In immigration detention, sleep becomes impossible. There is hope an election might see some men released – but that hope is not shared by all. By Mehdi Ali.

‘The worst torture destroys a person's character’

A view of Melbourne from the rooftop of the Park Hotel, where the author is indefinitely detained.
A view of Melbourne from the rooftop of the Park Hotel, where the author is indefinitely detained.
Credit: Mehdi Ali

I haven’t slept in about 26 hours, and when you’re not sleeping, you’re not really awake. For me, everything moves slowly. I walk slowly. I see others move slowly. I also talk slowly. When I’m not sleeping, I can’t eat and I start to feel really, really low.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been awake for such a long time. Most nights, I have come to discover that indefinite detention is the cause of my sleeplessness, or at least last night it was because of detention. When I finally became sleepy, about 2am, watching a film under a blanket, I was almost able to rest, until a memory from my nightmares filled my mind, raised my heartbeat and pulled me out of my sleepiness. I ended up smoking instead of sleeping, again.

When morning came, I left my room to get some fresh air on the top floor. On my way I passed a man who was playing chess by himself. I offered him a challenge and he accepted.

We didn’t speak much during the game, but when he finally won, we had some coffee together. I asked him how old he was. “I’m an old man,” he said with a smile, “and my son is around your age.”

I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t seem that old. He showed me a photo of his son on his phone, smiling at it and looking at him with pride. Then he turned to face me and told me about back home, how dangerous it is. He spoke about his family, how he can’t keep them safe or provide for them. I saw tears in his eyes.

At that moment, I didn’t know what to say. I hope that soon they will let you out, and all of us out, I told him. He just smiled a sad smile and said they won’t, they don’t care.

In my heart and my mind, I agreed with him, but I didn’t want to tell him that. I had to give him some kind of hope because I felt his pain, so I told him the election is soon and things will change.

We spoke about the chatter that always comes when something changes politically, whether it is an election or a cabinet shuffle. Rumours always begin to fly, sometimes with a sense of humour, sometimes with anxiety.

It was a while ago when I found out that elections gave the most realistic hope to people who have been suffering in detention for all these years. Every three years, we pray for a change. The closer it gets to an election, the news and rumours grow. More people begin to discuss the change of law and policies regarding our circumstances. They’re not analysing or critiquing, they’re just desperate to hang on to some kind of hope for a safe future. Sometimes these discussions about politics go from light to heavy and cause arguments.

But this man spoke with a calm humour, the kind that makes anybody laugh, and that’s what I admire most about him. In all this time in detention, he hasn’t lost this quality of his character.

For me, elections hold no hope. I cannot wait for another election believing that it will mean the end of my detention. We must be released now, by this government. Too many elections have passed in my time in detention and we remain in detention.

This afternoon, with an image of the beach and the waves in my head, I slept, thinking maybe one day I will get to walk free.

You can notice a contradiction in my story. Some nights I cannot sleep because of the traumas of my past. On others I sleep because of the shred of hope I have left. This is the contradiction in my life, created by Australian authorities who have detained me and others with no clarity and no certainty about our future. So on the days I feel hope, I can sleep. And on the days I don’t, I can’t. How can I get any further when I’m stuck between a difficult past and a blank future? I can’t go back to where I came from, and I can’t set myself free from this cage. So, what’s next?

That is a question I’ve been asking since I arrived at Christmas Island as a kid eight years ago.

What’s next, I asked when guards came to my cell with a black rubbish bag in their hands and cameras strapped to their chests. I was told to pack the few things I had, and I felt anxious with these big men watching my every move.

What’s next, I asked when they escorted me to the airport, put papers in front of me and asked me to sign them. I didn’t really understand what was written on those pages, but like everybody else, I signed. I was 16 and afraid.

What’s next, I asked when I was put on a plane destined for a tiny Pacific island smaller than Melbourne Airport, a place that was far scarier than I could have imagined.

What’s next, I asked when I was evacuated from Nauru to receive medical treatment in Australia when I was 21 years old.

But after that, I stopped asking, even when I would be moved from detention centre to detention centre. There was no next, and that’s the most difficult part of my journey.

People here are not only in prison – they are in prison with no charge, no trial, no sentence. 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 onto hard.

In my time in detention centres onshore, I have met many “501s”, people who have had their visa cancelled by the minister for character reasons. Most of them were permanent residents who had spent over a year in prison. Many of them told me that prison was better than this, because you knew what was happening to you. After your day in court, you know when you’re getting out. You don’t have to sit around, waiting for an election to come around, or for policies to change, or for the minister to have a change of heart, just to have a chance at freedom.

The law is a standard for society. Supposedly, the law is designed to protect the rights of individuals. For us, though, there is no law that can defend our rights. International laws that are supposed to protect us are ignored by Australia.

The law is not supposed to be a matter of personal taste, but it is clear my case can only be settled by the taste of one individual in this country: the minister. There is no explanation or clarity for it. I am a human being who has been deprived of my basic rights because of one man’s powers. Nine years is far too long for a boy to be held for no reason.

Unless the people of Australia stand up for us, we will not be released. 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 February 5, 2022 as "Restless sleep".

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