The Age
Kosovars gloomily thank a nation

Friday 14 April 2000

Low cloud hung like gloom yesterday over Huon Hill, the small gum tree-dotted rise behind the Bandiana temporary detention centre, and a miserable drizzle had been falling all morning.

But right on 1.30pm, as promised, most of the 146 remaining Kosovar refugees marched out of the camp recreation centre, down a short slope, to the yellow plastic tapes that marked the new no-go zone at the edge of the rugby field.

They carried four banners, handpainted in black and red on what appeared to be bed sheets.

"Help us" said one. "Thank you Australian people", read another.

"Thank you premier of Tasmania Jim Baicon" and "Thank you UNCHR" went the misspelled others.

There they stood, as the mist turned to rain, waving hands, umbrellas and the Albanian and Australian flags to the equally sodden media camped behind the wire fence a few hundred metres away.

The small demonstration seemed to show two things.

The first was that many of the detainees had become keen observers and adept practitioners of media skills in recent weeks.

Naser Bega, who has been acting as a media spokesman for the group, had phoned journalists to make the offer earlier in the morning. And as the group waited, he conducted another interview by mobile phone.

But the sad protest also seemed to indicate something else: that the refugees were now coming to an acceptance that they would not much longer be at Bandiana.

By the beginning of next week they will be either on their way back to Kosovo or in a detention centre.

Another letter from Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock had arrived at the centre yesterday, in answer to a series of their requests.

It offered a number of concessions, in particular that they had come to Australia "lawfully" and would be able to make immediate applications to return to Australia on returning home.

But the letter made something else very clear: They will be gone on Sunday. "You will leave Australia on 16 April, 2000," it said.

"This is a very, very sad day for all of us and for these children," said Mr Naser from behind the banners.

He said the Bandiana Kosovars remained unconvinced by the Government's assurances they would be safe. "Who can guarantee for all these children that they will go back and they will be safe and again (they can) come back here? This is a risk for them," he said.

"Look at these children. How can they now go and play in the landmines? Now they are in the detention centre like convicts."

He said none of the people in the camp wanted to sign anything that suggested they were leaving voluntarily. But neither did they want to be sent to a detention centre like those at Woomera or Port Hedland.

He said the demonstration was mainly a message of thanks to Australia. "This is our message. Thank you, thank you very much Australian people."

Original article