In camps near Mogadishu, just staying alive is an issue
A little bloke called Mohammed broke my heart. He’s 14 and his face is lit up by huge white teeth and an unfailing impish grin. It was his grin that struck me and it’s that smiling, welcoming face that’s dead-set haunting me right now.
Looking at photos I took of him and other kids when I was in his camp in Ethiopia, it is shocking to know that he’s still there - alone, in a desert tent city of about 200,000 people.
He’s got no mum or dad. One of the UN agencies is his nominal guardian. Where he lives, near the border with Somalia, the UN people arrive at nine or so in the morning and they take off to get back inside their fortified camps at three in the afternoon. There are no police. There’s no government in the camp.
Jihadis roam around in the area near the camp – I saw enough expended AK47 cartridges to get a sense of the dangers there. And the little bloke has to fend for himself once the half dozen or so UN types leave. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture what he endures in a lawless tent city with no electricity, no lights, no services and no one who loves him.
He’s got no footy, let alone a park to kick it in. He looked on enviously at another little bloke who was wheeling around a jam tin lid on a nail at the end of a stick. The only other thing I can remember that even looked like a toy was half a TV aerial a young bloke was using as a play machine gun.
I walked for a couple of hours with a 24 year old Somali mum and her four remaining children. She’d lost a little one on the way. She and the little kids had been hoofing it for five days. She told me her husband decided to take a second wife and turf her and the kids to the outhouse, where she was vulnerable to attacks, particularly on her “honour”. She decided she’d be better off in the refugee camp at Dolo. It is a shit-hole beyond my facility with words to describe, so God knows what hell she had left behind in the war in Somalia.
When that young mum was finally shown to her new home, a canvas tent on a lunar, rock-strewn desert floor, she looked like Paris Hilton being handed the keys to her mum’s Manhattan penthouse. These huge tears rolled down her cheeks and she gave off a sense of embarrassment, relief, joy and child-like excitement.
I wouldn’t have lasted the afternoon inside. Huge willy-willys of dust swirled around endlessly. It was about 45 degrees in the shade, no clouds, and no trees. The nearest water was about one kilometre away and anything she was to use at “home” had to be carted back there on foot.
I asked one of the UN blokes how the locals contend with the sharp, flinty rocks on the ground in their tents. They’re the sorts of rocks that cave men turned into knives, with sharp edges that cut your boots. The UN bloke said they go through dozens of sets of tyres each year for their 4-wheel drives because of them.
So how do you reckon a 24 year old mum and her kids are helped to make the floor of their home a bit less lumpy and serrated? She was given a hammer. Fair dinkum. Get to work on the floor please, kids, there are lots of rocks to smash up before you can lie down.
So perhaps you might forgive me for getting a bit cranky on Christmas Island, when two Iranian blokes in the detention centre fronted the camera crew and me. They were pretty fit looking. The gym there is very well equipped and Serco, the mob that runs the joint for Julia, employs a very good personal trainer that these blokes go to every day. That’s when they’re not on Facebook. Or at art class. Or reading one of the dozens of posters entitled “Ways you can complain about your treatment.”
These blokes saw our camera and came over to make sure that Australia heard their story. They wanted to bitch about the choice of food. Chicken and beef. Apparently their culinary sensitivities weren’t sufficiently excited by the fare we fly in to remote Christmas Island. The locals are a bit more used to it; they know the place is miles from anywhere and everything costs heaps.
I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the memory of the kids in the shit-hole camps, or the mum and her four kids with the tent on Mars. Maybe it was the night I spent squished between Imogen Bailey and Peter Reith on an Indonesian fishing boat from Java (one of them snores). But I have to admit to harbouring feelings of narkiness about the former Iranian soldiers who were detained at Christmas Island for a period of time that displeased them.
They just seemed a bit ungrateful, particularly when one of them explained that his detention related to the charges he and his mate were facing as a result of the riots on the Island.
I haven’t seen the show so I don’t know how it has been edited. I hope they concentrate on the people and conditions in the camps in Africa. Don’t get sucked in to the drama about the six Aussies who went along, and who could come home.
Go Back to Where You Came From will open your eyes to how bloody lucky you are to live in Australia, and it might prompt you into thinking how important it is to keep it that way. I feel a tremendous obligation to do more to help other people who aren’t as lucky as me. And it’s private. It doesn’t include haranguing the government to “do more” to assuage my conscience. It’s up to me and my family what we do.
I don’t want to see taxes or debt raised in Australia because of a Twitter campaign. If you feel that strongly about it then get cracking on raiding your bank account, or get mobile and go and help out. I didn’t see a single good intention or Tweet on the menu in Mogadishu.
Former radio host Michael Smith was one of six participants to take part in the SBS documentary series Go Back to Where You Came From, airing Tuesday 28, Wednesday 29 and Thursday 30 August 2012 at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
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