Mary Kathleen uranium mine and ghost town

mk7.JPGMary Kathleen is a ghost town halfway between Mount Isa and Cloncurry which used to be an uranium mine that existed from the 1950s to the 1980s. Uranium was first found at the site in 1954 by Clem Walton and Norm McConachy and the site was named for Norm’s wife who had died only two weeks earlier. They sold the mining rights to Rio Tinto who formed Mary Kathleen Uranium (MKU) Ltd to develop a mine and service town. An architect-designed town grew during 1956-58, with reticulated water from Lake Corella.


A sales contract with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was signed in 1956. The project was developed by MKU at a cost of $24 million. Mining commenced at the end of 1956 and the treatment plant was commissioned in June 1958. At the opening, Prime Minister Robert Menzies unveiled this plaque with Queensland premier Frank Nicklin. In the first five years of its open-cut operation, MKU extracted 4080 tonnes of uranium oxide but in 1963 the major supply contract had been satisfied ahead of schedule, and large reserves of ore lay at grass. The works were closed down until 1974, when Rio Tinto got new supply contracts with Japanese, German and American power utilities.


This photo from the Mount Isa North West Star taken in December 1974 promoted the town.  The caption read: “The town centre where shops, post office, canteen, bank and other facilities are located. The town’s churches and sporting facilities, including swimming pool, bowling greens and golf course, are nearby.” The company made a share issue to raise capital, and the Commonwealth Government, through the Australian Atomic Energy Commission underwrote this, thereby obtaining a 42% holding in the company. At the end of 1982 the mine was depleted and finally closed down after 4802 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate had been produced in its second phase of operation. During the 12 years of operations about 31 million tonnes of material was mined, including 7 million tonnes of ore. About 1200 people lived at Mary Kathleen in 1981.


Mary Kathleen then became the site of Australia’s first major rehabilitation project of a uranium mine, completed in 1985 at a cost of $19 million. All the buildings were carted away leaving the site empty. The sign on the gate at the Barkly Hwy entrance to the site says “Even though no buildings remain, the ghost town like atmosphere makes one wonder what this flourishing community would have been like”.mk3.JPG

A long unmaintained partially bitumen road takes you to the entrance to the town. The mine itself is a further 5km away. The site is now private property but open to visitors and a regular stopping point for caravans in the winter tourist months.


Only a few remnants of buildings remain. Everything was dismantled and auctioned off. A couple of buildings remain at Mary Kathleen Park, 60km away in Cloncurry.


One of the old streets of Mary Kathleen where houses once stood.


This is a view looking down eastwards towards the abandoned township nestled in the Selwyn Ranges whose peaks line the highway from Cloncurry to Mount Isa.


The original mine site still has the remains of the processing plant and site office as well as the open cut mine. Nowadays the mine resembles a swimming hole and exudes a spectacular blue colour due to the washing of minerals from the mine walls. People swim here but it is extremely toxic and radioactive. Geiger counters still go ballistic around the region. According to scientists, uptake of radionuclides and heavy metals into vegetation are sufficient to raise concerns over cattle now freely grazing across the site.


Big Things From Little Things Grow: The Gurindji Wave Hill walk off – 50 years on

Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam

This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Northern Territory Wave Hill walk-off by the Gurindji People. It eventually led to one of the most iconic moments in Australian race relations: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand. The strike had massive consequences, positively for land rights and negatively for Aboriginal employment in the stock industry. The collapse of that employment led to profound consequences still being felt today.

In the early 1960s Indigenous people were the bedrock of the pastoral industry in northern Australia. They were cheap labour, governed under the Wards’ Employment Ordinance in Queensland and the NT. The Ordinance set low wages and poor living conditions and excluded Indigenous people from industrial awards.

Indigenous groups were pushing for equal pay for equal work, a move resisted by the pastoral industry. In September 1963 the ACTU adopted a comprehensive statement endorsing equal wages. The move targeted pastoral workers unions, the AWU and North Australian Workers’ Union, initially indifferent to the plight of Aboriginal workers.

