Monday, 1st September, 2003
A raw bright blue day over Pittwater. A magpie rising; a white launch tacking as it turns again through wrinkled blue to the north. Also a momentous week at home and abroad. Pauline Hanson gaoled for poll fraud. Abbott in the gun for sabotaging her. On Sunday night last at Cibo’s in North Adelaide I introduced Mojgan to Brian Deegan who swore his endless availability to look after the Bakhtiyari children, teach them football, Scrabble, criminal law, put them up in his five spare bedrooms and give them bikes to ride round his two-acre bush-fringed cul-de-sac property, paying their school and, if need by, university fees. His resolute blond chiselled handsomeness and Galahad valour, astonishing to all present – Annie was there as well, meeting him for the first time – seemed a few hours afterward, well, a bit much. It was all very well to so promise the moon, but it would almost surely not end so happily, before one of the boys at least committed suicide: ‘Maybe I make the choice soon and I go to paradise,’ Alamdar said to me twelve months ago.
Annie had gone that day to see Roqia Bakhtiyari, sullen, fraught and eight months pregnant in her grimy prison motel on Glen Eira Road.
Unusually for Adelaide (she wrote) it was a day of cold, slanting rain. There was a hotel and motel with the same name in the same road, and I had gone to the wrong one first. By the time I got to the right place, I was late and the box of fruit I had brought at Mojgan’s suggestion was beginning to disintegrate. I was met at reception by an overweight young male guard and taken to a motel room where a female guard watched television.
I had seen a photo of Roqia before – Ali had once shown us a rare and precious group photo of the family altogether in a bare room in Woomera when he had been allowed to go there once for a visit and return to Sydney – but I had no clear memory of her face. She was shorter than I had expected, with a broad, kindly face and anxious dark eyes, in flowing Afghan shirt and long pants and a head scarf, of course.
Mojgan was with her in the small, bare room off the main room. There were no pictures on the walls and room only for two single beds, no chairs, and a sewing machine which Roqia had been using to make clothes for the family. She enjoyed sewing, Mojgan told me. There were no bars on the one window that looked out onto the street where the rain still dripped on the footpath, but it was tightly locked and covered in a wire screen.
Roqia made us long glasses of milky sweetened Afghan tea, and Mojgan and I sat with her on the two single beds. The door stayed open, and the guards watched TV. Roqia’s English was better than Ali’s, but usually she spoke in Farsi and Mojgan translated. Through Mojgan, Roqia said she was very pleased to meet me, and very pleased that I had driven Ali to the doctor for his back, and that I had gone to the Refugee Tribunal appeal to try to help him. I couldn’t do much, I said, and meant it.
We talked about her children, and our own children too, but no mention was made of the coming baby as if that was bad luck somehow. She cried a little when speaking of her youngest daughter Amina, who cried out for her often, she said, especially at night. Mojgan thought special leave had been approved for Amina to come from Baxter, where they now were, and spend some time with her mother, but had no idea of when this might happen or how long Amina could stay.
I asked Roqia about her brother, who had recently been deported from Baxter to Pakistan; I asked if she could speak to him by phone. She said no she couldn’t because he planned to cross the border into Afghanistan to try to prove where they all came from, and there were no phones.
Mojgan said that Roqia was very frightened of the future. There was nothing much comforting to say to her; there was nothing to say that the future would be any better than the past or the present, and it could well be worse. I stayed with them for about three-quarters of an hour, and then went back out into the rain.
Wednesday, 3rd September, 2003
‘We’ve won,’ said Jeremy Moore looking dazed as he turned off his mobile. A Family Court in Melbourne had just ordered that the five Bakhtiyari children be released, immediately released and brought to Adelaide, in, yes, Ms Mojgan Khadem’s custody.
The unbelief spread around the upper floor of the court building in Grenfell Street, this can’t be happening, Mojgan amazed and beaming, Julian Burnside glowing, silent and calculating fast. A clutch of reporters arrived, wondering what the fuck they could say without mentioning the children’s names. Yes, we were told, the children could see their mother, each day in her prison hospital.
Forty minutes went by while we waited for our courtroom to finish another matter. Then we went in. Did anyone object, asked the judge, to what had been done? There were no objections. The lawyers agreed to let it proceed, extraneous matters to be held over to another hearing, and the judge endorsed it.
Mojgan meanwhile had organised a minivan and was about to leave for Baxter. Her mother was already on the way from Ballarat to an undisclosed location where the children could live, attend school and visit each day their mother, under guidance from Catholic Welfare.
She rushed down the steps and drove away. Julian Burnside, who would have been played in the film by the young Paul Scofield, invited us into a private room and talked. The whole thing started, he said, when Roqia was shown some Afghan currency and did not recognise it, and was then thought to be an imposter.
The currency was the currency of the Northern Alliance.
And the translator who went with the Age team to Charkh was from the Northern Alliance. And the village, seeing an enemy, lied to him, and lied down the phone to Ali, protecting him.
It felt too good to be true. The minivan would be intercepted and the children re-arrested as Akram al-Basri was, before he secured his second release, but soon thereafter was sent back to Gaza, and mortal danger.
It took hours and hours, but then it was all right. They were all there at the gate, with little bags of belongings.
Mojgan drove and drove through the night and Alamdar kept leaning out and looking upwards. Del the Catholic representative asked him what he was doing.
‘Looking at the stars,’ he said. ‘I have not seen them for a year. The lights in the compound were always too bright.’
As they were driving Ruddock was replaced as Minister by Amanda Vanstone.
I took the train home, still fearing flying too much to wait and greet the boys. I saw in the paper that on Thursday Mars would be closer to Earth than it had been for hundreds of years. I rang Natasha Stott Despoja’s office and her people organised for the Bakhtiyari children to go to the observatory and there, at the crucial hour, see the great red planet loom in the telescope.
‘It was wonderful,’ said Mojgan. ‘It was just… there! You know? The boys loved it.’