Approximately five years ago Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, was exiled to Manus Island by the Australian government. The blow was sudden and significant – this man’s life was completely transformed. He had left behind a pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter in Dafur, Sudan.
Mohamed’s life story is a real tragedy. He is young, he is a handsome man with broad, penetrating eyes. But as he stares ahead one senses an intense depression deep down in his soul; the lines running across his face flow with intense sorrow. A few months after Mohamed was exiled to Manus his second daughter came into the world. He was overjoyed in the way all fathers are upon the arrival of their newborn child.
That was at a time when the refugees were suffering – they were being brutally punished in an effort to force them to return to their countries. For Mohamed, however, refoulement meant the ultimate end; returning to Sudan meant death.
News spread through the prison a few months after the birth of his daughter: “They killed Mohamed’s wife.” Losing a partner is absolutely shocking for any person, and Mohamed was deeply in love with his wife. The story was like this: a group of armed men sprayed her with bullets as she stood out on an empty farm. This incident elicited a wave of emotional support from the other men – men who were themselves struggling with feelings of hopelessness.
It has been five years since that loss and Mohamed’s daughters have turned seven and five years old. And Mohamed remains a captive here on Manus Island. Suddenly, he stares ahead once again, gazes up into the sky and says: “At the moment they are with my elderly mother living in one of the villages in Darfur. My mother is looking after them. But for some time I’ve been thinking to myself that my eldest daughter should have started school by now. However, our village doesn’t have any schools.”
No doubt, Mohamed has dreams for his daughters. Throughout all these years their father has only ever been like a shadow in their lives; they feel his presence, but only in spirit. He has many dreams for his daughters, but one of the most fundamental among them is that they go to school.
Mohamed expresses a bitter smile: “They have been the only thing that has given me hope throughout all these harsh years. They are the only reason I’m alive. Over these years I’ve been trying my hardest to communicate this feeling to them, I want them to know they have a father, I want them to know that one day their father will hold them in his arms.”
There is also Kaveh, who I know well. He is a man with bushy eyebrows and a broad, chiselled face. A visage full of a kind of vibrancy for life – the joys of childhood clearly radiating from his face. His son Taha was born while he was still in Indonesia. He has never laid eyes on his boy. Taha has started speaking now. Taha has started to walk. He calls his father bābā over the phone.
Kaveh is extremely compassionate and a genuine family man. I am sure his situation was extraordinarily difficult that he was forced to leave his pregnant wife and flee Iran. I ask Kaveh if he has ever thought about returning during these last years. He wraps his hands around the crown of his head, he pauses for a moment in reflection, the question evokes feelings of shame, the question humiliates him. He replies: “Is there any man in this world who wouldn’t want to be with his boy and his partner? If I could return I wouldn’t put up with this agony for a second, let alone have to live with the pain for five years.”
Kaveh’s story doesn’t end with the separation from his wife and child. It had only been a few months since being exiled to Manus prison when he received news that his father had died. Having to mourn the loss of loved ones is part of the reality of being locked up in Manus prison. There is no choice but to confront this reality – it is an integral part of life in this place.
But for Kaveh this incident was incredibly difficult. He is still trying to come to terms with the death after all these years. He sighs with grief and tells me: “I knew my father was sick. Talking to him over the phone at that time was really tough. We weren’t permitted to talk for more than a few minutes every week, calls were restricted. One day, no matter how much I tried to convince them to let me call, the authorities wouldn’t allow me to use the phone. They told me I had to wait a few days. When I called after a few days I found out he had died. After all these years I still think if I had had the opportunity to speak to my father what would he have said. They showed no mercy when they prohibited me from speaking to my father. The whole thing was horrific.”
Kaveh’s is the story of a father who lost his own father.
And there is Aryobarzan, a 45-year-old man from Iran with two daughters aged five and seven. He puts up their photos on the wall in his room. When he looks at the pictures he describes the sweet manner in which they speak to him over the phone, and he begins to laugh. He says that his youngest daughter’s personality takes after him. Remembering this aspect of her character makes him happy for a moment, he laughs again.
