On the life and death of Michael Atakelt.
I SIT at one end of the foyer in the Coroners Court. A young blonde woman sets herself down next to me and then addresses the two older men seated by my side. ‘I’m Sarah, from the Maribyrnong Leader,’ she says. ‘So, um, what’s happening here today?’
The men say they are here to represent the Ethiopian community and to find out what happened to Michael Atakelt. The foyer is full of people, all wanting to know the same thing: how and why did he die?
But they will not find out, not today, not for several months. Maybe never. Not an answer they’ll trust, anyway.
The Coroners Court of Victoria is located away from Melbourne’s legal district, on the eleventh floor of an ordinary office building uptown on Exhibition Street. Like an ordinary office, it has a low ceiling lined with fluorescent lights and windows shaded by venetian blinds.
Just before the hearing begins, Atakelt’s mother, Askalu Tella, crosses the foyer towards the courtroom door, with several women following close behind. She is dressed entirely in black. There are over fifty members of the Ethiopian-Australian community here, and people greet her and defer to her as she passes. I realise I am watching a procession. Next, the older men, including Atakelt’s father, Getachew Seyoum, move in solemnly. The parents sit separately and do not acknowledge one another. The young men, Atakelt’s friends, are last to enter.
I make notes in my book about the elaborate, respectful greetings I’d seen; the confident gait of the older men; the way the young men seem to stay close to the walls. Above all, about their collective, awful misunderstanding of what will happen here today, and the sadness and bitterness that will likely follow.
I had met Seyoum that morning in Footscray, at an Ethiopian restaurant called African Town. He had printed out the jargon-ridden letter he’d received from the coroner and we tried to decipher it together. I told him ruefully that although I was no expert, I was sure there would be no answers today. He fell silent, then, and rubbed the grey-flecked stubble on his cheeks.
In the court, the seats are full and several people are standing. The lawyers speak quietly and it is difficult to understand the proceedings. I wonder about those around me for whom the language barrier is more than just legalese.
Atakelt’s parents sit at the long table before the bench. Tella, the mother, has an interpreter. Seyoum, who speaks English with fluency, appears to comprehend little. Twice he stands to talk or ask about the facts of his son’s death. The state coroner, Jennifer Coate, makes sure he sits near the interpreter, too. She speaks slowly, explaining that this is a directions hearing: its purpose is to fix timelines and identify interested parties, nothing more.
It is five months since Atakelt went missing, and nearly four-and-a-half since his body was found in the Maribyrnong River. The next directions hearing will be in April, another four months away.
After the hearing, I meet with Hannah Fesseha. She is nineteen and is studying Arts, majoring in criminology, at the University of Melbourne. She grew up in Altona Meadows in the western suburbs. In the months since Atakelt died, Fesseha and other young African-Australians (‘about four or five – it fluctuates, depending on exams’) founded IMARA Advocacy, a group aiming to speak on behalf of young people about issues such as racialised policing; Imara is Swahili for strength and resilience, she explains.
I ask about the hearing. ‘Nobody really thinks it would take this long just to find out how he died,’ Fesseha tells me. ‘I think that’s the first question that everybody wants answered: how? And it still hasn’t been answered.’
At 2 pm on Thursday 7 July, a fisherman saw a body floating on the Maribyrnong River near the Raleigh Road pontoon and called the police.
Three photos were posted online in the Maribyrnong Leader that afternoon. One image shows the river, wide and shimmering, with luxurious houses built on the hill in the distance. Another, from the reverse angle, reveals traffic banked up on a low bridge nearby. In the foreground, a police car has pulled up on the walking path that divides the grassy foreshore. There is a small, rumpled square of white material close to the water’s edge. Legs stick out from beneath that pale blanket, angled down the bank, back to where they came from.
Michael Atakelt was twenty-two years old. He arrived in Australia from Ethiopia in 2006. Recently, he had been saying with a friend in Footscray while he studied English at Victoria University. He had been missing for eleven days after being held in police custody overnight. At the scene, the homicide squad determined that the circumstances were not suspicious, and the local police were assigned the investigation.
