How long must I wait? Indonesia’s warehoused refugees

First published in Griffith Review, Atavist multimedia, September 2016
© Merrill Findlay

1: Ustad

CISARUA’S RED ROSE was the seediest and most eccentric hotel I’d ever stayed in. Even at 150,000 Indonesian rupiah per night (about $15), my room was overpriced: cement walls cracked and stained with grime and mould, a row of bare nails for hanging clothes, hazardous electrical wiring; holes in the ceiling plugged with plastic garbage bags; long, turquoise satin curtains falling from their runners; broken tiles on the floor. A grubby squat loo in the bathroom, a single tap that released water only spasmodically, and a big plastic bucket and a ladle for bathing. All this, and the front door needed a good kick in the lower left corner to open.

But there were compensations, including the view beyond the tacky curtains: forested mountains soaring from their green valley; a stream; a village; a field of cabbages, interplanted with shallots; kids flying paper kites; and a regular procession of locals taking the shortcut through the cabbage patch to the shops on Jalan Raya Puncak, or the Great Mountain Peak Road – Cisarua’s main artery. I delighted in the daily throb of life up and down this road. In the early mornings, a procession of men passed by on motor scooters or on foot to and from the big open mosque in the Arab bazaar. Next door, boys hung bamboo cages of once wild song birds from the rafters of their roadside stall. Food vendors and vegetable sellers set up their barrows in the adjoining lane. Market gardeners tilled their cabbage patches.


However, the main reason I chose this less-than-half-a-star establishment over the many three-, four- and five-star hotels in the valley was for its guests. Like ‘Ustad’, the first person I met at the Red Rose who could speak English. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival, he had offered me the use of his modem to check my email and directed me to a store down the mountain pass that stocked cleaning agents, kettles, mugs, bottled water, teabags, towels and other necessities not provided by the hotel management.

The hotel’s elderly owner had helped Ustad settle in during his first weeks in Cisarua. He called her Ibu, or Mother. She and her husband lived on the third floor of their ramshackle establishment, in a large apartment with big windows and a balcony overlooking the valley and mountains. They were very popular with their tenants. ‘They’ll give you anything you need,’ my neighbour, an Iraqi refugee, told me.

On the weekend I arrived, Ibu and her husband flew to Singapore and left her nephew in charge of the hotel. Unfortunately he had absconded with the takings, including my week’s rent in advance, and had left the place in chaos. ‘Maybe he’ll return, maybe not,’ the old lady said.

An Iraqi family lived in a cottage across the garden from my room. We shared a clothesline strung between two trees. One day, I caught a glimpse of the mother without her all-encompassing abaya as she leaned out her door to grab a broom. We smiled, but didn’t share enough of the same language for a conversation. She and her children were effectively stranded in Cisarua because her youngest child was disabled, and unlikely to be accepted for resettlement as a refugee. She received a small allowance and other support through a non-government agency from funds raised by Indonesian churches. Her older children attended English and maths classes at a refugee centre up the mountain pass, but they yearned to go to a proper school. One day I watched one of her little boys gazing wistfully at an Indonesian child walking home through the cabbage patch in his school uniform. As a non-citizen, the little Iraqi had no education rights in Indonesia, and sadness, longing, and envy of the Indonesian child were etched into his face.


USTAD KEPT HIMSELF busy on his laptop computer in his room most of the time, but was always happy to chat. His classic Central Eurasian features marked him as an ethnic Hazara, a member of the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. He’d learnt English at the Rumah Detensi Imigrasi, (Immigration Detention House) in Pekanbaru, Sumatra. His first languages were Hazaragi and Dari (Afghan Persian) but, like many Hazaras, he was non-literate in these mother tongues. Instead of attending school as a child, he had worked to help support his widowed mother and younger siblings after they fled Afghanistan for Pakistan. But after two years in the Sumatran detention centre, he not only spoke English and Bahasa Indonesia well, he could also read and write in these new languages – an achievement he was justifiably very proud of. While he was ‘in prison’ – as he called the detention centre – the UNHCR approved his application for refugee status, so that now, having been released, he was just waiting for resettlement. But how long would it take? Could he endure one, two, three or more years in limbo in this open prison, subsisting on his savings and the small humanitarian stipend he now received? And, if he finally reached Australia or another resettlement country, could he endure further years of separation from his wife, sons and mother before they could join him?