The NT Cattle Producers Council appealed to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission for a full bench hearing to keep the clause excluding Aboriginal workers. The NT Council for Aboriginal Rights said the cattle industry exploited their people on low wages for years and “kicked us, whipped us, shot us, and raped our fairest daughters”.

In 1964 a big Darwin rally increased pressure on NAWU. The newly-formed Australian newspaper under enlightened editor Adrian Deamer and the Melbourne Herald’s Douglas Lockwood lent publicity to the cause, highlighting appalling conditions at British company  Vesteys’ operations.

Cattle Producers Council lawyer John Kerr, later the Governor-General who sacked Whitlam, detailed evidence drawing on supposed racial knowledge over many decades to show cultural differences made Aboriginal people less useful workers. An Aboriginal stockmen loudly complained in court “you plenty liar” but Kerr’s case was not effectively countered and the Commission accepted it.

It was not until the full ruling in March 1966 the Commission embraced equal wages but in a compromise deferred it until December 1, 1968. The Commission accepted the employers’ argument that repeal of Wards’ Employment Ordinance would greatly increase costs and also lead to unemployment and displacement of workers and dependents.

In time this is exactly what happened.  However this was not the fault of the Indigenous workers.

Indigenous NAWU organiser Dexter Daniels complained about the delay. Daniels had been to Kenya in 1964 and seen how black people were winning rights from colonial masters. “Our people have been waiting more than 50 years, and they should get the award straight away,” he said. Daniels organised a strike of 80 Aboriginal workers at Newcastle Waters and wanted to spread it to Wave Hill a few hours away to the west. Wave Hill was a 16,000 sq km pastoral lease with 40,000 cattle and employed the largest number of Aboriginal people in NT.

The Wave Hill area was colonised in the 1880s and the station was bought around 1900 by British agribusiness Vesteys. At first, white cattle station owners killed many Aboriginals and ran others off the land; later they lured them with beef, flour and tea and exploited them as cheap labour.

Vesteys had a terrible reputation. Stan Davey from the Victorian Trades Council was shocked by conditions. “I have been astounded at the blatant continuation of a feudal type of control of Aborigines,” he said. “Their pay has been irregular and would appear to have frequently fallen short of the prescribed [wages]. People at Wave Hill were living structures no bigger than dog kennels. There were no sanitation provisions and no readily accessible water supply, People have been fed a slab of bread and a piece of salted beef three times a day.”

Wave Hill head stockman Vincent Lingiari, then 47, was in Darwin and Daniels arranged to meet him to see if he would join the strike. On August 22, 1966 Lingiari led 80 workers and 120 dependents in a walk-off to Wattie Creek. This was not the first strike at the station. They had walked off before in 1949, 1952 and 1955 but this was the first strike supported by a union.

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union placed a black ban on Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill. In September unions and employers struck an agreement that “fully efficient” Aboriginal workers would get the full award rate, married men would get basic wage less keep and singles would get smaller increases and keep.  A publicity tour led by Gurindji stockman Captain Major to southern capitals raised considerable funds. “You can see I have a black skin, but I have a white heart. What I want is a fair go for my people,” Major told his audience.

The Gurindji refused to go back to Wave Hill. In October 1966 Labor MP Gordon Bryant read a Lingiari letter to parliament demanding the return of “tribal lands” belonging to “forefathers from time immemorial”.  Author and journalist Frank Hardy was on his way north on holiday when he heard about the strike and he rushed to Wave Hill.

Hardy later wrote about the struggle in his book The Unlucky Australians (1968).  It took Hardy a while to realise the dispute was more than about pay. Lingiari explained they ultimately wanted to replace Vesteys with Indigenous owners: “One day last year we talk about these things, about hidings, about living in dog kennels, about white men taking our women, about bad tucker, about no pay. We decide then we got to go. Make our own way. We can do these things.” Lingiari told Hardy: “I bin thinkin’ in my mind we can run Wave Hill, without Bestey mob”.

