Life in the Nauru detention centre
My misery started when I was transferred to Nauru in November 2012. I arrived on Christmas Island two weeks earlier, on a boat with a group of 83 asylum seekers. Our boat floundered for a day in tumultuous seas. The engine stopped working and the boat was taking on water. We lost hope for survival.
It was lunchtime when we were told we were being transferred. Some of us who had not finished eating had the food stuck in our throats. It was the beginning of a long mental torture.
Three days later, immigration came to our group and told us to collect our belongings. They forced us to sign a paper that said, “We are going to Nauru voluntarily.” I asked, “What kind of voluntary is it?” The immigration officer said, “You have no option, you must sign.”
Before they put us on the plane, they told everyone of us to take a shower. They did not let us wear our own clothes or shoes. Instead, they provided us with new shorts and T-shirts. Mine was a white colour. Wearing them, I felt like a corpse going to the grave after being washed and shrouded.
In the afternoon, a Serco officer huddled us inside a bus and drove towards the airport. Two Serco cars were at the back and two at the front. Some who resisted and yelled “I don’t want to go to Nauru” were dragged by three or four big officers. Looking at them, I thought it was futile to resist. I went by my own feet, thinking they would take me anyway. On the plane, I felt really cold. I shivered in cold the whole flight – about 15 hours.
We were about 15 asylum seekers on the plane. Half of the plane was filled with Serco officers and a nurse. A heavy-set and tattooed Serco officer was sitting between me and another refugee. He did not allow me to look outside or allow us to talk to one another. They looked so big: double our size. When I was going to the toilet, a Serco officer followed me, putting his foot on the door so it was not completely closed. When I spoke, he would not answer me. He would not say where we were or what time it was. I just thought, “What have I done?” They treated us like big criminals. They looked at us with stern faces. I looked at my body and his; I just kept quiet.
When I got out of the plane, the hot weather slapped my face. I had this sinking feeling: “Oh, it’s the end the world and maybe the end of my world, too.”
They huddled us into a car and drove through jungle. Our car was escorted by two police cars – one at the back and one at the front. I felt like a prisoner being sent to a jail. We arrived at the camp – saw barbed wires and tents. We saw some Iranians and Sri Lankans who were transferred there before us. They said, “Welcome to the hell.”
I had not slept for two nights before but could not sleep the first night in Nauru and not so well afterwards. I heard the buzzing mosquitoes all night. Something was moving over my body the whole night and they bit so mercilessly. In the morning, I found my body was swollen with mosquito bites. Others showed me the big wounds and marks left by mosquito bites.
All day it was very hot. The sun beat us. There was not any other shade, so you’d sit under your tent. When you sit there, sweats stream from your body like rivers. A good day was when the sky was cloudy and you could open your tent to get some breeze and a few hours of sleep. When the rain poured, the whole camp flooded, even flooded our tents.
Our day was really long in Nauru. There was nothing to do. Your heart did not want to do anything. I sat there all day thinking and crying. I came to Australia to find peace, rule of law and protection. I heard Australia was a country upholding justice and refugee rights. In action, it was different. I was very disappointed.
Everyone was feeling despair and hopelessness inside the camp. Sometimes hopelessness is worse than insecurity. When you live in an insecure situation, you will be killed once and finished. But when you are hopeless, it eats you from inside and it destroys you slowly and painfully. My situation became very bad in Nauru and I was seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist regularly. They would not give any other medication, just sleeping pills.
We ate our lunch in a hall called Greenhouse. It was our dining room. Both sides were open. There was no hygiene at all. The plates were swarming with flies. There was no time to wash them. Sometimes people found flies in food. We kept eating until we saw flies and then stopped eating. When we complained to Wilson Security guards, they told us, “Don’t worry. It’s all protein.”
In Christmas Island, they said I would be processed in three months. But there was no interview after three months. Finally, there was an interview. Six months passed and they said, “No, it was not a real interview.” They started again, bringing lawyers and case officers and said we would hear the result within three months. Another six months passed. There was nothing. During that time, people held peaceful protest and hunger strikes. Some stitched their lips, some were so weak they looked as though they were taking their last breath. Some tried to kill themselves out of sheer desperation. An Iranian man in our group did not eat for 52 days. People felt very angry – angry that nobody heard our voices and yet we heard lies every day.
Eventually, people started burning the camp. It was the month of Ramadan, July 2013. I was fasting and slept in my room. Not every refugee took part in the riots. Only a handful sabotaged the camp; the rest were protesting peacefully. The protesters demanded that they go to the airport and sit there until they give us an answer.
When I saw the fire spread to my accommodation, I fled my room. We gathered in front of the gate. We saw the fire burning around us. I moved towards the gate to be far from the heat. A Nauruan police officer told me to sit. When I did, he told me to stand. I stood up. He asked me to go close to him. I went close to him. He handcuffed me.
Once the police took me outside the detention centre, I saw a large local crowd, armed with sticks, rocks and machetes, massed there ready to attack. The police shielded me. If we were to get out of the camp by ourselves at the time, none of us would have survived. We all would have been butchered. They had come because they heard from the radio that the refugees planned to burn Nauru. I was huddled in a minibus. I saw other detainees arrested and brought with us. As the bus drove, the crowd swarmed our bus, throwing stones and rocks at us. Some were running after us flapping their machetes. Others were shouting and cursing in their own language. I just thought, “Oh God protect us from these wild people.” I covered my face with both hands.
They transferred us to a Nauruan prison. They crammed eight of us into a three- to four-metre room. There was no carpet. The floor was cold concrete, so was the wall. They stripped all of us. We had only shorts on. I had not eaten for almost 24 hours. I had been fasting – no water, no food. We slept, without food, with bare bodies that night, on concrete, thinking all night, “Oh my god, what crimes have I committed to suffer like this – first Nauru, then camp and now prison?”
When we asked to go to the toilet or for water, the police shouted, “Piss on yourself, drink your piss.” When we asked for food, they shouted, “Eat your shit.” No one can treat a murderer like that, let alone innocent people. There were sick people among us. We were all disappointed. If you were in Afghanistan, you would be killed once and be free from this world, but here you die every moment. I thought it was the end. I was screaming and yelling, “Why did you put me here? I have done nothing wrong.”
The Nauruan immigration staff came and they cursed us and abused us. I said I did not burn the camp. Inside the prison, when we asked something or tried to argue, they punched us like we were a punching bag. There was an Afghan man in our group who was made to stand against the wall. A prison guard punched him: his head hit the wall and then another wall, and he was punched again before he fell to the ground. An Arab was brought to the prison with his leg broken for his arrest.
I have experienced many hardships in my life but not like what I experienced there in Nauru and in prison. I did not see the face of the sun for two weeks. I was humiliated and abused. I was kicked in the morning to wake up, given only salt water to bathe. Others were left in the elements for days, sleeping on dirt, unprotected from the rain and sun, fighting over a piece of cardboard on which to lie. Maybe I could forget all these over time but it’s hard to remove the scars.
Eventually, I was given a bridging visa and brought to Australia. But this is no safety. We are the same wretched people as before. I have not seen my family for four years. My daughter was two years old and now she is six. She asked me the other day, “Dad, when are you coming home?” I lied to my daughter. I told her next week or next month. Four years have passed like that. She said, “If you don’t come, I come to your home.” I don’t have anything to say.
As told to Abdul Karim Hekmat.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Life at the end of the world". Subscribe here.