Kay Danes — freedom fighter
Michael Jacobson | March 6th, 2010
IN the cramped confines of the 3m x 3m cell she shared with five
other inmates for almost 11 months is a sewage tank stamped with Kay
Day after day, week after week, month after month, and despite the
foul vapours it emitted, this grubby tank was Kay’s form of escape.
“God, did it stink?” she recalls, this time speaking from the more
expansive surroundings of her and husband Kerry’s Wellington Point
home. The living room is tastefully decorated with artwork from
Thailand, Laos and Afghanistan, the centrepiece a glorious rug once the
property of an Afghan warlord.
“I’d jump on the tank for an hour every morning and another hour in
the afternoon and I’d run on the spot, always visualising myself in
another place,” she continues. “I could tell you exactly the journey I
was running, the people and the places I could see along the way.
“We knew we were innocent and the Australian Government knew we were
innocent. That’s why foreign minister Alexander Downer sent a task
force over to negotiate our release, the first time an entire
government had been activated in such a high-level way to get its
“Yet for all that there was no concealing how dismal the situation
was. Both Kerry and I had been unlawfully arrested and detained, then
wrongfully convicted and sentenced to seven years in that place … in
“So I ran on the spot on that sewage tank to maintain my sanity and
to build up my physical fitness because, if our government couldn’t get
us out, couldn’t find a way around the Lao government’s need to save
face, there was no way Kerry and I were staying there.
“If there truly was no hope left, we would have done everything in
our power to escape and be reunited with our children. A Thai prisoner,
an ex-soldier, had a plan and I needed to be physically fit.
“I ran on the spot to get away. Without that sewage tank and the hope it offered, I might have gone mad.”
Considering all Kerry and Kay Danes would suffer, going mad must at times have seemed the most sensible option.
Grainy photographs taken on mobile phones capture only part of the
stark reality that is Phonthong foreigners prison in the Lao capital of
Vientiane. The images show its rusting roofs, bare walls, a male
prisoner’s feet in shackles, crooked steps leading to the cells.
“That’s mine,” says Kay, pointing. “Just up the front steps and to the right.”
The Danes’ ordeal began two days before Christmas in 2000 when,
while running an international security company in Laos, security
manager Kay and her Australian Special Forces soldier husband Kerry
became enmeshed in a dispute between their client, sapphire mining
company Gem Mining Lao, and the Lao government.
Over ensuing months the Australians would endure brutal
interrogations, mock executions, torture, other violations of their
human rights and separation from their three children, Jessica, 14,
Sahra, 11, and seven-year-old Nathan.
In late June, 2001, having spent much of the past six months
detained without charge, the two Australians were sentenced to seven
years in Phonthong, found guilty after trumped-up claims of
embezzlement, destruction of evidence and tax violation. False
allegations of the theft of a quantity of sapphires only added to the
The spuriousness of the Lao government’s case became clear just four
months later when, thanks to the Howard Government’s intervention and
lobbying, and the tireless and brilliant diplomacy of Australian
ambassador Jonathan Thwaites, Kerry and Kay were removed from prison
and placed under house arrest at the ambassador’s home.
Unsurprisingly, the couple left Laos as soon as the opportunity
arose through an unprecedented presidential pardon and, on November 9,
2001, returned to Australia and their family’s arms.
“Our son was only seven when Kerry and I were sentenced,” says Kay. “That meant he would have been 14 before we saw him again.
“Until you go through it, you can’t know what something like that
does to a parent’s mind and how important it is to stay mentally
“Some people have no chance.”
For instance, Kay recalls a Frenchman who, in her words, was
completely nuts. He’d been in Phonthong for eight years and no one knew
why, least of all him, although Kay drew snippets of information from
his babbling and believes he’d been drugged by his communist captors.
“I’d try to engage him in conversation and he’d rattle off this
seeming gibberish — ‘apples, Santa Monica, apples’ — but then he’d say
‘apples, Santa Monica, no like injections, police do it, my mind no
good, mind not good, no like injection, police do it’,” says Kay.
She eventually learned he was a missionary suspected by the Lao
government to be working for the CIA. The French government was never
told of his arrest and his parents had spent eight years searching for
“I don’t know how those people coped. I suppose you just do. You
just have to. For me, I was always looking for milestones to somehow
make the time pass with meaning,” says Kay.
“I asked someone how long Daniel had spent in the lion’s den in the
Bible story. Turns out he was only there for a day so I beat his mark
pretty easily,” she says.
“Then I asked how long Steve Pratt had spent in detention in
Yugoslavia — (the CARE Australia worker was arrested in 1999 and
accused of spying for NATO) — and found out he was captive for five
“When five months passed, I ticked it off and sought another
milestone. That was how it was. Anything to get by until the day we
In the nine years since that day, Kerry has continued his defence
career, including three tours of Afghanistan, while Kay has become
internationally renowned as a public speaker, author — her bestselling
works include Families Behind Bars and Standing Ground — and for her
work on humanitarian and social justice issues.
