Transcript of Azita Bokan being interviewed by Richard Glover | ABC Sydney | 21 February 2014

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[transcribed by Marg Hutton, - Note the transcript has been lightly edited, check against original audio recording linked above for exact words.]

Richard Glover: Azita Bokan was in Manus Island during the violent clashes which of course have left one man dead and many others injured and she has decided to speak out about what she saw and she joins us in the studio. Good afternoon.

Azita Bokan: Good afternoon. Thank you for having me.

Richard Glover: Before I get you to describe what you saw on Sunday and Monday, tell me about your work for the Department because I understand you are quite in favour of the Department and the hard line against asylum seekers who come by boat.

[00:30] Azita Bokan: Yes, that is correct. I should clarify that. I used to do accounting and administration and other jobs. A year and maybe two months ago I joined the interpreting team and began helping with the Department of Immigration because I was passionate about stopping this business of people smugglers getting rich and the Indonesian government and people who are getting money from the poor people from the refugee countries getting rich and people putting their lives in jeopardy and children without their own wish coming through the ocean and getting drowned in the ocean.

I am very passionate about Australia. I have been in Australia for nearly 30 years. I am a nationalist but only for Australia. I don't want the borders of Australia to be attacked by everyone getting on a boat and jumping the queue and coming to this country. I came to this country nearly 27 years ago and I waited my turn. My father was in prison as a political prisoner; he was a writer, he had a newspaper of his own. In order for me to come to a country like Australia, I waited in Turkey in a very rough time - not the European Turkey that it is today but very unsafe with smugglers, drug dealers and prostitution. I waited three and a half years as a little kid there all alone without a family until I got to Australia legally and I integrated in Australia and I am an Australian. So I want to pay my dues to Australia and Australians. They were very kind to me as an ex-refugee and I wanted to protect the Australian borders and help the Department of Immigration and the Liberal Government to protect the borders.

Richard Glover: Okay, so you leave a career in accounting. You become a translator. You get to Manus Island. Before we talk about Sunday and Monday describe the camp - what does it look like?

[02:37] Azita Bokan: Oh horrendous! Horrendous. Even though I have been to Nauru before and I warmed up a little bit to the condition of the bad camps I can say that Manus is just a different scale. It is not only the heat, the diseases, the conditions, it's the morale - mentally everyone is pretty much not really able to participate and integrate in any society. They are mentally gone. There has been a lack of everything.

Put it this way, the very simple things - everyone is in a queue hoping that maybe one day there will be a miracle and they will get a dentist there. Everyone is having massive pain. They are beside themselves with pain and all that's been done is they take them to the guy that calls himself a dentist and all he does is he pulls teeth out. And most of them, their tooth has been pulled out - teeth that could have been saved.

You look at the amount of money that they say each refugee will have spent on them - $5,500 a day on them to keep them. I cannot believe that even $5 is spent on those people. They are in the same white singlet sitting under the sun, in the dirt, in the soil looking at the fences. They have been given so much red meat, raw red meat, without a little bit of vegetable... Malnutrition. Always the doctor says - 'This disease is because of bad nutrition' or 'Your tooth is rotten and the filling has fallen out because of the diet'.

Richard Glover: So in other words even though you supported the idea of a hard line once you saw it in operation you thought it was too much?

[04:43] Azita Bokan: Disgusted, absolutely disgusted. If only taxpayers who are struggling for daily life and buying education for their kids, proper health and paying their mortgage and earning their house could see, they'd be surprised to see how other people who are getting paid by Immigration get rich very fast.

Richard Glover: It sounds like from that description of the people that there is a simmering tension about the camp all the time. Is that right?

[05:16] Azita Bokan: You know for someone from outside, when I've gone in I said 'I would prefer to be dead today in a camp than live like this for a day.' But surprise, surprise, everyone was so, so quiet. For days I saw these people living in the best of times, they act [so quietly]. Except at night time they sing as a bit of a protest but it's a calm protest, immigration would not retaliate. But during the day they are just quietly sitting somewhere like they have been injected with some drug - they do nothing. And I investigated to find out why is it that everyone is so calm and patient.

