The Big Issue : Edition 497
26 THE BIG ISSUE 30 OCT – 12 NOV 2015 NAURU. WE ALL know the name. We all have mental associations with it, starting with refugees and all the associated complications. But what is Nauru otherwise? That is the question that photographer Sally McInerney posed to herself. She then attempted to answer it in pictures, taken over two trips to the Pacific island, spanning 16 days over the past two years. “I wanted to let colour and daylight in,” she says of her photos. By contrast, she says the Australian government has portrayed Nauru as a dark, sinister place, as a deterrent to people getting on boats. As she says, when anyone refers to Nauru using derogatory expressions, such as “hellhole” or “a pile of stinking bird shit”, it is not only offensive to the local population, but is also unwittingly doing the government’s work for it. During her visits, Nauru transformed in her mind from an empty, non-visual concept to, as she puts it, “a place where 10,000 people live – and do their best getting on with their lives”. Nauru’s remoteness and economic difficulties are the main factors that have made it a site for a solution to Australia’s problems with asylum seekers. Its remoteness also made it a strategic location in World War II, when it was bombed and then occupied by the Japanese, before being bombed again by the advancing Americans. Much of the little arable land of the island’s 21 square kilometres was severly degraded. McInerney points out a “sad and ironic parallel’’ to today’s refugees – 1 200 Nauruans were removed by the Japanese. The 800 who survived incarceration and slave labour were repatriated after the war. Today a quandary confronts Nauru – the population has grown to 10,000 (plus 2000 refugees), there is no fresh water other than rainwater and the country cannot feed itself. Its one industry – mining phosphate, the precursor to the fertiliser superphosphate – has its glory days in the past, and a future that can be reckoned only in decades. The hundreds of millions of dollars reaped from the industry since the nation gained independence in 1968 – money that briefly made the nation the world’s richest per capita in the 1970s – were invested in a trust, which has made some bad investments. It has now dropped, rather than gained, in value. “It’s very hard to know their fate,’’ says McInerney of the Nauruans, musing on tourism’s possibilities. She sees the mined-out limestone pinnacle lands as unique and beautiful, far from the blighted moonscape of popular belief.