Capricious freedom

The message came from Mehdi Ali a day before the flight. The next evening he was going to be taken to the airport. He would be put on a plane and flown to America. After almost nine years, he would be free.

Even through the screen you could sense his excitement. There was also the fear that like everything else this wouldn’t happen, that he couldn’t celebrate, that it might be another cruel turn in a maze without an end.

“The same silence and the same terrible heaviness of everything is repeating itself. The cool air inside this cage is too heavy for our lungs,” he wrote for this paper a few days before he sent that text. “I go to my room and sleep, and wake up in the same story that I have to live every day.”

Ali came to Australia at the age of 15. He was a boy with a backpack, boarding a boat to flee oppression. He grew up in detention. “The law tells us that children must only be detained for the shortest period of time, yet I grew up in this cage,” he wrote in January. “Justice is all I ask for. I don’t want to survive anymore. I just want to live.”

A few weeks later, he wrote: “I have read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so much that I have almost memorised it. However, it seems that we are not part of human society and the provisions of the declaration do not apply to us.”

Ali is a gifted writer. He knows how to make rain feel wet on the page. He knows that an idea can sometimes turn over on itself and with one more clause become the truth. To publish him has been an extraordinary privilege. To live in the country that imprisoned him is a source of eternal shame.

“People here are not only in prison – they are in prison with no charge, no trial, no sentence,” Ali wrote last month. “We are here indefinitely. We are here indefinitely, to be humiliated by a system designed to crush our values, dignity and self-esteem. The worst kind of torture, in my opinion, is the kind that destroys a person’s character. This – our character – is something we have to hold on to hard.”

There was no reason for Ali’s freedom, just as there was no reason for his imprisonment. The system is entirely capricious. This is part of its cruelty. People are trapped in a world without logic, a world of make-believe, built from a fantasy of safety that for decades has sustained the meanest parts of the electorate.

Both sides of politics participate in this. Neither is going to the election promising to free the men needlessly trapped in the Park Hotel. Nor do they make any offer to those in the purgatory of community detention. They know there are just enough votes in the torture of these souls to make it worthwhile.

“Unless the people of Australia stand up for us, we will not be released,” Ali wrote a few weeks ago. “The government knows that. It is why we’ve been a secret to most of the public for so long. When an ordinary person with a good heart pays attention to our situation, they will surely feel our pain. Imagine how our family suffers? Imagine how we suffer?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Capricious freedom".

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