Once Hardy grasped the significance of Gurindji demands, he became their spokesperson. He drafted a letter to The Australian: “Vesteys do not own this land…The land is Crown Land controlled by the Federal Government but the rightful owners of it are the Aboriginal tribes of the Hooker Creek area who lived there for centuries before the white man came to pillage the land, despoil their women and reduce them to the status of slaves. Aboriginal stockmen at Wave Hill …asked for equal pay with white stockmen and were ‘sacked’ from their own tribal and sacred lands for having the temerity to do so… The economic issue is equal pay but a more momentous issue lies at the heart of the matter. The moral issue of the plight of the native people, the monstrous and criminal indifference to their welfare, the cruel exploitation of them. Of course they must be granted equal pay.. and it should be granted now instead of three years as the Court has decided. But what of the wider issue. What about compensation from the cattle barons and the great mining companies who are raking great fortunes out of the north? And what about tenure of their own tribal lands?”

Lawyer Dick Ward advised Hardy it would be difficult to make a legal claim but a better bet would be a petition to parliament like the Yirrkala did in 1963 for their land near Gove. Hardy discussed the idea with Bryant who was keen to assist. The Petition signed by Lingiari and others represented claimants demanding their tribal land:

“We the leaders of the Gurindji people, write to you requesting that you bring before the Parliament of Australia the present position of our people, and our earnest desire to regain tenure of our tribal lands…of which we were forcibly dispossessed in times past, and for which we received no recompense.  This land belonged to our forefathers from time immemorial, and many of our people have been killed trying to regain it. Therefore we feel that morally, if not legally the land is ours and should be returned to us. The very name by which you call us, ‘Aboriginal’, acknowledges our prior claim to this country in which we are now a depressed minority.”

They wanted a lease they could run co-operatively as a cattle station. Hardy said the legal question was whether land tenure began with white settlement or with the original owners. In late 1966 Major returned to his own country and claimed the name Lupgna Giari. Lingiari asked Giari to have “proper talk” with Hardy. They put together a new petition which outlined the Gurindji relationship to Wattie Creek and claimed the land. On Lionel Murphy’s advice, it was addressed to Governor-General. There was a new passage inserted: “our culture, myths, dreaming and sacred places have evolved in this land… We have never ceased to say amongst ourselves that Vesteys should go away and leave us to our land. On the attached map, we have marked out the boundaries of the sacred places of our dreaming…we have begun to build our own new homestead on the banks of beautiful Wattie Creek…This is the main place of our dreaming only a few miles from the Seal Gorge where we have kept the bones of our martyrs all these years since white men killed many of our people. On the walls of the sacred caves where these bones are kept, are the paintings of the totems of our tribe. We have already occupied a small area at Seal Yard…we will…build up a cattle station within the borders of this ancient Gurindji land.”

Hardy played a crucial role in marking the Aborigines as “Gurindji” a tribal marker that authenticated their claim to the land. They put up a sign at Wattie Creek which they saw as having extraordinary power. One elder told Hardy, “All them mob hab sign outside. Bestey’s got ’em sign outside, policemen got ’em sign outside. Welfare got ’em sign outside. We want ’em sign for Wattie Creek homestead. Can you write ’em sign?”

Hardy asked them what they wanted on the sign. “Put that Gurindji word there,”  they replied, “We never been see that word, only in we head.”

When they put up the sign which read “GURINDJI, mining lease and cattle station”, Peter Morris, Vesteys’ manager of Vesteys’ pastoral properties asked Lingiari what they were doing on Vesteys land and who had painted the sign. Lingiari replied “this belong to my grandfather…I asked that Frank Hardy to paint it. It’s our sign and we camp here.”

The Liberal Federal Government rejected the petition a few months later. But land rights was moving to the forefront of the reform agenda. Gurindji, Wave Hill, the Yolngu and Yirrkala would become major symbols of the battles that followed. The petition gathered 100,000 signatures by 1969 and when the Labor government was elected in 1972, Whitlam appointed Ted Woodward royal commissioner to consider how Aboriginal people could be granted land in NT. In 1975 Whitlam attended a ceremonial handover of Wattie Creek to Gurindji, widely regarded as an enormous achievement in Indigenous civil and land rights. But it took land rights legislation passed in 1976 to allow for valid claims on the basis of traditional association. The Gurindji 1976 claim for 3293 sq km of Daguraga Station was finally achieved in 1983.

