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Guardian Weekend – The Land of the Dead

On April 11, Gordon Pilakui had girlfriend trouble. According to his family the 24-year-old had been arguing with her every since they got together. He was jealous. She didn’t care. Their ability to make peace was skewed, according to friends, by too much beer and spliff. But no one expected Gordon Pilakui to die.

April 11 was a Saturday night and they were always the most volatile in Nguiu, the capital of the Tiwi Islands, twin full-stops of sand and swamp that lie 26 miles off the coast of Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory. They began at 4pm with three hours sat around the concrete tables of the town’s only social club speed drinking Victoria Bitter out of plastic skiffs. Afterwards, Gordon and his girlfriend took home a slab of Cascade beer that was ploughed through in under an hour. Then an improvised bong was sparked up in a bucket and Gordon and his friends smoked until they entered a parallel world where the majority of the 2,500 islanders, on this, Australia’s northernmost aboriginal community, preferred to spend their time.

Within an hour-and-a-half, according to his cousin Michael, Gordon was completely messed up. Off his head and raging he ran to a concrete electricity pole, climbing up towards the 11,000-volt cables. A crowd of children who had been drop-kicking plastic bottles in the nearby football oval gathered to watch. For 10 minutes Gordon swayed and swore, babbling about being haunted by a curlew. As the children tried to make sense of it all, Gordon dived off, slamming into the ground, his skull splitting like a pomegranate, his brains dished onto the dirt. Sergeant David Wilson, one of the Tiwi Islands’ two white policemen, would later find that Gordon’s blood-alcohol level was almost twice that of a Saturday night casualty fished from the gutter of any hard-drinking outback town on the Australian mainland.

The children scattered. News of Gordon’s suicide hurtled with them through Nguiu and Bathurst Island, crossing the narrow Apsley Strait to the neighbouring Tiwi island of Melville. Tiwis are all related by blood, skin group, dreamtime story or dance. Nothing can be kept secret for long. And that night everyone resignedly learned about Gordon’s death, the latest in a succession of suicides that had begun back in 1989. Then, community leader Gibson Farmer’s eldest brother had hanged himself with a garden hose tied to a mahogany tree overlooking an idyllic white sand beach at Milikapiti, a northern township on Melville Island. This was the first suicide that anyone on the Tiwi Islands had encountered and it terrified a community that had no word in their language for the act. Then another of the Farmer boys, Gibson’s second brother, electrocuted himself after climbing an electricity pole.

In the last 10 years suicide has infected the Tiwis like a virus with this tiny community, a 20-minute flight from the First World malls and casinos of Darwin, acquiring the highest rate in the world. In Nguiu alone, one in four of the 1,800-strong population has tried to kill themselves, a staggering statistic that if transposed to a small town in Britain would have triggered a parliamentary inquiry and yet in Australia, only a local coroner’s investigation was launched whose recommendations were mostly jettisoned shortly after they were proposed in 1999. As the scandal of the Tiwi deaths ebbed from public view another 10 islanders killed themselves in 2002. Nine more took their lives in the last 18 months and in the four months leading up to Gordon Pilakui’s death there were 30 attempted suicides, most of them would-be hangings or electrocutions, leading Tiwi’s power station to repeatedly turn off supply while health workers attempted to talk the jumpers down.

Dozens of dispossessed and alienated aboriginal communities across Australia have critical problems with alcohol and drugs but none have rushed headlong into killing themselves in the way the Tiwis have done. And what has shaken these islands is that many of those who have succeeded in taking their lives and plenty of those who have tried seem to have been re-enacting an ancient myth whose principal character they fear is hounding islanders to their death.

The only dreamtime story that everybody knows on the Tiwi islands, a tale from an era islanders call parlingarri, the time of their ancestors, is The Death of Jinani, in which the Tiwis’ Adam and Eve, known as Purrukapali and Bima, are said to have fought after the death of their baby son Jinani. The infant had been left to die in the blazing sun after his unfaithful mother, Bima, abandoned him to have an affair with her husband Purrukapali’s brother. In revenge, Purrukapali struck Bima down and decreed that death would come to the whole world. Cradling his son’s body, Purrukapali committed suicide, walking into the sea, crying out shortly before drowning: ‘You must follow me. As I die, so must all of you.’ Since those days a curlew forever circles the islands screaming in remorse, a bird that Gordon Pilakui claimed to have heard moments before he killed himself.

Attempts at investigating the crisis have been made all more difficult by the extreme secrecy that surrounds it and the bouts of violence that follow every death. Shortly after Gordon Pilakui died on April 11, one of his friends drunkenly mowed down and killed another islander Simon Anglitchi. Days later, Gordon’s old schoolmate Alan Munkara, 25, tried to run down nine people before hitting Mark Puatjimi, 20, who narrowly survived. Someone else set fire to the TV transmitter causing £100,000 of damage. So many drunken fights broke out that the island’s clinic ran out of sutures. By the end of April, with the situation deteriorating fast, the licensing authorities in Darwin – at the behest of the Tiwi’s local aboriginal council – shut down Nguiu Social Club for one week.

