Australian eyes that 'can't look away' from Manus

Rough sleeping conditions inside the Manus Island regional processing centre, which 600 refugees and asylum seekers refuse to leave.
Rough sleeping conditions inside the Manus Island regional processing centre, which 600 refugees and asylum seekers refuse to leave.
Men inside the now-closed regional processing centre at Manus Island, purportedly showering in the rain.

Men inside the now-closed regional processing centre at Manus Island, purportedly showering in the rain.

Refugees and asylum seekers protesting inside the now-closed regional processing facility on Manus Island, which they refuse to leave.

Refugees and asylum seekers protesting inside the now-closed regional processing facility on Manus Island, which they refuse to leave.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20:  The picture of Reza Barati, who was killed in Manus Island, and other people who died in Australian immigration detention centres are seen during a rally in front of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office in Edgecliff on March 20, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Daniel Munoz/Fairfax Media)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: The picture of Reza Barati, who was killed in Manus Island, and other people who died in Australian immigration detention centres are seen during a rally in front of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office in Edgecliff on March 20, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Munoz/Fairfax Media)

As the crisis on Manus Island deepens, it sheds light on an unwritten history, still in the making, of deep friendships between asylum seekers and their supporters in Australia.

Contrary to the accusations made by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that advocates are telling asylum seekers on Manus Island or elsewhere what to do, their long-time supporters are extremely worried about the men's wellbeing and safety.

They are torn between deep anxiety at the danger and stress the men are under, and admiration for the courage they have shown in taking a desperate stand for their survival and freedom.

"My heart is in physical pain all the time watching this horror unfold," says Castlemaine-based writer Janet Galbraith who is in constant touch with many of the besieged men, offering emotional support, discussing their practical needs, and acting as a sounding board for their anxieties.

"It has to be understood," says Galbraith, "that the men are very determined. They've made their own decisions. We see an incredible sense of brotherhood. They are united by their common experience of detention. They know something we don't. The men are saying, to all of us: 'We know what we need. We know what we want'.

"Our role," says Galbraith, "is to echo their resistance through our acts in Australia, and urge them to take care. What we've done is reach out and listen."

Galbraith's friendships with asylum seekers began in 2013, when she came across a message on Facebook from a young Somali woman. When Galbraith responded she discovered that the woman was detained on Christmas Island. "Her feelings were frozen inside her from being in detention," she says.

Their friendship evolved through an exchange of words, and snatches of poetry. "Other asylum seekers heard about it," says Galbraith. "They were elated at finding a way to express themselves and give vent to their feelings. They wanted to just talk and write, and fight the sense of despair around them."

In response to this need, Galbraith set up Writing Through Fences, an online forum for refugee writers and artists. "The idea was to create a safe space for their voices," she says. "They encouraged each other to remember themselves as they were, prior to detention, and to imagine themselves into the future. Eventually it also became a space where people told their stories. They wanted to tell the world what was happening to them."

As the word spread, Galbraith was contacted by asylum seekers on Nauru, Manus Island and in mainland detention centres. She was introduced to Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, then little known beyond the centre, young cartoonist Eaten Fish, and many others. "They were hungry to tell their stories, rather than have them told for them," says Galbraith. Through collective discussion, the forum developed its credo: "No one can give us a voice and no one can take our voices away. Our voices are ours, and we do with them what we will."

"The group members desperately needed a sense of family, especially young people, unaccompanied minors," says Galbraith. "We set up a closed page where they could talk and share their work freely and openly."

Galbraith travelled to Christmas Island and conducted clandestine workshops in the detention centre, and met asylum seekers in mainland centres.

Those detained on Nauru and Manus were particularly vulnerable. Their isolation and sense of abandonment was more complete. As the years went by, Galbraith witnessed the deterioration of their mental and physical health. Messages and pleas for help could come at any hour.

Galbraith became acutely aware of the depression which spread like a contagion whenever there was an incident of self-harm or death. She heard the panic in the men's voices when 23-year-old asylum seeker Reza Barati was murdered in February 2014, and the men's sorrow and fear for their physical safety after each of the five subsequent deaths on Manus Island through medical neglect, suicides and accident.

Galbraith remains in contact with women on Nauru who have been sexually harassed and raped. "The women's sense of humiliation was intensified many times over when their stories were not believed," she says.

After the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled, in April 2016, that Australia's detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal, Galbraith flew to the island and met some of the men in Lorengau. A group of four men she had long corresponded with arrived at the guest house in a ute.

