An Australian Story

My name is Anowar and I am an Australian and a Muslim. I have always been a Muslim but I was not always an Australian. I look down at my son sleeping in his cot, he has always been an Australian.

I was born in Burma; I use the old name for Burma, not the new name the Generals tell us to use. I am sure I would have liked Burma when it was Burma. My family lived in a small town called Buthidung not far from the coast between the river and with the mountains behind us. My father grew rice, the soil was rich and me, my seven brothers and six sisters always had enough to eat and enough so that we could go to school. The school was a happy place because, even though nearly all the kids were Muslim, the soldiers did not come to the school. You see my village was Muslim and we were mainly poor farmers so to the soldiers we were worthless.

When the Army arrived at our village, as they did from time to time, every one was afraid. We knew that we could be beaten for no reason, we knew that the soldiers could take whatever they wanted and we knew we dare not object. To object was to be beaten even more badly or worst taken away to prison. Many of those who were taken away to prison we never saw again. Families tried to hide the young women for fear of what would happen to them if the soldiers took them. The Officers with flashes on their uniforms did nothing to stop the soldiers and many actually encouraged them.

The Government in Burma was the Army and “Buddhist” but many of the truly religious Buddhist monks demonstrated against this Government that they knew was treating its’ people very badly. All who did not openly support the Government suffered, even the Buddhist monks. Even gentle Buddhists such as Aung San Suu Kyi were imprisoned for their efforts in speaking out about the Generals who ruled our country. The people of the religious minorities suffered the most, the Christians and the Muslims. And we were Muslims and poor so we suffered the most.

When I was thirteen I left school, I would have liked to go to a technical college and learn to be a welder but that was not possible because I was a Muslim. For the next five years I watched the soldiers come into our village and take what they wanted and my anger grew. I would have liked to leave but we were not allowed to leave our village, if we wanted to visit another village nearby we had to have a travel permit and these were almost impossible to get. If you traveled without a permit and were caught it was at least seven years in jail. But I had had enough and I decided I had to leave my beautiful village and my family, I would go to Rangoon!

I had a friend who knew a soldier who we could pay and he would show us the way to Rangoon. So I left Buthidung and went to live and work in Rangoon where I was an ‘illegal’ even though I was in my own country. I had no papers and if I was caught it would be prison. But I got a job and I was with other people who did not like the Government. Rangoon was a much more public place than my village, there were foreigners there and the soldiers could not just beat people in public. If you were caught with no papers you would still end up in jail but at least in Rangoon the military had to appear to be soldiers rather than thugs, so unless you did something stupid the soldiers generally left you alone. For me the only way to lead a life without fear was to leave Burma. So as soon as I had enough money I paid a man to take me into Thailand. It cost me about US$30 which he shared with the soldiers to let me cross the border.

As soon as I arrived in Bangkok I found an ‘agent’ who would get me into Malaysia so I paid him the last of my money, about 10,000 baht which is around 300 Australian dollars. It had taken me 6 years to save this money so I was hoping that it would bring me a new life in a free country far enough from Burma to be safe. I lived and worked for 7 years in Kuala Lumpur (KL) where I learnt how to weld and had a job in a factory. I even paid the Police to get a United Nations Refugee Card – but I was still an illegal and if for some reason I was arrested I would be sent back to Burma. And the owner of the factory knew I was an illegal so he paid me a lot less than the other workers, and sometimes did not pay me at all. I knew that if I complained he would simply send me away and get another illegal. Despite the fact that I was an ‘illegal’, the life in KL was much better than back in Burma. I had a little money and made some friends, usually other ‘illegals’. Mostly my friends were from Burma or Sri Lanka and had been forced to run away from their homes.

I became friendly with another illegal from Burma, Afridi. Afridi was a Muslim like me and his wife and children had escaped to Bangladesh where they lived in a refugee camp. He missed them very much and was planning to go to Australia so he could get his family out of the camp in Bangladesh. Afridi was much older than me and a very religious man, he was wise and patient. We talked many times of going to Australia and how we could get there and perhaps live in a country where you were not afraid every time you saw a uniform. So we saved our money and thought and talked. I even stopped drinking beer because Afridi did not approve!

