returned to Nauru. They took everyone, including me, violently, to the buses that waited for us. When anyone resisted, they tied their hands by the use of force with plastic handcuffs. We were all so scared.

“There was a lady with her husband and her six-year-old son. She resisted getting on the bus. She was dragged to the bus and forced onto it. There was a lady officer standing next to her with plastic handcuffs in order to handcuff her. When the asylum seeker started screaming, the lady officer shook her shoulder with her palm and asked her to shut up. ‘You should be quiet, otherwise, if you scream one more time or make any loud voices, we will put you in an individual car by use of force and take you to the jail.’ The lady was scared and became silent. This lady had severe depression, and, before she was taken she was under suicide watch as she had attempted to suicide many times before.

“When we were all collected and boarded, the bus left the detention place. There were many officers, special guards and immigration officers on the bus with us. After 20 minutes, we arrived at a prison. I was extremely stressed. I took a look at the name of the prison, but due to my severe stress, I could not read it. 

“Afterwards, we were taken to a hall with a lot of cells around it, cells with metallic doors. The immigration officer started to talk to us. He informed us that we would definitely be transferred to Nauru and suggested we try not to resist. Later on, everyone, including women, men and children, were taken to bathrooms. Female officers were assigned to accompany women, and male officers were supposed to go with men. Everyone entered the bath area one by one. We were told to remove all our clothes in front of the officers and to give our clothes to them one by one.

“We had to take a shower in front of them, completely naked. I objected and asked them not to look at me, but the officer insisted and said that I didn’t have any other choice. There was no curtain between the officer and us. After we showered with the officers watching, they provided us with some special clothing – black and dark blue – all similar to each other. We all had to wear these prison clothes. When we were at that prison, the lady who had tried to resist being taken cut her wrist with a razor. She was taken to a place that we are still not aware of.

“At 11am they took us to the airport. The airport must be very close to that prison because we could hear the sound of other flights easily when we were in there. It took us just 10 minutes to get to the airport. We got off the bus right in front of the airplane stairs. It was an airline from Nauru. The plane stopped at Cairns and then we arrived in Nauru at 8.30pm.”

I still cry when I re-read Arezo’s account of that night. I feel the exhaustion of her ongoing assaults. I feel it in my body, my mind, my tired soul. I could not keep her safe. Arezo never got to have her surgery. She was forcibly sent back to the hands of those who have assaulted her, who have threatened to harm her further. Arezo is again placed in a situation where she will have to survive many forms of terror. Her journey here for treatment has become one more fruitless indignity. On the day she was returned to Nauru the parliament voted against an amendment that would make the reporting of rape, of child rape and child abuse, mandatory in Australian-run detention centres on Nauru. Further, reporting of such abuse will now carry the possibility of a two-year jail sentence for those who speak out.

All this happened, in this country, only last week. “I am so tired, Janet, so tired,” Arezo told me. “Why do they hate us?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as "Unthinkable treatment". Subscribe here.

Janet Galbraith
is a poet and founder and co-ordinator of Writing Through Fences, a writing group made up of people who are, or have been, detained in immigration detention.