I have known Aryobarzan for years. He resided over in the bed opposite me for a whole year. A man with curly hair, a strong man with a broad physique. A kind-hearted human who has respect among all the refugees; everyone can count on his him because of his wealth of life experiences. His personality is such that many of the younger guys look up to him like a big brother. But on many occasions, in the middle of the night, I used to notice he would descend into the depths of sorrow thinking about his little girls.
When I ask him what is the most painful thing he has had to experience in this prison, he just continues smoking and says: “You know, I love my wife and daughters. The thing that causes me the most suffering is being away from them. But there’s another pain within this suffering; that is, Australia didn’t let me take pleasure in seeing my kids grow up during the sweetest period of their lives. And this causes me enormous distress.”
But he also speaks of something really beautiful, as well. He recounts: “Some time ago it was my daughter’s birthday. She said to me ‘Daddy, I want a kangaroo soft toy.’ And through one of my Australian friends I was able to post a toy kangaroo to her.”
Moments later he showed me the photo. I can only describe the image in one way: a little girl, dark eyes, hugging a kangaroo, and her thick lips kissing the toy.
These are some short snippets from the stories of the fathers held in Manus. They are just a few examples of dozens of men who have been battling the pain of being separated from their partners and children for years and years. It is not completely clear how many of the refugees in Manus are married. But what is obvious is that the suffering that these fathers undergo is profound, the suffering is compounded with all the other anguish one feels on this island.
It is important to point out that the other refugees totally identify with their pain and sympathise with them. This is nothing other than the realisation that the fathers are suffering in ways over and above what every prisoner already goes through.
These stories are exclusive insights, a window into the lives of men who are experiencing a profound loneliness, the unbearable feeling that they are nothing more than forgotten people. Men killed between the cogs of a political machine. However, it is their humanity that helps them endure this system.
Many people try to construct an accurate picture of the situation for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru using statistics: such as “five years in detention” or “2,000 individuals”. I must say that applying this statistical approach cannot penetrate the depth of the issue.
The central concern is the opportunity to live life well. Only through a profound engagement with the lived experiences of refugees can one realise the extent of the human disaster, only by listening to the life stories of the prisoners can one understand the torture they have had to endure.
The core problem is that one cannot arrive at an accurate picture of the lives of these men by searching between the layers upon layers of newspapers, or within the arguments made by politicians and human rights activists. Perhaps this is the reason that until now Australian politicians have avoided coming to this island, perhaps this is the reason why they do not want to see these men up close. Perhaps this is the reason why they do not want to hear their life stories. They are afraid to look into the eyes of these refugees.
This is the standpoint of the political authorities and leading public figures in Australia, they all see the prisoners as nothing but 2,000 refugees. The only result in this way of thinking is to reduce the character, identity and humanity of these people to a basic category: “refugee”. They want to simplify them to a one-dimensional being, a one-dimensional construct. They want to render them an object without any capacity to think intelligently, an object without feelings, an object without family.
For me, who has been incarcerated in Manus Prison for five years, this question plagues me: if I was in a situation like these fathers, where I had a little son or a daughter who I could not hold in my arms, could I have withstood the hardship for this many years? I must confess, in all honesty, that when I think about this question I not only cannot find an answer but I also experience a mix of agony and terror. They are truly inspiring men.
Without a doubt, this suffering is being felt thousands of kilometres away. This suffering is real in the lives of children, in the world inhabited by those little girls who hold their dolls tight in the dead of night. This suffering engulfs the dreams of children. This suffering isolates and afflicts women who have to carry all the burdens of life that weigh down on them. These women have to endure the misery of separation.
The affliction continues to travel far and wide. Without a doubt, this affliction is reproduced in faraway lands and distant places, in remote towns and villages. These families suffer together. This is another side of the world we inhabit. Australia is not only holding 2,000 individuals hostage – Australia is holding many thousands more people hostage around the world.
- Behrouz Boochani is a journalist and an Iranian refugee held on Manus Island. Translated by Omid Tofighian from the American University in Cairo/University of Sydney
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010