"They jumped off the back and I ran to them, laughing," says Galbraith. "They were desperate for human touch and affection. Finally, they were able to cry. We sat on the veranda talking till late at night."

One of the men left to catch the bus back to the detention centre. He returned an hour later, bruised and beaten. He had been attacked by locals. It was a brutal reminder of the continuing danger.

Galbraith has returned to Manus four times, and visited detained men sent to Port Moresby to be treated for mental breakdown. She became the carer for two very ill men, who were in the psychiatric unit of the Port Moresby General Hospital.

The unit was one large room with old hospital beds and barred windows set high up in the walls. Galbraith was overwhelmed by what she saw - the lack of sanitation, excreta that had to be washed off the walls, shortages of food and medication.

"There were not enough psychiatrists to cope with the load," she says. "Nurses did the best they could, but they lacked specialist training."

The room was locked at night. Galbraith slept on the floor every night for three months, along with other carers. She witnessed outbreaks of violence. Mosquitoes, rats and ants crawled over the floors. "The men from Manus were suffering from severe post-traumatic stress," she says, "and needed intense care. Yet these were the conditions that Australian authorities were assuring us were OK."

Galbraith's anxiety about the current crisis is echoed by writer Michael Green, who has also developed close friendships with some of the men on Manus Island.

"I can't look away from it," he says. "I receive new messages of distress from Manus at any time, day or night. I have not been sleeping well. What is happening now is a disaster. I am at a loss to understand it. It has been handled so badly by the Australian government."

Green joined lawyer Andre Dao and other co-founders of Behind the Wire - a project started in 2014 aiming to bring a new perspective on mandatory detention, and the men, women and children who live it.

In January 2016, Green began a podcast, The Messenger, with Manus Island detainee and Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Muhamat. The award-winning podcast, produced by Behind the Wire and the Wheeler Centre, continues to this day.

"How beautiful it is to have a conversation with someone," says Green. "To understand each other, and to explore the beauty that arises from that conversation. Aziz speaks poetically, and with deep insight of the daily realities of detention."

In July 2016, in the wake of the PNG Supreme Court decision, and after thousands of voice messages, Green met Aziz on Manus. "It was the first time that Aziz had left the detention centre, except for guard-escorted medical treatment. He was stressed and nervous. But when we saw each other we hugged.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat with Michael Green in Lorengau, July 2016.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat with Michael Green in Lorengau, July 2016. Photo: Behrouz Boochani

"It was exhilarating, and a huge opening-up for Aziz. He was a young man who wanted to enjoy life and experience freedom. It was bittersweet and short-lived. Aziz had to return to the centre."

Aziz spoke of a low point back in December 2014. The then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, visited the centre, and spoke briefly to a group of the detained men. He told them 'you will never come to Australia'. Then he left. There was no engagement.

"[Aziz] had to learn how to live with it, and with his sense of injustice," says Green. Aziz is one of the camp community leaders, and he's been active in taking care of practical needs during the current standoff on Manus. He releases regular updates on The Messenger podcast on the plight of the men and their daily struggle for survival.

Green and Dao also spent several years working on the anthology They Cannot Take the Sky. "Our goal was to work collaboratively with asylum seekers to give them a voice, and get their stories directly onto the page," says Green. "I was taken by the beauty of the people's speech, their phrasing, the cadence, the word choices. There was something very powerful in their eloquence, and the courage of their expression."

Reflecting on his evolving friendships over the past few years, Green says: "I have learnt an enormous amount on what it means to be human. It has been hugely inspiring for me, but I am particularly worried for the men now."

Galbraith too speaks of what her friends have taught her. "They have given me a whole raft of ways of looking at the world," she says. But what she has witnessed has also taken a great toll. Earlier this year, she was driven to the point of breakdown.

In the middle of her own crisis, there was a knock on the door of her house. There stood Hani Abdile, holding a bunch of flowers. She had flown down from Sydney and taken the train to Castlemaine. "Come sister," she said. "Let's get out and take a taxi to the bush, and walk."

Abdile was 17, and imprisoned on Christmas Island, when she first contacted Galbraith. She became a key participant in Writing through Fences. Since her release on temporary protection, she has become a creative force, and is aiming to be a journalist. "She bubbles over with life and beauty," says Galbraith.

"Friendship is a pale word. Hani is my beautiful sister. We are there for each other, and we help each other let go of the pain. We have been there for each other in our hour of need. The word that comes closest is love."

Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer. This is the third piece in the Philoxenia series.

This story Australian eyes that 'can't look away' from Manus first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.