Richard Glover: And did you form a view of why that was so?

[06:02] Azita Bokan: Absolutely. Many times, even though it is against Immigration [guidelines] for me to talk to detainees I cannot stop hearing it and they come and talk to me. Even though I try to ignore it, I heard on many occasions that they had been told by Department of Immigration first, then [International Health and Medical Services] IHMS, G4S, if they make any uprising, if they misbehave, if anything goes on their file that indicates they're a trouble maker the lawyers won't see them. So everybody is trying to be on their best behaviour, occasionally they have a few people in a green zone which they are loud ones amongst some of them and when you have been put into isolation for this much time you will lose it occasionally. Maybe five or six people, but the rest of them, they just keep quiet no matter how much hardship, how much pressure...

Richard Glover: Because essentially they have been threatened that their asylum seeker status will be effected if they protest...

[07:07] Azita Bokan: They would not get processed. They would not get processed, full stop.

Richard Glover: Azita Bokan is here on Drive. She is, as she has explained, someone who has been working as a translator for the Immigration Department. It is against their policy to allow her to speak to the media so she is being brave in speaking out. We'll come to that in a moment. Tell us what happened on Sunday night.

[07:30] Azita Bokan: I have to say what happened on Sunday morning that resulted on Sunday night. I am not saying it first hand. I had been briefed on what the announcement was. All these detainees were holding on to the hope of one day eventually getting out of that hell - is going to be waiting to see the lawyers and eventually there is a future. So it's just a waiting time and they sit patiently. It was very quiet - IOM (Internation Organisation for Migration) wasn't getting too many people enquiring about returning home so Immigration came up with the idea to say that we are announcing again that you will not see the land of Australia ever full stop. You are also not going to have a chance on a third country because there's no third country that has ever stepped forward. Also the PNG people and the country and condition of economical situation in PNG will never be able to assist you.

So when they close all these three options on them and they were all day sitting looking at the fences thinking that one day they were going to get out of there. They pretty much were sitting with their slight hope but that curtain was now absolutely shut in front of their eyes. It was an eerie feeling in the camp. I personally expected we were going to have people suicide attempts constantly. However, there is massive inspections. They make you show that there is no object you can use for suicides. So I was only waiting to see what happens. However, I overheard that some people saying there is a tsunami on the way.

Richard Glover: So they were fearful about that happening as well?

[09:35] Azita Bokan: Put it this way, this is the first time I go on the record on this one. I was interpreting for one of the counsellors in there. They like this counsellor a lot. And when the detainee who is never a trouble maker - he has a PhD - not to be a surprise, most of them they are educated Iranians. He was telling her that he was always against any protest, any violence and he was always keeping other detainees quiet, encouraging them to be patient. He thought that as a Leader he is informing an officer that he likes and the people in the detention centre believe that you are a right human being and we are not supposed to be injured and they worry about us me and her well being - that we might get caught up in some sort of violence because he believed the tsunami is on the way. And he says 'I am standing aside and even if I want to take sides I will take sides with the asylum seekers.' They took the only thing they had away from them.

Richard Glover: OK but that didn't prove to be right, did it but there was a rumour about a tsunami?

[10:49] Azita Bokan: He sort of felt that after the announcement that there might be a tsunami. I even thought they are going to start suiciding. There would have been something happening because their hope was taken from them. I don't know what would have happened and he was sort of thinking to himself 'I better alert you so if anything happen you guys don't get injured or anything'. He was feeling the tension in the camp that day.

Richard Glover: And it turned out that that was a correct prophesy. What happened that night?

[11:19] Azita Bokan: That night two detainees climbed the fence. I want to be very clear - when people say detainees climb a fence or escape from the fence [they are talking about] a fence inside a fence. It means that you can climb from the Bravo or Alpha fence or any fence but you are still inside the detention centre.

Richard Glover: It's like a border isn't it. There's two fences, there's a New Guinea fence and a detention centre fence.

[11:49] Azita Bokan: Yes and the detention centre fence has about six different sections to it - Alpha, Bravo, Mike; all these ones are fenced again. Therefore if the people from Mike climb, all they do they can do is what they do daily - walk through and come to the IHMS for a medical. But they cannot get out of the camp.

