Baktiyari boys: 'What is our crime?'

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

BY SARAH STEPHEN

Twelve-year-old Montazar Baktiyari and 14-year-old Alamdar Baktiyari have put faces to the horrifying reality of children in detention. After asylum seekers have been dehumanised as "illegals" and "queue-jumpers" for so long, the treatment of these two boys by Australian and British governments brought tears to the eyes of tens of thousands when their attempt to get asylum in Britain failed on July 18.

A member of Children Out of Detention (ChilOut) shared his thoughts in the group's July 19 electronic newsletter: "I have sat silent for too long. Today I saw the children being manhandled by thugs. I felt something I thought I'd never feel toward a government. Anger, hate, disgust. I felt the will to get out on the street and try to physically do something."

Green Left Weekly spoke to Alamdar Baktiyari on July 25. Just like most days, he spent July 25 in Woomera detention centre doing nothing, "just sitting and thinking. There is nothing to do." There is only one TV, he said, and the room it is in is not always open.

Asked if he had spoken to his father since he was sent back to Woomera, Alamdar said: "I spoke to my father, but I was very unhappy, very upset because my father has a back problem. My mother, all the time, is wondering how he is. My family is thinking too much about my father."

Alamdar escaped from Woomera detention centre with his brother on June 28 and was taken to Melbourne and hidden within the underground network of refugee supporters offering sanctuary to escaped refugees. I asked Alamdar what it was like to be looked after by people that cared about him and wanted to help.

"I was happy, very happy", Alamdar exclaimed. "After a long time in detention, to walk down the street made me very happy. I met many different people, many good people. They were not human, they were angels. Angels! I am very grateful to the people who are helping refugees."

A Melbourne woman who sheltered the two boys while they were in hiding told the July 20 Age that the boys were "extremely polite and proud young men".

"The boys lived like Anne Frank, hiding out in houses", she added. "It was no good for them and they knew it. They told me that they had never been to a proper school because they had spent their lives either living in hiding in Pakistan or locked up at Woomera.'"

Asked what he thought about immigration minister Philip Ruddock saying his family is really from Pakistan, Alamdar said: "I didn't believe it. I believe in my country, in my culture. We are Afghani." He repeatedly asked: "What is our crime? What have we done wrong? Why are we not able to live with our rights?"

Montazar told ABC radio's PM on July 19: "I come back in Woomera hell again. I was feeling very good and I came back to Woomera. It is very dreadful." Responding to the government's allegation that his family are not refugees, he added: "[The government is] lying. It is not the truth. We are refugees. If you are not [a] refugee, if you've got a good place, why [would] you come to Australia?"

Also on July 19, Alamdar told a Canberra Times journalist that he wanted to ask Ruddock: "Why [did] you put us in jail? Our crime is we came from Afghanistan to Australia. We are refugees. Tell Australia to please help [children] and take them outside for education, for playing, like other children."

The July 20 Age reported: "According to carers employed by Australasian Correctional Management, Alamdar and Muntazar are troubling examples of children who have had their lives and emotional health irrevocably changed by prolonged detention. A female employee, who had a close relationship with Alamdar, said that when he arrived at Woomera he was a lively, inquisitive, 'proud and happy' child 'excited to be in Australia'. He turned up regularly to activities. 'But as the months in detention passed and the family's claim for asylum turned down, he seemed to lose his grip on things."

Alamdar has scars crossing both his arms from suicide attempts — on one inner forearm he carved the word freedom with a razor blade.

In a biting critique of the government's vilification of the Baktiyari family, Bob Ellis wrote in the July 24 Canberra Times: "Using the code phrase 'these people' [Ruddock] has accused Afghans of sewing their unwilling children's lips, of throwing their unwilling children overboard, of 'attempting self-harm' in order to embarrass him, of kidnapping children that were not their own and passing them off as their own, of being sometimes terrorists, of having Taliban links, of planning a major attack on Sydney, of not being worthy to stay in Australia if they tried to break out of Woomera, of jumping the well-known queue in Afghanistan, of saying falsely that they were refugees when their country was being blown to smithereens.

"It is racial vilification, surely, to say these things without evidence. If he has evidence, he should produce it. And he hasn't so far. Or they might be called as witnesses when Ruddock is brought to trial for child abuse. There is little doubt that he is guilty of this... as their legal guardian he was obliged ... to give them a better life than this, to prevent them from being tortured in this way. Ken Buttrum, former Director-General of Juvenile Justice in NSW, agrees. 'It is child abuse', he says. 'And if it happened on my watch, in one of my institutions, I would have been arraigned before a parliamentary committee and made to resign and probably put in jail...'."

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.

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