The events were immortalised in Paul Kelly’s song Big Things From Little Things Grow and it was indeed a great success in land rights. But it came at a terrible price. Most stations sacked their Aboriginal workforce rather than grant equal pay. A huge influx of itinerant populations came into towns with no work and no prospects. Many lives descended into alcohol and violence as a result. The era of great Indigenous stockmen and women “born in the cattle” was over.

Long Tan and Australia’s relationship with Vietnam

In recent years as a journalist I’ve attended all of the annual military commemorations in the towns I’ve worked in, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and Long Tan Day. The format of the commemoration is almost identical for all three: the ode, the anthem, the minute’s silence, the last post, reveille, the lone bugler or piper. But each day has its own peculiarities. With all the Australian First World War veterans dead and not many left alive from the Second World War or the Korean War, the Vietnam Vets are taken their place as our most senior veterans from overseas conflicts.

Unlike in previous wars, their placement in Vietnam was controversial as there was considerable opposition to Australian involvement in that war in the 1960s. Normally Australia took its lead from the United Kingdom but under then prime minister Harold Wilson Britain refused to commit troops to the conflict, leading to the famous Wilson quote to his cabinet that “Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam”.

Of course Australia sent far more than just a bagpipe band. Prime Minister Holt would later go “all the way with LBJ” but Australian involvement began much earlier in the Menzies era.

The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was sent there in 1962 at the beginning of the conflict and Australia was involved right through to last days of the war 1974. Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. Of those, 521 died as a result of the war and over 3000 were wounded.

The decision to send those soldiers to war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers, most of them draftees met a hostile reception on their return home. Many of those soldiers suffered post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that mostly went unrecognised at the time.

While the reputation of those brave soldiers has rightly been rehabilitated over the years, many were never able to fully readjust to civilian life. I can understand their anger that Vietnam did not allow Australians attend the battle site at Long Tan (where 18 Australians died 50 years ago) but I also understand Vietnam’s reluctance in the matter.

The country lost upwards of three million people in the war and the wounds are taking a long time to heal. In time it will become like Gallipoli, a place of shared sacrifice, but Australians must be patient.

Though still ruled by the same Communist Party that took over the south in 1974, Vietnam is slowly becoming a wealthier country. Its 90 million people constitute the world’s 13th largest population and it is the world’s 37th largest economy in transition from centrally planned to market-based and from agrarian to industrialised.

The transition is reflected in its foreign policy. Resolution No.13 by the Politburo issued in 1988 aimed to have ‘more friends and fewer enemies’ and Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995. It is a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute, but wants it settled through negotiation and peaceful means, in accordance with international law.

In 2015 Australia and Vietnam signed the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia-Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership. The Declaration sets out an agenda to guide the strategic relationship and covers regional and international cooperation, trade and investment, industrial, development, development assistance defence, law enforcement and security.  The Declaration builds upon the 2009  Australia – Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership and the bilateral Plan of Action (2010-13). A new Plan of Action is due to be signed this year.

The links between the country will only grow. In the 2011 Australian Census, 221,114 people in Australia claimed Vietnamese ancestry. Vietnamese represent the fifth largest migrant community in Australia and Australia is the second most common destination for Vietnamese migrants, after the US. Vietnam was Australia’s fastest growing export market in ASEAN during the 10-year period 2003-2013 (average annual growth of 16.3 per cent) and this trend continues.  A minor spat over a  minor battle (in Vietnamese terms) is not going to change that. What’s needed is a prime ministerial visit. No Australian PM has been in Vietnam since Julia Gillard in 2010. This is a relationship too important to let a dispute over access to a battle field derail it.

