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20 years on from the Port Arthur Tragedy

27 April 2016

20 years on from the Port Arthur Tragedy

Caption: Lieutenant-Colonel Don Woodland of The Salvation Army in Port Arthur in 1996 (Photo credit: Sun Herald).

This article was first published in 'On the Scene: Winter,' 2006, for the 10th anniversary of the Port Arthur tragedy.

Despite experience in hundreds of emergency and crisis situations, nothing could have prepared The Salvation Army’s Lieutenant-Colonel Don Woodland for the immensity of the tragedy he encountered in Port Arthur, Tasmania, 10 years ago.

A veteran chaplain of the Vietnam War, now retired, Don headed The Salvation Army Trauma Management Team that rushed to the site in response to the Port Arthur shootings. Ten years on, one of his greatest concerns is for the hidden grief so many people carried back into society after Port Arthur.

“There were over 550 people at the Port Arthur site on the day of the shooting. By midday the next day, 90% of them had left the area,” explains Don. Don believes many of these people would have been severely traumatised and yet may not have ever received any support.

Don’s team spent days supporting 18 staff members and grieving families and friends. Many are still in contact with him today. Don says: “When I see their ongoing pain, I cannot imagine the problems faced by people who had no support. Time doesn’t help, time doesn’t make you forget – that’s a fallacy. Every time you talk to these people, it’s like it happened yesterday.”

“You just can’t put into words the agony and despair we witnessed… I can’t say I know what people are going through; I would never dare do that. I have never seen my wife or my best friend shot. I haven’t seen my mother and father gunned down.”

How to keep living when your world falls apart

Salvationists Nesan and Adrian Kistan were 23 and 20 when they lost their father in the Port Arthur shooting tragedy 10 years ago. In one moment, everything in their once stable lives was blown apart, their world forever changed

Their parents Tony and Sarah had been visiting friends in Tasmania and had travelled to Port Arthur for the day. Sitting near the entrance to the Broad Arrow Cafe, Tony saw the first waitress shot. He pushed his wife out of the door, and then doubled back to try to disarm the gunman.

Tony was shot and fatally wounded. His final words to his wife were, “Don’t worry, I’m going to be with the Lord.”

How does any family begin to cope with such a tragedy? How do they begin to make sense of the numbness, the anger and grief?

Nesan Kistan who, together with his wife, now co-pastors a Salvation Army Corps (church) at Auburn in Sydney’s west, says the pain of losing his father was “unbelievable; it was beyond description. That loss is the hardest, most painful thing I have ever had to endure...”

Nesan and his brother Adrian, who also works for The Salvation Army, agree that you never really deal with tragedy, it is just something you can learn to live through. They both attribute their strength to God’s healing power, their family upbringing, Salvation Army counselling and, very importantly, to a fiercely loving and supportive church community.

Nesan says that at one stage his mother became incredibly bitter and angry at God. He explains: “It took a long time and a lot of praying. We prayed for weeks, months. It wasn’t until she returned to Port Arthur for the first anniversary... while she was in her hotel room one night (God) changed the face of Martin Bryant (the convicted gunman) into one of her own sons in her mind. That’s when the Spirit of God said to her, ‘If it was one of your children, would you forgive him?’ Now she has this incredible message of God’s love and forgiveness.”

Nesan says: “Even now in situations, such as working with refugees in Auburn, some of their stories trigger pain in me when I hear of some of their loved ones having been murdered and killed and mutilated.

“This event has changed my whole mindset... I now believe that the only meaning in life is bringing people into a relationship with God... that the most important thing in life is God, because that’s the only place we have any real future.”

Adrian Kistan says: “All through the past 10 years, I’ve thought about my dad’s death.

“When I graduated from university, when I had my 21st birthday, when we got married, had our firstborn (we’re expecting our second child)... and Dad wasn’t there. We’ve made some big decisions – we’re moving out to Moree to work among Indigenous communities – and I often think, ‘I wonder what Dad would think about this?’

“But what tends to happen now is my memories are no longer surrounded by sadness, they are happy memories. I now get to actually control when those memories come into my mind, rather than having them just hit me when I least expect it. I focus on the positives and the good times.

“I hold God to his word, when he says we are more than conquerors and we are overcomers.

“We’re not called to be victims and wallow in self pity. Those promises become real when we step out in faith and live them out. I’ve worked on doing that in my life. That has strengthened me and given me a greater urgency in realising, ‘Hey, life can just come and go so quickly’.”

By Naomi Singlehurst

Media coverage around the anniversary of the Port Arthur tragedy may bring back painful memories or feelings of anxiety for some people. You may wish to make an appointment to talk to someone at The Salvation Army Counselling Service:

  • Sydney: (02) 9743 4535
  • Penrith & Campbelltown: (02) 4731 1554
  • Canberra & Tuggeranong: (02) 6248 5504
  • Brisbane & Brisbane North: (07) 3349 5046
  • Goodna: (07) 3349 5046
  • Gosford: 0418 633 732

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