On a tiny island off the coast of Manus, a local family offers asylum seekers kindness and some respite from their ordeal. By Behrouz Boochani.

An island off Manus

The author aboard a boat off Manus Island.
The author aboard a boat off Manus Island.

The torturous system of Manus prison sometimes catapults a person into distant and stunning places. Following this country’s High Court decision regarding the illegality of the incarceration of refugees on Manus Island, we have gained some freedom, albeit limited in time and scope. During the past nine months, this partial liberty has become a part of my life, a source of restricted freedom. Whenever the tension intensifies in the prison, I take refuge in the jungle, the sea, and in some of the far-flung villages of Manus Island.

When Sudanese refugee Faysal Ishak Ahmed lost his life on Christmas Eve, and later on New Year’s Eve, when two Iranian refugees were beaten badly by immigration authorities and local police, I took refuge in nature. The violence and injustices of these incidents cut deep.

I put some bottles of water in my backpack, grabbed my cigarettes, caught the morning bus and followed the jungle road. After 40 minutes, I arrived at Lorengau, the main town of Manus Island. I took to the sea in a small boat, heading for Mendirlin Island.

It was foggy and the ocean was calm and smooth.  The route took me past other small islands. First, Rara Islet, 500 metres from the main island, then Hauwei, twin to the famous Hawaii of the United States. According to locals, American soldiers gave this name to the island during World War II, due to its resemblance to America’s Hawaii. All over Manus and its tiny islands, there are dozens of signs, marking the bitter history of colonisation and war.

After an hour, we arrived on a small, green island in the middle of the ocean. Mendirlin is the size of a soccer field and covered in dense jungle. Its economy is dependent on nature. Rubbin Malachi and his family of 35 people live there. Rubbin is a strong, muscular man with a heart of gold.

The story of his life is as incredible as the beauty of Mendirlin Island. He lost one of his hands on a fishing trip, due to a dynamite blast. Rubbin thus became the victim of a war that occurred 70 years ago, a war in which Manus and its surrounding water were transformed into a battlefield.

During the past 100 years, Manus has been a theatre of war in two separate conflicts. The only lasting outcomes of those wars for the people of Manus are about 800 shipwrecks left around the island, along with explosives and toxic materials. Those materials not only pollute and harm the environment, but also the economy of an island that is completely dependent on nature and seafood. People of the island occasionally fall victim to the deleterious impact of the leftover materials.

When the Japanese and Americans fought against each other in the jungles of Manus and its surrounding waters, it was the people of Manus who were slaughtered without even being aware of the reasons for the conflict. This is one of the bitter realities of our planet. People of an island at the furthest part of the globe have become victims of a battle between the world’s superpowers. It appears as if nowhere on this planet is there a place that has not yet been affected by war and the competition between superpowers.

But the life of Rubbin and his family presents us with a very different story. He has made a small shelter for refugees out of leaves and wood on the shore of this small island, to allow people to take a rest from their ordeal.

Curious to know why he helps refugees, he smiles and says: “One day, when I was in Lorengau, I saw a few Iranian refugees wandering aimlessly around town. Something flashed across my mind about them. I realised they have no father, no mother and relatives: they are like aliens here. I felt they were afraid of being in Lorengau. I told them that you are my brothers and introduced my island to them. I invited them over and asked them to come and visit me whenever they liked, and to spend some time with my family.”

Rubbin has a poetic way of seeing things. He placed a small notebook under the shelter he had built for refugees. When refugees are about to leave Mendirlin, Rubbin asks them to write something about their motherland and about the feelings they experience on his small island.

When I was browsing the notebook, I found many notes written by refugees about war, homelessness and their dreams of a peaceful world. In addition, there were lovely words about Rubbin, his family and the island that reflected how deeply impressed the refugees were by his kindness. Many said they would never forget being there.

I ask about the notebook, and Rubbin replies: “I like to hear about the experiences of people who have been exiled from distant lands, because I learn from them. I’d also like to know their thoughts about my island as I plan to have many tourists visit my island in the future.”

A strategic question about the future comes to my mind and I ask if he knows anything about climate change and the possibility that his small island may go under water. He replies: “Yes, it is a reality that my island may go under water one day. I’ll become extremely depressed. However, I’ll still believe in nature and I’m confident that nature will allow me time to gradually transfer my family to a safe place.”

Mendirlin, a small island, in all its beauty and innocence, is a centre of gravity for many complex matters at the heart of our global crisis: war, environmental pollution, climate change and the refugee crisis. To be more precise, the crisis of people who happen to have nowhere to live, people who have no other way, no remedy but to risk their lives and seek asylum in other nations. It is not difficult to imagine that in the future people like Rubbin and his family who have welcomed refugees to their island may need to seek asylum in other countries.

After a few hours, I returned to Manus Island and its prison. On the way, I was thinking about the images and questions parading in my mind. Questions such as: What has happened to our world when a tiny island such as Mendirlin embraces refugees with open arms, and a huge continent such as Australia throws them thousands of kilometres out into the middle of the ocean?


Translated by Moones Mansoubi; editorial assistance by Arnold Zable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "An island off Manus".

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Behrouz Boochani is a senior adjunct research fellow with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury, and is an associate professor at the University of NSW.

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