A Letter from Han Solo, Marooned by the Australian Government on the Island of Nauru
By Cara Lietuva
Han Solo had no illusions about actually digging out of the detainees' camp. Still, he kept digging—a spoonful here, a spoonful there.
He was no longer Ihab, son of Halla and Mustafa, husband of Nadia. He thought of himself now as Han Solo, the Star Wars guy. Odd how a movie he'd seen as a kid twenty years ago could surface in his mind at a time like this, but it had.
He'd seen Star Wars when he was seven, in Arizona, where his dad was studying petroleum engineering. It was movie night in the community center of the University of Arizona married student housing and he'd slipped out of his family's apartment to go watch the double feature—Star Wars, and an old black and white movie about some prisoners trying to dig a tunnel to escape from a camp. He remembered very little of his three years in Arizona, except for the cactus, the Halloweens spent watching the American and Korean kids trick or treating, and those two movies.
He remembered the prisoners put the dirt they dug on a little cart they pushed down a tunnel. He also remembered that most of them got shot after they escaped. But no matter what happened to Han Solo, he never died in Star Wars.
While the other men around him chatted in between prayers, or slept or cried or argued, he sat on his carpet square in the chalky dust and dug a hole, sometimes with his fingers, sometimes with a spoon. The wind kept filling up what he dug, blowing the powder that covered the camp and everyone in it—guards, prisoners, rats, the odd dog—with a greasy, white dust. Still, every day after prayers, he took his carpet square out into the relentless sunshine of the camp compound and dug his fingers into the alkaline dust.
He'd seen the island briefly from the air, as the stripped-down 727 circled, loaded with prisoners. It was the farthest island from anywhere else in the South Pacific, smaller than Baghdad, a wasteland with only a thin beltline of palm trees. It had been mined for phosphate and was unfit for most humans or animals to live on. He learned this from the man he was shackled to on the flight from Canberra. The man had been a history teacher in Amman and, like Han Solo, had come back to Baghdad after Saddam had been overthrown.
Han Solo asked the history teacher how he'd gotten this information about the island. After all, you couldn't know whether someone was just making up stories or speaking with real knowledge. The history teacher said he'd talked to one of the Australian guards. Then the history teacher had corrected himself. It was not a conversation. The guard, learning that the history teacher spoke English, had spent some time telling the teacher about the terrible place he was going to. It was a taunting.
The metal shade over the jet window didn't cover all the glass, and a crack allowed Han Solo to peer out. He saw a blinding white island that looked like it was made of salt. But it was dust, he learned, as they were herded off the plane onto the narrow tarmac surrounded by the white. The stuff blew into his eyes and nostrils and he could taste its alkalinity on his lips.
The soldiers on the plane and the soldiers on the airstrip were all stocky, reddish-brown men who spoke a language he'd never heard. But he understood their machine guns as they motioned him and the others onto an old bus, and then off the bus into the camp compound.
He'd been there several months now. At mid morning, as they did every day, one of the guards drove a water truck up to the fence and filled huge plastic drums from which everyone took their drinking and wash water. Han Solo wondered where they shipped the water from--the history teacher on the airplane had told him there was no fresh water on the island anymore.
He shuffled behind several younger men who were shoving each other. A long sip of iron-tasting water, warm as milk, and then the daily mail call. One letter for him. Always.
He didn't even have to look at the handwriting on the envelope to know that it was his own letter, addressed to "President, Australia." Returned, unopened.
The guard snickered.
Han Solo handed him a freshly written letter in a new envelope. Same address.
The guard muttered what sounded like curses, but took it. He always took it.
Han Solo went back to his carpet square. Soon it would be too hot to sit in the sunshine and he'd have to take shelter under the thatched roof of the pavilion, where hundreds of bunk beds were arranged in rows on a long concrete slab. Then there would be no more digging.
The history teacher spent most of his day sitting on his bed under the thatched roof. He just sat, eyes closed. Han Solo left him alone. But when it was time for prayers, the history teacher always found a spot near Han Solo in the long row of men.
