Melbourne Writers Festival: The Mighty Pen

FOR Tom Bamforth, being at the centre of an earthquake changed his life.

Travelling the world is one of life's greatest pleasures. But while we live in what has been called "the lucky country", the culture and living differences of some of the world's poorest countries can sometimes come as quite a shock to Australian tourists.

In 2005 this tourist was Bamforth. He was travelling in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, touring the archeological remains of the Graeco-Buddhist civilisation. Although it wasn't the monuments left behind from Alexander the Great's armies that compelled him to stay on in the country as much as it was a natural disaster that left him with a yearning to help.

Tom Bamforth was thrust into aid work when he was in Pakistan during an earthquake. Picture: Supplied.

Tom Bamforth was thrust into aid work when he was in Pakistan during an earthquake. Picture: Supplied.

"One day, as I left for another day's exploring, there was a terrible earthquake which left three million people homeless and nearly 80,000 dead across the Himalaya and Karakorum mountain ranges," he said.

"I went back to the capital, Islamabad, and volunteered for a local charity loading trucks.

"Soon after this I was offered job with an international aid agency helping to coordinate the aid relief in the areas where only a few weeks before, I'd been a tourist and I stayed for another two years."

His initial thoughts about aid work was that it was very tough, incredibly sad and inspiring simultaneously.

"I first started working in a collapsed primary school and it was extremely cold and there were constant aftershocks which meant that during the nights I would run out of my room every time I felt one and didn't sleep much," he said.

"There was a lot of chaos and confusion as aid agencies poured in and tried to get the relief operation going and the work was endless.

"But it was inspiring too - everyone was there for a single purpose and people and resources poured in.

"I remember one day feeling that we weren't moving fast enough and went outside to see hundreds of helicopters flying into the mountains to deliver aid to remote villages.

"Despite the problems - the weather, the logistics, the personalities, and the scale of the disaster the response mobilised fast and at a scale I'd never seen before."

Bamford went on to work in Sudan's Darfur states leading refugee convoys from Chad into Sudan and help during some of the world's biggest natural disasters, writing about his experiences of humanitarian work and giving the untold stories of people involved in humanitarian projects a voice.

Much like Bamford, Mark Isaacs also fell into humanitarian work which turned into an addictive passion to make a difference addiction for achievement.

"I was writing social justice articles as an intern for Oxfam when I became impassioned by the asylum seeker debate," he said.

"My writing on the asylum seeker issue led to a friend of mine suggesting I apply for a position with the Salvation Army in Nauru working with asylum seekers.

"While I had often day-dreamed of being a humanitarian worker in far off lands, I had never pursued it as a career and this opportunity appeared as a golden ticket to a career in humanitarian aid and an opportunity to work with a group of people I was passionate about helping."

Isaacs initial views on humanitarian work were naive and idealised, and he saw the four weeks working for the Salvation Army in Nauru as a story to tell his readers.

But this all changed when he was confronted by the realities of the camp.

"Initially I was addicted to the role. I found the stories of the men intriguing. I learnt about their countries, their culture. Everything was new, exciting, even the horrible moments.

"I didn't want to miss anything that happened in the camp and hated being away from it.

"The work soon became stressful and oppressive. Living conditions weren't ideal and I became exhausted by the monotony of the camp and the inability to help the men with their most pressing desire; to leave.

"The reason I continued to stay on in these conditions was for the men. The thought of leaving them behind in that camp kept me working in Nauru for eight months."

Isaacs saw a need to provide the men with an opportunity to entertain themselves and begun assisting them in organising sporting and music events.

"I also believed the men needed to be free of the confines of the camp for at least an hour every few days so I began organising excursions out of the camp," he said.

"My final achievement as a recreations manager was the establishing of an oceans program that had the men swimming in the ocean every day. It took seven months of negotiating but it eventually existed."

His time in Nauru didn't come without horrible stories and this became his inspiration for this book which looks at the realities of offshore detention centres.

"I wanted to open a window into the dark and mysterious world of offshore detention, and I hoped to give the Australian public an insight into the realities of a deterrence policy," he said.

"On a larger scale, regarding the Australian public and media perception of asylum seekers, and federal politics' attitude towards asylum seekers, I believe we are playing the long game and just like any movement towards equality and the defending of human rights it will take time to make the changes I believe are necessary."

Both men will discuss their work and their books at this year's Melbourne Writer's Festival at Ballarat's Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka.

"I think that there needs to be a greater discussion and understanding of aid and development and the complex inter-relationship between Australia and the 'developing' world," Bamforth said.

"At the moment, for example, much of our news and information about other places only comes to us when there is a crisis but it doesn't really go into what this means and the deeper social, political and environmental issues that lie behind these events."

"I hope that by presenting these two sides of the story it will help to show how and why things should be different."

Editor of The Courier, Andrew Eales, will join Bamforth and Isaacs in conversation at the Melbourne Writer's Festival: Aid Workers at M.A.D.E and said the session is set to bring to light the importance of discussion around aid workers and hopefully provoke further debate among the community.

"It's important to bring up these discussions," he said.

"We need it as a community to expand our boundaries and to embrace the views and experiences of those who live outside our community.

"This is a great opportunity for people to get involved, I'm intrigued to hear what Ballarat thinks of the issue."

With a variety of topics up for discussion at this year's Melbourne Writer's Festival at M.A.D.E, conversation, and intellectual debate will be at the heart of this two day event.

Budding writers, readers and thinkers will have the chance to hear from talented writers around the nation with opportunities to ask the tough questions.

Bamforth and Isaacs will be joined by former Greens leader Bob Brown and the likes of Anne Crawford, Garry Muratore, Jackie French, David Hunt and Clare Wright who will all present during the festival which takes place at M.A.D.E from August 23 to 24.