A Stepping Stone to Australia (formerly Seagulls of Nauru)

A Stepping Stone to Australia (formerly Seagulls of Nauru)

My name is Fimi and this is my story. It is the first story I have ever written. I’d like to take you on a journey, my journey. It began in Central Africa, then took me to Kenya, Malaysia and eventually to a tiny island in the Pacific.

Most children in my old country are given the name of their grandparents or a close relative. My family was different and chose to name me after a Congolese river. I never discovered why.

When I was young, I had a best friend called Lapipa. She taught me to read and write. We used to sit in the dust beside the road to Likasi and count the tourist buses coming and going to and from the town. Together, Lapipa and I dreamed about having a job with a tour company one day because we desperately wanted to learn more about the lives of these people from far-away lands. They appeared so fascinating with their irresistible white skin and strange words. They were all so different from the people we knew, different from everyone in our lives. Sometimes we’d get nothing more than a glimpse of faces in the sunlight as their buses passed us. Twice during my young years however, a bus stopped, and Lapipa and I got a really close look at these enchanting people. Once the bus had a flat tyre and needed to be changed before it could proceed to Likasi. The second time a bus stopped, it was for a large group of these tourists to get out and take photos of some zebras. We guessed they didn’t have zebras where they were from. Because we were brave on this second occasion, we wandered up to have a closer look. The people spoke with us, although we couldn’t understand them, but we featured in their photos and we were paid for our efforts. It was the first time either of us had held money.

I was born to a poor family, but only poor in what I know now. When I was a little girl I thought everybody lived in houses of mud and tin without electricity and went hungry every day. We weren’t desperately hungry, not like people in some parts of Africa as I’ve learned since, but we never had anything as nice as three meals a day.

My brother and sister and I would play in the dust and dirt of our village, not thinking anything of our poverty. That was how it was. That was the life we knew. We played with leftover cans and pieces of bamboo. My brother’s favourite toy was a broken bicycle wheel. I became so upset that he had a toy and I didn’t. As I got older and wandered off more on my own, I began to look everywhere for a toy as good as his, but I never found one. My brother’s name was Ikolo and he was a year and a half older than me. Being a boy, he found life in a poor African village easier than my younger sister and I. Because of his age, Ikolo could go exploring before I was allowed to leave the compound. I enjoyed immensely though just sitting around looking after my sister, or watching the tour buses pass by with Lapipa. Our experiences sitting beside the road watching these buses were the first permitted escapes from our extended family compound.

As time went on, we made this adventure the most regular escape we did, until we started school.

I have now seen the world beyond our village and I realise that our school was quite basic, but I cherish every memory I have about my time there. It was the start of my education and our teacher encouraged every one of us to listen and to learn. He was a wonderful teacher, always smiling and full of fascinating stories. Our school didn’t have any books. We had no pens or paper. There were a few chairs but no desks. We used to draw on the dirt floor with a stick. When the wet season arrived, that became very difficult. We had a blackboard though and chalk, and the roof of the classroom was watertight until the rain became really heavy. Then it leaked, and drawing on the floor was impossible. The teacher used to let us use the chalk then. Because chalk was a luxury, we more often wrote in the dirt on the ground.

Lapipa became an even closer friend after we started school. She had the only doll in her village and as I’d never seen one anywhere, it may have been the only doll in all the nearby villages. She said a tourist gave it to her. I didn’t know what a tourist was before then but I think that’s the reason we both had the dream of working with tourists when we grew up. For me, to own a doll would be the best thing. I used to pretend that my little sister was a doll, but she moved around too much and objected. Lapipa’s doll stayed still. We made grass dresses and changed her clothes twice each week, just like we had to ourselves, to keep clean.

Lapipa’s doll was called Madeleine. She was the only other person, (although she wasn’t a person at all) that we allowed to join us watching the buses. Sometimes when we weren’t nursing her, we used to sit her beside us, but that wasn’t a good idea as it turned out. One day when we were all sitting there together, a dog sneaked up on us and took the doll away from us and ran so far we couldn’t catch up. We cried as we ran, but our tiny legs were no match for a cunning dog. We yelled as we chased, but we never caught up, never found Madeleine. From that moment on, we both decided to work hard at school because our teacher told us that if we did, the whole world would open up to us. We didn’t know what he meant, but we thought if it meant we could meet tourists, and maybe get another doll, it would be worth the effort.

I found it hard to learn to read, but writing was easier as long as I could copy. Lapipa made it much more fun. After school, we’d sit beside the road and practice. We’d read the signs on the buses and trucks that passed. She was better at it and showed me how. Just like at school, we’d write in the dirt copying as best we could what we saw on the sides of the buses. Slowly I became quite good at it. Lapipa told me once when we saw a strange sign that was hard to read, that in other countries, people spoke different words and wrote them differently too. I didn’t understand that because I didn’t know what a country was.

