Saturday, August 3, 2013

Locals divided as Nauru camp is rebuilt after $60m rampage

The big machines are hungry for scrap, loading massive dump trucks with the twisted and burnt metal wreck that a little over a fortnight ago was housing for 650 people.

The riot at Topside, Nauru's main asylum seeker camp, is said to have caused $60 million of damage to the Australian-taxpayer funded site - by far the worst riot in immigration detention.

The rampage shocked locals and sent the government of this tiny nation into a panic. An emergency text message was sent to every phone on the island on the Friday evening, calling for all able-bodied men to help quell the 120 rioters.

"We were scared with our kids," said Christeva Boui, a mother of five who heard the dull thud of gas bottles from the camp's kitchen exploding. "Some of our dads were getting butcher's knives and getting ready to fight."

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Takai Itaaka is angry, too. "Really mad at them, these people at Topside had no place to go - then the Australian government made agreement with the Nauruan people to give them a home here.''

He said the asylum seekers were lucky, with a kitchen, good food and medical help, but still they rioted.

The riot started with a peaceful protest by about 540 asylum seekers on Nauru about the uncertainty of processing refugee claims until a breakaway mob, frustrated in an attempt to march down to the local airport, torched the camp.

The damage has set back planning for Labor's ''Pacific solution'' by months, forcing a half-built second camp to be jerry-rigged with tents for emergency housing, and halting new transfers to the island.

Set back, but not stopped. Dozens of workers scurry over the site, the overnight rain dampening the dust as they get to building the camp anew.

Rows of exposed concrete foundations resemble gravestones as burnt-out hulks of housing blocks are lifted by a 60-metre crane and trucked to the nearby tip.

A few bored-looking men sit on the balcony of the only building untouched by fire, marked apart from the workers because they don't wear fluorescent vests.

These are the asylum seekers, some of those who stood apart from the riot and are now being questioned about what they saw.

Fairfax Media is not permitted to speak to the men or take their photograph during a tour of the damaged camp, known formally as Refugee Processing Centre 1.

But despite the anger, there is still some sympathy for the men on Nauru, particularly with stories - "Naurumours" as they are known - that locals who responded to the emergency call beat up some asylum seekers. "As for me, I am not scared, they are human. Let them out,'' said Christeva Boui.

Her friend, Nina Grundler, agrees.

"True, it is a bad thing they've done, but they want a better life. It was not all of them.''


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