It is one of the most violent places in the world, a tropical island off Queensland that was once a secret penal colony for unwelcome Aboriginies. Now there is an epidemic of suicides, since 1994, more than 40 young people have hanged themselves, claiming that they were possessed. But is it a ghost or the ghetto that’s handing them the rope? Report by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy.
The Hairy Man comes, unannounced, in the dead of night. He is a black, sinewy figure who stands before his sleeping victims like an ancestral hunter. One hand holds the spear by his side; the other holds a rope. There is a possum pelt around his waist and his eyes burn like the embers of a camp fire. Wordlessly, he hands over the rope… Frank Walsh had experienced the dream many times. Always, he awoke from it sweating and terrified, not knowing where he was, fighting hard to control the compulsion to injure himself, sometimes unsuccessfully. He had talked repeatedly to his friends about the vision, and its awful terror.
One night, early in November, Frank and his four friends sat drinking at their favourite meeting place under the mango tree beside the beach. A cold wind lifted the fine hairs on the back of his neck. As he rose, the moon slid behind the clouds and the shadows of the five young men disappeared in the dark. Frank said he was leaving to meet somebody, and weaved along the water line, then up between the weatherboard houses to his home. He had been away from Palm Island for some time and had come back only the week before, to see Valerie, his mother. Her yard was dark, but Frank sensed someone else was waiting.
He was found at dawn, hanging from his mother’s gum tree; his friends cut him down, but Frank, who had celebrated his 21st birthday the month before, was dead. By 6am, he had been flown off the island. “He was haunted. I knew he was in pain, so why didn’t he come to me this time? We all see the demon,” said Stanton Wotton, Frank’s best friend.
Later, in the playground at St Michael’s Catholic school, where Frank and Stanton had once shared a desk, the children were talking about Frank and playing the hanging game. As they grabbed the chains of the climbing frame and put them over each other’s heads, they sang: “The Hairy Man’s coming, take the rope, put it on your head and then you’re dead.”
News of the death travelled fast around Palm Island that day. Nobody was surprised, and some wondered who would be next. Since 1994, a wave of youth suicides has gripped this small community, which is now burying its young at the rate of one a month. So far, more than 40 have killed themselves. The deaths have a common denominator – the victims all claimed to have been possessed by a spirit who first appears in their dreams, known to them as the Hairy Man.
At noon, the phone rang in Peena Geia’s kitchen, around the corner from the Walsh house. Peena, the leader of the Aboriginal Council that governs the island, arranged for somebody to sit with Valerie Wa1sh. She would need transport and a plane ticket to get to the mainland hospital morgue where her son’s body lay. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing. Our children are killing themselves and the cemetery is full. We need help to end this,” said Peena, whose 19-year-old niece also hanged herself last year.
Around the point in Pencil Bay, Bill Blackley, Frank’s godfather, lit up another cigarette and studied the shoreline. “We are living in a ghetto on a tropical island and the government doesn’t care. The fabric of our community is coming apart. Suicide is the ultimate statement from people who just don’t want to be here any more.”
The residents of Palm Island are marooned, 60km off the northern coast of Australia. Outwardly they appear to live in paradise, in a corner of an idyllic archipelago in Queensland that draws millions of tourists to dive, fish and sunbathe in exclusive resorts like the Whitsunday Islands. Like them, Palm is swathed in tropical rainforest, bordered with white sand beaches, and bound by the Great Barrier Reef. But Palm Island’s beauty belies the tragedy of a forgotten people who have been dying there for the past four years. There are no tourist excursions, and the state maps do not locate it.
Until 1985 the government of Australia ran this island, the size of Sark, under a strict apartheid regime and used it as a secret penal colony for Aboriginal people. Life was controlled by the ringing of a curfew bell and the inmates, whose “crimes” included being orphaned, illegitimate or unmarried, were brutalised.
Today the island and its 3500 inhabitants, many of whom have memories of being brought over in chains, have been abandoned to their fate. Palm Island has been designated by the World Health Organization as the most violent place on earth outside of a combat zone. The murder rate is 15 times higher than for the state of Queensland, and the rate of serious assaults is 30 times the national average. The life span of islanders is 40 years or less and, according to unpublished health reports, “the lack of progress in improving the mortality rate is unprecedented on a world scale’. Youths on Palm Island are 50 times more likely to commit suicide than teenagers living in Australia’s other remote communities.
Yet nobody seems to care. In the days after Frank Walsh’s death, nobody from the Queensland state health services called, even though his suicide was the 12th that year. There was no counselling for Frank’s relatives or friends, or for the hundreds of young people who secretly feared they might be next.
Despite repeated requests from the community for a full-time psychologist to advise its young people, none has been appointed. Despite applications to improve medical facilities on the island, a tiny 10-bed hospital alone still tries to cope with up to 60 admissions a day. Despite the frequency of hangings, there is still no fully equipped resuscitation unit, or even a paramedic to man the island’s only ambulance. The seriously injured are flown to hospital on the mainland by helicopter.
To the outside world, Frank’s death went by unnoticed and did not even make the local news. But to the people of Palm Island it was a devastating blow, coming at the end of a bleak year. At dusk that night, under the mango tree in Mission Bay where Frank had drunk his last beer, there were now only four shadows.
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