Reza Barati – 4 Year Memorial – 17 February 2018

“I wrote this based on my talk at DASSAN’s memorial marking four years since Reza Barati was murdered on 17 February 2014 in Australia’s prison for refugees on Manus Island. I spoke about my recent visits to Manus Island to see some of the refugees. In April 2016 the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that their imprisonment on Manus Island is unlawful. Since that time, they have been allowed out. So this is how I was able to meet some of them, when they made trips into town to see me. I met some who had only been out two or three times before – they were afraid to go out. Others go out regularly – they can’t stand being in the prison. They rightly corrected me to say it is a prison, not a camp. Mostly we just met in town. We cooked, talked and ate together. We walked to the shops together.

One day I borrowed a friend’s car and a small group of us went to a beach they had never been to before, a bit past the airport, not so far from their prison of more than four years at Lombrum Naval Base. These were Reza’s friends – stateless Kurdish people from Iran. One shared a room with Reza for months. I don’t know a group of people I would want to welcome more to my home and country – such good kind people.

Another day they organised a boat out to a small nearby island. Most of us had never been there before, but we were guided by one of the men who has top command of tok pisin and knew all about the islands and villages. And as he explained to me, he respects the locals and the locals respect and protect him.

On these two occasions when we got out of town, and way out of prison life, I think we relaxed a bit. We swam, taking turns with my swimming goggles looking at tropical fish they had never seen like this before. We chatted with local people and bartered for fresh fish in exchange for our biscuits, salt and lemons. They taught me a few steps of a kind of traditional Kurdish line dance before I dropped out, as they danced on with the more complicated steps I couldn’t follow.

But mostly, I stayed in town for days on end and we just spent time together. So I came to know some of the men Australia banished to Papua New Guinea in 2013, when Australia also banished girls, boys, women and men to Nauru. These people have been trapped on these prison islands ever since. Most still have no end in sight to their long painful suffering. They number about 2,000 people including those on Manus and Nauru.

I want to try to share with you my experience visiting refugees on Manus Island, so you can get to know them a little, the way I did.

So who are they? I don’t know the statistics on all this, but of the people I met, some are married men separated from wife and children. Many are young. They are determined, brave, smart, talented, respectful and kind, they build rapport, they worry, they are very attached to family and suffer the pain of separation.

I met young men who fled their home countries around the age of 18 to 21, now they are in their mid 20s. Others left at about age 25, and are now thirty or so. There seemed to be a good few 26th birthdays recently. They are younger than my son. I don’t know how my son would survive something like this. And I reflect on myself around age 21. I was rebellious. I know I wouldn’t last long in an authoritarian

regime. I was a risk taker. I could have taken off on a life-threatening journey in search of freedom and justice. This is not a big stretch of the imagination.

The men I met are smart and talented. Some are university graduates and highly skilled – artisans and artists, engineers, linguists, teachers, cooks and athletes. Some have fought for their education – for example, a young Rohingya man said he felt he first became an asylum seeker when he tried to get an education because it was like a war just to get to university and maintain his studies.

Some have little school education. A young Kurdish man said he had only four years of school and didn’t want to go anymore because he was treated so badly. His father allowed him to stay home and work with him at home until he was old enough to get work in town. Interestingly, some of these people with less formal education spoke excellent tok pisin and were highly resourceful. A local man we chatted with at the beach commented to one young man with a kind of inverted praise: “You come here and steal our language and now you go to America”. Yet this man is from a country on Trump’s banned list, not looking likely to take up the American option anytime soon. During the blockade in November last year when the PNG navy was directed to guard the prison with guns, to shoot people who tried to get food in, it was some of these men who were the resourceful ones. They went outside the prison to organise food for all the refugees. They could do this because they know how to move around town, can talk with local people, and can organise shopping and boats.

These men are respectful and kind. We shared cooking and we enjoyed spices that I brought from Australia because they are hard to get there. Sometimes they came to cook for me and with me. They said it made them feel ok, not like being in the prison. Others brought me cooked food and left it for me to share with visitors.

They looked after me, bringing me anything they could. They brought me lemons one day if I mentioned I couldn’t find them in the market the day before. During power blackouts in town, they brought me a lamp and took my power bank to the prison where they could charge it on generator power. They helped me move rooms one time I had to relocate to a different hotel. They met me and saw me off at the airport.

They built rapport with people around them. I really enjoyed a walk through town one day when a group of us accompanied another Australia woman to her hotel so she wouldn’t have to walk alone. The same man with excellent tok pisin who had ‘stolen their language’ had friends all through town. He was carrying a heavy bag of stuff, including valuables, and didn’t want to carry it all the way. So he found a friend in the market along the roadside who would mind it for him – a rare kind of trust but he had it. And just before he collected his bag of stuff all intact on our way back, an older woman stopped him to ask why it was now 10 days since he visited her family home, as he usually went there every week.

They are worried. They can’t fully explain their situation to family. They can’t see themselves settling in PNG, even those with the skills to survive there so well.

Ailments – everyone has an ailment that is not treated or treatable there. One man has a sinus condition that requires surgery he can’t get in PNG. He can’t sleep for

more than about two hours at night. It drives him crazy. He has asked to pay his own way anywhere to get the surgery he needs but he is not allowed. Another man has dental braces that have not been adjusted since he fled home in early 2013. He is in constant pain and often can’t eat certain foods or any food at all. This leads to stomach problems, sleeplessness, and anxiety. And medication for sleeplessness and anxiety. So commonplace. Another man has had malaria since September 2016. It has never been treated with the right medicine, so it is recurring. He has it again now, and is receiving the same medication again.

