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Oct 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Remembering Manus

Judith Reen works as Education Technical Adviser with Save the Children in Port Moresby PNG. She has found the kind of all-consuming work that allows one a sense of utility and service to others, the kind that draws us all to teaching in the first instance, and she still occasionally shares a meal with dear friends made in the worst of circumstances on Manus.


It’s 2013 and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has entered into an agreement with the Papua New Guinean Government to re-establish an off-shore processing centre in its north, on the island province of Manus. This time processing is to be conducted under a new policy which states that all boat arrivals will be processed on Manus and Nauru and that they will never, ever be settled in Australia. Four more prime ministers from both political spectrums would preside over this regime in the years to come. It is not the first time that Australian authorities have engaged in such extreme social engineering, nor is it an original idea to exile human beings deemed to be troublesome or unwelcome to a prison island but as I would learn, knowing something has happened in your country’s history and bearing witness to it in your own lifetime are entirely different things.

When I reached Manus in late 2013, the profound isolation of the centre which had been hastily and crudely set up within the historic Lombrum Naval Base meant that that caseworkers, teachers and recreation workers acted as conduits to the free world. Manus was called a SAMs - Single Adult Male camp and was run under a quasi-military administration headed by what was then DIBP the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and run by G4S, a private security firm. Non-operational, human services were provided by the Salvation Army and I was a part of their education team. All the compounds I would come to know had Nato phonetic alphabet designations; Delta, Foxtrot and Oscar. Later Mike, a hard prison structure and three metre security fences were added to the jumble of shipping containers and catering tents being used as accommodation.

Mike Compound – Built in 2013.

Photo: Reuters


Map of Manus Island Detention Centre circa 2014

 Illustration: Taylor Wallace/Guardian Australia

Before taking the role as ‘Off-shore Educator’ I had taught English at Villawood Detention Centre as a volunteer on Saturdays for several years. I honestly thought that I knew what to expect. I could not have been more wrong.

My first orientation at the camp was complete with a scene of guards rehearsing cutting a bed sheet knot with a slip-knife. It was late afternoon and the humidity was still around 77%. To control the prolific mosquito population, fogging was carried out at dusk. Shrouds of toxic haze were pumped into the small Foxtrot compound. Twenty odd men drifted back from the fence they had been peering through to observe the new recruits. Early in the life of the camp there was a general controlled chaos. Shipments of supplies from Australia were late, months late, and often pilfered on arrival. There were shortages of everything, thongs, t-shirts, pens, you name it. That day some of the men were in pyjamas, some had no shoes on and it was hard not to imagine I had stepped into a concentration camp.

In this context of deprivation and suffering, keeping promises had a special gravity. Remembering to look up and bring vocabulary lists to class, such as the English words: distributor, radiator and alternator; to an Afghan mechanic in Oscar, was important to him. It would occupy his mind and make today different, in a small way, from yesterday.

The men attended any or all English classes provided to break the monotony and fill the long days. Student teacher ratios made it difficult to meaningfully teach a well-pitched lesson but no one on the education team could bear to discourage detainees from joining. In Delta we didn’t have a classroom, so the guards helped us to hang a whiteboard on the fence and we improvised. Sometimes it would rain, and the words would slide off the board faster than I could write. Sometimes between fifty and sixty people would crouch in a cement breeze way or stand at the back. No books, no chairs, no walls, just big spirits and incredible eagerness to learn. They needed a moment not to worry about their families, not to feel so degraded by being caged or by not having enough clean clothing, or by the raw sewage that would flood the place every time it rained. The whole environment was so unforgiving. Even in a period of months I could track their decline. I would come back from respite and notice their faces were different, that it was harder to make them smile.

One morning I signed into Delta and at the security check-point one of the PNG local guards said, “Teacher I show you something.” The guard looked worried and led me to a Rohingya boy sitting in a white plastic garden chair against the back fence. He was wincing in pain, thin and immobile. His friends had been carrying him to the toilet because he couldn’t walk. He had injuries from torture and beatings he had suffered before fleeing Myanmar. There were rules about everything in the RPC (Regional Processing Centre). For example, we weren’t permitted to help detainees to write requests for medical appointments. I broke the rules, often. Amongst all of those who worked in the camp, guards, health workers, counsellors, anyone who saw people and not boat numbers behind the fences practised this kind of disobedience. The guard walked us to IHMS practically carrying the Rohingya boy, and the doctor explained that he had polyarthritis along with his other injuries. All she had in her dispensary to prescribe was Panadol. In instances like these, we were expected not to intervene, even when a request for a medical appointment required translation and could have taken weeks. Seeing people in acute mental and physical pain and feeling powerless to help made me feel impotent, inadequate and outraged.

When Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s passing in December of 2013 I took the article into the camp. We read about his life, three decades of wrongful incarceration which he humbly forgave. We closed the lesson with his famous quote “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” For a moment, in that steaming hot World War II bunker there was silence and strength. I do not know what those men were thinking but as for me, I hoped that they could forgive us all one day for what was happening to them.

There are so many chapters of my life that have passed since I taught on Manus Island, a couple of years working on Nauru with Save the Children, a job at Family and Community Services as a statutory child protection caseworker, a failed attempt to assimilate into ‘normal’ life teaching English in one of Sydney’s elite schools, a consultancy in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. In all of that time and through anguished and clumsy attempts to understand who I am inside and outside of these events which I can only describe as atrocities, I have kept in touch with some of these men. They have not had the luxury of self-agency or the searching that I have. They have had to sit in their pain and wait. Just wait – for the government of one of the world’s richest nations to decide to treat them as human beings.

And while they have waited, same-sex marriage has been legalised in Australia, the #MeToo movement has been born, the Ebola crisis devastated West Africa and was then contained, Donald Trump became president of the USA, there was the Zika virus, the Rio Olympics, the Charleston Church Shooting and women are behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. The world has changed. In all of this, time against the backdrop of a US travel ban, a stultifying ambivalence about the plight of people Australia detained, abused and abandoned, in the context of a lack of political will to stop the vilification of those who flee wars and persecution in their homelands - a viable resettlement solution has yet to be found.

Teaching inside the Manus Island detention centre remains one of the most humbling and edifying of experiences of my life. Their minds were starving, and we tried hard with our smuggled dictionaries, improvised lessons and pens from the Lorengau Papindo store to keep them from the dark thoughts and places that confinement can surface. I have immense respect for the stoicism and camaraderie of the men who were and still are detained on Manus, for their humour, resilience and courage. Knowing them has been my privilege and I believe - Australia’s great loss.

  • Applying Mindfulness in ESL to Address Student Focus
    Leigh Morgan, Australia

  • Remembering Manus
    Judith Reen, Australia