This latter calling is focused on the plight of Afghan women and
children devastated by years of war and oppression. Kay is the
Australian liaison for the US non-profit organisation Childlight
Foundation for Afghan Children and was profoundly affected by her visit
to Afghanistan in October and November of 2008.
“That time of year is called firecracker season,” she says. “The Taliban like to get a kill in before winter.”
Joining her in an old Toyota mini-van were fellow Rotarians
including a florist from Arizona, a nurse from Texas and a Korean War
veteran and they travelled the ancient silk route, through Taliban
strongholds, close to the borders of Iran and Pakistan and into places
that can be described by a word seldom used when discussions turn to
Afghanistan: stable. Kay will talk about her epic adventure when she
addresses a Zonta International breakfast at Bond University on Monday
as part of International Women’s Day.
“After the whole Laos thing, I didn’t tell my mum or sister I was going to Afghanistan,” says Kay.
“I mean, there were times in Laos before we were illegally taken
hostage when I might have died. I was getting lunch at a market one day
and a bomb went off nearby.
“Still, when it comes to Afghanistan there is a perception the
country is all about terrorists, war, the heroin trade and not much
“Yes, there are precautions you must take, and yes, there are
dangers. But the mission is more important, the people are more
important and, for all that might have happened, I absolutely love this
The mission of which Kay speaks is hardly one the Taliban would have
appreciated at the height of its oppressive, fundamentalist reign.
It’s helping to provide education in a land where 80 per cent of the
population is illiterate; better health care by providing
immunisations for typhoid, polio and whooping cough; cultural awakening
through access to the internet and other resources; and agricultural
diversity by helping farmers breed poultry and raise pomegranates
rather than poppies.
In Herat province in the north-west of Afghanistan, Kay saw
universities back in operation and where girls, some with painted
toenails and smiles illegal under the Taliban, were studying alongside
boys. In Jalalabad, capital of the Nangarhar province in the country’s
east, she saw the benefit of a tree adoption program and other
sustainable living practices.
Everywhere she went, Kay saw smiles, kindness, generosity, dignity and people determined to stand up for themselves.
Yet one cannot go to Afghanistan and not be assaulted by the
ramifications of its recent and brutal history. Bombs exploding a few
doors down from where she was staying in Kabul offered Kay a timely
reminder that Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the
Other experiences, however, were significant for their sheer intimacy and poignancy.
Kay’s diary records a visit to Nangarhar Women’s Prison: “Most of
the women here are victims of domestic violence, although the state
views their actions of self-preservation as premeditated wilful
“I notice the women slowly making their way from the veranda, down
the concrete steps and curiously edging closer towards us. They range
from about 14 years to their mid-40s and are dressed in bright coloured
Salwar Kameez clothing, shawls wrapped neatly around their heads.
“One by one we are introduced to the women through our language
assistants. We learn about their tragic lives. Most all of them have
endured horrific domestic violence. Among them a woman who had been
tied to her bed for days and has the scars to prove her lifetime of
abuse, but no one cared.
“In an act of desperation, after her husband beat her within an inch
of her life, she picked up the AK-47 rifle he had left by the door,
pushed the barrel square against his chest and pulled the trigger. He
died almost instantly.
“She and her children live inside the Nangarhar Women’s Prison. She
stands quietly by a prison wall, her children beside her: a little girl
with scraggy dark hair and a piece of dark string threaded through the
piercing in her nostril, and a cute little boy, with lovely brown eyes
and a brilliant smile, who asked me to take his picture.
“What sort of man will he grow up to be? Will he continue the cycle
of violence that has consumed his life? Or will he say, enough!”
In Laos, they might answer such questions with ‘lao tae khun’, or
‘it’s up to you’. In Afghanistan, the response is ‘Insha’Allah’, or ‘if
God is willing’.
Kay Danes is more resolute, believing life to be all the better for
living it on one’s own terms, a lesson learned from the cruel
experience of having such a right removed.
She says life is exciting, although she takes care to be more aware
of her surroundings and to be more trusting of her instincts.
And when instincts need a little help, she’s still good with a gun, saying the best model is always the one that doesn’t jam.
That kind of dry, pragmatic humour must have helped sustain Kay
Danes during her incarceration in Laos. Almost nine years later, it
remains one of her most natural and appealing qualities.
“When I look back, I think about what happened in Laos and wonder,
if that hadn’t happened, whether I’d still be there running my
bodyguard company and doing security work,” she says.
“I wonder whether I’d have visited Afghanistan, taken these new
directions in my life, become the person I am today. I wonder about how
that experienced changed me.”
Her drive to prevent others suffering as she and husband Kerry did would indicate it has changed her for the better.
Kay enters her home office to fetch some extra material she says
might be helpful for this article. The point is made how the room is
about the size of a 3m x 3m cell.
“Yes, about the same,” she says.
Perhaps it means nothing, and perhaps she doesn’t even know she does
it, but going in and coming out, Kay Danes ensures the door to that
little room is fully open.