Moira-Jane Conahan went to work in the Woomera detention centre in 2000. Her experience and subsequent speaking out - through Chilout and also through the media, was one of the first witness testimonies that eventually helped start the inquiries and dismantling of the Woomera detention centre.
"The night before I left we were watching Four Corners [...] but I laughed it off and with a minor amount of trepidation left for Woomera."
3 December 2003: Citizen X, dramatic theatre at Fremantle's Deckchair - We were part of the entire 2003 season with the Project SafeCom information stall. "This is a striking and heart-rending play that gives voice to the voiceless. The letters incorporated in the play, written from Woomera, Curtin, Port Hedland and Villawood, are vulnerable, confused, poetic, sometimes angry, sometimes resigned but always very human. And regardless of your opinion on detention centres for asylum seekers, these voices are worth hearing."
from September Hearts
ChilOut Information Night
3rd June 2002
Hello everyone. I'm so glad to see you all here tonight. My name is Moira-Jane, I'm 37 years old, married, mother of three, a Registered Nurse, etc. In 2000 I did two tours of the Woomera Immigration and Reception Processing Centre, twelve weeks in total - in March/April and July/August. My last two days there were at the August 2000 riot.
In March 2000 it became necessary for me to consider working away from home for a short time. I had heard about these great contracts, forty-two days and very generous pay. With a small amount of effort I had the information I needed and was preparing to leave for Woomera. I think it was around the 22nd. The night before I left we were watching Four Corners, there was a doctor on there talking about how wrong the detention centres and the treatment within them was, there were also two Algerian men who were deported after being chemically and physically restrained. I must admit this program really made me wonder what I was getting into, but I laughed it off and with a minor amount of trepidation left for Woomera.
I have many horror stories, too many to tell now, personally witnessed or told to me. The stories I want to share with you are some from the camp. The daily humiliations and indignities. The abuses of human rights and children's rights, the flagrant breaching of the UNHCR minimum standards for detention.
I was met at the Roxby Downs airport by a prison guard, or detention officer as they prefer to be called; semantics really, they are prison guards. We travelled the eighty kilometers to Woomera slowly, and arrived at this hot, dusty, arid, miserable cage in the desert. It was surreal, like being transported to the scene of a mad max movie. The zoo, full of men, women and children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, beseeching the guards that, "please, we are human, we are not animals, why do you treat us like this?", "This is what it is like in our country, but they don't imprison children" and "we thought we would be safe but we walked ourselves to jail". The desperation and hopelessness permeated the very air and the longest any of those people had been there at that stage was five months. Some of those same people and their children are still there!
There were always people hovering along the perimeter of the fence, pleading with whoever went past. Waiting to see Mr. Tony from DIMA [ed: Australian Department of Immigration, acronymn was later changed to DIMIA] to beg he help them. Often the detainees would come to the nurses asking us to intervene with DIMA on their behalf, not really believing that there was nothing we could do. I discovered that they did have the right to request an interview at any time and got the appropriate request form from DIMA. I photocopied loads of them and put them in the medical centre so we could use them whenever we were asked.
One day in July, myself and another Registered Nurse filled out two of these forms: Donna - for a mother who had already tried to hang herself and myself for a 19-year-old man from Afghanistan. He had fled the Taliban after they discovered he was volunteering his labour in an Aid Agency Vaccination clinic. He fled after someone got word to him that his home had been ransacked and they were waiting for him. I put these forms in the DIMA pigeonhole. Later in the day I had to follow up something in the DIMA office, there I noticed both request forms in the bin. Why have you thrown these out? Oh, they've been screened out at initial interview. Here they were, a mother and son, whose husbands cut up dead body had been delivered to her in a box and a 19-year-old beardless youth. They couldn't speak any English, they had no legal representation and they had a line ruled through them in Darwin before they even made it to the detention centre and no one, no one was prepared to tell them anything. DIMA had known at that stage for nine months that they had failed at initial interview and for that reason they saw no purpose in granting their request of an interview. What the hell is going on I wondered.
I've seen and heard the guards laughing at the pain and suffering of the people imprisoned in Woomera. Singing to the Iraqis who have had a rejection; "I'm leaving on a jet plane, goin' back to see Saddam Hussein" . Witnessed the guard making a detainee beg for soap. No English did this woman speak, she had learnt the word soap from someone. To the guard she said, "soap". The soap was proffered and withdrawn when she reached for it, again and again until she said please. I watched those poor women in their purdahs, cringe in shame as we forced them to abandon every cultural sensitivity they had and attend a mixed clinic, sit in a room with men and then have to ask for sanitary products. They would stuff them under their purdahs or jumpers and scurry heads down and shame emanating, to the purile little boxes we provided for them to sleep in.