‘Waiting is very hard,’ he confided, in a soft voice. ‘I miss my family too much, and I worry. They are not safe in Quetta. Every week, more Hazaras are killed. Quetta is a very dangerous place.’

It is true. Quetta is increasingly dangerous for Hazaras, as is Afghanistan. More than three decades of war, terrorism and generalised violence in Ustad’s homeland have destabilised the entire region. The deteriorating security and humanitarian situations have forced thousands of people to flee in recent years. Afghans now constitute the second-largest group of new arrivals in the Mediterranean region, outnumbered only by Syrian refugees. They also constitute the UNHCR’s most protracted population of displaced people, with 2.7 million registered refugees and a similar number of unregistered refugees around the world, most of them in Pakistan and Iran. More than half of the 14,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia are from Afghanistan or refugee communities in Pakistan. The majority are ethnic Hazaras,  of whom an estimated 3,000 now reside in Cisarua and other towns along Jalan Raya Puncak while they await resettlement, preferably in Australia. But there are few resettlement places available, and Australia is enforcing its ‘border protection’ policies with rigour; the government currently resettles only four hundred and fifty UNHCR-referred refugees from Indonesia annually, and only those who were registered before 1 July 2014 are eligible for this lottery.

Making Hazara flatbread with a wok in the Red Rose communal kitchen.

Making Hazara flatbread with an Indonesian wok in the Red Rose communal kitchen. Photo by the author.

To survive with dignity as non-citizens in this strange land, Cisarua’s refugees needed to establish their own institutions to educate their children and sustain themselves as a community. And slowly this has happened. The Indonesian government is very aware, however, that its citizens are bearing the burden of the social and humanitarian costs of Australia’s punitive ‘border protection’ regime. This ongoing inequity ensured that the Australian government’s relationship with Indonesia remained vulnerable to retributive threats, such as that lobbed by Indonesian minister Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno in a widely reported speech on national sovereignty in March 2015: ‘If Canberra keeps doing things that displease Indonesia, Jakarta will surely let the illegal immigrants go to Australia… If they are let go to Australia, it will be like a human tsunami.’

Bring it on, I thought at the time. But I worried about my young friend Ustad. His family had been farmers, like mine. They had grown wheat in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. One evening, when he was still a little boy, his father left their house and never returned. His cousins arrived soon after, loaded Ustad and his mother and sisters into an old car and drove them straight across the border to Quetta, in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Ustad never found out what happened to his father.

This was in the mid-1990s. The Taliban controlled all of southern Afghanistan, including Helmand province, and were poised to claim victory in the civil war. Soon these rural warriors would form a national government headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Leader of the Faithful, and Ustad’s homeland would become the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These were very dangerous times for Hazaras and other predominantly Shia minorities in Afghanistan.

‘In 2001, when the Americans invaded, I was very happy,’Ustad told me one day. ‘I thought it would mean the end of the Taliban, that I could return to Helmand. Afghanistan is my country. I long to return. But people told me that if I wanted to reclaim my family land, if I wanted to live there, I would have to kill people, and I could never do that. I want to live in peace. I want my children to have a good life, not a life like mine. If I could work in Indonesia and bring my family here, if I could send my children to school here, I would stay here. But Indonesia doesn’t accept refugees. I have to go to Australia.’

