Manus Island and post-traumatic stress
No matter how hard or how long I take to try to comprehend it, the pieces of the ghastly jigsaw will never fit together. Every day, my imagination takes me wandering, but each time I find myself back where I began. It is impossible to see the full extent and enormity of the inhumane, catastrophic effects of Australia’s refugee policy, which seem endless and are destroying us in silence. Sometimes it threatens to suffocate me.
It is widely believed people in power had not envisioned such negative repercussions of their vicious actions towards vulnerable young men and women, mothers, fathers and children, which for years they have tried to cover up to protect their political images. All kinds of tactics are used when the real dilemmas surface. Instead of humanity, systemic and psychological agonies are applied to shatter the spirits of human lives.
I was astounded when a private plane was hired to fly refugees from Manus Island to Port Moresby, where I am at time of writing, to attend their final interviews with United States officials and then return them to the island. Almost 200 refugees were flown on a weekly basis and accommodated in Lodge 10. Yet a husband from Nauru was not allowed to fly to Port Moresby with his pregnant wife. She was left with no money to buy the food she craved and needed for her health. Some of the other refugees and I visited her and left what cash we could, to ensure she could buy some desirable foods.
She is in a state of desolation. Being separated from any loved ones has left her feeling extremely vulnerable and exposed. It is sad the father is not to be part of what should be one of the most beautiful moments in his life. Such are the priorities of the system.
There is a level of utter hostility in this place, which it seems has crossed no one’s mind. I believe the reason people in power don’t want refugees’ children to be born in Australia is so there is no record of them in the country’s history. They will send them anywhere, regardless of the price. The most unfavourable and sickening part is they are trying to keep needy refugees away from sympathetic and thoughtful Australian doctors and nurses, who are aware of the inhuman policy imposed. Foreign medical workers in Port Moresby are not aware of what refugees have been made to endure and, as a consequence, there is no human connection between patients and doctors.
It is the great diversity of unimaginable pain and anguish that has made me become a writer. Being a victim of incarceration in Australia’s offshore detention system for almost five years, seeing men whose brains are clogged because of confinement, where depression sweeps over them constantly, day and night, I also see myself as a counsellor.
While it is beyond my understanding, every one of us is gruesomely affected. I mean this mentally. I really despised attending the appointments with people from the mental health department. I didn’t have knowledge of the subject of psychological wellbeing. I cannot even translate it into my native tongue – the concept does not exist, the word “mental” simply means crazy, which I know I have never been. Yet, I soon discovered, when I saw my friends who came to Port Moresby for their interviews last month, I, too, was affected.
Simple things, which were completely normal, caused them shock and disturbance. The men had suffered mental torment for so long they imagined they were still on Manus in the detention centre, and so couldn’t put themselves into the real world. They had become institutionalised by the processes that took place in offshore detention. As a consequence, they were constantly concerned there would be no food left, so they all lined up at the same time for their meals. Checking in and out of the lodge felt like being answerable to the guards at the compound, which they loathed. They could not remember simple behavioural practices. I had to explain to them on several occasions there were certain places they were not allowed to smoke; not to leave their thongs outside their rooms; that there was enough food for everyone. It seemed as if the effects of the mental torment they were enduring, together with no emotional stability in all those years, was having terrible consequences.
We have experienced trauma in our home countries: when we fled, when we escaped wars, left our parents at a young age, when we were in the hands of people smugglers and on the boats. It continued when we were in detention in Indonesia and on Christmas Island. Every riot and act of violence on Manus Island, and the strict rules imposed by the service providers, all acted to deprive us of our very basic human rights for many years. There are a great deal of men suffering post-traumatic stress disorder – flashbacks, depression, nightmares, the inability to form secure and strong relationships, symptoms similar to bipolar disorder and the inability to move on. The trauma influences everyone mentally, which disrupts us emotionally without our knowledge.
Let me illustrate the effects of events that take place and the impact on individuals.
On many occasions, authorities came at dawn with many armed police to raid our rooms, looking for reasons to deport asylum seekers back to their countries. They searched our compounds every two or three months and they turned our tiny bunk beds completely upside down. The same took place in Port Moresby at the Granville Motel, where sick refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru are accommodated. They have taken many men by force, with the help of the Papua New Guinean police, and returned them to Manus, regardless of the condition of their health. These events are mortifying and keep us all in a state of constant fear.
Hope gets crushed and fades in the lengthy process and unexpected regulations. Nonetheless, a lot of the refugees have completed the necessary processing run by US officials during the past year. Some have been accepted and will be resettled in America. Others still do not know if their applications have been successful. Sadly, there are many from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Iran who are subject to the ban imposed by the current US government. There are about 190 refugees who have not been interviewed at all, and who are feeling terribly hopeless. Here are some people’s thoughts on this torturous process:
Saleh, a Rohingya refugee: He says he is numb and lost. He doesn’t feel anything nowadays. He has reached saturation point for pain in his life.
Ibrahim, a 60-year-old Rohingya refugee: He calls himself Bodkuaillah, which means the unluckiest person on this planet. He says, “I have not seen my youngest son since he was born. My wife and children are languishing in a makeshift camp in Bangladesh. It shatters me when I can’t give my little boy any hope and the feeling of hopelessness breaks me into a thousand pieces. I can’t eat anything as there is no food for my children so I sell my food and save my allowances and try to send it to my family through Fundi, a type of network where money changes hands. Each person will take a commission from it, and by the time my family receives the money, there is not much left.”
There are some asylum seekers who are very likely to be stuck in political limbo for the rest of their lives. They didn’t plead their cases as they didn’t come to Papua New Guinea to seek asylum, even though they have the right to do so under international law. Some were classed as refugees, whereas others were delivered with negative status without their cases being heard. It is important to remember that Papua New Guinea found Australia’s offshore detention was unlawful. Lack of clarity about our process and our future has made our emotional health suffer on an unbearable level.
Men, women and children left their countries to find safety. The governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea know these people can’t go back to their countries. Prisons and camps will possibly become their home forever. They are excluded from any opportunity to be resettled in a third country. Australia found a loophole and physically removed us from the Lombrum detention centre and forced us into the Lorengau community with no support, physical or medical, and, for some, no monetary support either. There is no psychiatric help, no assurances of safety, no possible future in sight. Our energy is sapped and there seems no reason to get out of bed each morning. In fact, many sleep all day in order to hide from reality.
We have so many struggles with mental illness – on top of one another, it is like experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and current trauma together, over and over again. Desperation for survival is so extreme that many men sit and stare out at the vast emptiness for a glimmer of hope for their unknown future.
Over time, some of us have fallen into depression and anger beyond words. Some act on impulse, some of us self-harm. Some of us have died. We all suffer some of these things at different times. We have lost our hope, mental equilibrium and, mostly, we have lost our sense of identity. We have no control over our lives and this impacts on our ability to act true to ourselves.
The politicians are saying that their policy has been successful. Yes, it has, but at what cost? Our hope has been shattered and we have lost the ability to see ourselves as worthy.
It seems they will continue to fill their glasses with our blood, as they have not had enough of our suffering.
All we ask is that they set us free.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Manus and post-traumatic stress". Subscribe here.