Now there were eight of us more or less together in KL, all from Burma and all from that part of Muslim Burma that spoke Rohingya rather than Burmese. I could now speak Malay and a little Indonesian because there were many ‘illegal’ Indonesians in KL; they came to earn some money and then returned to Indonesia. Afridi who had been in KL the longest now spoke good Indonesian so we decided he should go to Indonesia and find out how we could go to Australia. Smugglers took people backwards and forwards to Indonesia all the time, almost like the Government ferry and almost as cheap, about 150 Australian dollars for the return trip. So Afridi went to Medan to see if he could find a reliable agent to take us to Australia.

When Afridi returned he had very good news, he had found a reliable agent who would arrange to take us from Medan to Kupang in south eastern Indonesia where we would take a boat to the Ashmore Islands. Afridi said that the Ashmore Islands were part of Australia and we could go from there to Canberra to get our papers and become Australian people. He said that there were plenty of jobs in Australia and every one owned a car. I did not care as long as the soldiers and police did not beat you, or send you to prison. It would cost us $2000 US each which was about all we had. Afridi said we must leave very soon, so the next day I put some clothes in a bag and we left KL for Medan. We all hoped that our agent was an honest man and would be waiting for us because we had heard many stories of ‘illegals’ arriving in Indonesia to find the police waiting for them. And they never saw the agent or their money again and sometimes were sent back to Burma.

When we arrived in Medan we were very happy to find the agent waiting for us. We paid him a little more from the $2000 and he told us to pay the rest to the owner of the ship which would be waiting for us in Kupang. We had no idea where Kupang was except that it was in Timor and Timor was part of Indonesia. When we asked how to get to Kupang he took us to the airport where we bought tickets to Kupang! So no one asked us any questions we just got on the plane and flew to Djakarta and then on to Medan. We found the owner of the boat who told us that we would leave in the morning and we would pay him the rest of our money when we got on the boat, he would not be coming with us; his captain would take us to Ashmore and it would take about 20 hours to get there.

We were very excited the next morning as we got on board the boat, we took a little food (some rice) and water just enough for a few days. We were still very worried because we had heard stories of boats that just took their ‘illegals’ to another Indonesian island and told them that it was Ashmore, we did not know which way it was to Ashmore or even what the Ashmore Islands looked like. But we had paid our money and Afridi said that the captain was a good man and we should trust in God. So we left Kupang for Australia!

During the day we sailed past many Islands and as we left these Islands behind us, the captain said we were no longer in Indonesia. The sea was getting very rough and one of our engines stopped working. The captain said not to worry we had two but a little while later there was a loud bang and the boat stopped, the propeller shaft on the good engine had broken in two. The rain came down and the sea got rougher, many of us were very sick. We all helped the captain pull the shaft out and we joined the two broken halves by banging a piece of wood into each half and tying the two bits together with rope. The captain said we would go to a nearby island where there was a village and he could get the propeller shaft fixed. So we very slowly went back to Indonesia.

The captain went ashore at the village and was able to get some one to come down and fix our propeller shaft. They did a good job so we left the next morning for Ashmore. The sea was still very rough with a lot of rain and we soon became lost. The captain stopped the engine and said we would drift until the rough weather passed and he could find out where we were. We had no anchor so we drifted side on to the sea with the boat rolling from side to side, even I felt a little sick.

Eventually the weather got better and we saw an Indonesian Navy ship coming towards us. They asked us if we were in trouble, the captain said no we were all OK and he asked then the way to Ashmore Islands. They pointed to the right direction so we started the engine and headed off. About 1 pm we arrived at two Islands surrounded by reef. One Island was completely covered in birds and the other had some trees and one coconut palm tree on the beach. They looked very small but the captain told us they were the Ashmore Islands and part of Australia. There seemed to be no one on the Islands and there was a couple of Indonesian fishing boats nearby.

The captain took us in as close to the shore as he could and we jumped over the side and swam ashore. Then he sailed away.

We sat on the beach and talked about what we should do. We walked around the island which was very small and no none lived there. One of the Indonesian fishing boats came ashore and they told us that this was not Australia. They said they would take us to Australia for $200 each, and if we stayed there we would surely die from thirst and starvation. We were very scared and while we were thinking about this Afridi returned from his walk around the Island. He said to the fishermen - “This is Australia and there is water and we have some food. So God is with us”.