We were standing in the hotel forecourt, in the fading afternoon light. ‘Let me take you to dinner,’ I said. Ustad was reluctant to accept. ‘Look, I’m old enough to be your mother or grandmother,’ I insisted, ‘and it would be a great privilege for me to buy you dinner. It would allow me to thank you for helping me, and to pass on some of the hospitality Hazara people have given me over the past decade.’ As a final incentive, I suggested that we could maybe find a restaurant that served Australian lamb or beef. ‘For your first Australian meal!’ I said. And so we took off, up Puncak Pass on his little motor scooter, me riding pillion without a helmet.

Night had fallen by the time reached the top of the pass. Ustad steered his bike into a car park and we dismounted near a waist-high wire fence, beyond which was a sheer drop into darkness. A silver road snaked through the deep valley below, lights from villages and cars winking in and out of view. ‘I come here when I’m depressed and need to clear my head,’ Ustad said. ‘This view relaxes me,’ he said. I wasn’t surprised. Quetta, the city in which my young companion had spent most of his life, is also surrounded by mountains, although Quetta’s peaks are starker and more majestic than the lush Javanese highlands. He spoke of his homesickness and constant longing for his wife and sons; of their uncertain future and the dangers in Quetta; and of his own distress, despair and loneliness in Indonesia.

Ustad’s two older sons could remember their Dada being with them, but his youngest was born after he had left Quetta. He was two years old now and, to him, his Dada was but an image on a computer screen or a disembodied voice on a phone. Ustad had missed his first baby smile, his first steps, his first words – and had never held him in his arms. ‘I am sacrificing this golden time of being a father for their future,’ he said, as we watched the lights twinkle in the valley below. ‘How much longer will I have to endure this?

USTAD WAS NOT only a father and a husband, though. He was also his widowed mother’s only son – a significant responsibility in his patriarchal society. The future of his family, his entire lineage, depended on his survival. His mother was in her mid-fifties, ‘But she looks eighty,’ he said. She had trouble walking and was chronically depressed and traumatised by memories from her past. And worse, she was a woman alone in a society in which women without men had no status. She’d refused to remarry because she feared that a second husband would not accept her children, especially her disabled daughter. She supported her family by sewing and cleaning for other people but, despite long hours of work and occasional help from relatives, she could do little more than provide them with a hand-to-mouth existence. When Ustad and his sisters were old enough, they too had to work. As a little boy Ustad sold things in the bazaar, such as chords and elastics for waistbands – anything to make a few rupees to take home to his mother. His sisters sewed and washed as soon as they were able.

For the first eight months after arriving in Indonesia, Ustad had no way of letting his family know whether he was dead or alive because the manager of the detention centre would not allow inmates to use a phone. Ustad’s mother went to her local imambargah, or Shia mosque, in Quetta every day to pray for him. She walked there barefoot, even in the bitter cold of Quetta’s winter, and promised God that she would continue to do so until she heard from her son. She never stopped believing that he was alive, even though she knew other mothers whose children had been lost at sea trying to get to Australia. Ustad was deeply depressed in those first eight months in the detention centre. And then a new superintendent used his discretionary power to allow the refugees and asylum seekers in his care to contact their families by phone, and use their own laptops to send emails. They could even visit the local internet café, and work outside the centre. Because it was good for their mental health, the new superintendent said.

Refugees could buy their own food and cook their own meals in their own cultural traditions, as well as use mobile phones at the Sumatra detention centre under the new superintendant. Photo by the author.

Refugees could also buy their own food and cook their own meals according to their own cultural traditions at the Sumatra detention centre under the new superintendant’s regime. Photo by the author.

I tried to imagine that first phone call after more than eight months of silence: the shock, the relief, the joy. But Ustad’s mother still cried every time he rang. ‘She asks me, “Why you still in Indonesia, why you not in Australia working to send money home? When will my suffering end?” My two older sons, they ask me, “Dada, when we going to Australia?” They can’t understand why I’ve been away for so long, why I can’t bring them here to join me. How can I tell them that they might have to wait for two, three more years?’ He peered into the gaping darkness below us. ‘I have to stay alive for them,’ he said, with sudden desperation. ‘Every day I ask God to keep me alive. I’m the only man in my family. Ten people depend on me. I must stay alive.’

