Essay by Sally McInerney, 2015. 0417 498 210 / www.sallymcinerney.com
Notes for Nauru Diary: Impressions of an Island, from two recent visits to the Republic of Nauru.
It takes a cargo ship about 20 days to get from Sydney to the little island Republic of Nauru, just south of the Equator. From Brisbane, it’s about ten days. Nauru’s nearest neighbour is the tiny island of Banaba, 300 kilometres to the east, named Ocean Island in the age of guano empires. A four-and-a-half hour flight on one of Nauru Airlines’ 737s, departing from Brisbane, is the only other way of getting there from here.
My first visit to Nauru was in November 2014. I had a friend who was working there at the time and a $50 tourist visa. I booked the most flexible ‘plane ticket of all, in case it was a nightmare landscape riddled with phosphate dust, with perhaps a few seabirds clinging to life among the pinnacles of the hinterland.
Apart from an archeologist friend who spent several days there in May 1977, I knew nobody who had ever seen much of Nauru. From field trips to other Micronesian islands I’d learnt not to trust guidebook descriptions. So many things were being said about Nauru and most of them were derogatory. It was called a barren moonscape, a pile of birdshit, a hellhole, a failed state, a decrepit country, a clapped-out quarry, even “Scott Morrison’s wretched island”.
Yet twelve thousand humans were living there: about the same population as, say, Cowra, my home town. Two thousand of them are refugees, ten thousand are Nauruan. How do they live on such a small remote island, twenty-one square kilometres shaped like a kidney bean? I wanted to wander about in my usual way, in accord with my “artistic practice”, looking at everyday things, talking to strangers: the grainy texture of being there, the odd scraps that the senses gather to puzzle the mind; besides, I had always wanted to see the pinnacles in the mined-out phosphate fields.
I stayed on Nauru for six days. I took photographs, kept a sort of diary. There were many mysteries. I saw dozens of old rusting vehicles (a fortune in scrap metal) but never the infamous yellow Lamborghini which crops up repeatedly in patronising palangi internet stories about Nauru. Where was the museum full of WW2 relics from the three-year Japanese occupation? How long ago did the public library burn down, and what had been in it? – there are so few books in the tropics, eaten by insects and mildew. Was it true that the airstrip had been built of crushed coral by the Japanese? Why was there a trampoline in the yard of almost every house? Were those enormous dilapidated buildings, part-covered in vegetation, still being used in phosphate production?
What of the dogs who killed an eleven-year-old Nauruan girl on the beach a few months before? What was happening to the family of the Nauruan who drowned in the Anibare Channel, attempting to rescue a refugee who also drowned? How were they managing? When refugees said that they were in Hell, touching their lightly-clenched knuckles to the ribcage over their heart, was it the island itself that they meant, or mostly the mind-bending state of uncertainty in which they found themselves?
Where were all the seabirds, descendants of the myriads that built up the phosphate soil? Why did so many children stay away from school? What was it like at the University of the South Pacific’s Nauru campus, with a forecourt of white coral near Noddy’s Soft Drinks factory, “Be Nauruan, Buy Nauruan”?***(see photo p.3). Book-starved, I tried a door marked “Library”, but it was Saturday and the door was locked.
The plane I flew out on was full of teachers and interpreters returning home after a long shift at the detention centre. One of them said she was planning to sleep for a month and never go out of doors.
Down by the Anibare pool I became friends with some people who could not leave the island. I said I would come back. There is something about Nauru that reminds me of my childhood home. Maybe it’s the small interconnected community and the old rusting car bodies. And I think it has a feisty democratic soul.
When I returned to Sydney I searched in the Mitchell Library for details about Nauru’s recent past. I found a trove of South Pacific photographs and papers collected by Ron Maslyn Williams, who published a history of the British Phosphate Commission. There is also a detailed manuscript diary kept by Thomas Cude, who was chief of Police on Nauru for several years until the Japanese occupation, 1942-1945. This was a time of great devastation for Nauru. It was overcrowded with members of the Japanese garrison and their imported labourers. Most of the Nauruan population was deported by the Japanese to the distant Truk Islands. Of the 1,200 deportees, only 800 survived. After the Japanese surrender, Cude went to the islands to search for and bring back these survivors to Nauru.*(see photo below).
Cude’s careful annotations (spidery white ink on black) to the Nauruan photographs in his own albums gave people’s names, places, context. Since paper doesn’t last long in the tropics I thought it likely that Nauruans had no such personal records. Remembering that locked library door, I emailed the Director of USP, Nauru Campus, Alamanda Lauti. Eventually we spoke on the ‘phone. I was struck by her lively, musical, no-nonsense voice with elements of laughter behind it. She confirmed that Nauru had no such records, that she would certainly like to have copies for the library, and that they could be shared with the community. The library at USP is open to everyone.
Formal arrangements were made between Alamanda and the Mitchell Library and in June this year I went back to Nauru with the material.
I was amazed to find that Alamanda’s grandmother, Esther Dube Roland, was one of the survivors brought back from Truk by Thomas Cude. She was fifteen at the time. I photographed Esther with her grand-daughter, Farrah Roland Demaure, by the library door. Esther is holding a copy of Cude’s annotated photograph, a family group with her father at the centre
Small strategically-placed islands often become the plaything of bigger forces intent on their own battles. Nauru was cut off from the rest of the world during the war in the Pacific and little was known about how it was faring. Its unique people nearly died out. They celebrate their survival each year on Angam Day, October 26. Much can be said about the effects of war on a country’s civilian population, displaced by war in their own country, exiled on remote islands.