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Faisal’s life in Myanmar was destroyed by violence and persecution. Now the Rohingya asylum seeker is in limbo. By Abdul Karim Hekmat.

Trapped in Nauru

Faisal, a Rohingya from Myanmar, in Nauru.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Faisal’s voice broke when he told me that they killed his brother, Abu Fayaz. They killed his sister-in-law, too, and their 11-month-old baby. At least 45 people died when the Burmese army rampaged through Faisal’s village, Aly Than Kyaw, in August last year, burning down the houses, chasing the fleeing inhabitants and shooting them or slitting their throats. Thousands were in hiding in the mountains.

Faisal is a Rohingya, a member of an ethnicity that the United Nations has called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. He is a victim of the wave of Buddhist violence against his people in 2012, which displaced about 140,000 people before the more recent violent crackdown by the Burmese army. Faisal sought asylum in Australia and ended up in Nauru.

The recent violence, which broke out on August 24, has displaced 700,000 of his people, nearly half of the Rohingya population of Myanmar.

“Nothing [is] left,” Faisal tells me. “They have no food, no money, no way to escape – the military controls all the roads. They have nothing to eat; they only eat leaves, all the kids are hungry. They were crying and shouting. I am very worried. Maybe they already passed away. What can I do? I am trapped here inside this.”

This is the camp on Nauru. Faisal is now 22. Along with his 55-year-old brother and family, he has been held here for the past five years. There are about 80 Rohingya on Nauru and a similar number on Manus Island, all distressed and in mourning.

Over the past two years, I have been speaking with a number of refugees in Nauru: two Iranian men, a Pakistani poet and a few others. They have told of their horror story, of pervasive despair, of uncertainty, of violence they experience on a regular basis. They have sent me photos of blood-smudged faces bashed by locals. Most are fearful to leave their homes after 6pm. They are subjected to a world of violence, suspension of law, a nightmarish life.

Refugees are being closely watched by guards. Smartphones are not allowed inside the detention centre. The liberty to assemble has been taken from them. Those who protest are severely punished, beaten and imprisoned.

When I began speaking to Faisal in September, he was not talking about Nauru but about his family and people who were being forced out from Myanmar. He said he couldn’t reach his other brothers or relatives. He couldn’t sleep at night. He suffered flashbacks of those deaths and of the violence he had experienced in Nauru.

For days and weeks, he sent me images of himself, of his sad face and parched lips, his eyes squinted, standing in the sun, standing in front of the fence at the Nauru detention centre. Over the following days, videos and images of distraught Rohingya, of the elderly, of the frail, of the sick, mostly women and children, walking in the jungle, streamed through my phone. Photos of a man walking against a background of smoke, of burning houses, of a man screaming, his legs cut and burnt. There was a dead toddler, lying on the bank of a river with another animal, death beside death.

 

Faisal was stateless in his own country. As a Rohingya, he was barred from attending public schools or going to university. His parents could only afford to send one child to a private school – he was the lucky one out of eight siblings.

Faisal was about nine when the military took him into forced labour for a few weeks. He decided to flee one night, but the military caught him and beat him mercilessly. In 2012, when violence broke out between the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, Faisal was part of a student movement that protested against military brutality. He participated in a protest that the Burmese army crushed that year. His father and brother were arrested and tortured. Faisal fled his home at night and went into hiding in the bush for two months. “We could not leave our house during the day because the military [would] shoot us,” he said. Like so many others fleeing now, Faisal went on foot, wadding through muddy water and thick bushes, and then on a rickety boat that was for 10 but on which they crammed 20 people, paddling towards Bangladesh for five hours.

 

In Bangladesh, he boarded a small boat with 75 others. They had no navigation tools. After 15 days drifting on the Andaman Sea, one of the engines died. Then, two days later, they also ran out of food and water. They were hungry and thirsty. Faisal said they were close to death. “Our mouth made sound like you are clapping when we talked.”

Unable to bear the thirst, some drank the seawater. One of his cousins and seven of his friends died on the journey. Finally the remaining passengers spotted the shore of Thailand and were rescued.

From there began a circuitous route through the jungle to Malaysia, then onwards to Indonesia. Eventually, Faisal boarded another boat. After three nights at sea it was intercepted off Christmas Island. In 2014 he was accepted as a refugee but was offered no resettlement outside of Nauru.

 

Faisal was in detention when he learnt his father had died. He was shattered, and paced the compound for days and nights, crying. A year later, he learnt about the death of his sister, who died in a Rakhine hospital while giving birth. “The doctor gave her an injection, after an hour she passed away.” The circumstances were suspiciously similar to how their mother died in 2012. Rohingya are regularly denied access to medical treatment.

Faisal tells me about a night in October 2016, when he finished his work in a small shop on Nauru and was on his way home. On a dirt road in the jungle three local men, armed with machetes, jumped out from the bush and attacked him. Holding a machete to his throat, one of the men demanded he give them “everything”. They snatched his bag, his telephone. “You have more things on you,” they yelled.

He said he had nothing but his shirt and pants and, if they wanted those, they could have them. The men struck his helmet with the machete. Looking back, Faisal says, “God saved my life.”

He felt his fingers moist and burning. He could see the lights of Regional Processing Centre 3 in the distance and ran screaming towards it.

The detention centre security guards called the police, who took Faisal to Nauru hospital. Without taking a statement, they told him they would return and left. They did not. “The police said, ‘You stay in the hospital. We come back.’ They go and they did not come.”

The treating doctor asked Faisal why he had been attacked. He said he did not know.

After a few days, he went to the police station. The police took a statement but still didn’t do anything. For days he was too scared to leave his house, fearing the people who attacked might be after him. “I don’t want to go outside. I always stay inside my room.”

This is the safety Australia has provided him with.

 

Violence against refugees is rife in Nauru. Police rarely follow up. Sometimes, it’s the security guards who attack the refugees and asylum seekers. In May 2017, another refugee to whom I spoke said he was held by Nauruan security guards. One had a hand around his throat while another punched him. Later, he sent me a photo, taken in hospital, of his blood-soaked face. He lodged a complaint to security management, fearing for his life, but no action was taken. In July, a Somali man was attacked by a drunk security guard who was dismissed after reports emerged in the media.

After what Faisal endured in life, the litany of losses, life goes on. Sometimes, he gets works, but he is always fearful of being attacked in Nauru. He managed to send a few hundred dollars to relatives who fled to Bangladesh, but their needs are too large for him to provide for them. Another relative asked him to send money to rescue people stuck in Burma. “I don’t have any money, I can’t help,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.

For the time being, Faisal forgets his own precarious life. He is preoccupied with the plight of his people in Myanmar and pleads that “the United Nations and the world should protect the Rohingya”.

Faisal is waiting for resettlement to the United States. He doesn’t know when.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Trapped in Nauru". Subscribe here.

Abdul Karim Hekmat
was a finalist for the 2018 Walkley Freelance Journalist of the Year.