We stood in silence at the fence. On one side was the road over the mountain; on the other, the abyss. Staying alive was a choice Ustad made every day: trust the unknowable future and cross whatever mountain lies ahead, or step into the darkness below.

‘Let’s go and eat,’ I said with a shiver. We wandered back through the maze of cars, bikes, street vendors and beggars to a restaurant overlooking the valley. Only one meal on the menu looked anything like the food I’d been raised on in rural Australia. Grilled steak. Our plates arrived with a slab of beef drenched in gravy, French fries, peas, and knives and forks. I took a photo of Ustad cutting his meat with these unfamiliar instruments. He wanted to put it on Facebook, he said. His recently acquired literacy skills, coupled with his new communication technology – the mobile phone and laptop he had bought with money he earned while working at the detention centre – meant that, as well as keeping in contact with his family, he could now also connect with the rest of the world. His universe had expanded beyond anything he could have imagined as a child in his remote village in Afghanistan, or even in Quetta.

WHEN USTAD LEFT Quetta, Hazaras were being systematically terrorised and killed by Deobandi militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, dedicated to transforming Pakistan into an homogenously Sunni theocratic state by eliminating all ‘heretics’, ‘kaffirs’ and ‘infidels’, which included all Shia Muslims, Christians, Ahmadis and anyone else who was not Sunni Muslim enough for these jihadists. As a conspicuous and predominantly Shia ethnic group, Hazaras were – and are — an easy target in predominantly Sunni Pakistan, as they still are in Afghanistan. They went to work or school, to the shops or markets or to their imambaghs to pray, knowing that they might not return home – that a gunman on a motorbike might shoot them, that a suicide bomber might detonate his vest in a crowd, that a garbage bin might explode as they walked along the streets. In Quetta, every stranger, every passing car or bike is suspect.

One day, Ustad’s cousin took him aside. ‘You are the only son in your family,’ he reminded him. ‘If anything happens to you then your family is destroyed. I have so many problems myself now that I might not be able to help you in the future, but I want to save you. I want to save your family. I think you should go to Australia so you and your family will be safe.’

Ustad’s cousin was also vulnerable. Apart from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as a Hazara businessman he could be shot in a targeted killing or abducted for ransom. Nowhere was safe, not even the city’s hospitals or morgues. Not long before Ustad’s life-changing conversation with his cousin, a suicide bomber had entered Quetta’s Bolan Medical Complex, where a group of Hazaras was collecting the body of a victim of an earlier attack, and detonated himself, killing twelve people and injuring thirty-five more. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. The hospital bombing was part of a wider spate of attacks in Quetta claimed by Laskar-e-Jhangvi.

Ustad’s cousin had already discussed the travel arrangements with an agent and, although he was not rich, he was prepared to pay the full one-way fare from Quetta to Australia. Given the threats that the entire extended family now faced, the money was not important, his cousin said. ‘So how soon can you leave?’

Ustad went home to discuss his cousin’s offer with his wife and mother. They argued. They wept. They sobbed. They didn’t want to lose him. The journey to Australia was dangerous. What if the boat sank? What if he drowned? How could they survive without him? And yet they also knew, deep down, that their cousin was right: that this only son might not survive in Quetta, and neither might they. But the threat of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing wasn’t their only concern. They were non-citizens in Pakistan and, as such, had no proof of registration cards. They could therefore be deported back to Afghanistan as illegal aliens at any time. Ethno-nationalist groups in Balochistan were already calling for their immediate forced repatriation.

