The Word ‘Freedom’

The following is an extract from an interview with Murdoch student, Jamila Jafari, who fled Afghanistan when she was just five.  This piece was originally published on Behind The Wire.  Behind the Wire is an oral history project documenting the stories of men, women and children who have experienced Australian mandatory detention over the past 23 years. It seeks to bring a new perspective on mandatory detention by sharing the reality of the people who have lived it. If you want to tell your story, or volunteer with Behind the Wire, please contact them and get involved. Go ahead and check out their website to read the full story.

We had the initial interview, and it was in a lovely, clean, air-conditioned building – really different from the donga [demountable buildings]. There was a desk, an interviewer, an interpreter, and a chair. Mum sat on the chair as she was being interviewed, and my brother and I had to sit on the floor. I think they gave us a piece of paper and a few coloured pencils to occupy us with. And, I mean, it should have been something enjoyable to do but what was I supposed to draw? Razor wire all around me? That’s all I’d seen ever since I’d arrived here.

So, once you’ve been initially interviewed, they transfer you over, make room for the other new arrivals. The other donga we were moved to was much bigger and it had a small living area, a corridor and three bedrooms on each side. Each bedroom had two bunk beds. So we took one of the rooms there, there were other Hazara families in the other rooms. And these other Hazara families, they were, I think, the epitome of what detention does to children. The psychological effects detention has. The lady, she had quite a few children. She had two older boys: one was 14 and the other was 12. She had lots of girls as well. When I think of detention, what I saw with them are a big part of the memories I have.

“They were, I think, the epitome of what detention does to children”

Woomera was the most notorious detention centre in Australia. There were lots of protests and riots and that sort of thing while we were in Woomera. I saw adults and children with their lips sewn, bruised and all this stuff. The 14-year-old and the 12-year-old, they both had their lips sewn. The mother too.

During one of the riots on January 26, I was standing there and there was arguing going on. There was screaming, people screaming out, “Freedom! Freedom!” It was the middle of the desert during the really hot season and the conditions were just unbearable. I remember the 14-year-old, he had some kind of blade. He’d written out the word ‘freedom’, he cut that into his skin, his left forearm – I’m sorry this is so graphic – his skin’s ripped open, his blood’s dripping, and he’s screaming out, “We want freedom!”

I could never remove that image from my head. It’s so vivid. And his voice is… it’s shaking, there’s so much pain in his voice. Like, a 14-year-old! Doing that to himself! And all the other adults, older children, protesting and screaming out, “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” When I think of my childhood, that is one of the main words that I remember, like it’s been engraved in me, and I have never… I wish I could, I wish I could remove those images from my head. But, I can’t. It’s impossible.

“His skin’s ripped open, his blood’s dripping, and he’s screaming out, “We want freedom!”

After the boy cuts himself, next thing I hear are people screaming and crying out because a man has climbed right to the top of the fence and then he just jumps off the fence. He lands on a coil of razor wire and people are shrieking, they’re crying out. Everyone is so surprised. As he lands, his weight causes the coil to bounce, so he bounces a few times like a heartbeat. His arms are all cut up because of the razor and he’s bleeding. There’s a documentary about him, called ‘The Man Who Jumped’. He didn’t die, but the conditions in the detention centre drove him off the edge, literally. You wouldn’t do that if you were completely sane, you know?

And those boys, they were so damaged, honestly. They did a lot of hectic things but I just admired them so much for their fearlessness, their boldness and their bravery. It’s not an easy task to sew your lips together, to go on a hunger strike, to then resort to cutting into your own flesh. You couldn’t help but admire them for having those personality traits in the face of such hopeless times. I think there were other people who felt the same way about them, even people older than them.

Metior Magazine