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One man's journey to despair

Date

Konrad Marshall

Refugee Leo Seemanpillai's journal opens the pages to a gentle, tortured soul.

Remembering Leo: Friends joined 300 mourners at a memorial service for the Tamil refugee who set fire to himself in suburban Geelong.

Remembering Leo: Friends joined 300 mourners at a memorial service for the Tamil refugee who set fire to himself in suburban Geelong. Photo: Justin McManus

In the early hours of last Sunday morning, the bandaged body of Leorsin Seemanpillai lay still on a small bed in the intensive care unit of The Alfred hospital.

Leo, 29, had what are known as ''full thickness'' burns. His internal system was shunting blood and fluid to the affected areas - 90 per cent of his frame - but without strong skin to hold back the flow, his body simply wept.

His friend Aran Mylvaganam was in and out of the hospital room, filling out organ donation forms and talking to those who knew Leo. At 8.30am he and a handful of Tamil men were invited to say goodbye.

Asylum Seeker Leo Seemanpillai's Australian mum Cathie Bond (centre) with Sue Longmore and Veronika Quinton, all from the Queenscliffe Rural Australians for Refugees group.

Asylum Seeker Leo Seemanpillai's Australian mum Cathie Bond (centre) with Sue Longmore and Veronika Quinton, all from the Queenscliffe Rural Australians for Refugees group. Photo: Justin McManus

''He was unconscious. His face was swollen,'' Aran said. ''I don't know how long we stood in silence. But we stood by him, and said goodbye to him, and we walked out.''

The day before, Leo had doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Paramedics were called to the Geelong suburb of Newtown at 11.38am on Saturday.

People had heard his screams and seen ''a ball of fire'' running down the street outside his small orange brick flat. Leo stripped off his burning clothes by the mailboxes. A handful of people gathered around, stunned and staring at this groaning man in his underwear, his hair scorched and skin peeling, until an off-duty nurse approached.

'The loveliest man you ever met': Leo Seemanpillai.

'The loveliest man you ever met': Leo Seemanpillai. Photo: Justin McManus

She took him to a nearby business, sat him on the floor and began soaking towels and wringing them out over his head, pouring bottles of water onto his skin, which was scalded from his scalp to his soles.

Leo fell unconscious then, and died the next day at 9.15am.

Aran, also the spokesman for the Tamil Refugee Council, left the hospital after Leo died and drove straight to the orange brick flat. There they found a Bible, cross and clothes - and a journal. Its pages are an intimate account of torment and transit.

Leo was born in Mannar, in the north-eastern region of Vanni - Tamil territory - but he lived his early life in the coastal village of Pesali. His father was a fisherman.

After an uncle was killed, cousins tortured and the family home burnt to the ground, they fled to India and settled in a refugee camp in Abdullapuram. Leo grew up next to Ramesh ''Robert'' Shanmuganathan, 25, whom he called younger brother.

Knowing that they could not return to Sri Lanka's covert killing fields, and the overt violence of mines, guns and grenades, the two young men paid their way onto a boat in August 2012. They left from Kerala and drifted for days. They ran out of diesel and sprang a leak. They passed by the Cocos Islands and ended up in north Sumatra, enduring months inside the notorious Belawan Detention Centre.

''They dragged us in a room, where they tied our legs and hands,'' Robert said, weeping. ''In front of me they put a stick in his anus, and then they did that to me.''

Later the boys bribed officials, found an agent, flew to Jakarta and then Kendari, and found themselves on another leaky boat headed for Darwin. Not far off the coast, an Australian Navy plane spotted them and circled above.

''Leo looked up at them and said: 'Younger brother, look at the way the Australian authorities care about us','' Robert said. ''He became so hopeful, like he would be saved.''

They reached Darwin on January 3, 2013, went to the Darwin Airport Lodge on January 6, and then the Wickham Point Alternative Place of Detention on January 9.

His journal reveals a simple day-to-day existence there. ''Medical check, open a facebook, mass, new life and total change.''

In April they were transferred to the Yongah Hill Detention Centre, an hour outside of Perth, and continued to hope: ''Attend to the cooking class, attend to the English class, May 7 - come to Melbourne.''

Upon reaching Victoria they moved into a temporary house in the Geelong suburb of Grovedale on the Surf Coast Highway. They were the first handful of Tamil refugees in this community.