Ustad knew that, eventually, all refugees would be forced to return to Afghanistan – even his little boys, who had never known their parents’ country of birth. But where would they go and how would they survive in their putative homeland? Ustad’s village had been taken over by the Taliban. Their farm was occupied by militants who were unlikely to voluntarily relinquish it, and Ustad would almost certainly be killed if he tried to reclaim his inheritance. And what would happen after the foreign troops left? Would Afghanistan once again erupt into civil war? Would the Taliban once again massacre Hazaras as they did in 2000 and 2001? After considering all their options and the associated risks, after praying and asking for divine guidance, Ustad’s wife and mother very reluctantly agreed. Their beloved Ustad should leave for Australia as soon as possible to save them all, and they would join him when they could. His journey would surely be hazardous, but so was staying in Quetta. Many other Hazara families were being forced into similar decisions.

The cousin organised everything. All Ustad had to do was be in a certain place at a certain time to meet the ‘travel agent’ and follow instructions. The agent gave him a false passport to board the plane because, as a non-citizen in Pakistan, he could not acquire a legitimate one. He flew to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and was taken to a safe house and told not to leave. He and other asylum seekers stayed in the house for several days, and were then driven to the coast, where they boarded a speed boat to cross the Malacca Strait. Ustad had never seen the sea before. It was very dangerous, he said. The boat went very fast and the waves kept splashing over him. They disembarked somewhere on the north coast of Sumatra, and were driven to West Java – a three-day journey in a convoy of cars. They were crammed so tightly in the vehicles that their limbs became numb, Ustad recalled. They were deposited in a safe house in Bogor and, after a few days, taken to another house on Java’s south coast to wait, or so they were told, for their boat to Australia.

They never reached the boat. An Afghan in their group betrayed them – a man who spoke excellent Indonesian and, as they later discovered, had been keeping the police informed of their movements since they left Malaysia. He had almost certainly been paid by Australian government officers as part of the campaign to disrupt ‘people smuggling’ operations, although Ustad could not have known this at the time. If it were not for the betrayal, Ustad might now be working in Australia and sending money home to his family. Or maybe not. Because there was no guarantee that the boat they were meant to board would ever have reached Australian territory.

Indonesian fishing boats off the coast of West Timor, from where many voyages to Australia began. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

Indonesian fishing boats off the coast of West Timor, from where many voyages to Australia began. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

WE FINISHED OUR steaks and headed back down Puncak Pass towards Cisarua. Ustad was not ready to return to the hotel yet; he manoeuvred his little scooter into another crowded parking lot, this one below the Atta’awun Masjid – an impressive, contemporary-style mosque with an illuminated glass-and-steel dome and matching mini-domes on stumpy minarets, which hovered over the mountain’s tea plantations like a flock of flying saucers. The car park had been transformed into a gaudily lit night bazaar, and was filled with the tantalising aroma of kebabs and corn roasting on charcoal braziers. We wandered up the stairs to the mosque. Ustad told me that he sometimes came here to pray. Other Hazaras refused to enter Sunni mosques because they were either afraid or prejudiced. But not Ustad. ‘Sunni, Shia, Christian, Hindu – it doesn’t matter. This is God’s house. If you want to talk to God, He’s all the time everywhere, He’s here in this mosque, He’s inside you; you can talk to Him anywhere,’ he said, putting his hand to his heart. Our conversation became increasingly reflective. My young companion was mature beyond his years and, with his quick intelligence and wispy beard, a natural sage. He swept his hand across the crowded bazaar below us. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘God is a great artist. Every one of his people is different.’

But while Ustad might have included even me – a non-believer, a heretic, a kaffir, a farangi – in this divinely produced human diversity, back in Quetta there were other young men who also called themselves Muslims and believed their divine sanction was to eliminate people like us from their world. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) had recently proclaimed that Hazaras were wajib-ul-qatl (deserving of death), and had warned them that they had only three choices: to convert, to leave Pakistan, or to die.

