A letter from Manus Island
For many months, the refugees living inside Manus prison have had to endure extraordinarily oppressive conditions orchestrated by the Australian government. During this time, the Department of Immigration used various strategies in order to force refugees out and transfer them into three new camps: East Lorengau, Hillside and West Haus.
They announced October 31 as the deadline for refugees to leave the place.
That date signalled the beginning of extreme force and dictatorship. The government believed October 31 would be the date its vision would become a reality and its plans would be put into practice. When this date arrived, 600 refugees refused to transfer to the new camps. Instead, the situation transformed into a humanitarian crisis that lasted 22 days.
For many watching the events on the island and in the prison from the outside, some central questions have arisen. How could we continue resisting without food, water and medicine for three weeks? How did we keep the character of our protest peaceful throughout this period? How did we continue resisting without ever resorting to violence?
From the standpoint of someone operating at the core of the resistance for this long period of time – that is, the whole three-week period – and privy to everything that was happening inside the prison and the details of the resistance, I think the only thing that helped us persevere for the long stretch of time was our dedication to principles of humanity and human values.
In the community meetings we held every day at 5pm, we stayed true to the principles of love, friendship and brotherhood.
There was nothing greater for us than respect. There was nothing greater for us than equality and camaraderie.
In reality, it was a resistance that was completely democratic. By democratic I mean that every day, right at 5pm, at one fixed location in Delta prison, we gathered and everyone had the chance to express their opinion with the group and discuss. If anyone had a new suggestion, they could outline it and then we would put it to a vote; as a group we would consider whether the suggestion should be put into practice or not.
Debates surrounding how to manage the tasks inside the prison and the rules pertaining to the prison were also resolved by voting. This was in addition to deciding on other methods we should incorporate that could help stand up to power and continue our struggle.
Throughout these three weeks, the gates were completely open and anyone could leave the collective resistance at any moment. They were totally free to go to the new camps and acquire food and water. We were particularly committed to the following point: no one had the right to reproach another for leaving us. In fact, we all had to thank anyone who left the community because they stood with us for as long as they were capable, and we were all grateful for that.
Sometimes, during this period, we smuggled into the prison a limited amount of food in the dead of night, and this food would be distributed equally among the prisoners. This principle also applied to the dogs that live among us: we factored them in. In our meetings we were adamant about the fact we had to show even more compassion to these dogs than before. Feeding them was imperative. These principles applied to the sick, too; we cared for them now more than ever before.
And so the emotional connection and collaborative work began to take shape between special groups of people in Australia, numerous local Manusians, and all of us detained here. This collective sentiment developed into an important partnership in support of our struggle. During that three-week period, special people in Australia united with many people on Manus and made attempts to deliver food inside the camp. Ultimately, this meant that the Papua New Guinea police and navy intensified their strategies as the boats carrying supplies got closer to the main prison camp.
The local Manusians also organised a protest in Lorengau to support us. The protesters, both in Australia and in Papua New Guinea, are not the majority, but they are representative of the conscience of their societies. They are among the people who are socially and politically aware.
In any case, these interrelations between the three communities, all with different cultures and nationalities, proved that there exist people with a sincere understanding of other people, no matter where they are in the world. It proves that there always exist significant people who transcend government ideologies.
I imagine the rallies that were organised can be nothing more than messages of friendship and humanity. But apart from these spaces of solidarity and the alliances formed between societies, the question remains: What are the conditions and the framework that give rise to a resistance constituted by half-naked men on a remote island known as Manus? And what are the messages that this resistance is attempting to convey?
The refugees are overpowered.
The refugees have had extraordinary pressure imposed on them.
The refugees have resisted an entire political system; they have stood up to the power of a whole government.
From the very beginning right through to the very end, the refugees only used peaceful means to stand up and challenge power.
The refugees have asserted their authority.
The refugees have claimed power.
The refugees were able to reimagine themselves in the face of the detention regime.
The refugees were able to re-envision their personhood when suppressed by every form of torture inflicted on them and when confronted by every application of violence.
According to its own logic, and consistent with the character it has moulded itself into, the detention regime wanted to manufacture a particular kind of refugee with a particular kind of response. However, the refugees were able to regain their identity, regain their rights, regain their dignity. In fact, what has occurred is essentially a new form of identification, which asserts that we are human beings.
The refugees have been able to reconfigure the images of themselves as passive actors and weak subjects into active agents and fierce resistors. The concept of the refugee as a passive actor was an ideal instrument in the hands of power and could be exploited by Australia’s political machinations; it formed the refugees into something that could be manipulated and leveraged for the Australian government’s own purpose.
The refugees have established that they desire to exist only as free individuals. They desire only an honourable existence. They have established this in confrontation with the proliferation of violence in the detention centre, one that is implemented by a mighty power structure. Up against the determination of this monolith, the refugees have, ultimately, vindicated themselves.
The refugees have been able to refashion the image of themselves as the “Other”. We have reshaped the understanding of us as politically inept and have been successful in projecting an image of who we are. We now present the real face of refugees for a democratic Australia to discern.
