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Escape From Woomera

Woomera 2002 - Autonomadic Caravan and Festival of Freedoms

by Alex Kelly

Woomera 2002 - Autonomadic Caravan and Festival of Freedoms - was held from 29th March to the 2nd April in Woomera, South Australia. It was a convergence that called together a variety of people and movements to 'make the journey' and 'draw the connections'. Woomera is situated 500kms north of Adelaide and is an incredibly poignant site due to the variety of issues which intersect here. Under the jurisdiction of the federal government, the Woomera township is a strange military town, established as a service town for the rocket testing range (still operational) and the now closed US spy base Narrunga. In close proximity is the Roxby Downs Uranium mine and the proposed site for a nuclear waste dump. The Woomera Asylum Seekers Detention Centre is one of six in Australia - not including the new off-shore 'initiatives' in Nauru. They are managed by Australasian Correctional Management, a subsidiary of USA corporate prison giant Wakenhut Corrections.

Even before the September 11 2000 anti-WEF protests in Melbourne (the original S11 - ed), a 'journey to Woomera at easter' had been discussed, and prior to S11 an 'xborder' action at the Maribyrong Detention centre had made the links between globalisation, freedom of movement and borders. By mid 2001 a small group began the call out for a 'festival of freedoms' for the Easter weekend 2002 at Woomera. Like previous events in Australia - S11, forest blockades, Jabiluka blockade et al, the word about Woomera spread fast. The Melbourne Woomera network meetings set up the space for autonomous actions - reminiscent of the pre-S11 AWOL meetings - and a huge groundswell emerged. People talked about a possible 500 coming, but it was hard to imagine - right up until the Friday morning when the buses started to pull in to the camp site - that over a thousand people would make the journey....

Despite the assertion that the Woomera Festival be more than single issue, the detention centre became the major focus of the five day camp. Even so attempts were made to forge links with local indigenous groups - a task to which great importance was attached, but not achieved that smoothly. Many of the city based activists lacked direct experience with indigenous communities, particularly remote ones, which risked misunderstandings, misuse of language, differing notions of "authority" and "sovereignty", and people not knowing who the elders or authority within each community were or even how to contact them. The Melbourne>Woomera network made contact with a number of Kokatha people, and to my knowledge, were the only network who had done so. Although Woomera was to be decentralised - and was in nearly every aspect - this contact served to represent the entire camp. A letter from Eileen Wingfield to the protesters asserted, "When you mob come up to Woomera please think about how we have been fighting for a long time against Roxby Downs (uranium mine on their land). We have been busy all these years, trying to get control over our country. We don't get anywhere with them". Woomera raised many issues with regards to 'indigenous liaison' which remain unresolved, but are part of the learning process and the journey which the event catalysed.

So after the benefit gigs and workshops held around the country during the build up - buses were booked, tents, trucks, a water tanker, a shit-pit digger and more hired, a convergence booklet put together and legal and medical information gathered. It was time to make the journey!


Thursday 28th March: In the morning members of the campsite working group as well as people from HMS Woomera (health and medical services) and desert Indymedia gathered at Spud's Roadhouse at Pimba to discuss establishing a camp site. Initially the Area Administrator (direct envoy for the Dept. of Defence) pointed us to a disused sports ground kindly set aside for the protest site - equipped with portaloos and fresh water - but he neglected to mention that it was two kms from the detention centre, and behind a 2.5 metre wire topped fence with only one access gate! Er thanks but no thanks. Later we arrived at a preferred location - much closer to the detention centre - and formed a circle with the vehicles and bedded down on that spot. A late evening police raid failed to move the camp despite unsuccessful attempts at arrest, and the site was held by a small number of protesters all night until the buses arrived the following morning.


Friday 29th March: Hundreds of people arrived from around the country and with tents erected en masse at this stage it was clear that we had won the first battle - deciding where to camp. Throughout the day more infrastructure was set up, a number of sound systems, Food Not Bombs, puppet making, legal, medical, workshop tents were put up, the desert indymedia centre established in the back of a truck, and a vast array of banners and kites, flags and costumers emerged. Local indig folk set up the 'Kokatha Peoples Embassy' near the site. At midday we received word that the detainees were going to do a 'sound action' and they wanted to see if we could hear them. We headed straight down to the federal check point where 200 metres of temporary fencing blocked the road - around one km from the detention centre itself. We could see them on the roofs of the buildings in the centre, and when the megaphones were shut down (!) we could hear them.