So as a result of the tension in themselves, those two people, they start climbing the fence thinking there is no future. As soon as the detainess start climbing the fence, they call local people. Let's be clear about local people. Local people are employed by G4S. The G4S they have superiors and the superiors are Australians. Therefore if an employee makes a mistake always the employer gets the responsibility for the action. You cannot say local people injured people. The local people are under the control of the seniors and the seniors are Australia.

They want that attack being personally because I have never been confronted by local. Therefore take away the confusion between the local people and Australia away. They G4S - it means the authority. They climbing the fence. Other than 12 plastic chairs that normally get rotated and they use to sit in the sun and watch the fences, the detainees had no weapons. There was fruit, they threw fruit; there was lots of peaches and fruit thrown at the guards that I see the next day when I went there. But there was lots of legs, metal legs from the tables that they were lined up the next day to go to the junk yard. The G4S started pulling at the legs of the tables to use as weapons, the metal bits. They also grab all the rocks around, big rocks, small rocks and they start attacking the detainees. This is the first night I am talking about - Sunday night. I didn't hear any shooting. I don't know of any cases where knives were used the first night. But we had been told that one of our interpreters was in the camp until late and he got caught in there. However, he can come forward himself. I don't even mention his name. I heard a brief from him about what happened. But he say, so all I can say that a lot of violence happened and detainees had no weapons to fight back. They throw lots of fruit, peaches and stuff at the guards.

Richard Glover: So there's a riot on Sunday with violence.

Azita Bokan: Yes.

Richard Glover: What happens on Monday?

[14:42] Azita Bokan: Through the night the Immigration Department protect themselves in Bibby which is the boat we are residing in and also keep counting the interpreters to make sure all the interpreters are present and safe. The next morning they said all the interpreters jobs are cancelled due to there being no appointments given for lawyers or anything except the medical team. So myself, the same interpreter that was working night shift as a Farsi interpreter, an Arabic interpreter and a Tamil interpreter - the four of us were sent with the first batch to go to the medical for interpreting. Because it's a Monday morning and we have to hand in our time sheets I went to the Immigration section to hand in my time sheet and I was approached very badly by the Immigration Department - 'What do you think you're doing here? You're not supposed to be here.' And I said - 'Yes, the liaison decided that four of us should come and we are with the medical team.' After investigating they realise I am telling the truth so we went to the medical. So the four of us went back to the camp.

Richard Glover: So what happened then?

[15:58] Azita Bokan: The Detention centre was absolutely dead and quiet. The reason was that I think all the unsettledness had gone on until 3 AM. So everyone was still asleep. One section is always quiet, they don't do uprising and they don't even sing the [protest] songs at 7 o'clock. They are very quiet these ones. But they are sitting across from the Bravo camp. Bravo Camp are the ones that [usally] protest. They don't eat, they go on food strike, drink strike, water strike and we have a lot of this happening in there because it is a quiet protest. They were witnessing across to the Bravo section. However, when the medicine time came, they came to get their medication and they were up early because they were not involved in any demonstration the night before.

