Dreams of freedom end in rough justice

By Kimina Lyall - Southeast Asia correspondent in Jakarta
The Weekend Australian
SAT 15 NOV 2003

ALI Kizil's journey from Turkey to Australia and his dream for a better life began in the passport office of Istanbul more than a year ago.

The 21-year-old with deep brooding eyes wanted to escape forced military service and systemic discrimination against his Alawi Muslim religion. After research in books, on the internet and television, he chose Australia because, in the words of his friend, Behan, 27, 'there we will find freedom'.

Instead, Kizil, Behan (who won't give his surname) and 12 other Kurdish men are locked in cells in a Jakarta detention centre. The windowless, fanless rooms are too small for bathing facilities, so the men haven't washed since they arrived here on Tuesday night after being set adrift in Indonesian waters by an Australian navy vessel that had towed them away from Melville Island, north of Darwin.

They live bare-chested, occasionally wiping their sweaty torsos with a Union Jack. A plate of rice scraps and banana skins, the remains of the single meal a day provided here, lies tossed away outside their barred room, with other days-old refuse.

In their first detailed interview, a two-hour conversation with The Australian through a Turkish-speaking interpreter this week, Kizil and four of his friends outlined their trek from what they described as a hopeless life in southeast Turkey, where Kurds are discriminated against, to the shattering of their dream at the hands of Australian officials.

Jewellery-maker Kizil, from Pazarcik, had intended to apply for legal documents to travel to Australia. He was told by Turkish officials he had no hope but they could put him in touch with someone who could get him there.

Soon, a Turkish man he knew only as Ayoub contacted him. Ayoub outlined a promise of what Kizil wanted: a life in Australia, where he could freely practise his religion.

'We came to Australia because Australia offered us a better life,' says Kizil. Behan is a chef from Gaziantep near the Syrian border. He had a more articulated reason: 'I like animals. I heard that the Australian Government cares about kangaroos and I thought if people take care of animals well they will treat humans well.'

If the men suffered more specific persecution at the hands of the Turkish Government, which has a reputation for cruel crackdowns on Kurdish culture, they are now reluctant to say, a habit refugee workers say is not uncommon for people who remain fearful of deportation. 'We still don't know who will help us,' says Irfan Mustafa, a 28-year-old textile fabric worker. Another, store-owner Aydin Murat, 28, from Adiyaman, hints at a larger story. 'When we are free, we will tell you everything.'

All 14 men met Ayoub or another man, Mustafa, in various Turkish cities at different times. None knew each other in Turkey and each paid between $US7000 ($9733) and $US8000 to the people-smugglers and in return received a passport, a plane ticket to Jakarta and the promise of the same destination.

The men say the passports had their real photographs and names but they cannot say if they were valid or false. It matters little now; after they arrived in Indonesia, their sponsors tore them up. Kizil, who travelled with Ayoub to Jakarta, was deposited in a safe house and left there. Kizil says Ayoub would disappear for weeks at a time, only to return with plans to move to a different Indonesian city: Puncak, Bandung, Jogyakarta. In each new home, there were more Turkish men, recently arrived in the same fashion. Some, like Ali, lived in this way for a year, learning a little Bahasa Indonesian but basically doing nothing. 'Just waiting, waiting,' he said.

Their internal Indonesian trek ended in Makassar, southwest Sulawesi, where late one night they were suddenly called to a 12m fishing vessel, the Minasa Bone, and headed off on a nine or 10-day journey to Australia.

Arriving first at an uninhabited island, they finally made it to Melville Island, hungry and thirsty because the supplies on their ailing boat had run out. But instead of the warm welcome they expected, they were given only water and a shove-off back out to sea. The men did not know Australian officials now have a decidedly unwelcoming attitude to boatpeople.

What happened next has been the subject of a major domestic controversy and a dramatic about-face for the Howard Government. Soon after they arrived on November 4, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone signed Melville Island out of Australia's migration zone -- effective the previous midnight. According to her, the boat had not arrived in a part of Australia where the men could claim asylum.

But the Government denied the men had ever told islanders or officials they were refugees. In a spectacular backdown after the men told reporters otherwise, Senator Vanstone late this week admitted they had indeed indicated they wanted refuge. By that time, any hope of that had been quickly dispelled courtesy of the crews of the HMAS Geelong and the HMAS Warrnambool. First to greet the 14 men and four Indonesian crew were men from the Warrnambool, arriving in the dead of night brandishing guns -- says Ali, 'as if we were terrorists' -- and harsh words.

'We told them we were refugees but they just said, `be quiet, be quiet',' he remembers, saying the military appeared interested only in searching the ship. Soon they were roped to the Geelong and dragged around in circles while, unbeknown to them, Australian officials were seeking Indonesian approval to return them.

The men say they received only left-over meals of mangled rice and scraps of chicken, contradicting Vanstone's claim they were given three 'culturally sensitive meals a day'. They explained they don't traditionally eat rice and one was a vegetarian. 'Animals live better than we were,' says Kizil.

When they reached Indonesian waters, the navy disabled one engine, cut them adrift, pointed in the direction of Yemdena island, near East Timor, and left them to their fate. It was not until they landed in Yemdena, the men say, that they received kindness, from local police and the NGO International Organisation for Migration.

Now, as they await a visit from the UN High Commission for Refugees, it is easy to distinguish whom the men are most angry at. While all of them feel betrayed by Ayoub, their most bitter words are for Australia. Says Behan: 'We left Turkey as refugees. It is not their right to make justice like that, out in the ocean. If you want justice, give us a lawyer, a court. Not like that, in the middle of the ocean.'

Caption: Hopes shattered: Left to right, Mustafa, Kizil, Murat and Mehmet in their Jakarta detention centre cell
Picture: Kimina Lyall

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