I began researching this story in mid-August. At the time, the family and the community were expecting the autopsy results within weeks. They did not arrive. By late October, Tamar Hopkins, the principal solicitor at the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, who was acting for the mother, was perplexed. ‘It’s a very, very slow process, but I’m really surprised we haven’t got any medical documents back yet,’ she said at the time. ‘I don’t know what is happening.’
With the help of the Ethiopian consulate, the family had organised an independent autopsy, but those results were also delayed without explanation.
The delays – from the police, the coroner and the independent forensic pathologist – have been viewed with a combination of disbelief and distrust by many people in, and connected with, Melbourne’s African communities.
The detective from the Footscray station assigned to the case has compiled a brief that is well over 500 pages long, but because the matter is before the coroner the police cannot speak about their findings. Based on reports at the time, as well as public comments by the family and police, this much is known.
On 26 June, the night before he went missing, Atakelt was locked up for drunkenness. The police were called to a fight, in which he received a superficial injury around or above his left eye. After being questioned and held for about five hours, Atakelt was released from the Melbourne Custody Centre. His girlfriend, Elsa Giday, saw him and then he disappeared.
In the days that followed, his mother called and then visited the Footscray police station several times, but her request to file a missing person report was not successful until 6 July. The next day, the police called Tella in to inform her that her son’s body had been found. It is normal protocol for police to visit the next of kin at their home. Seyoum was at work as a security guard in the Collingwood public housing estate when, at about 7:40 pm, some friends arrived to tell him his son was dead.
Fesseha heard word of the body in the river that day. ‘It spread really quickly,’ she explains. ‘The community might be fragmented, but when something like this happens they pull together.
‘The immediate response was that the police have something to do with it. How far, or how much, we don’t know. But the general consensus was that the police had some involvement.’
By coincidence, in the days between Atakelt’s disappearance and the discovery of his body, the Office of Police Integrity (OPI) had released its review of the investigative process for deaths associated with police contact. The report noted that these deaths must be investigated ‘in such a way as to give the public confidence that the circumstances … will be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny’.
Broadly, the OPI endorsed Victoria Police’s approach, which is that the homicide squad investigates, not the local police. But it warned that police must be careful making public statements before investigations are complete, because they invite ‘perceptions of bias’.
In early December, nearly five months after Atakelt’s body was found, Stephen Fontana, the assistant commissioner for the north-west metro region, fronted a public meeting at the North Melbourne Community Centre. It lasted for nearly four hours.
Fontana apologised for the unusual way Tella had been informed of her son’s death and ascribed it to a lapse in judgment. He explained that, while he could not go into detail, there was ‘no evidence to suggest Michael was murdered’ and ‘nothing in this case to suggest that police were involved’. Officers never considered this a death associated with police contact.
‘We have followed exactly the procedures we do for any other death of this nature and we won’t be changing that,’ Fontana said. He had total confidence in the detective from Footscray and in the oversight role of the homicide squad and Victoria Police’s Ethical Standards Department.
But without details, his assurances seemed only to convince the listeners that the investigation had been pre-empted. One by one, men from the Ethiopian-Australian community stood and accused the police of corruption. Some stated flatly that the Footscray police had killed Atakelt.
After about an hour, an articulate man took the microphone. He thanked the police for attending, and his reasonableness made his assertions all the more shocking. ‘The family and the community believe Michael was murdered and dumped in the river,’ he said. ‘Now, who did this, we don’t know. Justice and justice and justice has been mentioned. This investigation must be continued until the murderer has been found.
‘I have been a community worker and community leader. We have been trying to have a good relationship with Footscray police station, but over time it has been getting worse and worse. Why does the police insist that the Footscray police has to investigate?
‘The perception is very important. The community believes the Footscray police will not do the right thing. The fear in the community, I can tell you, is very, very high. They think the police, especially Footscray, are going to finish us; they’re going to kill us. That may not be factual, but the fear is there.’
When the man translated his comments into Amharic, the audience – until then impassive – broke into applause.
What does it mean, I wondered, when an entire community loses faith in the police force? The situation had ignited questions of existence. ‘It’s not just that we’re going to be discriminated against in the way the police exercise their powers,’ Fesseha had told me. ‘It pointed towards something deeper, even more problematic – that a mother could be treated in that way.’
