FRIENDS WITH SOLITUDE
by Jim Moginie
(edited version titled ‘Banding Together For Freedom’ published in The Sydney Morning Herald June 23)
Mostafa Azimitabar was born in Kermanashah to the sound of gunfire, sirens and bombs.
Once called Persia, now Iran, the area around Kermanashah is known as the cradle of civilisation, where skeletal remains of Neanderthals have been found in caves and shelters.
In the nearby mountains on the old Silk Road, there is a large cave where you can see a rock relief of the equestrian figure of the Sassanid king Khosrau II (591–628 AD) mounted on his favourite charger, Shabdiz. Horse and rider are clothed in full battle armour. It rests on two columns that bear delicately carved patterns showing a sacred tree of life and two winged angels with diadems.
For centuries the area has been under siege of one kind or another – the Russian Imperial Army, the Ottamans, the British. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980 followed a decades-long history of bilateral border disputes between the two states. Kermanashah is a border city, and was largely destroyed in that conflict.
Mostafa also grew up with the sound of crying. The war had been in full swing for four years before he was born, and raged on for another four. His brother was killed when he was one. Another was deafened by a bomb explosion. Another was arrested for speaking out against the government. Kurdish people in Turkey, Syria and Iran were under attack from their own governments.
“Second class citizens, the same as Aboriginal people,” says Mostafa.
His family lived in a house in the city with a few trees in the backyard. “Not big, but big enough for us.”
Once, every window was shattered by an exploding bomb.
They were a normal family despite the conditions. Relatives visited, and there was love and laughter through the tears.
“Learning to smile helped me to resist,” says Mostafa.
He fled from Iran in 2013 as a dissident, seeing no future in being constantly persecuted, and came to Christmas Island by boat with many other men, women and children seeking refuge and a better life.
Today, Mostafa is a 34-year-old who’s been imprisoned for eight years (2737 days, to be exact) – on Christmas Island, Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea and in two Melbourne hotels.
He is probably best known as a statistic, but to me he is Moz, fellow musician and friend.
Rob Hirst wrote these lines in the Midnight Oil song ‘Ships Of Freedom’ back in the 1990s:
Can you imagine
the first taste of freedom
for the refugee.
I couldn’t imagine it, but the thought stuck with me until 2019, when Jane Salmon, a refugee activist, alerted me to Moz’s existence. Moz told me by email that he had taught himself to play guitar. His parents were more keen on the violin, but they didn’t try to stop him. He wanted to record some songs. I saw footage of him playing some lovely nylon string guitar beside a pool, all delicate fingers and hands, in that style of thumb and upstrokes with the other right hand fingers. He sang with a sweet voice that spoke from his homeland.
For years I’d been keeping an eye on the news about the plight of the ‘boat people’ sent for processing on Manus Island, a place set up to determine the suitability of asylum seekers for life on Australian soil. What it really meant was they would never set foot on it. This Pacific Solution had been initiated by the Howard government in 2001. It portrayed Howard as a hard-ass, resolute on border protection, and for this he was delivered government at the subsequent election. In 2012, the same policy was rehydrated by the Labor Government to deter the ramping up of people smuggling with promises of tough treatment for asylum seekers. It was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy that didn’t join any of the dots in terms of United Nations refugee obligations.
Manus was run not by our government but third-party service providers, and the refugees were the most forgotten people in society.
Despite the harsh conditions behind barbed wire in the island, news of living conditions soon escaped via the sleepless world of digital communication, culminating in the book No Friend But The Mountain by Kurdish-born journalist Behrouz Boochani, smuggled from Manus line by line in text messages.
While on Manus, Moz saw friends shot, stabbed by their so-called protectors, and die by medical neglect or self harm. All were enduring the mental anguish of having their futures snatched from them.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea demanded the closure of the Manus detention centre on the grounds that it was illegal – the simple reason being the policy of indefinite offshore detention did not uphold international law. Service providers’ contracts were terminated and the centre was closed. Moz and his friends were evacuated from Manus in an atmosphere of disarray and retreat, a sad artefact of our government’s knee jerk policy shifts. Most were moved briefly to a ‘transit centre’ on Manus, but were soon sent to Port Moresby, described by Australia’s own travel advisory service as dangerous. There they awaited possible resettlement in the USA, or the prospect of likely death if they were returned home.
Port Moresby was where Moz and I started our communication. Telling my journalist friend Liz Deep-Jones about Moz, she immediately reached out to Craig Foster. Lismore born Craig is a distinguished international footballer who has turned his sights to refugee advocacy, in which he is tireless campaigner, notably securing the release of wrongly detained Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi from a Thai jail.
Networks are important. Like a set of dominoes, things heated up when Craig visited Port Moresby and met Moz and others, including Behrouz Boochani, and played basketball with them. Many were medicated for the trauma they had seen and been subjected to. During the short window of the Medevac legislation, Moz was brought to Australia for treatment for his asthma with 60 or so others. Not to a prison or a hospital, but the limbo of the the Mantra Hotel in Preston, a suburb of Melbourne, under 24-hour armed guard at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of $12,000 a day.