He'd asked the history teacher, that first week, about his family. But the history teacher had slowly shaken his head. "Let's not talk of those we love here."
That was when Han Solo stopped thinking about Nadia and who was going to take care of her, and whether she was indeed pregnant. It had been his idea to seek asylum in Australia. He would go first and send for her later. But the ship's engine failed off the Australian coast. The entire crew and passengers had been rescued by a Norwegian freighter, only to find themselves imprisoned by the Australians on an old army base near the Canberra airfield. Then, fifty by fifty, they'd been sent to this island in the middle of the ocean, tossed away on this scrap of hell and forgotten. The only thing he could wholeheartedly feel grateful about was that Nadia was with his parents in Baghdad and not here.
He tried to write her, but after the first letter came back, opened, he instead focused his efforts on writing to the president of Australia. Recently he'd begun to describe bits of the camp in his letter; for example, last week he'd written about the shower routine: "Dear Mr. President: Granted, it's understandable that there'd be a wait for showers and toilet facilities when you have a hundred or more men using five showers and two toilets. But to make us wait for our turn in line in the hot sun while the guards stand in the shade of the pavilion is not only cruel, it's inefficient. Surely a number system such as are found in ice cream parlors and banks worldwide would make more sense." And then he concluded with a paragraph about how they'd done nothing wrong and to at least call in the Red Crescent or the Red Cross to monitor conditions and could a way be found to contact the leader of another country, such as Jordan, to arrange to send them back as refugees.
Another day he'd written about the bugs in the rice they'd eaten for lunch: "Dear Mr. President: The food you've set before us to eat is unvaried and far from nutritious—except for today's dish, which was white rice enhanced with protein: dead mealworms, which the guards dutifully cooked along with the rice. Sir, surely a nation as generous as Australia could at least afford to feed us better, as long as you're going to so wrongly detain us?"
He'd written about the heat: "It's worse than standing in front of an open oven, sir. It's like standing in front of a fire. Why do you continue to imprison us here? We've done no wrong. I implore you to reconsider our fate and to think of our loved ones who worry and weep not even knowing where we are. Please sir, we are human too." And so on.
When prayers were over several of the guards shouted for the prisoners' attention and pointed to a piece of paper that had been tacked to the railing outside the head official's office, which was an air-conditioned portable trailer. Prisoners weren't allowed within twenty feet of the trailer, which was surrounded by chain link fencing topped by accordion wire. Han Solo had let himself indulge in a little irony during his second week there and wonder whether the head official ever felt imprisoned within his little camp, no matter that it was air conditioned. But that had been several months ago. He was too tired for irony anymore.
Catching a guard's eye, Han Solo shrugged, as if he didn't much care what the notice said. Would the guard take the bait? Han Solo slowly turned away and the guard growled, hiked over to the railing, yanked the notice off its nail, and stomped back to him.
He mashed it into Han Solo's forehead. Han Solo stepped back, refocused, and scanned the words, in English of course, and got the gist of it before the guard whipped it away. A government official from Australia was coming to visit the camp. Several "guests" would be chosen to meet him and assure him of the hygienic and humane conditions of the camp.
"Not you," the history teacher said, when Han Solo came back to the sleeping area where he'd been napping. "They think you're a troublemaker, writing those letters that keep coming back. We need someone else, someone they think they can trust."
"Like you," Han Solo said.
The history teacher nodded. After some discussion that night, which consisted mainly of whispers from different factions, each wanting their man to be one of the "guests," three men and the history teacher were chosen. They discussed what the men would say and how they should say it.
"I will write you a letter to give to him," Han Solo said.
The others laughed. Someone said, "Isn't it enough that they think you're crazy, you want us to look crazy too?" He laughed too, as though he'd been making a joke all along. But when the lights were turned out, he lay on his pallet in the darkness, and pressed his hands to his face.