Over 250 people had attended an earlier public meeting, held in July, the week after the body was recovered. At that meeting, too, Fontana and other police officers sat at the front of the hall and responded to questions.
Among the speakers that day were many young men who complained of constant harassment by the police. Atakelt’s friends said that he had been questioned ten times in the month before his disappearance, but that no charges had been laid and that he did not know why he was stopped so often.
I was introduced to one of those men, Hakim Abdulwahab, at the Coroners Court. Another day, we meet at a pub in Fitzroy. He is tall and slender, with close-cropped, tight black curls. He speaks gently, almost swallowing his words. ‘Walking along, you get stopped. Walking with a friend, you get stopped. I ask for my rights, but the police, they don’t care. They fully understand the fact that no Africans can fight police and press charges. So they can do anything, say anything. It’s very hard to afford private lawyers, so African communities, they don’t complain – they complain to each other.’
Abdulwahab is twenty-seven. He was born in Ethiopia and arrived in Australia seven years ago. As our conversation continues, I recognise a sense of resignation, a heaviness that burdens his laconic manner.
‘The police, they are actually building insecurity into the youngest of us. That’s what’s happening now: you see a police, you don’t know what the hell is going to happen to you,’ he says. ‘It makes you feel like shit when you think everyone is equal in this world and you actually run for freedom to here. I’m scared of police, like I’m scared of police back home.’
Just after Atakelt’s death, Abdulwahab was acting as a link between some of the young men – ‘the youngsters’, he calls them – and the older leaders, encouraging friends to come forward if they knew anything, and urging them to be patient.
The situation, he says, could have become violent. ‘In this case, something really crazy nearly happened in the African community – really crazy. We have to calm all the youngsters down. They want to go on strike, they want to yell out. Most youngsters, they are pissed off with police.’
At that time, something crazy was happening in England. In early August, five days of wild riots began after a peaceful protest by the family of Mark Duggan – a twenty-nine-year-old black man who was fatally shot by police in Tottenham – was kept waiting outside a police station after asking to speak to a senior officer.
In a study of the reasons for the unrest, the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics interviewed 270 rioters. Overwhelmingly, they nominated policing and poverty as the two most important causes. One journalist noted that race ‘was never far from the surface of the first-person accounts of rioters. The most acute sense of a longstanding mistrust was among black interviewees.’ Those interviewed were eight times more likely than an average Londoner to have been stopped and searched in the previous year.
In Australia, there is no official data on the frequency or subjects of police stops. But a local report on racialised policing released by three community legal services in 2009, called ‘Boys, you wanna give me some action’, offered a similar caution to the Guardian’s study: ‘policing practices render visible social divisions to do with race and poverty’.
The researchers interviewed thirty young African-Australians from three different regions in Melbourne. Almost all said they had experienced police violence, and the rest knew people who had. The report contained frightening complaints, including two participants who said they had been beaten and dumped by police. The authors concluded that over-policing was ‘a central feature of the young interviewees’ lives’.
A number of social workers and lawyers in Melbourne’s west told me similar stories. Chantelle Higgs, who worked for many years in Braybrook with young men from refugee backgrounds, says few people trust the police complaints systems, the Ethical Standards Department and the OPI.
‘I tried to help young people voice their concerns with the OPI, but there’s never been any follow-up,’ she says. ‘They were far more interested in allegations of corruption than assaults or disproportionate use of force on young people, which tells you that the mechanisms in place for grievances don’t work for marginalised young people and their families.’
Resentment of the Footscray police is not new. ‘My perception, from the work I was doing out there, is that there was a pretty bad culture. Young people would be systematically targeted, and incidents would escalate rather than be diffused, which would further criminalise them,’ Higgs says.
But where community leaders and youth workers witness over-policing, the police speak of over-representation. Assistant Commissioner Fontana has been the police spokesperson for this case, fronting the public and private meetings and doing the media. A member of the force for nearly forty years, he is trim with rosy cheeks and a scrupulously shaved head. He gives the impression of a man who presides over jovial but orderly family barbecues.