I wished in those days that Lapipa had lived in my village. I was always sad when she left to go home, wandering off into the distance like she did, turning to wave one more time, and then turning again, and again until she was out of sight. I got this feeling that I didn’t like in my throat, like there was a lump there or something. I wanted to cry, but I knew that was silly, so I held the tears back, but that made it worse. I’ll see her tomorrow, I always told myself.

One day when she came to school, she was very sad. Her father had been sick for a while and had died during the night. Dying always happened to people, children too, but not everyone died if they got sick. Some people got better. Lapipa’s father didn’t though. Our teacher told us that he’d gone to heaven. We cried that day too, sat on the side of the road and cried all afternoon. We didn’t care about the buses at all. My mother cooked me a special meal of potatoes that night. I couldn’t eat. I tried, but that lump was bigger than ever and I couldn’t swallow, even though I tried my best. To see the sadness in my best friend’s eyes and to share the pain in her heart was the saddest thing I had ever known, until the soldiers came.

Lapipa’s village was not far from ours. Not long after her father died she came to visit me on a day when there was no school. I was sick at the time and I think Lapipa came to see if I was better. I never found out. It was one of many occasions in my early life that I had malaria.

Soldiers, we learned from an early age, were supposed to protect us. The ones that arrived that day burned our village and raped the women and girls. The soldiers were from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Not only did they rape many, but many died in the process, and the rest of the village died too. I have always been sure Lapipa was among those who died because I was sure I heard her screaming.

My memories of her were strongest in the weeks after the soldiers arrived and burned our village, because I missed her so much then. I missed everybody. My entire family disappeared in the blink of an eye. Even now years later I remember them all just like they left my life yesterday. With Lapipa though, I will always remember those terrible screams.

On the day when the soldiers came, I was with fever in bed. I woke suddenly to a lot of shouting and screaming. A strange noise started. I discovered it was gunfire. I was confused and scared. My aunty was looking after me that day because my mother was harvesting cassava in the fields. The gunfire became louder and holes appeared in the walls of our little house. The sound of the bullets was like a cracking noise. We became very scared, but when the bullets hit the tin walls, the louder bangs shocked both my aunty and myself even more. She tried to shield me, laying across the bed to protect me. She spoke softly and reassuringly but one of the bullets hit her and she slumped, blood trickling from her neck, a glazed look taking over her face. She fell right on top of me.

Within seconds a soldier came through the door, but he didn’t see me, just the large lifeless body of my aunt straddling the bed. I kept very still, and the soldier left.

Soon I could smell burning. The screams continued, the type of horrifying screams that make you shiver with uncontrollable fear. Some of the screams were from Lapipa I am sure. I didn’t understand what was happening but I believed my moments of life were numbered. I dreaded the thought of another soldier coming in and finding that I was alive. My only thoughts were of death. Would I see my killer? Would I look him in the eyes? Or would I be shot by a stray bullet like my aunt? A short time later our own home began to burn and the smoke became so bad that I couldn’t breathe. Just then my uncle crept in. I was out of this world with relief. The screaming had stopped by then. After checking for life with my aunty, he picked me up ever so quickly but gently. Then he gingerly carried me away. I remember none of the days that followed.

I discovered later that my brother Ikolo was one of several boys taken on that terrible day. Soldiers from The Lord’s Resistance Army often took young boys to fight with them. To this day I have never seen Ikolo again. I have never seen any of my family because they were all killed, I believe, even my beautiful little sister Rosine, my caring mother and father, everyone. The only other person from my family to survive that day was my uncle who rescued me when the village began to burn. He had been returning from the neighbouring village and was able to hide. We were the only ones who survived apart from the children taken to work as sex slaves, porters or soldiers.

Children in war zones are perhaps the most vulnerable. They take orders easily, are impressionable, eat less than adults and are expendable. There is no shortage of children in Africa to take the place of those who are killed in battle.

The years that followed saw us living in a refugee camp in Kenya. There was a school in the camp where I learned to properly read and write, as well as other things like arithmetic. We also learned games and played sport. Those few years gave me a good basis so that when I reached my next home, I was prepared to buckle down and study as hard as I could. It wasn’t long before we had the chance of leaving Africa and going to Malaysia with the help of UNHCR. We jumped at this opportunity in the hope that another country like Australia might eventually want us. I was in my early teens by the time we landed in Kuala Lumpur, but it ended up being no better than our life in Kenya. The only good thing in both countries was my schooling. Only one third of refugee children of secondary school age get the chance of schooling in Malaysia so I was one of the lucky ones. We had teachers from England and Australia as well as local ones. I learned so much from these teachers who came from all corners of the globe, but I always wished Lapipa had been with me. I missed having a close friend.