Maybe it was better to simply lie there and wait for whatever happened. But then the others would know their remarks had upset him. Oh, who cared what any of them thought? They might all die here, for all he knew. But he wouldn't die doing nothing. After all, the Han Solo in the movie wouldn't die doing nothing—he'd do something.
The next morning, after prayers, he wrote that day's letter, and folded and sealed it just in time to hand to the guard, who dropped yesterday's at his feet. The history teacher and the other chosen "guests," accompanied by more guards, started toward the fence around the portable trailer. Just as the guards began shoving away the onlookers, Han Solo slipped that day's freshly written letter into the history teacher's hand.
The history teacher looked startled. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Please. Give it to him just before you leave."
The "guests" were lined up and patted down, but maybe the guards didn't hear the suspicious crackle of paper in the history teacher's long white sleeve, because they let him go with the others up the steps of the portable trailer and inside, each of the four men accompanied by a guard.
Several minutes later, a procession of soldiers, sunburned whites from Australia, strode by, guns raised, escorting several men in business suits, and a man in shorts and a baseball cap who carried a camera. They went inside the gate and then up the steps of the trailer.
About ten minutes went by and then the "guests" came out. Some looked angry. The history teacher looked sad. He pressed the letter into Han Solo's hand and shook his head.
Most of the men began walking back to the sleeping area. The Nauru guards followed, but Han Solo stood where he was. What would the real Han Solo do? Grab a gun, force the soldiers to drop theirs, take a business suit as hostage, and head for whatever car or bus they'd come in on from their jet.
I can't, he thought. Tears came to his eyes. Nadia wouldn't want him to die violently, but then again, she wouldn't want him to die this slow death of waiting and wondering either.
The door to the trailer opened and the Australian soldiers stepped out, followed by the photographer, who shot a few poses of the men in business suits leaving the trailer. Now was the moment. But to do what?
Han Solo walked to the open gate as an Australian voice shouted "Stop or I'll blow yer fuckin’ head off." He heard clicks and felt a whoosh of air from the bodies rushing toward him, guns pointed at him.
He closed his eyes, raised his hands above his head, and shouted, "I have a letter for your president. I ask only that you deliver it."
Silence. He opened his eyes. The business suits were conferring with each other. The soldiers surrounding him didn't blink.
One of the business suits stepped forward, pushing around the soldiers. He held his hand out and Han Solo lowered his arm and gave him the letter. The man tore the letter into bits and threw them on the ground. Han Solo looked into eyes that looked at him as though he were a spot of grease on a white shirt.
Before the man could go on his way, Han Solo knelt at his feet. His intent had been to pick up the scraps of his own paper, but as he heard the photographer's camera whir and click, he flung himself in the dust, inches from the well-polished leather shoes, and lay still.
"Turn that thing off," the business suit said. The camera kept whirring. "I said, turn it off."
"Yes sir." The camera stopped whirring. A moment later, when Han Solo lifted his head, his eyes and nose burning from the acrid powder of the island, the photographer and the business suits were specks in the distance and the soldiers had gone. Several guards were standing around him. A few kicked him as he was wiping his face. The others just pointed at him and snickered.
He got up and slowly walked back to the sleeping area, wondering if they'd shoot him or punch him or tie him up. But nothing happened. He lay down on his pallet.
"Maybe the man will show the pictures to someone, maybe someone who doesn't like seeing an innocent man lying face down on the ground," he said to the history teacher. "Maybe it will start something."
Maybe, he thought, someday he'd look back and say to his wife, "I didn't know what I was doing, my love, but the right people saw those photographs and demanded to know more, and we were brought back to Australia, and put on ships bound for Amman."
"You're a fool," the history teacher said.
That was the day he stopped writing letters. The day he stopped being Han Solo.
Cara Lietuva is a technical editor in the computer magazine world, Aquarius, mother of three, INFJ, raised in Wyoming, graduate of the University of Arizona's MFA in creative writing program, class of 1990.
Photo "Die Runde der Gefangenen" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, courtesy of The Yorck Project.
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