Treasure of the Month, Fryer Library
from the special collections of the Fryer Library
The Yussef (Hijacker) Manuscript

Oodgeroo Noonuccal Collection (UQFL84)

As BOAC Flight 70 from London sat on the tarmac at Dubai airport, some passengers disembarked to stretch their legs. Renowned Australian poet and Aboriginal leader,
Kath Walker, opted to stay on board, hoping for some sleep.

It was 21 November 1974. Walker was returning to Australia, having been in Nigeria for a steering committee meeting of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. She was accompanied by another Aboriginal Australian, John Moriarty, and Chris McGuigan, advisor to the Aboriginal Council for the Arts.

At Dubai, Moriarty and McGuigan waited in the terminal for the flight to resume. Twenty three passengers, Walker included, stayed on board. A few of these travellers saw what happened next through the plane’s windows. Walker, by now asleep, did not. She became aware something unusual was afoot only when she woke to find herself staring down the barrel of an automatic revolver.

Flight 70 had been stormed by two men, supporters of the Palestinian liberation struggle. The plane was under their control by the time Walker was fully awake. "Is this a hijack?," she asked the one brandishing the gun at her. He didn’t answer for, as she later learned, he spoke little or no English. Walker was herded with the rest of the passengers into the middle section of the cabin. Shots suddenly rang out, and on the tarmac outside a flight attendant slumped to the ground wounded.

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 Kath Walker. King George Square, March 1975

As the captives cowered in their seats, a third man, later discovered to be an airport catering worker abducted for use as a translator, asked each of the passengers their nationality. Walker was asked if she was Indian or Pakistani. The man was astounded to learn she was an Australian Aborigine. She took the opportunity to tell him she was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but believed hijackings would not further it. He and his associates, she counselled, would be better served working for the World Black Festival of Arts.

The plane eventually departed Dubai and landed in Tripoli in the early hours of 22 November. Negotiations began with local French authorities for the release of hostages in exchange for the freedom of Palestinian guerrillas gaoled in Holland and Egypt. After half a day stifling on the tarmac at Tripoli, with rations down to two biscuits and a small cup of water every two hours, the plane flew on to Tunis. The Tunisians would prove more receptive mediators than the French, although not before the hijackers had taken the drastic step of executing a hostage. A German passenger was selected, taken to the rear of the cabin and shot dead, his body pushed out the hatchway.

The Dutch agreed to release their two prisoners and the Egyptians turned over five. The hijackers eventually freed their hostages in three waves: Indian, Pakistani and Malaysian nationals first, followed by holders of British passports (Walker included) and, finally, the BOAC flight crew. On 24 November Walker gathered her belongings, slithered down a rope to the ground and was whisked away in a Black Maria, a vehicle familiar to her as the prisoner transport of choice of the Queensland police force. Despite her ordeal, the irony was not lost.

During her grim days of captivity, Walker tried to understand her experience and the circumstances and motivations of her captors. She learned their leader, Yusuf, had abandoned a career as a pediatrician to take up arms for a free Palestine. In typical fashion she turned to poetry to express her thoughts, using a blunt pencil, paper scraps and a BOAC sickbag in the seat pocket in front of her. She wrote two poems, ‘Commonplace’ and ‘Yusuf (Hijacker)’, both of which were later retrieved and returned to her by the airline. They are now in the Oodgeroo Noonuccal collection (UQFL84) in Fryer Library.

The sickbag manuscript of ‘Yusuf’ is Fryer’s Treasure of the Month and is on display during September in the Fryer Library reading room. To our knowledge, it is Australia’s only literary work created on a sickbag at the point of a gun.1

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1. The Times, 22-26 Nov 1974; The account of Kath Walker’s experience of the hijacking is drawn from Kathie Cochrane, Oodgeroo, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1994
Dr Jeff Rickertt, Fryer Library, 2009