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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee

Remembering Port Arthur

An anniversary is approaching. An anniversary is a time to relive a point of time in one’s life. It marks the passing of a year or years; it is the measurement of how far we have travelled, how much we have healed or how broken we remain.  We recalled the memory with clarity or in fading detail. But the feeling remains in varying degrees of intensity. A twentieth anniversary stimulates the mind and the heart.

On April 28 1996 I lived in Hobart with my husband and two small children, then aged 5 and nearly 3. I’d grown up in Tasmania and after spending ten years living on the big island decided a return to familiarity and family was needed. A quiet and simple life surrounded by people I’d grown up with and grandparents and uncles and aunties and cousins for the children to know.  It was an expectation that the life we had in Hobart would be free of bigger city concerns. Less traffic, less crime, less stress and fewer events that made us shake our heads in disbelief.

And then Port Arthur happened. I was not there and did not know any of the victims but had been there two weeks before with friends from Western Australia. On the day we were in Bothwell visiting my cousin and her family. Our kids played all day; held a baby potoroo that was being nursed back to health, climbed hay bales, and run till exhaustion stilled them. The photos of the day reveal red cheeked little ones who had experienced the kind of freedom that over-zealous mothering rarely allowed. At the same time we took the photos, the chaos at Port Arthur was well underway. We were unaware of the events as 1996 was a mobile phone and Facebook free era.

On our drive home we turned the radio on to listen to some news and caught only a partial report of a tragic event that was continuing to unfold with an escalating death toll. It appeared that a lone shooter was on a rampage. Immediately we both thought America, possibly Lebanon or Israel; current hotspots for violence. Our continued attention to the report wrought the eventual truth. This was not a faraway place; this was Port Arthur. An evocative and beautiful location that encapsulated the harsh history of Australia. It was now a new battleground.

Australia was, and in many ways continues to be, a naïve nation in regards to gun violence. Collectively we are shocked and repelled by the notion of taking up arms against each other. Generally as a population we did not and do not, own guns and those who did seemed perfectly capable of using them for purposes other than creating human misery. What had taken place on the 28th of April was beyond a nation’s comprehension. Certainly beyond mine.

As we drove back to our house which was located in Liverpool Street we were diverted from our normal route through the city centre. The streets that led from The Domain and the Tasman Bridge were closed to traffic to ensure that the convoy of ambulances could transport the injured and the dying to the Royal Hobart Hospital. The empty streets, the police presence and the sound of helicopters created something surreal. I’m not even sure how to describe the discordant relationship between utter stillness and the pulsing noise of desperation as ambulance sirens wailed and helicopters thudded towards the city. It was truly as if something terrible was being unleashed.

As history shows a terrible thing had made its way into our lives. In the days that followed, along with my fellow Hobart citizens I attended memorial and prayer services and tried not to notice the sober quiet that had fallen over the city. We looked up every time a helicopter made its orbit around the hospital that held the victims and the perpetrator. The whole city fell into sombre contemplation of how something so terrible could happen. We tiptoed through those few days and weeks after the tragedy. Later we marched and implored a receptive government to change the laws regarding gun ownership. With little resistance a courageous nation gave up its weapons and embraced appropriate registration of guns and the ban on the importation of weapons. It couldn’t undo what had happened but it was a step towards it not happening again.

Within seven months a guilty plea saved us from a court case and the 35 consecutive life sentences meant we would never have to think about the perpetrator again.

But for two decades we have never really had an answer to why this happened. Over the following years stories about the strange life of a bizarre loner emerged. He seemed to be a man whose inability to engage with his world because of social difficulties was well known by locals. He had been bullied at school, had a low IQ, exhibited erratic behaviour and had engaged in several ‘red flag’ behaviours that have been documented in countless articles. But it still doesn’t adequately explain how at twenty-eight a lonely and disaffected man went on a rampage.  And it still plagues me. Not that I want to lay blame about dereliction of duty on anyone’s part but it bares examining the facts that a socially isolated, mentally compromised young man had become so aggrieved with the world that he planned and carried out a violent assault against strangers.

Twenty years on this question still creates a disturbance within me.

So how will I mark the twentieth anniversary? I will not memorialise it with anger, bitterness and hatred. The days for that are over. I will pay silent respect to the dead and survivors and their families. I will commit to being a more thoughtful friend, a better mother and partner, a community minded citizen who calls upon our government and schools to pursue better mental health outcomes for all Australians. I will act out of kindness and insist that others are kind and remind people that rage and bigotry can only lead to our collective demise. I will remember these commitments to a more peaceful life when I’m vexed by the poor behaviour of others.

And I suspect I will occasionally wonder why and ponder what he will wonder on April 28.

Be kind, find peace, think deeply.

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