When Fontana took over the north-west metro role, he was taken aback by the figures that came across his desk. ‘When I say we have got an over-representation of African-Australian youth involved in certain crimes, I mean we have,’ he tells me. ‘At one stage I could attribute about a third of a certain crime category, a robbery-type crime, to African youth. And that’s a real concern, because the crimes are violent, and it wasn’t just one or two youths committing them, but groups of up to nine or ten youths at a time committing a crime on a person.’
In this context, he says, questioning young African men is not racism – it’s just part of routine policing. ‘Part of our job is just to talk to people and it’s not about them having done something wrong. It isn’t to target anyone; it’s about knowing who lives in the area or what they’re doing.’
After Atakelt’s death, a strange story was circulating about an Italian man who had lured several young African-Australian men into his car with the promise of cash-in-hand work at the Victoria Market, only to drug them, drive them to the Maribyrnong River and attempt to sexually assault them. It was said that the police hadn’t bothered to investigate the victims’ complaints.
But when the police tracked through their records, they found the matter was several years old. ‘We fully investigated and we’d actually charged the person responsible. However, it didn’t go ahead because the victims subsequently withdrew their statements,’ Fontana says. ‘But it is still going around the community that nothing was being done. It presents a challenge for us – how do we keep those lines of communication open?’
Abdulwahab, however, says he has spoken with several people who had encountered the Italian man, and he claims the man is still loitering. He won’t make a formal statement. ‘I wouldn’t report anything that happens,’ he told me. ‘What for?’
Despite his leadership when Atakelt died, Abdulwahab concluded that the community meeting was a waste of time: emotionally painful, for no result. Shortly afterwards, a good friend committed suicide. Abdulwahab withdrew from his youth work diploma. He did not bother attending the second meeting, in December. He’d been trying to put me in touch with other young people in the community, but then he, too, stopped answering my calls.
This has become a story about a community’s right to exist – its need to understand and to be understood – but it is also a story of grief. Tella’s lawyer explained that she did not feel able to talk about her son. She and Seyoum are divorced; Atakelt had refused to see his father.
After several months working on this story, I know little about Atakelt; my attempts to meet his friends have amounted to unanswered calls and long, fruitless waits in strange locations. I don’t know how he lived, what he loved, or what, if anything, he feared. Often, I refrain from asking: it is too soon. Sometimes in my notes I wrote only his initials, because it felt inappropriate to use the full name of this man I never knew.
But in the public meetings and private discussions that have followed Atakelt’s death, people have spoken with renewed urgency about the struggles of living here – not only policing, but also the broader challenges of settlement, which are similar for many migrant groups: learning English and finding work; bridging the gulf between societies and generations; coping with shifting gender roles and, very often, family breakdown.
One social worker told me I should write about something else. ‘This will turn out to be another negative news story about “Africans”,’ she said. ‘Why doesn’t anyone write positive news stories?’
And yet, within all this sadness and misunderstanding, I do encounter fragments of good news. One spring day, in torrential, tropical rain, I ride to the City of Melbourne’s Multicultural Hub for a forum on racial profiling coordinated by IMARA Advocacy. Fesseha, who was so forthright and articulate when we spoke one on one, freezes at the prospect of standing before a small group of peers. The day is split into sessions on media, community issues and policy reforms. Most of the two dozen attendees straggle in late. As with any activist group, the meeting ends with a plea for involvement – for help making a short video and preparing materials. On the flyer, Fesseha and others had written that they want to foster the ‘emergence of a new generation of African-Australian leaders’. It was time to be heard, they said. ‘Spread it through the grapevine; we’re conscious.’
Another day I catch the train to Sunshine and meet Girma Seid, a social worker with the Centre for Multicultural Youth. For the last two and a half years, he has been running the Brimbank Young Men’s Project which works with people who arrived here as teenagers, like Atakelt did, and who have since become lost: young men who have walked out on family and school, can’t get work and clash often with police.
Instead of waiting for these men to come into the service, Seid went out and sat with them in the park. ‘I was not welcome the first day I went – or the second or the third for that matter – but in time, if you show them you’re trying to do something, they listen,’ he says, and breaks into a smile. ‘They’re really good boys, to be honest.’
Seid moved here fifteen years ago, but he was an adult when he arrived and already spoke English. ‘Resettlement is not easy, but for the young people, there is a double strike,’ he says. ‘When they come, they are very, very ambitious to pursue their education, get a good job and have that dream life, because this is Australia. When the reality kicks in, that is when they come to a stop.’