40th anniversary of Entebbe raid

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe rescue mission, the Israeli mission to free hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. It remains possibly the most recent occasion when Israel held the sympathy of the entire world. Originally called Operation Thunderbolt, the world remembers it as Operation Entebbe while the Israeli army calls it Operation Yonatan to commemorate the raid leader and the only Israeli soldier to die in the action. He was Colonel Yonatan Nehenyatu, the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nehenyatu.

The cause of Operation Entebbe was the hijack of a French aeroplane one week earlier. On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139 to Paris was hijacked shortly after take-off from the notoriously lax security Athens airport. Athens was a stopover; the flight had originated in Tel-Aviv. On board were 12 crew and 248 passengers. Ten minutes out of Athens, a group of three men and a woman took control of the plane. They were two male PLO operatives and two members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang. They ordered the pilots to immediate divert the plane to Benghazi in Libya. They spent seven hours on the ground at Benghazi where they refuelled and released a female hostage. The women had convinced the hijackers and a hastily summoned Libyan doctor that she was pregnant. The woman, who was in fact on her way to her mother’s funeral in Manchester, spent an anxious few hours in the airport terminal, and was then put on a plane to England.

The hijacked flight left Libya in the early hours of 28 June and flew to Uganda. Ugandan leader Idi Amin had strong ties with the PLO and he had expelled the Israelis from Uganda after they refused to sell him Phantom jets. The Israeli embassy in Kampala was then offered to the PLO as headquarters. Amin invited the hijackers of Flight 139 to come to Uganda. At Entebbe airport, the hijackers were joined by three newcomers under the command of Wilfried Böse. Böse was well known in German far-left intellectual circles and he was deeply anti-Semitic. Once Böse took over the operation, they began to make demands. They began by releasing all the non-Jewish hostages. They demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and 13 other detainees held in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and Germany, or they said, they would begin killing the remaining hostages on 1 July.

Under an armed guard of Ugandan soldiers, the passengers were transferred to the transit hall of Entebbe Airport’s old terminal. Amin paid a visit to the terminal and made a speech in support of the liberation of Palestine. Another Air France airliner was flown in to retrieve the crew and non-Jewish passengers. But Flight 139’s Captain Michel Bacos told the hijackers that the passengers were his responsibility, and that he would not leave any of them behind.

Bacos’ entire crew, down to the most junior flight attendant, followed suit. A French nun also refused to leave, and insisted one of the remaining hostages take her place, but Ugandan soldiers forced her at gunpoint to join the 46 other non-Jewish passengers in the waiting Air France plane. The crew remained and disgracefully, Bacos would be reprimanded for his actions by his Air France superiors after the rescue mission. The freed passengers were questioned on arrival home by Mossad operatives who learned that Ugandan soldiers were co-operating with the hijackers. They also got clues to the layout of the Terminal building. A day after releasing the first batch of passengers, the hostage-takers freed 101 more passengers leaving only the crew and the Jewish passengers in Uganda.

On the 1 July deadline, the government of Israel offered to negotiate with the hijackers to extend the deadline to 4 July. Israeli General Chaim Bar-Lev, a close personal friend of Amin, telephoned him on a number of occasions to negotiate but achieved nothing. On 3 July, the Israeli cabinet approved Operation Entebbe under the command of Brigadier General Dan Shomron. Planning for the raid took several days. The terminal had been built by an Israeli construction company (common in Africa at the time). The company gave the building blueprints to the Army and they built a partial replica of the transit hall. The builders were kept under supervision during this phase so Israel would not lose the advantage of surprise.

The plan called for the troops to fly into Entebbe airport and drive to the Old Terminal in a black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts. This would fool the Ugandan guards into believing Idi Amin was paying a visit. Backup aeroplanes with medical facilities were sent to Kenya, an implacable enemy of Amin happy to assist the rescue. The aircrafts took off from Israel on the 4000km journey in separate directions so as not to arouse suspicion, and flew at less than 30 metres over the Red Sea to avoid Egyptian and Saudi radar. At 11pm, they touched down at Entebbe and the Mercedes and Land Rovers – packed with elite Israeli commandos in Ugandan army uniforms – rolled out.

