Life on Manus: island of the damned
February 18, 5.38pm: Here in this prison, everything is abnormal and different from all the villages, cities and continents. The prisoners sleep until afternoon. Life commences with the tumult of noisy queues for toilets. Every day, dozens of imprisoned refugees wake up from their sweaty and sticky sheets as the scorching sun of the tropics sits in the middle of the sky.
These grimy and unbearable toilets are an undeniable part of the identity and history of the Manus prison, and the existence of these toilets is one of the images that, undoubtedly, have been imprinted forever on the mind of every prisoner here. They are a symbol of filth and great cruelty. They have become a centre of insanity and horror in the minds of prisoners. On several occasions, in the dead of dark night, blood has gushed from the bodies of pale young men in the toilets. Fear is struck into the soundless prison by these scenes. Self-harm is a part of life at Manus prison. From time to time, people are found who have lacerated a part of their bodies with blue-handled razors, a result of being kept under intense pressure. Looking at the blood, the extract of their agony, a temporary peace reigns in the minds of these people. In fact, these men endure their pain with a kind of violent and bloody bemusement.
Whatever it is, self-harm has become a horrible habit for Manus prisoners, some of whom have spent 31 months in a space 80 metres by 70 metres. Whenever someone self-harms, all the prisoners gather in front of the toilets and create a situation similar to war-zone front lines. Shouts, groans and swears go up, and for hours the prison experiences a nightmarish atmosphere. These toilets have always been like a tool for torture and agony, whether with the endless lines formed in front of them or when the water inside them is cut off and a nauseating stench hits the whole prison, filth everywhere. The water of these toilets had been cut on purpose in the six months before the incidents of February 2014, when Reza Barati was killed. In the middle of the night, the electricity had been also cut, causing dozens of people to wake distraught and anxious as the fans stopped working and the heat increased. For prisoners, the only relief from the heat was to wander the yard at night.
The difference between the long queues for toilets and the cold showers – there is no hot water for taking a shower – and the rest of the queues is that the prisoners lose their temper and cannot stand still in these lines. Every time there is a person who desperately and urgently needs to relieve himself, he injects his anger and stress into others. The queues are long, tormenting, irritating and humiliating. If we want to describe life in the Manus prison, we could sum it up in just one sentence: “A prisoner is someone who needs to line up in order to fulfil even the most basic needs of every human being.”
Every day there is a chain of hungry men of various height, weight, colour and age, waiting in curved lines under the sweltering sunshine, which boils the brains. In front of the queue at lunchtime, there are some jailers with indifferent and stern faces. They have one responsibility: to tick off the numbers and then after a few minutes allow the prisoners in groups of five to collect their food. Sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, these queues are constantly repeated: for buying cigarettes, for receiving medication and painkillers, for using the telephone, internet and even for getting a razor or lighter. Life without queues in Manus prison is beyond imagination – inconceivable – although, with the decline of the prisoner population, the situation is better.
When lunchtime is finished, the prison changes to a crowded and deafening club, and everyone tries to keep himself busy with repetitious activities. In corridors, they split into groups and spread out different types of games on the ground. Chess, cards and backgammon are the games that they usually gamble on. These gambles could be called “betting on nothing” as no one has anything precious or different from anyone else to lose. But a prisoner understands from experience that betting on nothing is more entertaining than a simple and unchallenging game. Many people start playing these games right after they wake up. They do not have anything to entertain themselves with except the games to play the whole day, day in, day out.
In the prison, time is meaningless. However, it is very strange that the prisoners are deeply interested in asking about time. It might also be a childish entertainment for people who always have extra time. There is a constant battle against time here in the prison and an effort to defeat it under the slow pace of life. Time, nevertheless, imposes itself on life on Manus in the shape of history. Everyone, in his mind, traces a course of the history of the hellish life on this island, from the period before the riot in February, a period prisoners call “The Great Famine”, to the murder of Reza Barati and the death of Hamid Khazaei, or the peaceful hunger strike of 900 people that caused many to be arrested and imprisoned in the dirty jail of the island. All these nightmarish incidents formed the history of our forgotten prison and whenever the prisoners speak about times and dates, they measure it against this three-year course of history. It seems they do not see any point in using an actual calendar. When someone wants to explain, for instance, when he lost his mother or when his wife abandoned him, he puts it in the frame of Manus prison history. He says two months after the riot or three months before the hunger strike. This behaviour might appear strange to many people, but for a normal prisoner, the actual calendar is nonsense and he calculates the events of his life according to his exquisite and anguished pain – according to the repetition of what he has experienced in the prison.
The prisoners constantly talk. Having conversation is a kind of entertainment or amusement for them. They usually divide into groups and speak for hours and hours. It seems there is no end to their stories. Simply put, they intend to kill time with ceaseless talking. In groups, they lean their feet against the fences and let their hearts become calm in the sea of restless waves, the sea that they could just hear its murmur. Behind fences, little local children sometimes pass. They are always the most beautiful entertainment for prisoners in those short moments. I have seen on many occasions that the prisoners, who have kids their age, throw some chocolates to the local children. The children give them a smile and, in this way, the prisoners offer their paternal kindness while their hearts are heavily laden with rue. Then, in some simple words, they mention to the person sitting next to them that “my son is also six”, “my daughter is as sweet as this little girl…”
Next to this charming scene, some others ignore the children, as they are busy looking for marijuana in order to put it over a Coke can and smoke it with their fellow sufferers at night. As the night wears on, the tumult of this deafening club fades and the prisoners, in groups like weary bees, enter into the two-metre rooms with low ceiling and no window. The rooms are similar to abandoned beehives. Agonies, hopes, and nightmares along with the prisoners are piled up in the dark and hive-like rooms. What sometimes shatters the dominant silence of the prison are the bangs of punches made by the fist of a crazy sorrowful man, hitting a rotten punching bag that is hung from “The Suicide Tree”. Years ago, this name was given to a tree next to the toilets.
Soundlessness and darkness eventually descend over the prison. Dark and forgotten, the prisoners here drift into sleep with the pleasant dream of freedom but wake up with ominous nightmares.
Undoubtedly, no one will forget The Great Famine era, when they sank into sleep hungry and thirsty. Or the murder of Reza Barati etc.
We still have to live tomorrow but life in Manus prison is limited to the constant repetition of the past three years. Repetition of nightmares, repetition of agonies, vain hopes, little happiness and the repetition of conversations with no novelty.
Further away, a skinny man, while leaning his back against a coconut tree in an outlying corner, deeply smokes, deeply suffers and deeply lives.
Translated from Farsi by Moones Mansoubi.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: “There are currently no water or electricity restrictions at the Manus Regional Processing Centre (RPC). From time to time, the water or electricity supply may be temporarily interrupted due to environmental factors, maintenance or other unforeseen circumstances. In the event of unforeseen interruptions to the water supply at the Manus RPC, alternative arrangements are made; for example, bottled water is provided to transferees. Essential services are never arbitrarily shut off at the RPC.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Island of the damned". Subscribe here.