Then of course there are the mental health problems that we hear about, of men who were healthy on arrival to Australia, yet some have even died with serious mental health problems. The recent hangings – Hamed Shamshiripour was found hanging the day I arrived to PNG on 7 August 2017. Rajeev Rajendran was found hanging while I was in Lorengau on 2 October 2017. I saw photos of these men strung up in nooses. I am no forensic expert, but it looked to me they could not have got themselves into these places. Nobody doubts they suffered serious mental illness, but their alleged suicide by hanging is very open to question. And more men are at risk in this death trap.

Since the closure of Lombrum, physical and psychological injuries of the men are exacerbated by withdrawal of medications, cuts to the cigarettes they have become addicted to in prison, and brutal beatings when they were forcibly removed to the different prisons. Some now endure overcrowding at East Lorengau that now accommodates maybe three times the number of men it was built for. Some endure sub-standard living conditions and appalling abuses continuing at the ‘new’ facilities still not completed and much of it non-operational at West Haus and in particular Hillside Haus, or ‘Waste’ and ‘Hellside’, as they are more correctly termed by Australia’s and PNG’s prisoners themselves.

Their most tangible attachment to family is strong as, or stronger than, ever. The pain of separation is palpable, and sad as anything. Everyone showed me photos of their parents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, children of best friends. The sweetest and saddest were the photos of children back home, of five or so years of age, who were growing up in their absence and marked their time in this hell hole. Some told me stories of girlfriends and childhood sweethearts back home. One man suffered the grief of the sudden death of his parent about a week before the forced closure of Lombrum prison. I saw the photos of the service the men held for him, attended by many, not just his countrymen. This is the strength and quality of these men who support each other as best they can in their circumstances that they have almost no control over.

One man told me, “I never want to do anything to upset my parents”. He shaves, has a haircut, and tries to put on weight before sending a photo to his mother. One of the youngest men said to me “my family are my life”.

Common questions that I was often asked included:

“What do they want from us?”

“Can I come to see you again tomorrow?” or, “Can I come and cook with you again tomorrow? I hate being in the prison. I feel good when I am cooking outside the prison.”

“How long do you think we will be here? I can’t stay here anymore in Hellside.”

“How is your family? Say hi from me.”

“Do you have any news for us?”

Common comments men made about things I never asked of them included:

“I will never get married and have children.” When I asked why, they just shook their head. I find this is so sad. In my migration work I hear and read many claims for protection that often include statements about feelings of not being marriageable due to being persecuted – these men fled in part because they saw no future for the loving relationships they craved. Yet now they see no hope for this simple most human way of being.

“My hair is going grey.”

“I hope I can come to your mainland.”

“I hope we can meet again in a good place, not here on Manus.”

“Thank you for giving me hope.”

“I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

“Thank you thank you thank you thank you”, I heard over and over, “for everything you have done and are doing for us.”

I have never been thanked so much for doing almost nothing. I only wish I could do more in this most powerless situation I find myself.

We sometimes talked of desires. I asked one very young man if he knows what he wants to do when he gets out of this place. He didn’t hesitate to reply, ‘Of course. I want to have a good life. Free life. I will go to work. I will go to gym. I love gym. I will make a free and simple and nice life. I want to see my family again. I promise to you I will do it.’ Another man said he only wants a house with a really nice bed in it. I met four young men who want to be human rights lawyers – I said you are now doing a really good apprenticeship, you will go in at a high level of understanding, you will do well. Others just hope they will survive and live a normal life somewhere safe, and recover from Manus.

There is an overwhelming tiredness, but also hopefulness, and they cherish our support.

Some responses to my request for statements, if they wanted us to read something at our memorial for Reza, were brief:

“Thank you. With your efforts I am sure we will get our freedom one day. I am not sure what to say. We lost Reza and other friends. There are no words to express how I feel about that. It’s good people like you in our lives. Good people.”

“Hi dear Tanya, thank you for letting me know. It’s very good that will be an event in Darwin, yes sure I will ask someone. I’m so tired to write, these days I feel tired.”

When I chatted with a friend yesterday about the memorial I would speak at here in Darwin, and the memorial he would attend at the same time at Hellside (see attached photos), he said:

“Please when you go on stage tell all your friends that we are humans like you, we have family, dream and love like you. And we didn’t come from another planet. You saw us, you ate with us, we dance together, we went to unknown place, we trust each other like mother and son. And say hello to them from Manus. Thanks again, you are our voice there, good luck tonight. I wish I were there tonight.”

Fatigue on Manus is chronic. Writers struggle to write. A man who was a professional cricketer back home, but could not play in the national team because he is from a persecuted minority, used to play with the other men. But for some time now he can’t play cricket anymore. People who take pride in their fitness are unable to exercise. There are sometimes long silences from friends. Eventually they get back to me with words like, “I’m sorry, this happens to me every three months”, or, “This happened to me when I was detained in Indonesia – this mental illness is a terrible thing.”

Sometimes it’s hard to know if their comments are in sentiment of complete despair or unflagging hope:

“I don’t know, maybe I will lose my mind.”

“I can’t stay in this prison – I will go to an island, stay in a village.”

“Thank you for giving me hope.”

“I never thought I would have a big family (with you) in Australia.”

“I hope this year will be free.”

I too want so much for these men to be free now, and for all the children, women and men on Nauru to be free now. I feel like our whole country should stop still until this is done. It must be done. It will be done. It is only a question of when. Why not now?”

Tanya McIntyre, Darwin, 18 February 2018