The raid lasted three minutes. An initial confrontation occurred near the control tower, when two Ugandan sentries who stopped the convoy were shot dead. With the element of surprise gone, the troops raced on foot to the Old Terminal where at some point Netanyahu was fatally wounded. In the ensuing firefight, all seven hijackers were killed as well as 24 Ugandan soldiers. Three hostages were also killed in the crossfire. The 75-year-old hostage Dora Bloch missed out on the rescue because she had earlier been released to hospital in Kampala due to a choking fit. On the day after the raid, she was murdered on Amin’s orders.

The survivors were herded onto the transport planes and took off at 11.52pm to Nairobi. An infantry team sprayed machinegun fire at seven Ugandan MIG fighters to ensure they would not take off in pursuit. The last of the fighters left Entebbe at 12.40am. The mission returned to an air force base on Israeli soil on 4 July with 98 freed hostages. They were fed and given medical checks before flying on to Tel-Aviv. There the planes released its celebrated cargo into the outstretched arms of their relatives and friends and an appreciative crowd of thousands of wellwishers.

Uganda later convened a session of the United Nations Security Council to seek official condemnation of the Israeli raid as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty. Many countries agreed with the Ugandan resolution. However, the Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter.

On the 40th anniversary Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to the country where his brother died becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit Uganda since the crisis and indeed the first to visit Africa in at least 30 years. Netenyahu was keen to stress Israeli-Ugandan relations had moved on. “This is a deeply moving day for me,” he said. “Forty years ago they landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists. Today we landed in broad daylight in a friendly country led by a president who fights terrorists.” However it remains a moot point whether the label of terrorist could also be applied to Netenyahu over his treatment of Gaza and the West Bank, and his host Yoweri Museveni who has ruthlessly crushed opposition in his 30 years as Ugandan president.


A trip to Normanton and Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria

Last week I hitched a lift with the local state MP on a charter plane up to the Gulf of Carpentaria. He was up there to check out a couple of schools in Normanton and farewell a ship in Karumba exporting live cattle to Malaysia. Not having been that far north in the Gulf, I eagerly took up the offer.


We took off from Mount Isa heading north past Glencore’s massive George Fisher zinc mine about 20km out of town.


The familiar rolling hills of the Selwyn Ranges seem to go on forever.


The next notable landmark from the air is Lake Julius dam. The dam wall is located just below the junction of the Leichhardt River and Paroo Creek 70km north-east of Mount Isa.kur9.JPG

This mine to the north of Julius Dam is Mount Margaret copper mine which closed in 2014.


The further north we got, the flatter the landscape became. This is Gulf cattle country, home to vast stations the size of European countries populated with many thousand cattle, but just a handful of people.


As we descend into Normanton, the windy path of the Norman River comes clearly into view. Rising near Croydon it meanders north-west past Normanton to empty into the Gulf at Karumba.kur14.JPG


The township of Normanton has a population of around 1500 people, with well over a third Indigenous.kur12.JPG

The colourful Purple Pub is one of Normanton’s three watering holes.


But Normanton’s most popular tourist attraction is probably Krys the Crocodile. The life-sized status is named for Polish immigration Krystina Pawlowski. In July 1957, Krys killed Australia’s biggest known crocodile with a single shot on the banks of the Norman River near Normanton. The saltwater crocodile was enormous, measuring 8.63m, over twice as big as the one that normally ply the waters around these parts.


After admiring Krys’s girth (the croc I mean, not the human), it was back on the plane for the short hop to Karumba, 70km away. The tidal salt flats seem to stretch on forever.


The Port of Karumba comes into view near the mouth of the Norman River, with the cattle boat visible in the photo. The large white building is the port facility for MMG’s Century Mine, which closed down last year. Its closure brought an end to dredging which threatened to end the viability of the port. After much prompting (including by my newspaper), the state government has taken up dredging and port traffic is flowing again.


