Twenty years ago this month, Salvation Army officer Nesan Kistan’s life changed forever when Martin Bryant entered the Broad Arrow Cafe. But, as he tells Bruce Redman, that’s just part of the story.
The echo of the gunshots of the Port Arthur massacre 20 years ago reverberates down the decades and has touched so much of his and his family’s lives, but Nesan Kistan refuses to be defined by the tragedy that took his heroic father’s life.
‘The emotions are always there throughout so much of my life,’ says Nesan. ‘I’ve just learned how to cope with it. Twenty years is a long time, but the grief never goes away, so you never, ever forget what took place…the impact of those emotions at the time and since.’
Nesan Kistan is a Sydney-based Salvation Army officer with a passion to help marginalised people. In his current role as multicultural director he helps Salvos engage more effectively within culturally and ethnically diverse communities.
His own experience of migrating to Australia from South Africa assists his work immensely. As does the empathy that emanates from the personal trauma he experienced when Martin Bryant entered the Broad Arrow Cafe in Port Arthur with an arsenal of artillery and murdered his father in cold blood.
On the quiet Sunday afternoon of 28 April in 1996, Nesan’s 51-year-old father Tony and his mother Sarah were enjoying a day trip to Port Arthur as part of a well-earned holiday in Tasmania.
When Martin Bryant pulled out a semi-automatic rifle in the cafe and started shooting erratically, Tony pushed Sarah out of the doorway they were sitting near. He then came back into the cafe in an attempt to disarm Bryant, only to be fatally shot along with 34 others that day. Tony received a posthumous bravery award for his actions.
Nesan explains that his father was always a brave man: ‘He fought valiantly against apartheid in South Africa where challenges were enormous and where he put his own life at risk on more than one occasion. To make such a brave move at 30 years of age, to leave his wider family and travel to an unknown place [Australia] with unknown people and circumstances, well, that was also an act of courage. I’m not far off his age when he died now and his heroism heightens my sense of what is really important in this life.’
Nesan was watching football on TV that Sunday afternoon when the broadcast was interrupted by a newsflash announcing sketchy details about shootings in Port Arthur. He and his brother Adrian knew their parents were there and, hearing the extent of the deaths and injuries, thought the worst. When the phone rang and someone from Port Arthur confirmed Tony’s death, Nesan’s first thought was for his mother.
‘As for my mother Sarah, her life has been immeasurably damaged. The sadness, the medical conditions she’s suffered…inexplicably her body shut down because of the compounded stress and it sometimes gets to a point where her system goes blank.
‘That is an example of a person who has been severely impacted by high-level trauma. And we live with that and do what we can for her and for her wellbeing.’
Trying to find answers for the questions his own children ask continues to be a challenge for Nesan. He recently watched a TV program with his teenage son that featured the police tapes featuring interviews with Martin Bryant. They were stunned to observe Bryant’s lack of remorse and how he just laughed and smiled sycophantically at the police’s questions.
‘Unfortunately, there is no answer. It makes no sense why it took place there, and there’s no rational explanation. All I can relay to my children is that their grandfather’s act of valour displayed the ultimate of what any Christian would do.
‘We’ve just had Easter and it is interesting that the anniversary of Port Arthur and Easter are so close together, the incredible account of love, of sacrifice and a saviour.
‘That’s what my father did. He unselfishly laid down his life for my mother and for others. That’s a model and a reminder that allows to me teach my children with a very practical example. That’s the real value—that’s why we do what we do. That’s why we get up in the morning and why we engage in this missional pursuit with such passion and vigour because we are driven by those values instilled in our lives.’
In spite of the ongoing grief and unanswered questions Nesan has forgiven Bryant for his actions at Port Arthur. He says it has at times been a harrowing journey but …’I have no resentment or anger towards Martin Bryant. I forgive him completely of all that he has done. But I didn’t forgive Martin Bryant in my own strength; I believe that God gives us the ability to forgive…
‘Port Arthur was a crossroads for me and even now it helps me prioritise what is significant and what’s not. I’m not going to fluff around getting distracted on stuff that isn’t important or significant. Port Arthur fuelled a fire in my spirit. It fuelled an intentionality that life is fragile and that I need to do what God has planned for me. That fuel hasn’t stopped burning.’
As the anniversary draws near there have been many media outlets in contact with the Kistan family requesting that they visit Port Arthur for retrospective pieces, but Nesan has cautiously refused them, perhaps remembering the media circus that erupted in the family’s front yard 20 years ago. Apart from two pre-recorded television appearances, the Kistan family will be keeping a low profile.
‘My brother Adrian and I have talked about it and what may or may not happen. We contact each other to make sure we are okay every year around this time, but we try not to focus on the day as much. It is a day that reminds us of incredible loss and pain, but I’m an optimist by nature. At the end of every day of mourning there is a day of rejoicing. And it is God who turns our mourning into joy and our sorrow into dancing.’
Nesan will be appearing on Channel Seven’s Sunrise and Network Ten’s The Project on 28 April 2016.
For a video interview with Nesan Kistan go to