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A Family Apart in Australia

The Bakhtiaris arrived as refugees at different times. One member gained asylum, but others remain detainees.


WOOMERA, Australia — Roqia Bakhtiari tells her story this way. Before she left Afghanistan, she had never set foot outside her village, never left her home without covering herself in a burka, never handled money, never learned to read and write.

But after her husband, Ali Asqar Bakhtiari, escaped from a Taliban army chain gang and fled the country, Roqia packed up their five children and followed in hopes of finding freedom.

She landed in Australia, where she and the children, now ages 5 to 14, have been locked up in the country's most notorious detention center for 15 months.

They came seeking sanctuary from persecution they feared in their homeland. But here they encountered a tough policy unique among Western-style democracies: All asylum seekers who arrive without proper papers are incarcerated until their cases are resolved.

The Australian government has held thousands of refugees in recent years, but cases like that of the Bakhtiari family stand out. Contradictory rulings by government authorities have kept the family apart, allowing Ali to live freely in Sydney, for months unaware that his wife and children were being kept here in the Woomera detention center.

Australia usually grants asylum to an entire family if one member is in jeopardy, but authorities say the Bakhtiaris received different treatment because they arrived at different times. The case officer who handled Ali's claim concluded that he is an Afghan refugee and granted him asylum. The official who processed Roqia's application more than a year later did not believe that she was Afghan and ordered her and the children held for eventual deportation.

Attorneys representing the family say the case is one of about 30 in which wives and children are being held while the husbands and fathers have received asylum.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the government has no intention of reuniting the families because they did not obtain permission in advance to come to Australia. "You don't get a family-reunion outcome if you come without authority," he said in an interview. "That's the bottom line." On Tuesday, an attorney for the Bakhtiaris said Ruddock had rejected a request that he release the family on humanitarian grounds.

Today, the Bakhtiari family bears the scars of its detention--and its growing desperation. To protest their treatment, Roqia, 31, and her sons, Alamdar, 14, and Montazar, 12, sewed their lips shut and went on a hunger strike in January. Her brother, Mahzer Ali, who arrived with her and also is detained, threw himself into a coil of razor wire at Woomera to call attention to the family's plight. The gashes required 100 stitches.

Roqia has come a long way from the sheltered life she says she once led. She has shed her burka and any illusions she had about the West.

"When I arrived, I felt I had finally reached a country that accepted refugee people and I felt I had escaped from Taliban persecution and atrocities," she said during a telephone interview from the detention center, aided by a translator. "I didn't know that this country and these people were worse than the Taliban."

Roqia said she grew up in the central Afghan village of Charkh in Oruzgan province. When she was about 15, she married Ali Bakhtiari, a cousin 11 years her senior.

As she describes it, life in Charkh was simple. The villagers raised livestock and grew alfalfa and vegetables. Barter was common; money was not. Few followed the calendar, and birth dates went unrecorded. Women were illiterate.

Her world was dominated by men--her husband, father and father-in-law--who managed all family affairs. After marriage, she began covering herself in the head-to-toe burka whenever she went into the village.

The land was fertile and the family prosperous enough for Ali's brother, Ghazanfar, to buy a truck. That was the Bakhtiaris' undoing.

Because the Bakhtiaris are Shiite Muslims and members of the Hazara ethnic minority, they have long been subject to discrimination at the hands of Afghanistan's other ethnic groups and, most recently, persecution by the ruling Taliban.

In 1997, Ali said, Taliban members arrested Ghazanfar and forced him to drive his truck for them. After eight months, he escaped and took his family to Iran.

Taliban soldiers came looking for him. When they couldn't find Ghazanfar, they took Ali. After beating and interrogating him over two days, Ali said during a recent interview in the town of Woomera, they put him in a labor camp, where he was forced to build houses for the Taliban.

Now Ali, his face lined with worry, looks older than his 42 years. He is quiet and seldom smiles. Despite his time in Australia, his English is limited.

Ali said he escaped from the camp after three months, returned home briefly and fled to Pakistan. Three months later, Roqia said, the family sold its possessions and, with other relatives, joined him in exile in the neighboring country.

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