Politics

Men Of Manus: The Stories Of The Refugees We Have Left Behind

"I don’t want to die here."

My students ask me about the men left behind on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea by the Australian government. They ask me if this is even legal. They ask me how our politicians can be so cruel.

I’m a high school teacher, and in any other circumstance I would be delighted that my students are engaged and want to ask questions.

But I don’t have answers for them. I can see that most of my students – whether they read News Corp or The Guardian, or are completely removed from the news altogether – are shocked. They’re not just sad, they seem to be grieving. Perhaps they grieve their own innocence, or that of the men stuck in limbo. The people who would like to move on, but are out of options.

“I Was A Victim Of Taliban Terrorists”

One day, after class, I saw that I had a new direct message on Twitter. It was from Ezatullah Kakar, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan, who told me how glad he was that families in Australia are supporting those trapped on Manus. He said that they are in such a bad situation, that they need energy from us.

When I reply, Ezatullah refers to the way that the government is “playing with our lives” and provides some context and background to his story. He arrived in Australia in August 2013 and “was taken by force to Manus on September 7, 2013.”

He was assessed as a genuine refugee over three years ago. “I have a family in Pakistan,” he told me. “I was unable to remain in Pakistan because it was not safe for me. I left my family and my country because I was a victim of Taliban terrorists. I just wanted somewhere safe to live where I could be free. I was told Australia was a safe place where refugees were welcome. But the Australian government policy of indefinite detention has trapped me on Manus for more than four years.”

Media narratives about refugees often focus on their struggles with political and religious ideologies in their home countries. We rarely hear about education, careers and long-term goals.

I am intrigued when Ezatullah tells me, “I am a professional sportsman. I was a silver medallist in Kickboxing and MMA (mixed martial arts) in 2012.  Until the gym at the Manus detention centre was taken away, I trained every day and trained other refugees there. I have not given up on my dream to be a world champion.”

Australia Is Ignoring Its Responsibility

My first two conversations with Ezatullah take place in the days leading up to the closure of the Manus Island RPC (Regional Processing Centre) at Lombrum.

In the lead up to the RPC’s closing date, Ezatullah tells me, “the government of Australia has told the world, including the United Nations, that we are the responsibility of Papua New Guinea. The government of PNG tells the world that we are Australia’s responsibility…Many of us applied to go to the USA. But so far only 24 have gone from Manus. Some of us want to go to New Zealand because their government made an offer to us but the Australian government said no. Australia said we could not do that, but if we are not Australia’s responsibility, why does Australia interfere?”

He went on to talk about the amount of money Australia spends on each refugee in offshore detention. “Why would Australia do that if we are the responsibility of PNG?”

According to Ezatullah, “the boats have not stopped. The boats are being caught and towed out to sea! Nobody knows or cares what happens to the refugees in them. But Australia tells the world that the boats have stopped. So if that was true and the boats have stopped, why are we still here?”

I ask him if there is a specific message he wants to pass on to the outside world.

“Some people don’t like us because they are weak people…I just want to say please never be racist, never hate anybody, just keep love in your hearts and keep love for other people and you will never hurt in your life. Just make clear your heart and your life will be beautiful.

“I don’t want trouble, I came for safety. I am in a bad situation for the last 1540 days but I didn’t feel hate for anybody in this bad situation. I still love all the world’s people, I will keep love forever in my heart…Guys, we need your support. Save our lives. The government doesn’t care because they are playing with our lives. I lost six friends in the hell that is Manus detention centre. I am still missing them, but please save my life.

“I don’t want to die here, I want to give my love to all the world’s people. I would like to teach children positive and respectful ways. I have a dream to teach all children how to respect families, how to love people, how to keep positive in life…Please don’t hate us, we need your love. We don’t have any family members here. We are not bad people, we are a good people. The Australian government is torturing us, they just want to destroy our life, we are human beings, we have families like yours, please change our life.”

“Why Are We Being Treated Worse Than Sick Animals?”

“Many, many of my friends on Manus are sick. Mentally sick. Those people were not mentally sick when they arrived on Manus. They have become sick because they have seen so many terrible things happen to their friends in the camp. They have seen their friends try to kill themselves, and some of their friends have succeeded… Many are also sick with many different illnesses. Why are we being treated worse than sick animals?

“I had an operation on my knee last year but on the day I was discharged from hospital, immigration told me I would not receive any physiotherapy or rehabilitation for my knee. That was unfair. If I knew before that, I would not have had the operation. My knee is now very painful and weak. Australia said International Health and Medical Service (IHMS) would make sure I got good treatment on Manus. But IHMS did nothing else for me. Only Panadol.

“The Manus people were told lies about us. We were told lies about the Manus people. The Manus people cannot take us into their community because there is no work, nowhere for us to live, and we do not have a Wantok culture. We do not belong in PNG. I would never have asked to go to PNG.”

Ezatullah goes on to describe the condition at the detention centre. “This year, on Good Friday, the PNG navy and local people attacked the detention centre. They shot at us, more than 100 bullets. We were also attacked with rocks. Nobody was killed. But we remembered another time the local people attacked us in February 2014 and one of our dear friends, Reza, was murdered. Many of us were injured in that attack. I was hit by a large rock but I did not have any broken bones. It made us very stressed and we have fear every day in the camp.