Later in the day 'No-one Is Illegal' had a meeting to discuss the civil disobedience action called for the following day, as others painted props and banners, including a giant pair of bolt cutters!! At around 5.40pm it was announced that contact with the detainees - via a mobile phone which I assume was smuggled inside and subsequently confiscated - had again alerted us to an action planned at 6pm inside the centre.

At this point the crowd headed across the desert aiming straight for the detention centre - and the following hour is almost impossible to describe.

Forming a long parade of colour and music, with music from a sound system on a truck, at first we reached within almost 500 metres of the centre - but no sign of police. Then at a five metre fence topped with razor wire we could see detainees well enough to wave and shout to each other. Still we couldn't believe how close we'd come. Next, unbelievably the fence came down!!

I was uneasy, I wanted to know where the police were, whether we were going to be hemmed in, beaten, and arrested. But we continued towards the detainees and next thing we knew we were at the last two fences - topped by huge coils of razor wire - which separated us from the detainees. For a moment we stood on either side of the fence - straining our arms through the fence to touch, talking, crying. then - the unbelievable happened:

A bar was used to wedge open a gap in the fence and then people began to escape! One after another stage-dived into the arms of stunned protesters. Despite the police finally moving in, detainees were still able to leap over them into the crowd - and as soon as they hit the ground they were surrounded and given clothes as a disguise and rushed back towards the campsite. After some fifty had escaped, police horses regained control of the fence. Police tried to pick detainees out of the throng, but ended up arresting a protester of Bangladeshi descent who they banged up for two hours.

This night back at the campsite protesters kept detainees huddled in their tents as escape plans were discussed. Some cursed that they hadn't developed escape plans, but how did they know that a number were actually going to get out! The police set up road blocks around the camp and 200kms south at Port Augusta, and they sent undercover and uniformed police through to sweep the camp for detainees. Without speculating about the whereabouts or even how those people got away - for fear of jeopardising their chances at freedom - to date the official figures are that eleven are still free.


Saturday 30th March: The Saturday was surreal, but much calmer than Friday night. Lots of people had not slept, and people were dazed, trying to get their heads around the magnitude of the previous nights events. This time the action went straight up the road and knocked over the fence at the check point, some people heading all the way to the centre, other opting to block the road and dance on the "No Entry" signs that were now lying in the dust.

A number of people were arrested for "trespass" and taken away to Woomera lock-up where a number of protesters and detainees who had been captured the previous night, were being held. A number of people have been charged with harbouring a detainee and their court cases will start in May. Detainees were charged with escaping and in the mean time most of the 39 recaptured have been moved to Port Headland detention centre.


Sunday 31st March: Sunday saw the delivery of hundreds of new, sealed toys intended for the 39 children in detention - but these were deemed 'unhygienic' and a 'security risk' and it appears that the toys ended up going to local charities instead. Following this a final march around the detention centre was called. Woomera is divided in to four blocks, so our aim was to reach the far side of the centre to communicate with other people face to face. The police presence was much stronger than on the previous two days, but still we were able to approach the immediate perimeter fences. A note was thrown over the fence in a rubber glove saying "Australian people, we are hostage in our rooms we can't move any where and also the ACM give us sleeping tablets in the food, nobody can do anything, please help us."

On Sunday another small group of excellently dedicated crazies jumped on bikes and had a critical mass bike ride to Roxby Downs uranium mine. Their aim was to "draw the connection with our organic machines between Woomera and Roxby, human rights, indigenous rights and land rights."

At least two former detainees made the journey to Woomera. One of them spoke to fellow Afghani Hazara people in Woomera on the Sunday, and later translated what he had said to them: "We can not pull down all the fences today, it would be too dangerous for you and for us. There are people here from Germany, America, England, Spain, every state in Australia and we are going to go back and tell everyone, everywhere about this, and we are going to do everything we can to help you. We will never forget you." This man had only been freed from this centre two weeks before, and now had a temporary protection visa (which does not guarantee sanction into Australia).

We are all illegal until no-one is illegal.


Desert IMC http://melbourne.indymedia.org/woomera-archive.php3