It's just great to be back home

'I was scared - there's no denying that'

Last updated 12:00 04/01/2014
David Haussmann with his partner Sarah Watson and their his son Theo Haussmann
REUNITED: David Haussmann with his partner Sarah Watson and their his son Theo Haussmann, 3 at their Nelson home.

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After being held four months against his will in Russia, it's surreal to be back in Nelson, says engineer David Haussmann. Tracy Neal reports.

David Haussmann remains dedicated to the environmental cause, but he doubts he would be willing to risk protesting near Russian turf again.

The Nelson electrical engineer, who arrived back home last Sunday from four months detained in Russia with 27 other Greenpeace activists and two journalists, said he would not expose himself to the same risk again.

"I have obligations and commitments at home. We're environmentalists and always will be, but there are many different avenues for expressing that," Mr Haussmann said at home in north Nelson yesterday.

His 3-year-old son Theo and eight months pregnant partner Sarah Watson were clearly relieved to have him back in time for the arrival of the fourth member of the family. Ms Watson was only three months pregnant when Mr Haussmann left to join the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise in Amsterdam on July 20 last year, on the campaign that took the crew to the Barents Sea on a protest against Arctic drilling. Neither envisaged his absence would be two months longer than planned, but they are grateful it was years shorter than it might have been.

Mr Haussmann and fellow Kiwi Jonathan Beauchamp were among the "Arctic 30" arrested in September and initially charged with piracy after the ship approached an oil platform owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom, despite orders from the Russians not to do so.

Russian Border Guard Service agents rappelled down ropes from a helicopter on to the deck of the ship, which was then towed to a port near Murmansk.

Those on board were initially charge with piracy, which carries a maximum 15-year sentence. The charge was later reduced to hooliganism, which carries a seven-year jail sentence. The Russian parliament recently voted for an amnesty for those charged with hooliganism, which left the New Zealanders free to return home.

It was not a situation that Reefton-born electrician Mr Haussmann could have ever envisaged. In the early 1990s he moved to Nelson from Rangiora, where he grew up and went to school. He went into self-employment, and he contracted maintenance tasks to commercial boat firms and to Nelson Hospital.

His introduction to Greenpeace came about in 2001 through two men he met while paragliding. They turned out to be crew from the Rainbow Warrior II, which at the time was in Nelson.

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"When they were due to leave they invited me to join them on the ship. I didn't think I had anything of value to offer Greenpeace - I didn't think the skills I had were worthy of it, but it was the start of a long and beautiful relationship."

It was where he met Ms Watson, who has also had a long association with Greenpeace.

"We were friends for a few years, we admired the values each other had and eventually we decided we were well matched," Mr Haussmann said.

The news from Russia in recent weeks that he was coming home was the first time Ms Watson allowed herself to cry. The stress beforehand was clearly evident.

"A month to go I was beginning to think that I was going to have to cope, but I'm now wondering how I would have done it. I was preparing for the situation."

Mr Haussmann said the seriousness of their circumstances only became apparent when they were presented with charge sheets.

"I was scared - there's no denying that.

"Those first few weeks of detention we were charged with piracy and realised that was a maximum 15 years. That was scary doing the arithmetic; Theo's 3, and the baby is on the way. We just didn't know what would happen, the way the justice system works anything was on the cards. The charges were so absurd and so bizarre."

Mr Haussmann said all the Arctic 30 had different ways of dealing with what was a challenging, and degrading situation, initially in the Murmansk pre-trial detention centre and then later in St Petersburg to where they were shifted for further court appearances, eventually bailed, and then freed to return home.

Russia was not entirely foreign to Mr Haussmann, who has been there before, but he doubts he will ever eat fish cooked a certain way again.

Cabbage and borscht soup were staples, with "small fish all rolled into one".

"I was hungry at first, but it was a matter of having to eat what was put before you. You had to survive the circumstances you were in."

It was also cold, and the cell he shared with a Russian had no running hot or cold water and a single toilet in the centre.

He stayed in the clothes he was wearing when arrested for a week, without being able to wash them.

Mr Haussmann said he was shocked at the impact that loss of freedom had on him and others. The crew were held in isolation from one another in Murmansk.

"Not having the ability to hold a conversation with someone is very hard."

He said it was not unlike being a caged animal in a zoo.

"You see them pacing back and forth and that's what it's like. You don't get to decide when you can open that door and get some exercise, when you can get something to eat or what you want to eat, or when you can get something to drink.

"Everything is out of your control. You're at the mercy of a system you can't understand, and you can't speak the language. It was a huge thing."

Lights were on in the cells, day and night, and there were no clocks anywhere, he said.

"It was like being treated like an animal but I decided I would not behave like one. I didn't want it to get the better of me. I wanted to maintain some sort of dignity."

Everyone had a different breaking point, Mr Haussmann said.

"We all had our moments, whether you internalised it or externalised it. There were things like promised calls to family that didn't happen and you could hear them getting upset about that.

"Sometimes when we went to the exercise pens and you could shout brief messages over the wall and you'd know some weren't coping as well as others."

Mr Haussmann said being back was "surreal".

"I'm still sitting here trying to look back and remember how I felt at various times. To recreate that from here is hard."

He felt "terrible guilt" at what he was putting others through. Mr Haussmann did not think there was a need to change the method of protest.

"It's the same method that's been used for over 40 years - bearing witness, which is one of the oldest forms of bringing unjust things to light.

"It's really important to protect the right to peaceful protest. If we don't have that, companies and governments portray what they like to the public."

Mr Haussmann remains on the Greenpeace payroll, but the contract with the Arctic Sunrise has expired. The vessel remains impounded in Murmansk while the investigation continues, the organisation said recently.

Mr Haussmann's tools and computer remained on the ship, but he was hoping they would be retrieved soon, so he could begin re-establishing work in Nelson. He also holds an inshore launchmasters ticket, and was considering his options in that field of work.

He said he had grown from the experience, and had learned to worry less about life's minutiae.

"There's plenty that's inconsequential," he said.

tracyn@nelsonmail.co.nz

- © Fairfax NZ News

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