All he could do to show solidarity with his father who was being beaten close to death by prison guards was hold tight to the jail bars that separated them — even as one thrashed at his fingers until they were broken and bleeding.
In reckless despair he screamed the words that he had often heard at home, hoping his dad could still hear him: “Saddam Hussein is a bastard!”
The People Smuggler is the story of the Oskar Schindler of Asia, Ali Al Jenabi. It is a true story, a non-fiction thriller which tells one man’s epic journey to find a safe place in the world for himself and his family.
“He has endured incarceration and torture, the loss of family members and dear friends, love and heartbreak and the birth of a child he cannot see. But part of Ali’s survival tactics is to never look back, so like his father before him he always manages to find a way to look positively to the future,” says first-time author and filmmaker Robin de Crespigny.
Ali loved the indomitable spirit of his father. “Without thinking about it he was unafraid of being different. In fact he was afraid of nothing, not even Saddam Hussein when he became president in 1979 and began his reign of terror,” Ali has said.
It’s not far into the book when Ali’s ordeal at the hands of Saddam’s secret police is described. It was a time in his life when he had to witness his father being repeatedly beaten unconscious and later, his hopeless descent into alcohol and violence. It was a time marked by the horror of seeing his younger brother Ahmad having his fingers cut off, before he himself was subjected to torture and starvation.
It took Sydney scriptwriter and author de Crespigny three years to write Ali’s story. Not just because of its epic nature, but because building trust between the two took time before Ali could reveal the raw truth of what happened in his early life in 1970s Iraq, until today.
“As we worked together he exposed more and more about his family and what his parents had gone through. Soon, I could see where Ali’s incredible moral strength came from — his spirit, his sense of humour and his way of looking at life,” says de Crespigny from her Sydney home.
The People Smuggler is the tale of one man’s incredible escape from Iraq’s tyranny, crossing hostile borders, working through every imaginable obstacle, through betrayal and on-going fear of torture and death — his own, his family and the friends he loved — to reach a place of safety and the hope of a new life. It is a compelling, confronting, insightful, tragic, and yet oddly optimistic account.
Last year the book was the recipient of best non-fiction in the Queensland Literary Awards.
The title, says de Crespigny, is one she hopes challenges two words that politicians on both sides have made synonymous with evildoers. People smugglers enrich themselves through the suffering of others.
“That makes them the scum of the earth. Doesn’t it,” she says.
“I have tried to put a human face on people facing terrible persecution,” de Crespigny says. “I think it is easier to demonise refugees and to blame those people who help them to escape, than it is to face what is happening. In my book I wanted people to feel they are travelling this journey with Ali. That they are in his shoes.”
Ali did not want to be interviewed when his story was published. His story is too painful and too full of loss for him to keep retelling and reliving, de Crespigny says. The loss of the father he once had, the loss of a brother, many relatives, a wife, a child and his home is overwhelming.
But here’s a truth about this people smuggler. He lost money helping people to escape simply because there were so many Indonesian authorities to pay off and because asylum seekers often had spent all they had getting to Indonesia. He paid for those people. When he reached Australia his problems were far from over.
Betrayed by an Iraqi paid by Federal Police, Ali was arrested by Interpol and extradited to Australia to become the subject of a highly publicised people-smuggler trial.
He spent four years in a Darwin prison (a comparatively light sentence after the judge concluded he had acted out of humanitarian reasons) and then 18 months in Villawood Detention Centre. The Human Rights Commission demanded the Australian Government pay Ali compensation for wrongful incarceration.
It didn’t happen. By contrast, the paid informant known as the “Weasel”, a self-confessed people smuggler himself, was paid $250,000, received Australian citizenship and indemnity from prosecution.
“He carries little (bitterness) or blame and took his punishment with grace, even though he could not see how bringing his family and nearly five hundred other desperate Iraqis to safety was a crime.”
Robin de Crespigny will be a guest at the 2013 Perth Writers’ Festival.
The People Smuggler is published by Penguin ($29.95).