We skim across the Clarence Strait from Darwin in a 10-seater prop plane on May 8, the day of Gordon Pilakui’s funeral. Bathurst and Melville islands are cloaked in abundant forest, fringed with spiny mangroves and from the air it seems barely believable that a tragedy is unfolding beneath the verdant canopy. Despite the fraught times, the local council has issued us with a permit to visit although travel is normally strictly controlled, hoping that publicity may shock the community back to its senses and persuade the Australian government into mounting a wide-reaching inquiry.

Our plane lands on an isolated concrete strip on Bathurst Island. As we enter Nguiu, the town is palpably tense. The social club has been closed again, in an attempt to keep tempers from fraying after Gordon’s is buried later this afternoon. All morning residents have been dancing in remembrance. Now they are biding their time at home before the coffin is brought to the cemetery. Anyone who crosses our path turns around and walks the other way.

There are a few visible signs of the deathly epidemic. A barbed wire collar has been strapped around every electricity pole to prevent climbers reaching the cables. On a wall at Nguiu school, a circle of painted aboriginal figures in traditional Tiwi dance poses has been augmented with a morbid new character christened Muruwa, the hangman, a figure, who grins as he reaches to pull a cord around his neck. Stapled to the mesh fence of Nguiu Social Club is a notice stating that having been refused a drink in the club, Charlie Tipiloura threatened suicide and has been banned for a week. Small things trigger grave consequences on these islands.

Nguiu cemetery is dominated by a forest of two-metre-high pukamani poles. Carved from bloodwood and painted in red, white and yellow ochre, these metaphysical bus stops for the dead direct the spirits downwards to the afterlife. At least half the graves have been filled since 2000, the names of suicide victims written hastily on white wooden crosses in marker-pen: Billy, Peter, Marcus, Ricardo and Amos among them. Many of the graves are still covered with the white mourning shrouds that were wrapped around the coffins, printed with images from the ceremonial dreaming dances of the deceased: a crocodile – yirrikipayi; a turtle – kitirika; a shark – tartuwali.

At 3pm, droves of mourners emerge silently from their houses and pad barefoot across the scorched yellow field. We hang back. The community, pressed into splints, bandaged and bloodied, appears as if it has been living in a war zone. At 3.30pm, Gordon’s coffin arrives in a flatbed truck, escorted by his friends puffing on spliffs, sporting mirrored sunglasses and white ochre smeared limbs and faces. Since the day of Gordon’s death no one has uttered his name, fearing that by doing so they will distract his spirit on its onwards journey. Everything connected to him is taboo and has been destroyed or smoked free of his presence with a burning torch of sappy twigs. At 4pm, Gordon’s girlfriend, purified with white ochre, is led to the graveside sobbing uncontrollably.

An old couple suddenly notice us, sitting in a patch of shade beside the cemetery water tap. They break away from the ceremony and walk over. We wait to be challenged. But Elaine and John Tipura introduce themselves as Gordon’s uncle and aunt and are desperate to talk. ‘There was no warning,’ says Elaine, in English. John nods and says: ‘We talk to our kids, “Why are all the families crying? We are distraught that you are taking your lives.” More than 30 deaths so far. But the young ones have become haunted. In a trance. Everything has become distorted.’ For centuries the Tiwis glimpsed mainland Australia across the Clarence Strait, as far away as England is from France, and called it Tibambinumi, the home of the dead. ‘Today we live in the land of the dead,’ he says.

A cry erupts from the graveside. ‘Fuck’. ‘Bitch’. ‘Coward’. The crowd is closing in on Gordon Pilakui’s weeping girlfriend. ‘You to blame,’ someone screams. ‘They should stop using them bad words,’ Elaine implores. ‘But we have had so many funerals.’ She whispers that has lost six relatives since Easter and points to a white-haired woman in a red T-shirt who is sitting on a grave mound away from the crowd. ‘Even the strong ones are following Purrukapali,’ she says. The old woman’s son had been counselling Tiwi youth as part of a suicide prevention scheme. But in 1999 he became so overwhelmed by his workload that he too killed himself. A simple white wooden cross bears his name: Michaelis. Beside it is the grave of his younger brother who killed himself soon after.

Darkness closes around us. After the last claggy sod is thwacked on Gordon’s coffin mourners drift into the bush. John Tipura asks us to meet him tomorrow in a suicide crisis centre that he and five others have opened in town.

A ghostly white pick-up drives endless circuits along Nguiu’s deserted streets. Gordon Pilakui’s old ride has been smeared with white ochre and exorcised of his spirit by friends who take it for a last spin.

We bed down in a blockhouse near the jetty, the remnant of an old, Catholic mission that ran the island for six decades before the Australian government granted aboriginal communities autonomy in 1972 and it was forced to let go. Our broken room, that used to be part of the nuns’ quarters, has flooded. The water and electricity have been shut off. Nguiu is not used to visitors.

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