The refugees have found the responses and reasoning provided by the government regarding the hostage situation and our incarceration to be absurd. There have been ridiculous fabrications. We have exposed this as a form of political opportunism, as a politics driven by economic mismanagement and incompetence, policies that benefit bloodthirsty financial investors, a politics that experiments in order to further ingrain a system of border militarisation and securitisation.
The refugees have identified and exposed the face of an emerging 21st-century dictatorship and fascism, a dictatorship and fascism that will one day creep into Australian society and into people’s homes like a cancer.
The refugees have been resisting with their very lives.
Against the real politics of the day.
With their very bodies.
With peace as a way of being and as an expression.
With a rejection of violence.
With a kind of political poetics.
With a particular style of poetic resistance.
These features have become one with their existence.
Refugees pushed back.
Risking their lives and bodies.
Just fragile humans risking everything.
Risking everything that is beautiful.
Risking the only things of value left to them.
Risking what nature had bestowed upon them.
They never gave up these things to become mere bodies subject to politics. In opposition to a system of discipline and the mechanisation of their bodies, the detained did not surrender. In reality, they proved that the human being is not a creature that can be entirely and completely consumed by politics.
From another perspective, this mode of resistance and the messages communicated by the imprisoned is nothing more than refugees asserting and putting into practice their values and their standpoints. They took this stance in order to return something valuable to the majority of the Australian public, to return what it has lost, or what it is in the process of losing. We formulated a schema of humanity that is, precisely, in polar opposition to fascist thinking – the kind of thinking that created Manus prison.
We have reminded a majority of the Australian public that throughout their history they have only ever imagined that their democracy and freedom has been created on the basis of principles of humanity.
If a majority of Australians were to reflect deeply on our resistance and sympathise with us, they would come to realise something about how they imagined themselves to be until now.
They would undergo a kind of self-realisation regarding their illusions of moral superiority.
And they would be forced to self-analyse in relation to the principles and values they hold dear at this point in time, and realise that they are not connected to a mythical moral past.
Our resistance is the spirit that haunts Australia. Our resistance is a new manifesto for humanity and love.
In any case, our resistance and the three weeks of hardship we endured produced a new perspective and method that was remarkably transformative, even for us incarcerated within Manus prison. We learnt that humans have no sanctuary except within other human beings. Humans have no felicitous way to live their lives other than to trust in other humans, and the hearts of other humans, and the warmth within the hearts of other humans.
Our resistance enacted a profound poetic performance. This persisted until the moment we were confronted with the extremity of the violence. We found that the baton-wielding police had killed one of the dogs we had adopted into our community. At that moment, we descended into sorrow and wept,
in honour of its loyalty,
This profound poetic performance was implemented on another occasion when we were facing off against a group of police officers. We linked our arms to create a chain and told them that we only had love for them. We recited this as a poem that then became a collective expression:
A poem that united us.
A poem that we chanted in unison.
A poem of peace.
A poem of humanity.
A poem of love.
When the police chief stood in front of the community of half-naked refugees and named the leaders over the loudspeaker, asking them to surrender themselves, everyone called out:
“I’m A …!”
“I’m Y …!”
“I’m B …!”
This was the scene that emerged in Manus prison.
On the same day that we were brutally bashed, a number of individuals placed flowers in their hair. A sick Rohingya man put two red flowers behind his ears and smiled even as his body was emaciated and in the worst shape possible.
Our resistance was an epic of love.
In any case, I think that our resistance, our strategy of defiance, our message of protest, are the product of years of captivity, of a life of captivity, all produced by captives of a violent governmentality in Manus prison.
Resistance in its purest form.
A noble resistance.
An epic constituted by half-naked bodies up against a violent governmentality.
All this violence designed in government spaces and targeted against us has driven our lives towards nature.
towards the natural environment,
towards the animal world,
towards the ecosystem.
It has pushed us in this direction since we hope that maybe we could make its meaning, beauty and affection part of our reality. And coming to this realisation is the most pristine, compassionate and non-violent relationship and encounter possible for the imprisoned refugees in terms of rebuilding our lives and identities.
We built profound relationships with the indigenous people, with the children, with the birds, the interaction between elements of society, even with the dog that was killed under the brutality of the system.
But the prison and its violence will never accept this, and in every situation the imprisoned lives and spirits have to reconfigure themselves in the face of death; they avoid projecting the malevolent dimension of their existence as the most dominant.
Ultimately, they beat us down and with violence put an end to our peaceful protest. But I think we were able to communicate our humanitarian message to Australian society and beyond. This sentiment is what all people, whether in Australia or elsewhere, need more than anything else these days.
Feelings of friendship.
Feelings of compassion.
Feelings of companionship.
Feelings of justice.
And feelings of love.
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Translation: Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo / University of Sydney
This piece was read by writer and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke in a performance at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne. Listen here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "A letter from Manus Island". Subscribe here.