As rain falls on the Park Hotel, memories return of those capricious days when freedom came for some detainees but not others – the difference arbitrary and life-changing. By Mehdi Ali.

Outside the gates of hell

The rooftop of the Park Hotel.
The rooftop of the Park Hotel.
Credit: Mehdi Ali

I haven’t had fresh air for a long time. In the evening, I stand by the window and see a couple laughing under a black umbrella. They seem to be in love with each other. The rain has wet the window.

The desire to smell the rain takes me upstairs. On the way, I visit Adnan, my cousin, who has been in the same situation with me for almost nine years. “I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he says.

I smile. He looks tired and sad but he smiles, too. We exchange a few words and then I leave his room to continue my way upstairs.

There is a swimming pool on the top level of Park Hotel, where we are kept as prisoners in the immigration detention system. Beside it is a room where two or three guards usually sit and watch television. The guards are changing shifts and the room is crowded. By the pool, three refugees are sitting on chairs.

I try to find a secluded place to watch the rain. Since I was a child, whenever it rained, some sort of joy filled my heart. There is a wet chair in the corner but no canopy to shelter under.

The rain is still falling. I sit on the chair. There is a wall behind me and the room and pool in front of me. In that scene, two groups of people are placed with many differences.

Group one: people who have been abused in detention centres by Australia for almost nine years. Group two: prison guards who call themselves officers.

In the first group, one of the guys is smoking and staring at a spot on the floor. Another is playing with his phone. A third is staring at the guards with a frown on his face.

The second group is loud and laughing and joking, especially those whose shifts are over.

While I am looking at the view and analysing the differences between group one and two, a thought from the past suddenly fills my head. About a year ago, when I was held in a Brisbane detention centre, the news of the release of some of us reached us two days before it was supposed to happen, without us knowing who those people would be.

Sleeping on those two nights was almost impossible for most of us. Some were optimistic about their freedom over the next two days, and some were pessimistic about getting out of there any time soon. Their pessimism stemmed from the hard time that they experienced in detention, and they could not believe or imagine that one day they would be released. I remember some people started collecting their belongings, touching hope in their lives that they would be free.

Some who did not hope for freedom were guessing who might be released. Of course, there was a kind of enthusiasm in their voices. Some of us did not care and did not participate in these prophecies at all. Others prayed with tears and petitioned the Lord for their freedom. Generally, time moves slow in detention; but those two days of hope and torture were much slower than ever.

On the one hand, there was a feeling of joy in the hope of freedom. On the other hand, there was the feeling of torture that I may not be released, or that I may be released and yet my friends would remain in detention.

Sick and disturbed thoughts confused us and brought insomnia. Even those who did not smoke, smoked in those two days.

The night before the release of those whose identities were still not known, it was hard. We were all waiting for the morning.

In the morning, many, with tired and curious faces, followed the guards who had a list of names in their hands. They desperately wanted to hear their names.

The names were called. Some who had anticipated their release and packed their things would finally be walking free. Others who had done the same, but did not hear their name, felt indescribable sadness. There was unanswered question weighing heavily on their chests: Why wasn’t I on the list?

My name was not on the list. With the other refugees, I said my goodbyes to friends with happy faces and hugs and tears, and they went out of the gates of hell called “indefinite detention”.

Terrible silence filled the space in this hell where we remained. Even some of the staff looked at us with sympathy, knowing we would continue to suffer in there. For a few weeks, everything was heavier than usual, even the air around us.

Disillusioned and disturbing thoughts and feelings filled the hearts and minds of the cage dwellers. During the past nine years, I witnessed dozens of times like these two nights of waiting. There have been hundreds of days like that day when my friends got their freedom. Thousands of people who came by boat after July 19, 2013, were released. Onshore, there are only dozens of us left without a clear explanation.

Back on the roof, the rain stops. Two of the three refugees sitting by the pool return to their rooms. The third is still staring at a point on the floor. Perhaps he too has a thought of the past, when others had been given their freedom.

I watch the room across from the pool where two guards are watching television. 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.

I go to my room and sleep, and wake up in the same story that I have to live every day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Outside the gates of hell".

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