On Tuesday during the Melbourne cup, a 27-year-old protester drove a Ford Laser across the tracks at Ascot Vale and deflated its tires, allegedly bolting herself to the steering wheel of this car-turned-billboard protest. The Demonstration was to draw attention to the current state of emergency on Manus Island; Using the “Race that stops a nation” as the decedent backdrop for the humanitarian crisis by blocking trains heading towards Flemington.
The Public response was a mixed bag of support, ridicule and aggression. Personally, I was horrified at headlines indicating this act of civil disobedience and mild inconvenience for “race-goers” was the real atrocity here. Not one to miss the opportunity to make a snarky remark at the expense of an ever increasingly ignorant public – I took a moment to offer an alternative headline for an ABC facebook post.
I’d like to say “Thinking nothing of it… ” but realistically, I spent my day stewing at both the abhorrent nature that is The Melbourne cup. The masses of thinly veiled racists and supposed patriots mocking these protesters for daring to care about something more than themselves and the genuine crisis that is unfolding on Manus Island. I was a puddle of anger and sorrow all day. I was snappy, I was angry, and I had no outlet. I’d sent some emails, made some phone calls. Let people know that neither Animal abuse, or Human Rights violations were funny to me. But these actions seem meaningless when you consider the fact that there are lives in danger.
At around 8.30pm I received a message request on facebook – “Thanks for ur beautiful comment and support for us.”.
Now – I’m a chatty Cathy, and I have a bad habit of taking up keyboard battles when I should know better. So I didn’t put two and two together immediately, asking the stranger what comment they were talking about – completely missing the location set as “Lives in Papua New Guniea”. Calmly they confirmed, I was speaking to a man living in the Manus Island camp. It took more than a moment for the weight and reality of this conversation to sink in – I knew these men on Manus were real, but never did I expect a snarky comment of mine to reach the eyes of one of them, never did I expect them to reach out to say thank you.
The man introduced himself to me as Shah* and told me that he had been on Manus Island since 2013. He was 22.
Shah is my age. A 20-something year old with a Bachelor in Computer Science, The same field I work in. In his home Hangu in Pakistan, he grew up in a big family – Traveling often due to his fathers business supplying Engine oil across the country. He was well off but driven and tenacious, Stepping into his ailing father’s shoes at just 18, and became his Fathers right-hand man, and prodigy. He worked hard, and in a couple of years – he was running the company, managing staff and making his dad proud.
Shah, by all rights, was living a well-off life. But unlike Australia – Success comes at a price in Pakistan. The Taliban eventually targeted him. “In [my home town] it is more than common, and for them, killing is nothing,” he told me “They slit throats”. Shah explained how The Taliban had attempted to extort money from him and his family – His refusal putting a bullseye on his head – they had deemed him and Infidel. His father and Brother had been told to bring him to The Taliban; it wasn’t a request. – Shah decided to leave behind his entire family and flee in July 2013. He made contact with what he called an “agent” in Thailand who had arranged his swift exit from his home country – what would eventually be a 17-day horror trip.
Shah, Just in his 20’s at the time – made his way to Thailand, then travelled to Malaysia by road, Malaysia to Indonesia by speedboat. Once in Indonesia, spent 3 days on dangerous seas, in an overcrowded boat to Christmas Island.
He was on Christmas island for 18 days before he and others were physically forced to PNG. This was the beginning of a horror that no one could have expected. In the 4 years that Shah has been on Manus Island, he tells me there have been more desperate times than we could possibly know. After spending 14 days on hunger strike, a peaceful protest we’d all read about – Shah was put in isolation for 5- 6 days. Others were less lucky, some being held for up to a month with no charges or appeals to the courts.
On the 2nd of August 2016, Shah friend and fellow Pakistani drowned at a waterfall on the island. Another story I had read about – it had was reported that the Immigration Department had insisted that all deaths that happened on the Island were the responsibility of the PNG government, including notifying the next of kin and burial. Allegedly the Pakistan embassy had agreed to take responsibility for Mr Hussain’s body, returning him to his home to be with his family. His body and all associated costs were to be covered by them.
