The man with no face
In the nightmare he has no face. He is sitting on a couch, leaning forward as if to adjust something on a coffee table. When he looks up, he is the dead man from the photograph. He is Hamed Shamshiripour.
He is wearing the same pink polo shirt, the same loose blue trousers. His arms are thin almost to wasting and his head is shaved bald. His empty eyes, from the last photograph ever taken of him, eclipse what would otherwise have been his features. Unmistakably, he is dead.
I have been having this nightmare since August, when Hamed killed himself. At the time, we chose not to publish this photograph. His family found it too distressing.
We wrote that it looked like the scene of a lynching, and that it was. We wrote that his shoulders hung as if responding to a question for which there was no answer. We wrote that the Australian government was responsible for his death.
Hamed killed himself after he had been assessed as a refugee. He killed himself after Border Force’s chief medical officer had been made aware of his dire mental state. He killed himself after Australia had refused to honour his wishes to be returned to the country he was fleeing.
Hamed Shamshiripour killed himself because he could not escape the hell Australia had made for him. He killed himself because he was trapped in the evil of our politics and no one in power cared enough to know he was there.
There is no more “in spite of”. There is no longer any way a humane person could vote for the Labor or Liberal parties without giving thought to their position on refugees. This policy is bipartisan. The torture that killed Hamed Shamshiripour is the work of successive governments, elected by voters able to overlook their cruelty.
The men on Manus Island have been abandoned. That did not start this month, when power and sanitation was cut at the detention centre where they have been marooned. It didn’t start this week, when soldiers began pulling apart what is left of the structure.
It started in 1992, when the concept of mandatory detention criminalised the legal act of seeking asylum. It started in 2001, with the Tampa and children overboard, when John Howard decided elections could be won on a fear of “boat people”. It started with Kim Beazley’s cowardice and Kevin Rudd’s ambition and Julia Gillard’s fecklessness, with Tony Abbott’s cruelty and Malcolm Turnbull’s impotence. It started a hundred different times and has been played out over and over.
What is happening on Manus Island is the real cost of the cynicism of our politics. The lives of these men have been traded for votes. They represent the comfort of this country and its fear.
The abandonment of these men is transactional. Their torture no longer serves a purpose. Voters do not blame them for traffic congestion and hospital waiting queues, as they once did, and so the government has lost interest in them. They are being killed with indifference.
Politics in this country has created a moral vacuum. It is not until we start voting on the issue of refugees, instead of voting despite it, that this will change.
The government is unmoved by the crisis on Manus. It is unconcerned by deaths such as Hamed’s, by the broken defiance of his final moments. It has already forgotten the men left behind.
When the country votes, it has to remember this. It has to wake up from the nightmare.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 25, 2017 as "The man with no face".
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