This story begins and ends with the X that means both death and hope.
Three Xs, two strikes, one message: Solidarity.
26 November, 2017.
The Australian government would prefer that we forget this crime against humanity, this X in flesh in the air.
It’s a humid, sweaty, overcast day at a protest at Federation Square in the centre of Melbourne. Shen Narayanasamy of the progressive activist group GetUp! tells us that the police are beating with batons the refugee men who have spent 21 days in peaceful protest against their detention on Manus Island, Australia’s refugee detention centre in Papua New Guinea. SHAME read the signs in the square. FOUR YEARS TOO LONG. We’re doing this today at the request of the men, to rise to the dignity of their example. Natasha Blucher of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre tells us whistleblowers’ accounts of the Nauru camp, another offshore Australian refugee detention centre. Amazing locals put themselves at risk to get us, journalists, food, and water into the camp. The smell: There was two weeks’ worth of garbage that the men had tried to collect and contain. Pulling water from a well with an oily film on top. Ingenious fresh-water catchment, bed sheets tied up with bottles at the bottom. Every cubicle in the toilets was full to the brim with diarrhoea. The men were so sick and had serious illnesses from 3–4 years locked up. Even in that toxic place, the refugees’ culture of hospitality prevailed. We ate biscuits that somebody had baked in the middle of a siege. They brought tea for us and added sugar. They’d saved it for guests. HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE A CRIME spake the signs. STOP VILIFYING REFUGEES. In the crowd I see Hijabi Muslim women of colour, young white guys in shorts, and many seniors holding photos of the refugees who have died in Australian camps. There have been 14 known refugee deaths in offshore detention since 2014, including 7 by suicide. Senior women with purple shirts saying Grandmothers against children in detention.
The crowd is asked to kneel, or sit if we can’t kneel, for four minutes, with our hands crossed above our heads, which is the way that the men of Manus had been protesting for 21 days. We squat or sit with difficulty for four minutes, hearing the words of Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani’s statement, his dignity, his gratitude for our support. There is the hideous dissonance of a Wallace & Gromit exhibition ad in huge letters behind the crowd squatting with their hands crossed. The ad silently blares It’s hard to wipe the smile off your face! Behrooz’s statement is haunting: despite having not enough food themselves, the refugees had been feeding their dogs, and the police had killed one out of spite.
The sun breaks through the clouds and is thanked for it by a grateful speaker. Activists who used to teach at Victoria University speak with admiration of their migrant and refugee students’ resourcefulness. The small moments of humour are some of the most striking. Leading us in the squat, a speaker says It’s okay to sit if you can’t squat, if your knees aren’t, you know, pilates. The crowd chuckles, and I think about those small moments of levity, not because we’re having fun, but because we recognise our shared humanity, our vulnerability.
This X is in flesh in the air, arms crossed in solidarity, the X of the refugee men’s arms iconic of their captivity. The X that represents the deaths from which they flee and to which our policies have driven them. But their X is the hope of protest too, of shackles to be broken, and ours a tribute to their dignity and their deep humanity, unassailable.
Australia’s federal government would prefer that we forget this crime against humanity, this X in flesh in the air. Will you let them?
Dr Ariadne Starling is an award-winning writer from Melbourne working in literary essays, sex writing, and queer literature. Her work explores sexuality, disability, neurodiversity, culture, identity, and social justice. She has won 5 national and international scholarships and 16 awards for academic and creative writing—starting at the age of 11. She was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Essay Prize and the City of Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award for Narrative Nonfiction. She has published in Transcultural Studies, Colloquy, Cordite Poetry Review, and Verity La.