My uncle has been with me throughout all my journey, from our own war-torn country to Kenya, then to Asia and now to an island. He has recently been calling this place a stepping stone to Australia. It is a remote island called Nauru, a tiny island in the Pacific, east of Papua New Guinea. We have been here for nearly three years. I am almost eighteen. My uncle tells me that the Australian Government has been trying hard to find us a place to live, but my feeling is that nobody wants us. I’m here with over a hundred other children, from many different countries. Some have been here much longer than my uncle and I have. People are not well, some are self-harming. Others are contemplating suicide. A few have succeeded. It’s all very sad and confusing. Recently even many of the doctors left. I don’t understand why.

As I sit here writing in the shade beside this depressing home, I look back to the dreams I had upon arrival. Australia was going to be such a wonderful country. We were told it was a nation that openly welcomes people from many countries and had done so for generations, but not anymore it seems. It’s such a long way from The Democratic Republic of Congo where we used to live, not just in distance but in every conceivable way. When we got the opportunity to leave the refugee camp in Kenya, we thought this is it, our luck has finally changed. But no, it hasn’t.

Malaysia was not the answer to anyone’s situation. My uncle’s health suffered. Frustration and boredom led to physical illnesses. This in turn led to depression and anxiety. He slowly became a different person.

We thought when we left Malaysia after three years that Australia would offer us a great lifestyle, good education, medical assistance when needed, even a job for my uncle. Instead we are here confined to a depressing existence with little or no hope. We live in cramped conditions, restricted in our movements and in fear of our lives. We expected much more. Our dreams were limitless. We have already suffered so much. Some of the detainees here have experienced more than my uncle and I have. In Africa and The Middle-East and other countries too, methods of torture are beyond the comprehension of most people. We are just existing, nothing more. Our entire lives are on hold. When I was little and peered into the windows of those passing buses, I used to wonder what the lives of the people inside were like, what were their jobs. I was intrigued beyond comprehension. Nowadays my thoughts of people from the west are whether they ever understand fully what some of the rest of the world’s people have to endure.

Back home, what kept my country going was the illegal mining of cassiterite for mobile phones, the killing of elephants for their ivory and of course the ever present government corruption infiltrating every aspect of life. I was excited to discover what keeps Australia going. I heard it was education, sport and nature, but I know none of this yet and perhaps I never will.

The only positive things in this place so far from anywhere are that my uncle is here with me and his health seems to be improving. We sit and talk for long hours beside the ocean. We discuss many things. During one of our recent talks, I mentioned my friend Lapipa, just in passing, explaining to him how far I’ve come with reading and writing since those days on the side of the road. My uncle and I talked for an hour or more before he turned and looked me straight in the eyes asking me if it was time to hear the truth about my friend Lapipa. I insisted that he tell me.

He then proceeded to explain that Lapipa had run past him on the way to our village before it was burned. When she wasn’t sitting with me she was always in a rush. She called out as she passed that she was running to see if I was better and able to come and play. My uncle calculated that she’d have arrived at the worst time as the soldiers started to light the fires and gather the women and girls.

I suppose I knew all along. I had been so convinced that some of the screams I heard that day were hers.

In Nauru during these talks with my uncle, I have discovered many things. I have discovered the soothing smell of the ocean, a smell I never knew until I arrived here. I have discovered the music of the seagulls and other birds as they sing, and I have discovered the sound of the waves as they break upon the sand. Spending time with my uncle even when we sit together without words is our enjoyment. But I think we deserve more than these small pleasures.

I see such frustration and sadness in his eyes. Years are dragging on to a decade. That lump in my throat stays for days sometimes. People who make decisions about our future just don’t know what we’ve been through. No-one who understood would hold a fellow human being in such a camp indefinitely. If they’re honest with themselves I think they quietly thank their god that they are not in our shoes.

While living on this island I’ve had plenty of time to think and to dream new dreams. As I sit here in the compound and write, I see that a great number of things need to change. I’m not sure if it’s teaching or nursing that I’d like to study when I am able, but I know that I want to help change all the grim situations I’ve had to live with in my life. Too many people die for no reason. In Africa it’s because of disease and war. In Australia, there is little disease and no war, so people don’t die from these problems. Australia has different hurdles. I’m told there’s a general lack of political compassion from an otherwise civilised country. I’ve decided to help somehow, in whatever way I am able for the memory of Lapipa and my family. So wherever I end up, my new dream, if I’m given the chance, is to study and to help make that change.

Footnote: I am overjoyed. We have today received news which will change our lives. A new government in Australia has been elected and we have learned that our time here is finally drawing to an end. We are to fly there in less than a month to start the life we have dreamed of for so long. Others here will go to New Zealand. We have heard that in New Zealand even rivers and mountains are treated with great respect and are considered people…yes natural things considered as people. Australia and New Zealand must be very fine countries indeed.

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GJ Maher