Karumba is divided into two halfs. As well as the Port, there is Karumba Point on the mouth of the river with more of a residential and tourist focus. kur18.JPG

This is the only place on the entire Savannah Way drive from Cairns to Darwin that is right on the Gulf. The view from the Kuramba Point Tavern is well worth the drive alone. There was time for one quick beer before we set off on the hour long flight back to Mount Isa.kur20.JPG




Marie Colvin family files lawsuit against Syrian government

marie colvin
Marie Colvin in Homs (Photo: Paul Conroy)

The family of American journalist Marie Colvin has filed a lawsuit saying the Syrian government deliberately targeted her in the Homs bombing which killed her four years ago. Her sister Cathleen Colvin, whose children are Marie’s heirs, filed the suit through the non-profit Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) saying Syria had rejected a “reasonable opportunity” to arbitrate the claim. The CJA says their lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for  crimes.

Marie Colvin, 56, died on February 22, 2012 along with award-winning French photographer Remi Ochlik when their building was hit with, according to official Syrian sources, an “improvised explosive device filled with nails”. The Syrian government claimed the bomb was planted by “terrorists” but survivors of the attack say the building was deliberately targeted by the Syrian Army. The lawsuit called Colvin one of the great war correspondents of her generation and accuses “Syrian government agents” of being responsible for her death. She had worked for the Sunday Times for 25 years covering war zones including Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Iraq-Iran, East Timor and Sri Lanka where she lost an eye in a grenade attack.

In 2012 Colvin was reporting on the Syrian revolution which had started the year before. The Syrian Army launched a massive military operation in Homs, the country’s third largest city laying siege to rebel-held suburbs. Despite a media blackout, Syrian citizen journalists used YouTube, Skype and Facebook to get the truth out to the world. Local poet and activist Khaled Abu Salah and others set up a media centre at a secret location on the ground floor of a three-storey house. There they produced video blogs and hosted foreign journalists including Colvin. The Assad regime accused Salah and the Media Centre of being “terrorist collaborators”. In early February 2012 the army had begun a scorched earth campaign against the Baba Amr suburb of Homs, where the studio was located, with civilians subject to artillery and sniper fire.

The world was starting to take note. Colvin and other journalists gathered at Beirut Airport where they were smuggled into Syria. Colvin had seen the Media Centre’s video footage and was determined to cover the siege. She travelled with British photographer Paul Conroy and Syrian translator Wael al-Omar. They decided against an official Syrian visa after French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs in January, with other journalists believing he had been led into an ambush. Colvin, Conroy and al-Haems made it to Homs using back roads and a 3km-long tunnel.

Colvin was there for two days as the neighbourhood took heavy shelling and then returned to the border where she filed her report for the Sunday Times. A day later (February 20) they decided to return to Homs where they trapped by artillery fire. Despite her vast wartime experience, she said the situation inside Homs was the worst she had experienced. Things were about to get worse still. On February 21 Colvin made an audio satellite broadcast from the Media Centre which was picked up by CNN, BBC and Channel 4.  “There are rockets, shells, tank shells, anti-aircraft being fired in parallel lines into the city,” Colvin said. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” They bunked in the back room of the house with French and Spanish journalists. The regime knew Colvin and others were coming from Lebanon and tracked their movements to the media centre. The lawsuit said a decision to attack the centre with artillery fire was taken at the highest level by the war cabinet which included Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad and was carried out by the military with help from a secret government death squad known as Shabiha (derived from the Arabic word for ghosts).

That night the Syrian Army at Homs was tipped off about the precise location of the media centre and the information was relayed back to Damascus. The information matched the location of Colvin’s intercepted broadcast signal and officials spent the rest of the night trying to work out exactly where the journalists were in the compound. The following morning Colvin was preparing to leave through the tunnels when the shriek of a rocket shook the house. Using a method called “bracketing” they launched rockets on either side of the compound, drawing closer with each round. Panicking people inside the centre decided to evacuate. As Colvin and Ochlik rushed to the front foyer a rocket slammed into the ground directly outside, killing them both. Conroy, al-Omar and French journalist Edith Bouvier were severely injured by the shrapnel and debris.