Images of some of the victims of past atrocities in Quetta at n Hazara cemetery. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

Grave images of some of the victims of past LeJ atrocities in Quetta. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

LeJ’s violence, persecution and intimidation of Hazaras was unrelenting. In the fortnight before I met Ustad, a dozen Hazaras had been killed by LeJ terrorists in Quetta, and many more had been wounded. This spate of violence began in the city’s Brewery Road area when a gunman on a motorbike shot an ironsmith dead in his workshop, and wounded another man. Three days later, a taxi-van was attacked just fifteen metres from a police checkpoint and at least five Hazara passengers, including a woman and child, were killed. Two sixteen-year-old boys were later shot at this same massacre site by police under suspicious circumstances, and other Hazaras were arrested for spontaneously protesting against the failure of local police to protect their community. Several days later, two more Hazaras died when gunmen burst into an Hazara-owned pharmacy. The next day two more metalworkers were shot.

The list goes on. If Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s goal was to terrify and traumatise Shia communities and drive them mad with fear, then they were succeeding – and with little opposition from the Pakistani military or police. Indeed, some observers were suggesting, with credible evidence, that Pakistan’s ISI and military intelligence were actively promoting sectarian violence in Pakistan for their own political ends. Why else had no-one been charged for any of the attacks on Hazaras? Why else did local police complain that, whenever they apprehended suspects, they received orders from ‘above’ to release them? The Hazara community, many of them Pakistani citizens whose families had lived in Quetta for generations, demanded government protection. In a mass protest they shut down the city. Immediately after the demonstration, nine more Hazaras were killed in three terrorist attacks. State authorities were either powerless to act, or were actively sanctioning the killings. In desperation, Hazara activists called on the UN Security Council to ‘stop the carnage’. Hazara refugees and their supporters rallied in cities all over the world to draw attention to what they were now calling the ‘Hazara Genocide’. In Pakistan, the slaughter continued.

‘Dada, when will you save us?’ Ustad’s six-year-old son asked him by webcam after another violent day in Quetta. ‘How long before we go to Australia?’

Quetta, Balochistan. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

Quetta, Balochistan. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

2: Karim and Ali

TWO TEENAGE HAZARA cousins from Afghanistan, ‘Karim’ and ‘Ali’, were also staying at the Red Rose while I was there. Ustad and Karim were old friends; they met in the safe house on their first ill-fated attempt to reach Australia by boat. Ali, the younger lad, had been in Indonesia for just six weeks. The two cousins’ extended family owned a trucking business on Kabul-Kandahar Road, or Highway One, in Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic Ghazni province. Their town was on the opaque frontier between the province’s Pashtun-dominated south-east and the Hazara-dominated Jaghori district in Hazarajat. Karim’s darker complexion reflected generations of intermarriage between Gazni’s different ethnic groups. He and Ali recounted their stories as we reclined in a garden pavilion at a Saudi restaurant near our hotel. ‘My treat,’ I told them, as we ordered a large platter of grilled meat, fresh Arab flatbread, salad, hummus, baba ganoush and four exotic-looking fruit mocktails in tall glasses. The boys were comfortable here. Our booth was like an Afghan house: carpet on the floor, a cloth on the carpet for food, cushions around the walls, and plenty of room to sprawl.

Cousins Ali and Karim making flatbread in the communal kitchen at the Red Rose. Photo by the author.

Cousins Ali and Karim making flatbread in the communal kitchen at the Red Rose. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

Karim’s story was astonishing, yet he told it so matter-of-factly that, by the time our food arrived, the extraordinary seemed everyday. Sometime around 2007, a Pashtun ‘travel agent’ visited Karim’s town, he told us. The security situation was dire at that time, especially for Hazaras, and no one expected it to improve. Although US troops and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) controlled Ghazni city and the large towns the Taliban controlled most of rural Ghazni. Karim was just thirteen at the time, but he was very aware of the threats. His own father and uncles had been ‘martyred’, and he had been raised on stories about what the Taliban had done to the locals before the US-led invasion. He and his extended family were particularly vulnerable because their trucking business profited from the US occupation. The Taliban demanded ‘taxes’ from them to ensure that their trucks reached their destinations, and that family members and employees were not kidnapped or worse. Anyone seen supporting American or ISAF forces, doing business with international aid agencies or promoting ‘Western values’ was a Taliban target. Especially if they were Hazara. The travel agent didn’t need to exaggerate the risks young men like Karim faced in rural Ghazni.