When they came in, a couple of them they know me by name they say - Azita, last night, we can see Bravo camp, they came to kill them. It wasn't just frightening them. Azita, we mean it was really to that point, you don't see the size of the injuries you don't know what they did.' I thought it was a figure of speech, you say - 'You're killing me, don't talk so much.' I didn't take it all that seriously. But I could see the evidence of metal legs everywhere, peaches everywhere, fruit had been thrown and maybe yes the detainees threw the same rocks that were thrown at them, back at them. I don't say that the rocks were there but then I came finishing the medication time as I walked back to go and sit under the interpreter sitting area for the other detainees to come before I even to get my seat I saw a detainee pushing a wheelchair and another detainee sitting in a wheelchair. From a distance of 5 or 6 metres, maximum 7 metres, I could see that the guy in the wheelchair is brain dead - is no exaggeration when I say brain dead. He was brain dead. His mouth was in one corner, his arm was falling, he couldn't put it back up. From a distance all I could see and view it was that. However, immediately my attention gone away from him because I saw G4S running towards the guy who is pushing the wheelchair and they say - 'Get out! Get out! Get out!' And he's holding tight to the wheelchair and saying 'I'm not.' He was speaking in broken English, very broken English so I couldn't say if he was my language or he's Arabic. Seemed to me he was Arabic because he was very dark skinned. I went rushing to the scene as the conflict started happening and I really hate that situation. I always rush there and I say - 'Guys I understand his broken English. He says - You guys did this to his mate. You guys killed his mate. He does not trust to leave him with you. He wants to stay with his mate in medical and get medical attention to him and he is not going to leave his side because he don't trust G4S. That's all he wants. He's not going to cause any trouble. He's just going to just sit quietly in the medical with his mate.' They say - 'Who are you? You stand away! It's not your business. You are only the interpreter. You don't talk right now. Go there. You should keep impartial...'

Richard Glover: So they are accusing you of...

Azita Bokan: interference!

Richard Glover: of really sticking up for the detainee.

[19:39] Azita Bokan: Exactly and I would never even think he is Iranian to speak for him. I was just trying to make sense of his broken English until I turned to the detainee and I say - 'Farsi, Farsi, can I interpret for you?' And he starts speaking Farsi! Very dark skinned, somehow he is speaking Farsi! But it is Arabic Farsi, you know on the border of Iraq. And he turned around to me and said - 'Sister! Look what they done to my friend... They are going to kill him if I go!' I said - 'Guys wait a minute, he's just scared for his mate. OK, OK, Let me tell him, I push the wheelchair, alright get someone from medical team to come and take the wheelchair, just not G4S.' They pushed me away and they jumped on him. He wouldn't let go of the wheelchair. Also he's a strong man, he wouldn't go down without a fight. So he was sticking up for himself not to go down, but seven G4S they eventually tangled him and put him to the ground. I jumped in the middle. I couldn't see any more blood. 'Please guys - Stop! Why violence? I am an interpreter. There's room to talk. You tell me what you want to tell him. I get him out of the fence. Please no more hitting, please no more blood.Please just stop.' And I have been told off by every single one of them. Seven other guards are running in. The IHMS hearing officer started coming towards the incident area and started against me - because you know money buys a lot. If you see the amount of income everyone is earning, no-one bites the hand that feeds them. No-one is as dumb as me, put it this way.

Everyone is against me. Everyone says 'You're not helping.' I say - 'Why? You guys helping? Look at the guy!' And the Farsi turn around to me while tangled on the ground and said - Azita, look at him. See what they've done to him.' I just started paying attention to the guy in the wheelchair. At that point my concentration was absolutely nowhere near this guy. I look at him and I saw - Oh my God! There's blood all over him. There's a patching job, something like a needle as a drip or something but there's no drip attached to it - it's in his arm that is bleeding. No nurse would have done something like that. His head is injured. There's just too much injury on one human being and he's like a piece of meat. He's a vegetable. No eye movement, his mouth is hanging from one side. You can't believe that anywhere you see a face like that. Any human being would want to get up and protect his mate and say - 'I am fine...' He couldn't. He's brain dead. He's brain dead absolutely. Then, yes, true and it's going to go against me, I got up and used Australian slang - 'Eff this, eff that, You can't do this to people. We owe them a duty of care. We are negligent in every ground.' 'What do you mean?' 'First of all, these people put their life on the line, put all they had to a smuggler, put their life on the line. They came through a very difficult journey. Many of them lost lives, many of them lost loved ones. They got themselves to Australia. Now against their wish you shift them to the most dangerous place in the world, away from the media, away from the eyes of Australia and good hearted people. Honestly, I can't believe Australians believe in the way you are treating these people. Away from their eyes, no media to show what you guys are doing to these people. And all you are doing, you are killing them!'

Richard Glover: So you make this speech to them...

[23:34] Azita Bokan: really, really loud with lots of Eff you's by me...

Richard Glover: Obviously, through that incident you are then dismissed aren't you?

