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 Danes’ footprints.
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 citizens home.
“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 that place.
“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 debacle.
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 strong.
“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 their son.
“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 months.
“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 were released.”
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 else.
“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 beautiful country.”
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 world.
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 violence.
“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.