Two of Karim’s five brothers were already living in Australia. They left Afghanistan in 2000 after the Taliban won the civil war, and had both become Australian citizens. Australia was a safe and peaceful place, they told their little brother whenever they rang home. He could have a good life in Australia. Karim decided to accept the travel agent’s package deal. His relatives found the necessary cash and he paid the full amount up front. For some reason, though, the agent gave him two passports with his ticket instead of one. At thirteen, Karim didn’t even know what a passport was, so when he reached Kabul airport he simply handed the two documents to the officers at the migration desk. He was arrested, charged with a migration offence of some sort, and spent the next seventeen months in a Kabul prison with ‘some really bad guys’. Most of his fellow prisoners were ethnic Pashtuns and Tajiks but, fortunately, there were enough Hazaras in the cells to save him from the worst that a boy could suffer in an adult male prison in Kabul. Karim was nevertheless exposed to things no thirteen-year-old should witness. ‘I saw too much,’ he said.

When he was finally released, Karim again contacted his agent. This time the agent personally escorted him across the border into Pakistan to catch his flight to Kuala Lumpur. In Malaysia he was met by another agent and transported by boat across the Malacca Strait to the river port of Pekanbaru in Sumatra. From there he flew to Jakarta. He was then taken to a safe house in Bogor in western Java, and later to a second safe house on the south coast of the island. Karim estimated that there were about a hundred asylum seekers waiting there to board a fishing boat to freedom. Including Ustad.

From this point, Karim and Ustad’s stories converged: they were betrayed before they reached their boat and sent to the Rumah Detensi Imigrasi in Pekanbaru. They applied for UNHCR refugee status at the detention centre, and when their applications were accepted they were released and given plane tickets to Jakarta. As refugees they were now the responsibility of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the agency funded by the Australian government to ‘warehouse’ UNHCR-approved refugees in Indonesia, deport asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status were rejected, and repatriate those who could no longer endure the long wait for a ‘durable solution’ to their plight.

YOUNG ALI, MY other dining companion that evening, told a very different story. He wasn’t sure how old he was but thought he was probably sixteen, having been born during the chaotic years of the civil war in the mid-1990s. He too had brothers in Melbourne, but could barely remember them. His eldest brother had remained in Afghanistan to take care of the family business, and it was he who suggested Ali should go to Australia because of the threats he faced at home. Ali himself had already seen ‘too much fighting’, as he told me, sprawled across the cushions in the Saudi restaurant. He visited the local travel agent – a respected Pashtun merchant – and negotiated a one-way fare to Australia. He returned soon after with a wad of cash he had collected from his relatives. The agent booked him a flight to Jakarta via Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, gave him a false passport and arranged for him and another Hazara teenager to be escorted all the way to Australia. The two boys and their chaperone reached Jakarta without incident, and expected to be taken to the coast to catch their boat. But, at the airport, their chaperone disappeared. Ali managed to find the UNHCR office in Jakarta, registered himself and then made his way to Cisarua. Meanwhile his friend had found another agent to take him to Australia, but was arrested before he reached the boat and sent to an Indonesian detention centre.

The Saudi restaurant was yet another new experience for sixteen-year-old Ali. He responded with a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and insouciance, his gaze constantly following the diners and staff around the pavilions and gardens. Especially the girls who took our orders and brought our food – all of them very pretty, and well-covered in figure-hugging batik and bows. The diners in a nearby pavilion had ordered a water pipe and were smoking double apple shisha, infusing the night air with its scent. Most of the diners were Arab tourists – members of a well-established seasonal minority here in Cisarua, and as conspicuous as the many Afghani, Iraqi, Irani and Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers now living in the IOM-leased villas and hotels in the valley. But, unlike the refugees, the Arabs had plenty of money to splash around, which was why there were so many Arab restaurants in Cisarua.


