Green Left Weekly photographer and refugee Ali Bakhtiarvandi talks about his time in detention

June 26, 2015
Ali Bakhtiarvandi. Photo: Emily Bartlett Photography

Behind the Wire is an oral history project documenting the stories of men, women and children who have experienced mandatory detention. It seeks to bring a new perspective to the public understanding of mandatory detention by sharing the reality of the people who have lived it.

Green Left Weekly photographer and Socialist Alliance member Ali Bakhtiarvandi was one of those interviewed. This is a brief excerpt of his story. You can read the full story here.

* * *

I arrived in Australia on June 5, 2000. We arrived to Ashmore Reef. Then we came to Darwin and from there they took us to Port Hedland detention centre. We were 36 people, including women and children and also a pregnant woman. All from Iraq and Iran.

The people smuggler said: “You’re going to Australia you will be there by eight hours”. We were on the way three days and two nights from Kupang to Ashmore Reef.

Also, people smuggler said: “As soon as you get to Australia you will be arrested by the United Nations and you will be in isolation for 45 days, then you’re going to be released to the community with your visa and you are starting your new life."

That is the only information we had.

The treatment from the first minute when we get to Port Hedland detention make every single person think differently.

Oh, this is not right, because they are treating us like really dangerous people. Why we are here? The door is locked. There is no TV, no telephone. How we can tell our family we are in Australia and we are safe and we are alive? And how long are we going to be here like that?

For the first month we were in the isolation block. Fully isolated from the rest of the compound. No nothing. Thirty-six people, everybody living in same place.

We had 10 minutes' fresh air in the morning and 15 minutes after lunch. That means less than half an hour a day.

People in Port Hedland live in houses next to the detention centre, but we didn’t know. The compound was there with over 800 people, and we didn’t know anything about it. When we were living in that block, people in compound had a demonstration and they smashed the fence and went to the street and they were arrested by police. They took them to Perth jail. And we didn’t know anything about it.


Anyway, after one month, they start to call people for first interview. My first interview started after 11 o’clock in the night. I went to different area in that detention area, they took me with car. To be honest, I didn’t know what the interview was. I had no idea.

There was a woman from immigration and another woman interpreter. The interpreter said to me she is from immigration department she is going to ask you some questions, but before she starts, do you have any question?

I said to her in Persian: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean, because I have been in interrogation with intelligence service and usually they put handcuffs on my hands, and use the black material for my eyes as well. The only interview I know it’s that.”

She translated to immigration woman and she said, “No, just tell him we are two women here and this is your process and something we have to do.” She ask me some questions. It finished by 12 o’clock.

Ten or 15 days later, they called me for a lawyer. I went to the room again. He said: “I’m your lawyer, we’re going to talk about your problem, why you came to Australia. This is going to be private between me and you.”

I was believing. I talked to him for more than an hour. But the statement he made for my case was only three paragraphs. I still have it. After more than an hour — three paragraphs.

We didn’t know anything. He gave it to me. I signed it. He gave me a copy. But still I couldn’t read it, you know. And when he said, "I’m a lawyer", I was trusting him as a person who has responsibility for working for me, not working for the immigration department.

A few days later, a man came and he said: “I’m your case officer.” He was from Perth immigration department. Before he started, he showed me in his file he had every paper I had shared with my lawyer. I couldn’t say anything, because I had no information and I didn’t want to make my process hard. Anyway, he talked to me I think for almost two hours. Then I was taken to the compound for first time. Everybody, when their process finished, they come to the compound.

Inside the compound

There were too many people there. Women, children, you know. Different nationalities. From Kosovo, from Bosnia, from Russia, from Vietnam, China, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. Everywhere was full of people, and there wasn’t room.

An Iraqi-Iranian man, who was really nice man and accused of being a people smuggler — they deport him finally to Iraq in 2004 — he said: “If they are not giving you a room, come to the family area and I’m going to make my son’s room empty for you.”

A few days later, some people came and said your name on the whiteboard for an interview with federal police. In that time, people said whoever goes to talk to federal police they release few days later. It means they get visa, and you going to get your visa too.

An old man from federal police came to talk to me, again talking about my case, three hours interview. Three days later I was rejected by the immigration department. I think it was September.

I came here for my freedom

Then I said to the immigration department: "I didn’t come here to stay locked up. I came here for my freedom. If you cannot let me to go out as a free person, I would like to see someone from the United Nations, because I’m not a criminal."

They said no, nobody is allowed to see you. So that’s it. I stop eating.

The first 10 days actually were a little bit hard because I never had an experience like that in my life, except sometimes in war time back in Iran. That time, no — just water. I was feeling really sick, honestly. My blood sugar was really low, my blood pressure really low, and I lost weight from 67 to 53 kilograms.

But I said: "I’m sorry, if you ordered some food from outside, from the best restaurant in Port Hedland, I would say no, I’m Iranian, I didn’t come here for my stomach, I came here for my freedom."

Day 18, one of the security guards, he came and said nurse wants to see you. As soon as they put me in her room, they said you are not going back to compound until you start eating.

They took me to a very small room. Very small light inside, video camera in the corner. There is no window. All the walls and also the floor was covered with very hard sponge, like mattress but very hard. No bed, no pillow, no blanket, and air conditioning and light on 24 hours. A small window in the door, you know, for the security guard to see me inside, what I’m doing. They took my clothes away. They gave me one of the white surgical gowns. One month I was wearing that, without T-shirt, without pants, without underpants, without anything.

In isolation

One month I was in isolation. My hunger strike day 46, someone from immigration, they came with a piece of paper and they said Mr Ruddock said if you don’t start to eat in next 48 hours a doctor can force you. Could you please start eating? I said: I’m sorry. No." And in that time I didn’t have feeling to move, you know. They used a wheelchair to take me to bathroom or sometimes outside.

Day 48 they opened the door. Five or six big security guards. I was feeling sick and shocked as well. What do you want to do to the person who didn’t eat anything for a long, long time?

Two of them hold my legs while I was on the floor. Two of them hold my hands, this is four. Supervisor, she put my head between her knees. Another officer with video camera filming it. Nurse and doctor try to use tube from my nose to my stomach. And doctor inject some liquid thing.

That was really torture, because it wasn’t easy to breathe, with something going from your nose to your stomach, while they didn’t give you anaesthetic injection. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t have any energy or power to move, because I was sick and held by big security guards. Nothing I could do that time.

I was there for another few days, then they said: "We’re going to take you to Juliet Block. And we are not going to release you until you start eating." I was there also for one week.

They brought one of the detainees there for some different reason, and he said: "Look, it’s not going to work. People are waiting for you inside the compound, you have to go and join them in doing something together."

I was really tired. Really tired mentally, because I didn’t see anybody for a long time, and the treatment of the security company and immigration also make me more sick. I start eating. They released me from isolation.

[To read more about Ali's time in detention click here.]

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