In August 2016 the Guardian uploaded to the internet more than 2000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre in Nauru. The reports are represented on the Guardian’s website as a kind of calendar. Each report is shown as a blank square of grey, yellow, orange or red. The effect is like an Advent calendar; each square is a door and behind each door is a story. Unlike an advent calendar, the stories are not about angels or candy canes;1 click on a date and up pops a text written by officers at the centre. Sometimes the text is linked to a scan of the original paper form, sometimes not. Together the texts record all the things that went wrong at the centre over a period of just under three years.
When I first opened the Nauru files site, I was overwhelmed by the volume of stories. Insignificant events and everyday complaints sit beside incidents of physical harm, self-inflicted and otherwise, and reports of people in extreme distress. They range from mould in the food to rape to riots. The only thing they have in common is that they are the reports of the captors—however well meaning the staff may be—on the behaviour of captives. Like many but not all Australians, I was shocked at what I read. My strongest reaction was to wonder how it was that I remained unaware of all this while I went about my mundane daily life: how there was so much in the newspapers, on Twitter, on radio and TV about everything happening everywhere, all the time, in real time, but these events on Nauru were only known after the fact. I wondered what else was happening in darkness right at that moment, not just on Nauru but also in other secret places.
I decided to look closely at just a few of the reports. There are, as always, questions of representation. The files are pure archive: screen-based reproductions of pieces of paper filled out on a benighted tropical island.
Those pieces of paper are forms; forms with a form so constrictive it’s a wonder any information at all can be gleaned from them. They are scattered with checkboxes. Each checkbox confirms that the correct procedure has been followed in filling out the form, including a checkbox labelled ‘Most current version of IR form has been used’. An IR is an incident report. So the form itself confirms that the right form has been used. Elsewhere on the form is the ABN (Australian Business Number) for the service provider running the detention centre (Transfield Services Australia, now known as Broadspectrum). Some forms carry a note reminding officers to include these points about what happened: what, who, where and when. Years ago as a cadet journalist I became very familiar with these four pillars of reporting. ‘Why’, I was told, was a bonus; these forms do not mention why.
The IR form, scanned and then uploaded to the internet by the Guardian, is my only source of information about each incident. The report might as well be a document in a public record office detailing something that happened a hundred years ago; my access to the event is as arms-length and mediated as that. As representations of reality, the Nauru files are suspect and subjective before the form is even filled out. There is, of course, no section of the form where a Person of Interest—the subject of the report—may respond to what is written about them.
The difference between these files and a public archive is that the events recorded occurred in my lifetime, on a date within reach of my own memory and personal records—just the other day, really. They happened to people whose lives I cannot even begin to understand. I could know every fact about them; their upbringing in another land and culture, the events that led them to leave their land, the risks they took and the details of their imprisonment by my government on the island of Nauru; still I wouldn’t have a clue about how it feels to be them. So to represent the incidents from their point of view would be the height of privileged arrogance on my part. Except. Except that there is no section of the form where a Person of Interest may respond to what is written about them. And many of the Persons of Interest are still on Nauru, in their tents behind their barbed wire.
In time, the Persons of Interest may emerge from behind the blacked-out bars of redaction that conceal their names on the forms. I can only frame my need to write about the files as my own; as my attempt to incorporate these reports into my understanding of the world, or at least write them back into the record.
A short note on method, as is common these days: I had little. I didn’t look for the most awful incidents, or the most dramatic. I simply used my cursor to click on three of the coloured squares on the Guardian’s calendar (one each from 2013, 2014 and 2015) without looking too closely at which I was choosing. Finally I clicked on a square coloured red, indicating the highest level of concern. This is what I found:
19 January 2015
‘We then got on the bus with students and left.’
It was a Monday morning. A father arrived at the school bus stop late with his son. The boy wasn’t allowed to get on the bus; it was too late. Or perhaps the previous week the child had been barred from the bus for lateness, it’s not quite clear. The father was angry; education was important in the family. The bus was often late, the teachers were often late, other staff were often late. It seemed unfair that the only person who wasn’t allowed to be late was his son.
So the father raised his voice to the staff member in charge: demanded to know why it was so. He said, ‘You are damaging my son not allowing him to go to school.’ He was very upset; he refused to calm down. He threatened to go to the media, the government.
The staff member moved away, fearful, and the father sat down, but continued to shout, saying what he’d already said. While he shouted, the staff member wrote on the form, ‘We then got on the bus with students & left.’
I don’t know if the boy went to school that day.
This was one of six IRs filed that day on Nauru. On 19 January 2015, according to the ABC news service, these things happened in places other than the island of Nauru:
In South Korea, an airline heiress faced trial for allegedly ‘physically assaulting the chief steward’ of a flight on which she was a passenger, over an event allegedly involving a bag of macadamia nuts.2
An Argentinian prosecutor was shot dead just before he was due to appear at a hearing into a bombing that had killed 85 people in 1994.3
Tasmania’s MONA FOMA festival was judged a success despite Tasmania’s weather: ‘gusty winds and showers did not dampen the spirits of some’, although a giant inflatable coloured maze was forced to close.4 In Australia it was still the summer school holiday period.
18 September 2013
‘Two female single parents [REDACTED] 1 and [REDACTED] 2 allege that they are being harrased [sic] by men [REDACTED] 3 and [REDACTED] 4) within the camp.’