Shah shed some light on the reality of the situation saying for 3 days they fought to ensure that Mr Hussain not be buried on PNG, but instead returned to his home. During this time, his fellow asylum seekers had to wash his body with cold water to avoid decomposition as no proper care had been taken or offered immediately after the death. he says “We do not have a penny, but we were selling our things, smokes and things to pay for the injections to stop his body from [decomposing].” He also says that they gathered together money to send back to the Hussain family in Pakistan, But they do not think this money ever made it to the family and Shah says they now feel it was a scam.
Adding to the stress of an already horrific situation, around a year and a half ago, during a particularly tense time on the camp; they were splitting people up and putting them in different camps.He described everyone as being distressed and emotionally unwell.
One night, as the gates opened, a confused, scared and desperate Shah attempted to flee, running through the gat es with guards at his heels, eventually collapsing about 700m from the edge of the place he’d been trapped for so long. He had lost consciousness. While in hospital, He was treated for some scratches, but doctors noted abnormal heartbeats – They were concerned he had a heart condition. He was eventually told that he had suffered a heart attack, and this is what caused his collapse Worried, and still feeling unwell, he was returned to Manus Island – But no one cared about his health, nor addressed his concerns.On top of all this, he has witnessed death, violence, been assaulted by locals and spent more than 4 years being degraded and treated like criminals by the staff at the centre. Subjected to strip searches in their underwear – and often without, the men on the island are dehumanised and humiliated. He has not had contact with his family in over 2 years, and fears for them, possibly more than he fears for himself – Despite Six men having died on Manus:
- Reza Barati, head bashed in with a rock
- Hamid Khazaei, died due to untreated infection
- Kamil Hussain, drowned
- Faysal Ishak Ahmed, head injuries from a fall and seizure
- Hamed Shamshiripour, apparent suicide
- A Sri Lankan man, to suicide
Shah recounted these deaths to me and expressed concern for other men on the island due to declining mental health.
As we already know the centre was closed on the 1st and all power, water, security and services have been cut off. The camp is in the middle of what they describe as jungle, and despite there being a few houses out there, says no-one will come near them as they are afraid of the navy and police occupying the land. Shah explains that the ASRC is doing there best to get resources to the men via boat, as they are close to the water – but there is growing fear after an attempted aid drop ended in the arrest of a local, that all aid will stop, or be stopped.
More than 90 men are said to be in varying states of sickness – many requiring medication. Including a man complaining of heart problems who waited 4 hours for assistance, before being taken to a hospital without the equipment to monitor him, he was sent home still unwell.
They do not have clean or piped water and have resorted to digging a well, as they cannot drink seawater for thirst. They are getting small amounts of supplies in – saying “We all are getting a few bites, enough to survive.”
On the first day the centre was closed, they were looted by locals. The men tried to lock the gates to protect themselves and avoid possible assault as what little possessions and items they had were stolen. Furthering the strain – It is not safe for these men to go into town, they are often attacked and assaulted by PNG locals and are afraid of reprisal.
Shah and some 600 other men are currently sitting in protest on Manus, Desperately seeking help. He tells me that he wishes for “some miracle” so that the current Australian government will accept NZ prime minister, Jacinda Arderns offer of resettlement on New Zealand soil, but in the meantime, the men are staying put and sticking together. He describes the men as staying safe with each other – trying to keep their small but tightly knit community safe and peaceful.
This is just Shah’s experience; This is only 1 of over 600 mens reality. He could be you or your brother. He could be your best friend, your son, your boyfriend. He is kind and well-spoken – his English is better than some native speakers, and his patience and compassion for his fellow men is palpable. He loves breaking bad, Misses his parents and mourns for the life he has so far lost. He is not a faceless non-human. He is not a burden nor a bludger. He is a person.
The men are where they are now because they dared seek a better life, and have chosen to stay there, because it is still, less terrifying than what they fled.
Our government can throw their hands up and say they’re free from blood – but they are not. 6 men have died. 600 more are being left to fight for their right to live. Our government and the complicit Labour government can’t hide the human rights violation under the rug by saying it’s up to PNG – Refusing assistance and resettlement on behalf of these men as if they know what’s right for them.How hard would you fight for your own life? How much would you go through? How much is enough?
editors note: *Not his real name.