With numerous shots fired at the Manus Island detention centre, the danger to detainees and Australian staff has become undeniable to all but the Australian government. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Government dismisses shootings on Manus Island
On Good Friday, I received a message from Behnam Satah, an Iranian detainee on Manus Island. Shooting had broken out, he told me. “It was navy who attacked. The camp is in code red.” Soon other men were confirming that the detention camp was under fire. Footage was being uploaded to the internet. Fear and panic were being relayed as many lay on the floor of their room, phones in hand, trying to get news out. “The navy shot more than 100 times and some of the bullets hit rooms,” one man wrote to me. “The refugees and Australian officers are extremely scared and are in the centre now in the rooms and tent.”
Behnam, who witnessed the murder of his friend Reza Barati during a 2014 riot, was terrified. He thought another fatal breach of the camp was imminent. “History repeated 17th February,” he wrote to me, referring to the date of Barati’s killing, “but this time navy was shooting.” Some days later, he wrote: “People are still frightened and anytime that we hear a loud voice or crashing something, people hide in their rooms. The flashback of the night of the gun attack is always in my mind. I can’t forget and at the same time I can’t believe the recent attack. We could hear the bullets hit the fence. No Wilson security staff were armed, the night shift [had] just arrived and didn’t know anything. They said ‘We are together in this with you’ and they were asking everyone to go to their rooms and lie down. Voices were getting closer. Every night for me is like 17 February – I have bad and heartbreaking memories of the past attacks.”
Papua New Guinean police have since confirmed that “drunk” naval officers, following a dispute with asylum seekers playing on a football field, clashed with police and immigration officers. “The soldiers fired several gunshots on the air causing great fear and threats to the local and international community serving at the centre,” Inspector David Yapu said.
“A senior PNG immigration officer was seriously attacked and injured by the soldiers – and an asylum seeker – and were treated at [International Health and Medical Services] at the centre and discharged.”
Meanwhile, the PNG Defence Force’s Colonel Ray Numa said that the “misuse of weapons is a serious breach of military conduct especially where rules of engagement were not used. We want to clear this as quickly as possible and have those involved held accountable for their actions … Those found to be in breach of civil laws would be dealt with by the police”.
I have heard multiple but unverified reports that the Wilson Security headquarters, located separately to the detention camp, was vandalised and its vehicles damaged. I have also heard from two sources that some Wilson Security officers were threatened by the armed soldiers who demanded the keys to the detention centre. Courageously, the men refused to hand them over. Wilson Security did not respond to my inquiries before deadline.
“I know for sure that there was a few real Wilson heroes that night in security which did many things to stop navy from entering compounds,” Behnam told me. “But people don’t trust them because we know for sure Australia can extract all his citizens whenever it wants. They could just go and leave us.”
I asked camp detainee and journalist Behrouz Boochani if the shared experience had improved relations between the guards and detainees. “Some refugees feel better with the officers because some of them protect them on that night,” he said. “I don’t think this make relationship better between refugees and guards because the refugees have lost four friends in this island and also the officers during the big hunger strike on January 2015 beat the refugees and put them in Lorengau jail. The refugees have had very bad experiences with this system.”
Another grave reason for those tensions was alleged late Thursday, when Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said a group of asylum seekers had led the five-year-old son of a local naval officer into the processing centre in the week preceding the shooting. No reason was given for the boy being led into the centre, but the implication is as obvious as it is dark. Dutton said the allegation, combined with recent charges laid against asylum seekers and refugees for the sexual assault of locals, has created “a lot of angst”. Local authorities are investigating.
Four days after the shooting, Boochani published a long post on his Facebook page. It read, in part: “An important element of the night of 14 April was that the Australian staff and officers were, for the first time, in the same situation as the refugees. While some of the refugees were coming back from Lorengau town in a bus they saw a lot of scared officers and female staff who were running away from the staff accommodation which is closest to the prison (RPCT1). The refugees said that the bus turned back to Lorengau. The Australian citizens at that time were running to reach a ship that is used by Australia. Some staff who could not run away were sheltering in the rooms and some of them were hiding under beds. An Australian woman told me ‘I have never experienced violence like that and it was the first time in my life that I heard gunshots.’ Another Australian woman was stuck in the immigration office and some soldiers attacked the office and tried to break the window. Elsewhere the windows for the staff office and control office were broken.
“On the other side in RPCT2 about 20 refugees and three officers were stuck and hiding in the rooms. The refugees told me that the officers were very scared at that time. In front of the Oscar prison gate two Australian officers were beaten extremely badly by the soldiers while they were preventing them from getting into the prison. Some officers told me that the soldiers put the guns directly to some Australian officers then shot into the air. The officers were shocked.”
The Australian government’s response has been characteristically limited: “This is a matter for the government of PNG.” Both PNG police and its defence force have said they are investigating. Happily, no one on the island was shot. “If I was religious,” Behnam tells me, “I would probably say God helped but the reality is, although they were shooting towards our accommodations, they were aiming a little high. That’s why the roof of some rooms was shot. There was lots of possibility someone got shot but luckily weren’t.”
For years, our offshore camps have been loathed by those detained in them, those staffing them and the local populations who accommodate them. For years, these camps have created foul antagonisms, some of them murderous, as when Reza Barati’s skull was split with a rock. Since last year, when Manus detainees were permitted day trips, those tensions have only increased and are now inflamed by recent allegations of sexual assault and attempted pederasty.
For years, psychiatrists have recorded mental disintegration. Medics have treated children who have swallowed bleach and men who have swallowed razor blades. Guards have quelled riots and bandaged slashed arteries.
The PNG Supreme Court has ruled the Manus camp illegal, and both offshore sites have attracted the condemnation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, medical experts, government inquiries and international media. Mental deterioration is not unique to the detainees – I have spoken with traumatised teachers and guards who are plagued by nightmares and anxiety following their time “on island”.
Now we have the Good Friday shootings – a sinister farce that might have resulted in massacre, but is breezily dismissed by our government as an “incident”. We have long known the camp is not safe for its subjects, but it is now obvious it is not safe for its Australian staff either. We might also wonder what the United States government’s response would have been had its officials, as they were in recent weeks, been in camp.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "Manus shooting".
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