When I was in Woomera the first time the numbers in the camp swelled to 1435 or 38, Some boats arrived from Xmas Island and Ashmore Reef and two new compounds were constructed. India and Sierra. In India were housed all the new arrivals. They were flown into Woomera in the dead of night, by chartered plane and landed at the Woomera airstrip. They were then herded onto the bus and into their pens for the night, after some basic physical processing was done.
Sierra was the punishment block. Maximum security, total intimidation. It appeared that the 'officers' had carte blanche, total discretion over who and when was incarcerated in Sierra and for how long. Age was no barrier. I personally witnessed a 12-year-old spread-eagled against a wall, unable to move, under guard - while the rest of them laughed. He was a cheeky kid. They called him a little cunt and told him if he didn't watch himself he'd be going on a holiday to Sierra: his response landed him in maximum security, under guard, without his mother's knowledge and without his understanding. He was treated for abrasions to his neck from being dragged by the scruff; a complaint was filed but no further action taken by DIMA or ACM.
Sierra became dreaded. If you resisted a room search you went to Sierra. If you upset a guard by answering back or looking the wrong way, you went to Sierra. If a guard didn't like you, you went to Sierra. If your visa application was rejected, you went to Sierra. If you tried to kill yourself, you went to Sierra. If you upset anyone in Villawood, you would be flown, in secret, in the middle of the night, without knowledge of your destination, to Woomera. Once there, you would be incarcerated in Sierra. I once asked a man in this exact situation how Woomera compared to Villawood. His answer? Villawood is like a 5 star hotel compared to here.
As nurses we were eyed with suspicion by the guards, management and DIMA. A few of us would advocate strongly on our patients behalf. Unfortunately our health services manager was very much a company woman and we had no support what so ever. At one stage some of us had our names, addresses and telephone numbers translated into Arabic and Farsi so that we could give them to the people we'd gotten to know and care about and support them on their release. We had to have them in Persian and Arabic so the guards couldn't understand what it was if they saw it. More than one nurse lost their contract for this reason. ACM's response to this was to completely ban all nurses from saying goodbye to anyone when they were given a visa. That was so hard. We were also told how our phones would be tapped and ASIO was watching us. God it was bizarre. The paranoia and suspicion were incredible.
During my first visit to Woomera I ate the same food as the refugees. After two weeks of chronic stomach pain I received a meal that I was able to scrape in one complete lump into the bin. It was the colour and consistency of pal dogshit. By that stage the smell of coleslaw was making me wretch, it was the daily staple along with rice. I just could not face another mouthful of any of it. That was after two weeks. Try two years.
The riot of August 2000 was a horror I never expected to see in my country. Water cannons and guards with body armour and guns, burning buildings, smoke and stones. The day after I watched the shell-shocked families come wandering out of the rubble, their children skirting around the debris, the tears and apologies and the guards' recriminations started. Another story altogether. I watched in disbelief as a loud roar shook the earth and sky and an air force bomber flew low over the camp, practising manoeuvres, terrifying those war-shattered people. I could have been anywhere except Australia.
I spent most of my time there imagining. Imagine if it was my children. Imagine how bad it must have been to make that journey here. Imagine how much pain they must feel. Imagine being intimate with your husband to have a guard burst into your room at any time, and then imagine the further humiliation when he shares his story with anyone who'll listen. Imagine having such rotten teeth and being in agony and told you'll have to wait at least another two months to see a dentist. Imagine that you can only have that tooth treated if you agree to its removal. Imagine morning sickness and a rigid, regimented feeding schedule when you and your children joined a queue (you can't jump this one, it really is there) to receive your allocation. Don't try not to eat, you'll be punished. Don't try to get extra, especially milk, small children don't need that much.
Imagine your kidneys are failing and the only way to save them or slow the process is to eat a low protein diet and you can't. Imagine all you have to wear is a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of thongs and it's around 1 degree Celcius in the morning, and your thongs are being held together with wire and string that you've managed to scavenge off the army tents. Imagine you are seventeen years old and all you want to do is go to school and instead you can do nothing at all. Imagine that you slowly watch your family disintegrate before your eyes. Imagine seeing someone lose their mind.