Arab restaurant, Cisarua. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

We relaxed into our cushions, tore off pieces of flatbread and dipped them into hummus or baba ganoush, or wrapped them around tender pieces of grilled meat. Ustad grew philosophical again. ‘Look, we’re all the same here,’ he said. ‘We’re all foreigners. To the Indonesians we’re all bule.’ I smiled. Indeed we were all foreigners, but we were the same in other ways. We all liked grilled lamb, mutton, goat and beef, and we all preferred wheaten bread with our meals instead of rice. We were all wheat and sheep people. We all shared common origin stories that began in south-west Eurasia, where our Neolithic ancestors first domesticated these species. The Koran, the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible were all sheep and wheat stories, and whether we believed them to be divinely revealed truths, as my companions did of their Koran, or works of literature, as I did, their role in determining our cultures, our values, and our identities was unequivocal.

KARIM’S MOBILE PHONE rang. He withdrew to a corner of our dining booth, covered his mouth with his hand so we couldn’t hear him speak and became all dewy eyed. ‘His girlfriend,’ Ustad whispered. We smiled indulgently. Later, Karim showed me photos of his beloved – tiny passport images he kept in his wallet of a pretty young Indonesian woman in a pink hijab. He met her on Facebook while he was in the detention centre, and was now deeply, truly, madly in love. Their conversation was so convivially intimate that he forgot our presence.

I couldn’t help but wonder what his widowed mother back in Afghanistan would think. As a thirteen-year-old Karim had lied to her about being in prison in Kabul to spare her the shock, but, as he later learned, she had discovered the truth anyway and only pretended to believe his stories. When he finally told her about being released from the Indonesian detention centre she again thought he was lying. If he’d been released, why wasn’t he on his way to Australia? How could he tell her that the Australian government was warehousing thousands of refugees like him in Indonesia, that Australian agents and the Australian navy were doing everything they could to ‘stop the boats’, or that he now had an Indonesian girlfriend who might not want him to risk his life at sea?

A few booths across from us, a young Arab family was finishing their meal – the man in a Milano football shirt, the woman in all-engulfing black with flashes of something fashionably modern underneath. Their little daughter was running around in frilly pink. They were in holiday mood, relaxed and happy and enjoying one another’s company. Ustad leaned towards me. ‘I dream of being able to take my family to a restaurant, like that man can,’ he said, gesturing towards their booth. ‘I just want to do ordinary things with them, like shopping with my wife. I dream of wheeling a trolley through the supermarket with her while she takes whatever she wants from the shelves. Ordinary things like every family does.’

I knew what he meant. I wanted that for my young friend and his family too, and for all the refugee families I met in Cisarua. Ordinary, everyday things that every family should enjoy.


All names have been changed to protect the identities of the people mentioned in this essay.

Merrill Findlay is a writer, independent scholar and cultural development practitioner based in a small inland town in rural NSW. She has a Masters of Social Science (by research) from RMIT University, Melbourne, and a PhD in Communication completed through the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra. A book about Afghan refugees and ‘white’ Australians’ responses to them, based on her PhD thesis, is awaiting publication.


Research for this essay was financially supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award, with generous top-up scholarships from the University of Canberra, plus a research fellowship in the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Universitas Terbuka, South Tangerang, Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Area. My visit to Quetta, Pakistan, was partly supported by Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project in Melbourne, and the 2% Committee for Global Discipleship and Justice, Uniting Church in Australia (Victorian Synod).

My deepest thanks to ‘Ustad’, ‘Ali’, and ‘Karim’, and all the other people who contributed to my research in Indonesia, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Page created 14 October 2016.