That’s the whole incident report. There are no scanned forms linked to it; just that single sentence. Two women, responsible for their children, went to camp authorities to ask for help and protection against two men. I don’t know if they went together or separately, but the nature of the reporting system suggests that they went together. I don’t know who minded their kids while they talked to the officials, or whether their children sat with them while they spoke of their fears. I don’t know how many children they had, or their ages.
On 18 September 2013 I was at home with my own kids. In the morning I walked to the optometrist so the nine-year-old could have his eyes tested, to see if recent eye therapy had helped with his vision. I pushed my 16-day-old baby in a pram and held him while the optometrist ran through the tests. It was my first day home without my husband or some other adult to care for me since the baby was born by caesarean section.
I probably slept in the afternoon, once the older boy had gone to school and the baby was napping. I might have texted another mum about a playdate for the boys the next day. Around that time I was, according to my journal, spending a lot of time thinking about something I’d read once on an adoption blog, about the difference between the noun ‘mother’ and the verb ‘to mother’. As far as I can recall, what that writer said was that ‘mother’ is a descriptor, a technical term, a fact that cannot be changed. ‘To mother’ was the thing that really mattered, she wrote; to do all the things that a mother does: to care, to protect, to feed and
Also as far as I can recall, I was not harassed by anyone in any way that day, nor did I have to visit any authorities to appeal for help and protection. My baby is now three years old and quite capable of asking for his favourite kind of bread and refusing to sleep until every household member has given him a hug and a kiss, each to be delivered in a separate show of affection.
The Nauru files don’t record what further action was taken on the allegations of ‘redacted 1’ and ‘redacted 2’.
18 August 2014
‘Everyone left the pitch’
This report reads like an overheard Saturday morning conversation in a Melbourne coffee shop. It would go something like this:
‘So I was umpiring this soccer game on Tuesday night and this one kid came up and said another kid on his team had sworn at him in Arabic because of an own goal. He said the kid had said “Fuck your mother”—not just once but four times, mind you—but of course I don’t speak Arabic and the kid denied it but the first kid’s brother said it was true and so I told the second kid he was off for the rest of the game (pause for breath) and then he wouldn’t get off the pitch. He pulled out one of the goal posts! Then he picked up some rocks and said if we came near him he’d throw them at us. So by then it had been 15 minutes and we were out of time anyway, so the game was cancelled and everyone left the pitch.’
In the actual report, the ‘Youth Recration Officer’ [sic] who filled out the report (the title has been redacted but it’s easy enough to see through the grey bar) uses the language of social workers: the youth concerned was told his behaviour was not acceptable; negotiations were not successful; there was ‘no sign of compliance’. The officer referred to him or herself not as ‘I’ but as ‘the writer’. The organisation in charge of the soccer game was Save the Children Australia; the incident itself was classified as ‘antisocial behaviour’, low on the hierarchy of incidents on the island.
August temperatures in Nauru range between roughly 25 and 31 degrees, with a humidity index of just over 70.5 Caution is advised for strenuous or prolonged physical activity, such as soccer, under those conditions. Iranians make up the largest group of asylum seekers on Nauru, and soccer is Iran’s most popular sport.
The next three groups of asylum seekers on Nauru, by numbers, are Sri Lankans, the ‘stateless’ and Pakistanis.6
29 March 2015
‘… he was cold to touch, was shivering slightly and had a weak pulse’.
This is the headline stuff; the teenager trying to cut his own wrists. The typed report is detailed, precise and all the more difficult to read for that:
She said ‘Officer, come quickly, my brother has cut himself.’
There was blood on the floor and drops of blood in the hallway leading to the room.
The blade used to self harm was not located.
Mother onsite unhappy.
An ambulance was called and the boy was taken away for treatment. The whole thing took less than half an hour. As usual, the report is not linked to any other report; not on the young man, not on his medical treatment, not on any other incident of self-harm. It’s just a set of words on a form. A flurry of notifications and text messages are duly logged, down to the minute they were made.
I know the asylum seeker was a teenager because although his age has been redacted, a tiny portion of the numeral ‘1’ protrudes from under the strip of black that covers it (unless, of course, the child was aged 10, 11 or 12). The form notes, in red, that incidents of self-harm involving minors must be classified as critical, which this is. The note is part of the form; the people creating the form felt that self-harm by minors was a likely event that needed to be catered for not only by the bureaucratic structure but also its paperwork.
At the time of writing, Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, was reported as saying that getting women and children off Nauru was a priority. He said this while in New York to attend an international conference on refugees, but he was unable to give a timeframe or any idea of where the women and children might go.7
The Nauru files include just over 2000 incidents in three years. There are slightly fewer than 500 people being held on Nauru now, down from a peak of 1000-plus in late 2014. (This is leaving aside the detention centres in PNG and other locations.) So to be generous, let’s call it an average of one incident per day, today and every day henceforth. Seven a week, 30 a month, 365 a year.
- This is not strictly true; one report does involve lollipops, distributed by one group of officers, apparently only to the female children, an incident another employee felt was worth recording.
- See <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-19/trial-begins-for-korean-air-heiress-over-nut-rage-
- See <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-19/argentine-prosecutor-who-accused-president-kirchner-
- See <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-19/weather-dampens-mona-foma-attendance-but-targets-
- See <http://www.myweather2.com/City-Town/Nauru-Island/Nauru/climate-profile.aspx?month=8>.
- See APH ‘Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: A Quick Guide to statistics and resources’
- See <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/20/peter-dutton-says-getting-women-