[23:42] Azita Bokan: Yeah, I was escorted out. I was treated worse than a criminal.

RG:And they said you'd lose your job at that point?

[23:51] Azita Bokan: It's not the G4S position to say I lose my job, it's the Department of Immigration. But I knew by then I had lost my job. But I said - no matter what goes on I am not going to let you do any more harm to anyone, not in the name of Australia, because everyone here think Australians are violent, they are about to kill them and everyone is getting the wrong picture about Australian citizens.

Richard Glover: Tell me what happens now. You are escorted away from the man with the wheelchair and the man in the wheelchair. What happens to them? Do you know?

[24:26] Azita Bokan: I don't know. I don't know about him any more. They pushed me out of the medical gate so I am in a common area. So of course, detainees come in from the fence and looking from Bravo which was one of the unsettled areas and knowing that the interpreter who genuinely interprets for them. Because many of them always comment - 'Why they don't bring Farsi interpreter. They are getting other languages, we don't understand them.'

Richard Glover: OK so they are keen on you.

[24:55] Azita Bokan: Yes they are keen on me.

Richard Glover: Because you can give them a voice. So by this time, it's the middle of Monday?

[25:04] Azita Bokan: No, it's just about 10 o'clock Monday morning. It was half an hour into work.

Richard Glover: So you spend the rest of Monday where? Just locked out of the camp or what?

[25:15] Azita Bokan: Yes exactly. I've been taken back to the Bibby which is where we're residing and then I've been pretty much watched the whole time. Believe me, I am the absolute criminal that has to be watched every move, doesn't go near anything. Two of my friends have been ordered whole day not to work but stay in the room with me to make sure I'm not going anywhere. The next morning I had two Immigration officers on the breakfast table with me to make sure I'm not walking around and doing anything.

Richard Glover: So you're suddenly public enemy number one.

[25:47] Azita Bokan: Yes I was watched until Sydney. I have photos of Immigration and G4S staff that they came as far as Sydney with me.

Richard Glover: On Monday night though, you could hear, you could see the violence from where you were?

[26:05] Azita Bokan: On Monday, I don't know the exact time but about 8 o'clock we are sitting in our room, all the interpreters. I heard Bang! Bang! I heard some noises similar to the shooting but I wasn't sure because I don't know PNG culture. Maybe it's a festive time. Maybe they're doing something. But nothing crossed my mind but I heard things. but because we were bored in a room, we started lying down, four of us in one room in one very small room. While we are lying down then I hear that the front of our door is banged so harshly and is the Department of Immigration calling for one of the interpreters that is an ex-nurse to come immediately. By the time we wake her up and she has gone to the bathroom, they knock again very hard. 'Where is she? How long is she taking?' We say you are on a standby. We shout at her - 'Rush, rush! Get out! They want you now.' She comes trying to get her interpreter jersey on. There's a third knocking very angrily asking why she's taking [so much] time. I say 'I don't think they want you for interpreter I think they want you for your nursing background. Just go!'

As she rushed out the door, I was lying down in my bed and my other two room mates fell asleep. I was thinking to myself, there is something going on. Why do they want a nurse? We have IHMS here. If they want an interpreter why did they pick her over everyone else? I become very [interested in] what's happening. And I thought to myself what if they didn't call this to other interpreters because they were watch dog for me the whole day. As soon as they fell asleep, I snuck out and I went on the roof of the Bibby. But in the hallway even I could hear that it's unsettling. Something is wrong, something is going on in there. Everyone rushing around, Just like - 'Bring towels stat! ' Just like there is something wrong.

So - I am going to start shaking - but when I got on top of the Bibby then I did see horrendous things.

Richard Glover: What did you see?

[28:24] Azita Bokan: First of all, one of the injured people was the person who... I didn't know it was a rock that caused his injury, but he had no brain, he had nothing on his neck. His skull was crushed.

Richard Glover: You could see this from the roof top?