As survivors left the building they were spotted by aerial surveillance. The artillery switched target from the building to the nearby streets aimed at survivors and emergency responders. There were no armed rebels anywhere in the vicinity. After the attack Syrian intelligence gathered at Army offices where they were congratulated on the news Colvin and Ochlik were dead. The others escaped through the tunnel, including Edith Bouvier with a broken leg. Conroy called the situation in Homs “systematic slaughter”. Few believed the Syrian story of terrorists and Colvin’s family began the painstaking search for evidence. It eventually led to this week’s suit which states categorically “with premeditation, Syrian officials deliberately killed Marie Colvin by launching a targeted rocket attack”. Whether anyone will ever be brought to justice in a war that has killed almost half a million others, remains a moot point.

Pauline Hanson is back – and so is Hansonmania

edc84-hansonMuch of the talk of the federal election has been about the impact of Pauline Hanson and her return to federal parliament after a gap of 18 years.

This time she will be occupying the purple benches of the Senate rather than the Green ones of the House of Reps but she will likely bring back the same unreconstructed firebrand politics to the chamber, and to the nation, with the same undoubted national coverage.

As always her media coverage exceeds her influence, and one commentator acidly described her as a “wholly owned subsidiary of Channel Seven” (and that was not the worst he called her). The ambiguous relationship she has with media was summed up in an extraordinary outburst today where she complained of bias against her and said she would bypass traditional newspapers and TV networks in favour of citizen journalism. Citizen journalism may be the only kind left in the coming years but if paid media does disappear, Hanson’s cause too will die for lack of publicity.

Some commentators like Tim Soutphommasane say that while the politics of Hansonism haven’t changed in two decades, Australian society has moved on. Yet she will be an important voice in the next parliament and as such, worthy of attention.

I am no fan of Hanson’s political views however when I was working for the Gatton Star newspaper in 2015 I had the opportunity to cover in close detail her campaign to win the state seat of Lockyer.

I ended up with similar feelings and a similar respect for Hanson that journalist and author Margo Kingston had for her after she covered her (Pauline’s) 1998 campaign to win the seat of Blair, a story Kingston recounted in her book “Off the Rails”. I could see, as Kingston could, that Hanson had a great way with people and formed quick bonds with everyone she met on the street. Hanson could always draw on a great inner strength and her sensational jailing and subsequent quashing of her electoral fraud offence in 2003 has only made her stronger.

The left wing of Australian politics has always been quick to denounce Hanson for her extremist views, but the reality is that much of her 1996 platform (such as the tightening of the borders, the removal of ATSIC, and the reduction of foreign aid) became mainstream. But even this week when Kingston warns we should listen to her not lampoon her, the reaction from the left has mostly been lampooning of Margo and unbridled rage against Pauline.

Hanson seems to feed off the rage of the left as well as having an indefatigable appetite for elections, having run in nine of them, though until last week none were successful since that shock 1996 breakthrough.

Hanson narrowly lost the 1998 election that Kingston covered, and lost even more narrowly the 2015 election in Lockyer that I covered (another 50 votes would have put her in state parliament) but I had to admire her persistence, energy and ambitious nature.

I remember getting an angry late night call from her during the campaign after I suggested in an editorial her ultimate aim was to become prime minister.

“That’s not true, I never said that,” she said to me. “I know,” I responded, “that was just my opinion and it’s an opinion I haven’t changed despite what you just said.”

Of course being outside the major parties, Hanson will never become prime minister. But it is clear she can tap into deep wells of resentment and command a lot of votes. Her views on “Islamageddon” and climate change are nonsense (the latter is the influence of conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts whom I had the dubious pleasure of listening to during a forum in Gatton organised by Hanson) but the major parties should take her seriously nonetheless. She represents a strong core of disenfranchised and disillusioned people who believe she is the only one speaking for them. I congratulate her on her election to parliament and hope she finds the wisdom to properly represent the people that voted her in.