Imagine watching someone hurt themselves because they wish they were dead. Imagine how bad it must be to leave everything and everyone you know, your language, your culture, your family, your friends. Imagine the only thing that sustains you is the thought of safety and haven and warmth and caring. Imagine that sustenance giving you the courage to cross oceans in dangerous, rickety leaky boats and instead when you arrive, you are treated as worse than an animal. Imagine why people who fled to save their lives and saw them as precious, are now trying to lose them. Imagine that you have NO RIGHTS.
If you can imagine all that, then you can begin to have a small sense of what Woomera detention centre is like, and perhaps can feel just a little of the anguish that fills those cages.
Alice Springs News
July 31, 2002
Report by Kieran Finnane
An Alice Springs woman who says she spent a wonderfully happy childhood in Woomera, and two years ago, a nightmarish three months nursing at the Woomera Detention Centre, is setting up a local branch of ChilOut, a national organisation working to get children out of detention.
Moira-Jane Conahan's family were British "10 pound" migrants to Australia 35 years ago.
The family lived at Woomera for eight years.
When she was employed as a nurse, in mid-2000, by ACM, the multinational corporation that runs the detention centre for the Australian government, she "felt excited about going back".
She was not a political person. She knew nothing about mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
She spent her first day wandering the streets, looking for her old house, now gone, recognising her grandparents' flat, going to the cinema that was once so familiar.
"It was a high security town, everyone had a number which they had to quote to get in or out.
"I remember Mum's, it was FOO56.
"But that's where any similarity with the detainees ends.
"We were so free and safe. We met wonderful people, many of whom are still part of my family's life today."
In the glow of these memories, Moira-Jane started work.
She says nothing could have prepared her for the shock.
"As soon as I set foot in there I knew something was wrong. It was the look of the place, like a concentration camp, no place for little children.
"There were massive lights that stayed on the whole night, depressing rows of huts where people lived, stinking toilet blocks.
"Even that early in the piece, there were people trying to hurt themselves. That was after five months in detention. Some of those same people are still there!
"They were completely isolated. They had no access then to any form of communication and had not been able to even let their families know that they were still alive.
"The food was so bad that after two weeks I had to stop eating it. I had chronic stomach pain.
"The catering was sub-contracted out. There were three or four staff members, the rest were detainees working like slaves for $40 a week and no sick pay, holiday pay, workers' comp, or anything like that!
"There were a couple of qualified interpreters who were constantly tied up with the Department of Immigration.
"We nurses had to work with other English-speaking detainees as our interpreters. There were three of them, working for up to 90 hours a week each, sharing $80 between them.
"No one as a caring person, capable of putting themselves in someone else's shoes, could be there and not speak out against the conditions.
"It is so horribly wrong. These people came to this country with such high hopes, they promised their children a better life. If they were Afghani, they were promising their little girls that in Australia they would be able to go to school.
"None of them could ever have dreamt that they would get here and be locked up in a miserable cage in the desert.
"This will come back to haunt this country and I want to be able to look my children in the eye and say I did something."
Moira-Jane left Woomera the day after the riot of August 2000, "a horror I never expected to see in my country".
As she was preparing to leave, she watched in disbelief "shell-shocked families wandering out of the rubble" and, "as a loud roar shook the earth, an airforce bomber flew low over the camp, practising manouevres, terrifying those war-shattered people".
"I could have been anywhere, except Australia."
Moira-Jane is working to launch ChilOut in Alice in the first week of September, to coincide with National Child Protection Week.
She hopes the founder, Junie Ong, will be here to meet with Alice residents.
Ms Ong started ChilOut in her loungeroom last August after she saw a Four Corners program about an Iraqui boy in detention.
ChilOut now has over 1500 members in Sydney, and branches in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, London and USA.
"They are ordinary people, mums and dads. Most of them have never been active before, like me.
"Their main focus is to get an informed debate happening in Australia about our mandatory detention policies, lobbying government to get children and their families out of detention and where possible giving them practical help.
"They have worked at a local level and had good response from some local governments. There are now five councils in Sydney who display banners saying 'We welcome refugees'.
"Brisbane City Council has been incredibly supportive, and some rural and remote towns have identified themselves as 'welcome towns'. They're towns that are in decline and can see how they will benefit from the skills some of the refugees have to offer."
What could individuals in Alice Springs do?
There is already a letter-writing program underway, organised by the Alice Springs Human Rights Group, and the Uniting Church congregation has also been active.
People are corresponding with detainees, sending them phonecards, letting them know that there are some Australians who care about them.
School children could write to child detainees, suggests Moira-Jane, and the issue could be taken up by teachers for debate as part of the social studies curriculum.
[for privacy reasons, contacts detailed have been removed. Please contact ChilOut for more information about Moira-Jane]