Negotiating the family’s demands to uphold tradition, as well as the need to be part of Australian society, he says, is like being pushed and pulled ‘between two oceans’. The evaluation of Seid’s project, after two years, had been encouraging: he has been in contact with fifty men over that time, and many have begun to re-engage with society, in some way. This year, he will focus on employment.
Fontana also wants to make change. He has a list, pages long, of issues that have arisen from the public meetings, beginning with the need for an information kit for new communities and the formation of a trusted advocacy body that could bring complaints to the police.
As part of the young men’s project, Seid held joint camps with the police, including role-plays, with ‘police officers acting like young people and young people acting like police’. Many community workers argue that these kinds of engagement activities worsen over-policing, by adding another layer of contact and surveillance. But Seid says the camps have formed ‘a kind of bridge’ between participants.
‘Since then, from what we hear, there have been no incidents in the Footscray area between the police and the young people involved. Actually, the police have become friendly and the boys feel treated well, respected. You see that tension decreasing – it’s a slow process but we can see a significant change.’
In early January I meet with Seyoum again, at the restaurant in Footscray. There are men lined up at the counter, drinking short, sweet coffees and speaking in Amharic. The walls are orange and there is a neon blue mosquito lamp in the centre of the ceiling.
Seyoum is clean-shaven and he looks several years younger. ‘It is for the new year,’ he explains, ‘for a better year’. His presence is lighter than on previous occasions. I recall him at the second public meeting, when he wore sunglasses as he spoke and appeared unhinged by grief. He had received the coroner’s autopsy only two days earlier, which, after a five-month delay, had finally revealed drowning as the cause of death. He rejected the finding and described in terrible detail the wounds he had seen on his son’s body, speaking words such as ‘corpse’ and ‘inner flesh’ and ‘pocked’ and ‘pus’. Sitting one row behind, Tella had closed her eyes and held her head in her hands.
In the restaurant, Seyoum’s friend, who is a taxi driver, joins us. When he learns I’m a journalist, he shows me photos of Atakelt’s dead body on his mobile phone, images taken the day before the funeral. I’ve seen these photos once before, on the day of the coroner’s directions hearing, but it’s no less shocking the second time. A tremor takes hold of my limbs, momentarily. I have to look away and then I look back and my mind goes blank, except for the knowledge that someone has died, someone’s son, a young man, and for a moment the air inside seems thicker than water.
‘How can they say straight away there is no suspicious circumstances?’ Seyoum asks. ‘Is the water a knife? Or is it a shark’s bite? If they had said, okay, we are investigating, I would be happy.’
The friend puts his phone away and begins telling stories about police racism instead: the time he reported a crime – he’d seen some young black men throwing a bottle through a window – and the cops asked if he had sent them to throw the bottle. ‘Why? Because I’m black and they’re black?’ he says incredulously. ‘Why?’ Or the time when he tried to report some of his passengers, and the police fined him instead. He’s outraged by these encounters, of course, but he’s learned to accept them. He diagnoses the situation: ‘The young ones, those who grew up here, or went to school here, they learnt that everyone is equal, and they swallowed it,’ he tells me. ‘That’s the problem.’
The weight has descended on Seyoum again, but he is a moderate man. In Ethiopia he had been a civil engineer and then, for a time, an intelligence officer. His father was a judge. ‘I am not after the killers. I’m not after anyone. I just want to know the truth,’ he says. ‘I cannot bring my son back, but he should be the last. He wasn’t the first, but he should be the last.’
There is another photo of Michael Atakelt on the internet. It is the one that accompanies each article in the Maribyrnong Leader. He looks fit and strong and full of attitude; his earphones hang from the neck of his green t-shirt and a red cap is slung way back on his head. The photographer snapped him mid-gesture, making a v-sign with the index and middle fingers of his right hand.
For now, it is not possible to speculate on why or how Michael Atakelt died, but only to hope that there are answers, and that those answers will be understood.
Follow this link to see the article in Overland. An edited extract of this story was published in The Age. Here is another short piece I wrote about the Coroner’s directions hearing and a news story about the hearing itself in February 2013.