On his walk Afridi had found a small building with a water tank full of water and near the building was a sign which said; Commonwealth of Australia and then seemed to give a list of things we could not bring into Australia, like chickens and pigs. We did not have any chicken or pigs so this seemed like good luck. But we had little food apart from enough rice for one meal.

The next day the fishing boats were gone and we were truly alone. We had water from the tank but no food. We thought about catching the crabs that were running around on the beach but they were very small and we would need a lot to feed us all. We thought that maybe we could catch some birds to eat but all the birds were on the other island. Suddenly an aeroplane flew over the Island very low but it just kept on going and we did not know where it was from or where it was going. Then perhaps just 30 minutes later it was back and this time it flew around the Island very low. We waved and we could see someone looking at us but then it flew away again. Later that afternoon a Navy ship appeared and some soldiers came ashore with guns. They gestured to us to stand up and put up our hands which we did. We were very frightened and thought if they kill us who will know? They spoke to us in English and Indonesian but we could not understand much of what they asked us. They asked us what we were eating and where we were sleeping and seemed surprised that we had no food. The Officer questioned us for about half an hour, he was a very good person and told us not to worry. He said they would take us back to their ship and give us some food and then they would take us to Australia.

He took us back to their ship which was not very big. They gave us food and cigarettes and a pack of cards to play cards. There was not much room but we all had blankets and slept on the floor. The next morning the Officer told us that a big Navy ship was coming to get us and take us to a place called Christmas Island but we had no idea where that was but apparently it was still part of Australia. That afternoon the big boat arrived and we went on to it. They had put up tents on the part where the helicopter lands for us to sleep in.

The first thing that happened was the Doctor examined all of us, then an Officer came to question us. Firstly he wanted to know what language we spoke, we told him Rohingya. He was very surprised as he had never heard of Rohingya and went off to see if he could find an interpreter. He spoke to his officers in Australia but they could not find anyone who spoke Rohingya, we had to tell him again that there really was a language Rohingya He went off again and when he came back he asked if it was Burmese and we told him it was a little like Burmese.

We were two days on the ship and we ate the same food as the sailors. When they served us meat we had to make sure that it was not pork so we would ask what it was and they would reply “Baa baa..” or flap their arms and make a noise like a chicken and everyone would laugh. They were very kind to us but we had no idea where this Christmas Island was that they were taking us to. When we arrived at Christmas Island we were taken to a camp which did have a fence around it but was not really a prison. We could not leave the camp and there were guards but everyone was quite friendly. After one month they said we are going to send you to Nauru.

We did not know where Nauru was, we thought it must be Norway and we could not understand why they would send us so far away to Norway. An immigration officer came and showed us where Nauru was on a map, he did not seem to know why we were being sent to Nauru but he did tell us that Nauru was not Australia or part of Australia. Some of us went a little crazy when we learned that Nauru was not Australia and they told the immigration guy that they would jump out of the plane rather than be sent to Nauru. For those of us who had been ‘illegal’ for a long time it just seemed like another place where we would be ‘illegals’. Because some of us said they would jump from the plane, the officials sent two guards with each of us on the plane – eight of us and sixteen guards! We flew to Darwin, then to Brisbane and from Brisbane to Nauru which took altogether about 18 hours.

When we landed in Nauru we could not get off the plane, firstly because the guards had no passports. When the guards got some temporary papers some of us said we would not get off the plane because Nauru was not Australia. Two men came onto the plane, an Australian Immigration Officer and a United Nations Official. They talked to us in Indonesian and told us that if we left the plane and went to the camp, we could apply to become Australian citizens. If we did not wish to leave the plane that was OK we would be returned to our country of origin, for us that was Burma! So after an hour of talking we left the plane and went to our camp, which would be our “home” for the next one and a half years.

As I look down at my son sleeping in his cot I remember how slow and dreary that time in Nauru was. Each day we hoped to hear something but each day nothing - until we began to think we would be there forever. But then one day I was on a plane to Brisbane with proper papers and a permanent entry visa to Australia! No longer was I an ‘illegal’. My son would never be an illegal, he was born an Australian and I also am now an Australian. Perhaps he will grow up to play cricket for Australia or perhaps he will play football for the Broncos. I work as a welder and like all Australians I own a car. One day I will own my own house. I try not to think too often of Burma or Nauru but it is hard as I miss my family.

For now I am very content, God has been good to me.