Tim Gooden, the secretary of Geelong Trades Hall, organised a dinner to greet them. He was disgusted by local bumper stickers - ''F--- off, we're full'' and ''They came, They saw, They sank'' - and wanted to help.

They found spare coats and bicycles. They took the men to Kmart to buy fishing gear, and showed them the secret spots in Corio Bay. They explained how to pull the mussels off the pylons of the old Yarra Street pier, and cast for flathead and bream out at Limeburners Point.

''Leo was the loveliest, charmingest man you ever met,'' said Gooden. ''He had the most gentle handshake.''

Their first two houses were a short walk from St Paul's Lutheran Church, where Leo and Robert became a fixture - offering to help with gardening, cleaning, assisting the elderly and disabled. ''He could often have this furtive furrowed look, but he could also be cheerful, cheeky even,'' said pastor Tom Pietsche. ''He had an eye for the most vulnerable.''

As an English speaker with the rare right to work, Leo found a job through the church with Asphalt Paving Services - one day a week doing whatever was required. He sent a large chunk of his wage to causes including an orphanage in the refugee camps in India. He gave blood regularly. He refined his English and wrote down the difference between ''g'day'' and ''see ya''.

There were small pleasures, too. A trip to a railway museum. His first meal at McDonald's. He wrote about his hopes for the future: ''I hope to find … work as a social work. I hope to help … in orphans in sri lanka. I hope to enjoy … the peace and quiet.''

But his written responses to the question ''How are you?'' were darker: ''I am not bad, I am sick, I am lonely.''

He wrote notes about visits to doctors and counsellors. He wrote reminders to take his Olanzapine (an anti-psychotic) and Fluoxetine (an anti-depressant). In September, he detailed part of one bad week:

''Thursday - I have no sleeping

Friday - bad dreams, darkness

Saturday - I sleep 3 hours

Sunday - my birthday''.

The new Coalition government was in power by then, and Leo would call refugee advocates, asking if he would be sent back. In October he learnt what Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had told the country: ''Anyone who may have come from Sri Lanka should know that they will go back to Sri Lanka.''

The journal entries undulate then between determination and despair - between ''If I'm deported back, torture is certain because I'm a Tamil'' and ''In the midst of rejection stand tall. Life is hope.''

Over summer into 2014 he struggled. In February he checked into a mental health facility and, while there, he tried to hang himself with a towel. In March he moved into a flat above the Barwon River, and chose the small back room because it had the best natural light.

''He was afraid of the night,'' said Cathie Bond, a volunteer and de facto mum to Leo. ''I gave him my grandson's little night light. He said it was like a shiny moon.''

Leo fretted about his fate, and joined Amnesty International and the Australian Red Cross believing membership could somehow help him stay. He went to church on Good Friday and kissed the Holy Cross: ''I asked Jesus to bless me, and to bring a resolution to my past struggles and to not have any more struggles in the future.''

Robert moved north to look for better work at an abattoir in Rockhampton. Leo would call him from Geelong to ask plaintive questions: ''Younger brother, why are we being punished?'' ''Younger brother, we have always been refugees - when will we be no longer?''

Outwardly Leo was upbeat, visiting friends and calling people. The day before he died they said he sounded ''happy'', ''brighter'' and ''more alert than he had in a long time''.

People shared these sentiments in the days after Leo took his own life, at vigils in Queenscliff and Melbourne, and an ecumenical memorial service this week in Geelong, attended by 300 people.

The Australian government offered to repatriate Leo's body, but his family would prefer a Victorian burial. They will only be allowed to attend if they hold a valid visa.

A natural action for many who knew Leo is blame. Cathie Bond reserves her anger for the hardened and continuing government policy of shunning and shaming those who seek refuge in this country.

''You just listen to the people calling in on talkback saying, 'Well, it's working - we're stopping the boats, aren't we?' But at what cost? What shameful price have we paid?''

Others understand that for all the wretched uncertainty of the asylum seeker existence, Leo had private demons. He was as strong and determined as he was sensitive and fragile.

Two days before he died, Leo helped a friend pack for a trip. As always, he made dinner with his rice cooker and steeped the tea.

As Leo was putting clothes into a bag he accidentally knocked something from a shelf - a delicate tile with an ornate butterfly on a turquoise background.

The crystal keepsake was meant to symbolise the freedom he sought. It was a gift intended to inspire him to stay hopeful and to take comfort in others.

Leo watched it fall to the floor and shatter. In that moment he paused, turned, and laughed it off. He embraced his friend a long-held hug, for the last time.

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