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Within the Manus Island detention centre, daily life is a dull routine in the company of guards and increasingly disturbed fellow detainees, endlessly playing out in the oppressive heat and humidity. By Chris Shearer.

Life in the Manus Island detention centre

It’s the heat that wakes Mahmud. The midday sun hangs high over the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre and, although air-conditioned, the dorm that he shares with 29 other men in Oscar compound is stifling. From behind the thin sheets hung around his bunk he can hear the sounds of men playing the card game Hokm and the Iranian pop song “Tekoon Bede” drifting from the shared speakers. In the humid air Mahmud – not his real name – can smell their sweat mingled with stale tobacco and marijuana smoke.

Last night he dreamt that the Papuan guards had beaten him up. He used to have nightmares about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, but the expat and local security officers have become his biggest fear. Even with medication his nights are restless, and if disturbed he awakes so startled that the other men haven’t bothered to rouse him for breakfast in months. 

He rolls onto his side, not yet ready to leave the security of this small private place. Beyond his sheet curtain the music changes to something in Arabic, but it’s interrupted by a siren from beyond the compound. He rolls onto his back and listens. The guards say it’s just the fire alarm being tested but the men of Manus Island Regional Processing Centre (MIRPC) suspect it’s played to disturb the sleeping and distress the awake. For some it reminds them of air-raid sirens. For Mahmud it’s the Revolutionary Guard again.

After two minutes the siren ends. Mahmud pulls back the sheets and dresses in his grey T-shirt and blue shorts, finds his sunglasses, and slips on a pair of blue thongs. The thongs are only a few months old and much more comfortable than his old ones. Of course, they can’t protect his feet as well as his runners, but fungal infections are so common that he’d prefer to risk grazed heels and toes.

He nods hello to the Iranians and Hazara playing Hokm and puts on his sunglasses as he walks to the door.

It’s dazzlingly bright outside. All the buildings in Oscar compound, from the dorms to the mess hall to the shipping containers that serve as the toilet and shower blocks, are white. So is the ground, made from pulverised shells and limestone. Even with the sunglasses Mahmud needs to squint. There’s hardly anyone outside. Most will be in their dorms avoiding the sun, or in the mess hall. That’s where he’s headed. He’s thirsty but bottles are banned in Oscar.

As he walks across the yard he can smell the fumes from the generators along the fence line and hear their mechanical clunking compete with the noisy Manus friarbirds in the trees beyond the centre.

The mess hall is not busy for lunch. Mahmud gives his ID number to a guard at the door and helps himself to a cup of water from one of the 20-litre dispensers. He finishes the cup and has another, deciding whether to eat. He doesn’t much like the food – bits of chicken, rice, some steamed vegetables – but he knows dinner is hours away and even though it’s quiet there won’t be much left after 1pm. Hunger overcomes, and he takes a plate to one of the long plastic tables and sits by himself.

He and the others around him eat quickly yet cautiously, sifting through the food looking for insects and other foreign bodies. A while back one man broke his bottom front row of teeth on a stone inside his meal. Today Mahmud finds nothing out of the ordinary, and within 15 minutes is back in his dorm trying to cool down.

A sharp noise rouses Mahmud from his half-slumber. It’s the back gate to the compound slamming, and he knows what it means even before he sees the 20 or so khaki-shirted members of the Emergency Response Team stream past the doorway. It takes a moment to slip on his thongs and then he’s out the door, following others from his dorm. There’s a commotion near the mess hall. A man is shouting and struggling as a detachment of the ERTs restrain him, while the others form a line to keep a group of 30 to 40 shouting and jostling men back.

To Mahmud it looks like the group is fighting, but as he draws nearer he sees they’re trying to help a man with blood streaming from his nose and four others nursing various wounds. Now he can see the restrained man. It’s the Iraqi who talks to invisible men. He has attacked other men in Oscar three times before. He’s still struggling and yelling as the ERTs carry him towards the solitary accommodation area.

“I was just leaving the mess hall,” Mahmud hears the one with the bloodied nose say as he’s helped towards the bathrooms. “I hadn’t done anything, and he hit me in the face with a chair.”

The presence of the ERTs leaves everyone anxious, but the fight is nothing special. As Mahmud and others walk back to the dorm he remembers a brief conversation with an Australian guard months before.

“How are you, mate?”

“How do you think I should be?”

“Yes, mate, we know. Same shit, different day.”

The afternoons are the hottest part of the day on Manus and many men take the opportunity to catch up on lost sleep. A few men leave Mahmud’s dorm to join activities run by staff, but others will just show up to get points. The men are given 25 points a week to spend at the MIRPC canteen, with extra points for participation. A 45-minute English class earns one point, as does a staff-run gym session or card game, to a maximum of an extra 25 points. KitKats cost three points. A can of Fanta one. A pack of cigarettes is eight points.

As in places of incarceration all around the world cigarettes are the currency of MIRPC. The Papuan staff are very happy to trade illicit items for smokes. One pack will buy a joint, 20 a mobile phone. Another pack will buy phone credit. Mahmud doesn’t smoke, so doesn’t bother with the activities. This afternoon he will do a little writing and lie in his bunk with the curtain drawn, waiting for the sun to go down.

The mess hall rings with the sounds of shuffling chairs and conversation. It’s so loud Mahmud can hardly hear Ali talking right next to him. News of the negotiations between the Australian and Philippine governments over a potential refugee resettlement plan has travelled fast.

“Oh God,” moans Saeed, sullenly picking at the same rice and chicken dish Mahmud had eaten at lunch. “They’re going to bribe the Philippines, just like Cambodia, and waste Australian tax to dump us like rubbish.” Mahmud knows the subtext. He and anyone else who’s complained about the food or lack of clothing has heard the angry response from expat security. This food and clothing is my fucking tax dollars spent on you. Ali nods. “The Philippines will also treat us like dogs. They are shipping us here and there and forget that we have families and children.”

“How can Peter Dutton do this cruelty?” asks Saeed. “How come he does not feel for us? And how are there Australians that hate us and think we’re their enemies? We fled persecution and war.”

“Of course they don’t care,” says Ali. “They are safe. And he is a politician. He only cares about money and power.”

Mahmud has heard the same conversation almost every day for the past two years. Round and round in circles, not so much a debate as an airing of despair, a testing of new conspiracies. There’s so little else to talk about. He finishes his piece of papaya and heads outside.

By 10.30 he’s collected his medication for the evening, showered, and returned sweating to his bunk. The dorm is quiet. Back behind his curtain Mahmud is alone with his thoughts. The boat had been low on fuel and the sun was beginning to set. Eighty men, women and children surrounded by sea, no land in sight. When the patrol boat pulled alongside their doomed craft they thought it was the end of their misery and persecution. He had hoped to study law.

That was two years ago. Iran, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the Philippines. He sees pain, humiliation, and eventual death in each. He wishes that he’d died that day at sea.

Someone switches off the dorm lights. He closes his eyes but he’s still there.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2015 as "Life on Manus". Subscribe here.

Chris Shearer
is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.