Now it was 2020. I was concerned about Moz and thought doing a song was a good idea for his sanity, and mine, watching helplessly from the sidelines. Jimmy and Jane Barnes had given him a guitar and he’d written a song called Love ten minutes after receiving it as he watched a soundproofed world through an upstairs window of the Mantra, cars silently slipping by. People below protested his detention by waving placards, and he knew he was no longer alone. The first two lines are:
I’m looking at you from my window
I want to tell you that I love you.
A song which dealt not with the trials of his captivity but the love he felt from his supporters.
From that same window, he witnessed the unfolding pandemic, in danger of catching the virus himself as people from all walks of life passed through the hotel. He could exercise for an hour a day, but for the other 23 he was hidden from view. There was no release date on the horizon, and no hope reflected in the unflinching mask of Peter Dutton’s face.
It was a catchy song, ‘not like the virus,’ we joked. Moz sent me a video of him playing and singing it under the harsh fluorescent lights of the Mantra. He seemed at ease, looking down the lens of his Samsung phone, sitting with a straight back. I imported it into a music program, mapped the tempo and played some keyboards and some simple drums and sent it back to him. He loved it, and replayed the guitar and re-recorded his vocal to the new version. We were now making a real record. I replaced the original track with Moz’s new elements so the audio would be synchronised with the original video. I added a vibraphone, Maryanne Slavich’s backing vocals, and mixed it. Steve Smart at Studios 301 mastered it, my friend Robert Hambling, son of Hollywood editor Gerry Hambling, made a video and, viola! It’s on YouTube, a bouncy pop song with a catchy hook that’s Eurovision ready. ‘Love’ was released with little media attention, but a few listened.
In August 2020, both the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Immigration threatened to introduce a bill to Parliament to confiscate the detainees’ mobile phones, asserting there were criminals and child molesters amongst them. Phones were their lifeline to families, case-workers, doctors, lawyers and the media. And rock stars like me. 30,000 people signed a petition against it drafted by the Asylum Seeker Centre.
The tide was turning, but bureaucratic intransigence persisted. In December 2020, Moz and his friends were moved under heavy guard to the Park Hotel in the heart of Melbourne. I got the feeling the Government were moving them around in plain sight, at a loss as to what to do with them next, but also wanting to save face with the United Nations and everybody else. They seemed to prefer obsessing over poll numbers rather than dealing with the human dimensions of policy making.
I spoke to Moz to try to keep his morale up. He said he was “friends with his solitude”, something that he had learnt as a child in Kermanshah. ‘I am strong like a lion,’ an expression he often repeated, which I thought might have been a fort made of bracken, given his plight. But he stuck with that optimism, and was now the main spokesman for the Medevac group in the Mantra. In Ben Doherty’s article in The Guardian, Moz says, “The reason that I’ve been able to stay strong for eight years is because I never felt that I was alone. I always felt that there were people in Australia who cared about me. People who didn’t support with this cruel policy of torture. I believe the power of the people can crumble the walls of oppression and my freedom … is proof. I’ve seen the pain of my brothers in detention, I’ve listened to their sad stories. If they weren’t in danger in their homeland, they wouldn’t have fled and left everything behind.”
Dutton announced their release in a carefully scripted statement. “It’s cheaper for people to be in the community than it is to be at a hotel or for us to be paying for them to be in detention.” No mention of the cruelty those people had endured, or that many Manus refugees were still under detention here and in PNG.
Eight years is a long time to be in suspended animation, especially if you have committed no crime and are coming to another country assuming the protection of International law. Border protection is one thing, wanton cruelty another.
Moz was given a temporary visa and on January 21, 2021, was released, saying it was “the most beautiful moment in my life”. Two days later, he went to a Jimmy Barnes concert with fellow refugee and musician Farhad Bandesh. They both met and embraced the Working Class Man and his wife Jane. You can’t get more Australian that that, Scott Morrison.
Here we are in Geelong in March 2021 before Midnight Oil hit the stage at the Mt Duneed winery. We played ‘Ships Of Freedom’ for Moz, and other asylum seekers.
Don’t turn back the ships of freedom
Back to the South China Sea
Can you imagine the first taste of freedom for the refugee?
We spoke to Moz afterwards.
“I felt freedom, I understand freedom. It’s like a scent! I love it,” he said. ‘“I see new experience, I am like a bird. I’m not nagging about anything.”
He looked like a different man, not the haunted Moz from the corridors of the Mantra. All the tension had gone from his face. When he said penguins were one of his favourite animals I introduced him to a couple of my friends who live near Phillip Island. They invited him to see the penguins and they all went off together into the night, giggling as they tried to find their vehicles in the darkness of the winery’s huge car park.
Go well Moz. You’ll be alright. Being friends with solitude has been your lucky charm. It won’t be easy to rise above the trauma you’ve endured, but I wish for you normal dreams, not nightmares.