“We have been attacked by the guards. We do not have names. We are spoken to by our ID which is our boat number. Some of us have forgotten our own names, or when we were born, or how old we are.

We are treated worse than criminals in Australia’s prisons. Our food is sometimes too horrible to eat. The only times we get good food is when the UN comes to look at the camp. We get no healthy food. Many times the food is expired, like the milk.

“In the past three months we have had everything taken from us. No case workers, no gym, no language classes, no electricity…the rest of the camp is being pulled down around us… Many refugees did not smoke when they came to Manus but they became addicted to cigarettes and now they have been stopped from receiving them. This is a torture for them. Now we have nothing. The food is less and less. This is all being done to us to force us to go to the East Lorengau transit centre. It is not safe there. We do not want to go there.”

As it gets closer to the October 31, the date that the detention centre is due to close, I explain to Ezatullah that I hadn’t replied sooner to his messages as I am quite ill. I feel guilty even mentioning my own health, while he is going through such a horrific experience.

Ezatullah replies, “Good morning, dear Roz. I am worried about you and your health. You are sick, please don’t worry about me. I am strong, everything will change soon. Everything will be okay.” Even in such trying times, I notice that Ezatullah is more concerned about me and my wellbeing than his own.

On October 30, I hear from Ezatullah who says that immigration “will cut the power and water…no one is sleeping. Everybody is scared because of PNG navy and police, but no one wants to leave this camp. The locals don’t want us there.”

On November 1, I send a follow up message to Ezatullah, concerned about him and the other men. He replies, “Everything is going bad. Many of my friends are sick.”

On November 3, he seems a lot happier. “I am okay, thank you so much. Did you read today’s newspaper?” He tells me that he brought more food over that day. “I did a good job, I am happy.”

When I look online, I find this article about Ezatullah and other refugees launching a raid to secure supplies. I’m happy for Ezatullah, but also terrified for him and the others.

Samad’s Story

Ezatullah puts me in contact with Samad Abdul, a 27-year-old man also from Pakistan. Samad agrees to write a piece for me to share.

Days are like years.
Nights are like not ending.
Life is complicated.

We are dead inside. Our bodies are so lazy to move. Our dreams have been taken. Our hopes have been taken. The only thing we have is just breathing and still being alive.

My happiness was taken, my hope was taken, I was locked up. I live in the tents under hot sun.

The locals actually don’t want us to live in their community but the Australian government is forcing to send us into the community where our lives are not safe…plenty of refugees have been attacked, beaten badly and robbed by locals but unfortunately the police couldn’t arrest anyone. We are scared to live in the community.

We really are scared of PNG defence.

We really are scared of locals in the community.

Samad’s writing is painful to read. I can’t imagine how it feels to have to write it, to have to defend his own humanity.

When Samad and I speak, I mention that I had some very frustrating and unsatisfactory responses from politicians and advisors in response to my concerns.

“Politicians are just horrible,” Samad says. “I really hope the change will come soon.”

The one politician he seems to respect is Senator Nick McKim, who has visited Manus Island three times, and just returned to Australia after his most recent visit last week. Samad tells me that McKim “was here in Manus for a couple of days” and that he came inside with an ABC news camera man. “He raised the issue to the whole world,” he said. “He has done a great job.”

In the last few days, I have become increasingly concerned by Samad’s tweets.

What You Can Do

Even though Ezatullah and Samad’s words speak for themselves, I think it is important for people all around the world to speak up, too. As well as speaking up, though, people can donate funds. I checked with the refugees currently on Manus and was told that it would be incredibly helpful if people could donate to Gifts for Manus & Nauru. The men have already benefited from the donations, mainly in the form of accessing funds for food and access to phone credit. Without the latter, I would not have been able to contact them.

Abdul Aziz, a 24-year-old man from Sudan, was featured in The Sydney Morning Herald last year as part of a piece about “The men of Manus“. He told the reporter that he teaches English to asylum seekers. I was put in touch with Aziz by Samad, and when I asked him if he still teaches English, he replied “Not anymore. I became a human rights defender speaking on behalf of men.”

I asked him if he wanted to share any thoughts about the worsening situation on Manus, and he said “Our situation is critical and getting worse. It has been one week without water, food or electricity. We have nearly 150 guys who are sick and the authorities refuse to let any doctors come in.”

Aziz told me that the latest statistics show that the number of Australians who support refugees is really low. He said “we believe that the majority in Australia don’t want refugees or asylum seekers because of the negative influence from the government.”

As a teacher, writer and fellow human, his words hit me hard. These people deserve to be humanised. They deserve to be more than the men of Manus. They deserve to succeed in their careers, to achieve whatever they are capable of, to have lovers and families, and – above all – to feel like their humanity is recognised.

I assured him that I know so many people – young and old – who are speaking out. If these people, and all those who have been held in inhumane conditions, have anything to say about it, our future will be a lot brighter and far more brave than our present.

Roz Bellamy is a queer Melbourne-based writer, teacher, activist and workshop facilitator. Roz has just finished writing a memoir about marriage equality and queer identities. You can follow more of her work on Facebook.