[28:44] Azita Bokan: Yes because it was clear that I see. But I don't see a round head. Like it was not a round head and the way that they were rushing toward him and the doctor dropped everything - it wasn't right. I knew something was really seriously wrong. I am passionate, I wanted to go down and help but I just contained myself because I knew the last thing they needed was me in there because then they are going to [have to] leave everyone and try to arrest me or something. I just thought - 'Don't go, just watch.'

Richard Glover: So you can see this one man with injuries. Around him there is lots of noise and...

[29:16] Azita Bokan: And lots of other injured people. The whole thing is when they attend suddenly to him and I look at the size of his injury. It was clear that something is not right with him. Then they quickly walk away, it seems that they saw something that they couldn't help. Then another one was a throat cut.I could hear that the doctor was very tired. He had three days of constant, constant work. He was trying to push a tube through the neck, the hole, through the cutting and there was too much blood coming out. He couldn't even find the lung. Pushing the tube down the lung and asking someone else to pump, pump, every so often pump to get the air in there.

Richard Glover: And again, you are close enough that you can see and hear the words?

[30:08] Azita Bokan: I can hear. I can hear. But even the next day the interpreter ex-nurse was explaining to me which put more meaning to what I was witnessing. And while they are pumping the air he was pushing another tube in there to drain the liquid to get the liquid out, to open the lungs to get the air in. I pretty much thought at that point that he was a lost cause...

Richard Glover: And what had happened to him? He'd had his throat slashed had he?

[30:38] Azita Bokan: Yes, yes, definitely the throat slashed. It was barbaric, the things that happened there were barbaric. I come from a country, I've been through a revolution, I've been through the war, I've witnessed all this kind of thing - but never to this scale.

Richard Glover: Azita Bokan is with us. After all of this you are taken back to Sydney, as you say, supervised. Once you get back here you do decide to speak out about what you've seen. Was that a hard decision?

[31:12] Azita Bokan: No my decision was made the moment that I was telling them that the confidentiality is out the door. If you hurt one more person, if another death happens there's no confidentiality, there's no breach of confidentiality.

Richard Glover: You are breaking your contract though by speaking to others and by speaking to me. Are you worried that the Department will come after you?

[31:32] Azita Bokan: They will come after me. They already have. I lost my job, my job is gone. But you know there are more important things than income. And I really encourage people - who getting massive pay from Department of Immigration. Think about it - this is Australian taxpayer's money. First, it is not right.

Richard Glover: Can we go right back to the beginning when you said to me that you joined up in the first place because you supported the hard line, you wanted to end that awful sea-borne trade in people. What do you think now?

[32:04] Azita Bokan: I want the boats stopped. I want the boats stopped. But I want these people from Nauru, which I seen more than I seen in Manus and Manus and when I say more than Manus that's because there are children on Nauru and these children are in really difficult conditions...

Richard Glover: So you want them treated properly?

[[32:23] Azita Bokan: I want these two detention centres closed! Closed, prompt! And I don't care if the politicians have an ego; they made the wrong decision and they do not want to admit to it. Please be genuine! Please be honest with yourselves. You have children, you have families. What if your brother's throat gets cut? What if your children are starving, there is no water, there is no shower, there is nothing there and you are standing in fifty degree heat? What if they are dehydrated, diahorrea and vomiting every moment of the day? What about the conscience?

I am Australian, I love Australia. You closed the business of boat and smuggling. Bring these people to the camps like Darwin. We have facilities. You are spending massive! Please put the investigation into how much money is going to the Nauru government and Manus Island. This is taxpayers' money. The people who can't pay their mortgage, their money is going to Manus Island and Nauru when we have facilities, perfect facilities to process these people. OK, the ones I was interpreting for, they are political refugees. If they are proven to be political refugees, true religion, change of religion, bring them gently to the society. First teach them the way of Australian living. Then bring them to the commmunity. And if they are not refugees then send them back home. But do the right thing. And under our flag do not kill and do not [waste] life.

Richard Glover: Azita Bokan you are very game to do what you've done. Thank you very much for talking to me.

Azita Bokan: Thank you for having me.

Richard Glover: Azita Bokan who as you heard her tale, stood up for some refugees in the most dramatic and violent of circumstances, lost her position as a result and has now decided to speak out about what she'd seen.

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