How to leave a footprint

There is a sound principle with which the best story-tellers are familiar: don’t tell it, show it. I’ve never seen a finer example of this tenet than in an extraordinarily powerful episode of the ABC’s Australia Story, Saving MG99, that went to air on 23 August. There is little or no editorialising in this particular episode, simply a story where you are overwhelmed by the facts.

We are told by the story’s principal witnesses that in Vietnam after the war there was no work, no future, no freedom of speech, all had gone under the new rule of the communist government. Such was the punishing regime of the government that thousands of people took to boats to escape; the only way out, the South China Sea. Former Commander John Ingram, who is to play a major role in this story says, “At that stage, you could not sail around South East Asian waters without stumbling over refugee boats.”

Saving MG99 follows the story of one boat which sets sail from Vietnam in 1981 carrying 99 men, women, children and babies. You will note, in this episode, there is no mention of the pejorative term, people smuggler.

One of the refugees on that boat, Stephen Nguyen, says that a terrible storm came on the second day of their escape. “The boat was like a small leaf under boiling water. The waters get into the diesel compartment. And then blow up the engine. No engine in the stormy seas is the most dangerous.” The boat simply drifts.

After being alerted of the situation by an American aircraft, the HMAS Australia’s only aircraft carrier went to the rescue. A sailor on board the vessel that night, John Tregoning says, “A broadcast come over saying that they want volunteers to go up the starboard ladder bay and assist with embarking refugees. How on earth are you going to get 99 emaciated, weakened, seasick, malnourished people three to five metres onto the lowest point of the decking on the Melbourne?”

Fortunately that day there was a photographer on duty who kept taking shot after shot. The results make for dramatic viewing. Most of the refugees are too weak to climb the rope ladder so the sailors go down to the boat and take them up, some on their backs, some in their arms. Under the direct command of John Ingram, they improvise.  One woman is carried on board lifeless; they fear she is dead, she smells of diesel, she is soaked in it. A sailor bends over the edge of the bay while his mate hangs onto his legs to make sure he doesn’t slip into the shark-infested sea below.  Babies are lifted in a harness guided by a sailor swinging perilously between the boat and HMAS Melbourne. Sailors are on the refugees’ boat waiting with outstretched arms in case the baby falls.

Miraculously not one soul is lost as the rescue goes into the night. The refugees are given blankets, showers, beds, food. Sailors bring out toys that they bought for their own children. Many of the refugees don’t speak English but they hear the words of comfort. The next day, the stronger refugees ask if they can volunteer their help. They set to, cleaning and scrubbing. No one on board ever forgets that night and John Ingram reiterates the Navy creed: “For those in peril on the sea. Do whatever you can irrespective of nationality, race, colour, creed, do whatever.”

When the refugees were held in a stark camp in Singapore before being sent to Australia; the ships’ men return to them with food. The refugees are on a Qantas flight into Sydney before the Melbourne got back to Garden Island.

Back in 1981 Australia was a leader in the number of Vietnamese refugees being accepted in the world. Back then. Not once did the narrator of Australia Story refer to the current crisis in Afghanistan. Nor did the narrator repeat our prime minister’s swift abrogation that those who reach Australia by boat should not consider themselves as having permanent residency.

The Australia Story episode climaxes in a 40-year reunion when refugee Stephen Nguyen addresses their rescuers. “Without you on that day, without your compassion and without your bravery we all would have died. Gentlemen, we owe you our lives.”

And John Tregoning, one of the sailors who volunteered to help says, “Most people like to think that when you pass that you leave a footprint. And I think that’s because of that event that night, that when my day comes, I’ll be able to leave a footprint, something that’s going to be there forever. It’s made me a better person.”

Today in Australia, we are denied the possibility of leaving footprints.

Australia Story, Saving MG99: a refugee story with heart was broadcast Monday 23 August 2021 and can be watched on ABC iview and youtube.

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