Carol Hucker worked on Manus Island as a counsellor for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) and as a case worker for the Salvation Army from June 2013 to July last year.
She has allowed Green Left Weekly to publish her account of her time there so people can become more aware of what is occurring on Manus Island and to these men. She said: “It is my hope that through this brief account the men on Manus will not be forgotten.”
This is the first of a multi-part series and covers the period June to July 2013.
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I first arrived in Port Moresby in June 2013 and was immediately hit by the intense heat and humidity. But Manus Island was even hotter and more humid than Port Moresby.
The security company met the plane with buses to take staff to the detention centre. On the way to the camp I saw incredibly dense jungle on one side and on the other side palm trees and beyond that the sea. The jungle became denser on both sides as we got closer to the camp.
Inside the detention centre
A wire fence encompassed the camp. Once inside all our personal luggage was searched and we were told that no alcohol was allowed. Alcohol that was brought in was confiscated on the spot by security.
Before leaving Australia I was told by my employer that my accommodation would be in a container, shared with one other person. At the time I thought two people to a container would be fine. But the accommodation was half of a 6 metre container.
There were two single or two bunk beds in the rooms. There was minimal space for luggage under the beds and some hooks for clothes at the end of the bed. The container had no windows but was air conditioned.
There were about eight communal showers and toilets for 100 to 200 staff. The quality of these blocks was very ordinary. There were holes in the showers and some of the local lizards would crawl in and have a shower with me. There was no hot water but none was ever needed on the island.
The detention centre had once been a naval base. There were many army-style buildings left over from World War II. These buildings — Nissan huts — had semi-circular tin roofs and fibro walls.
Salvation Army and G4S shared an office in one of the larger of these buildings, which was extremely hot. Often the temperature would climb to 50°C inside. These buildings also accommodated the mess area, library, storerooms, interview room and school room.
On my first orientation tour of the camp I was taken to the family compound. Families were given 3 by 4 metre rooms in one block, six rooms on either side. Each room contained two bunk beds. The rooms had fans but were not air conditioned.
In the middle of each block was a common area where there were some tables and chairs for socialising. Within this compound, the families had a large dining area, and somewhere they could exercise.
There were also school rooms for the children.
When all the families were relocated to Christmas Island the compound was renamed Foxtrot. The single adult males, who had been living in tents, were housed in Foxtrot and the tent accommodation was pulled down.
Next door was the kitchen area. The kitchen gave off a very pungent, nauseating odour. I would hold my breath as I walked past. The people who lived in that accommodation block told me that when it rained the smell died down a little bit.
After leaving the family compound I was led into the tent compound which housed the single men. The men were living in green army tents, which were hot and humid and had a very strong tent smell. The men reported that often snakes would come up through the floorboards. As Manus is a tropical Island, it rained torrentially every day and it was explained that the snakes were just trying to get out of the rain.
The tents each housed six men. They were issued with big fans to cool the tent. This accommodation seemed crowded and the men lacked energy but they were friendly enough.
There were a couple of large marquees, which were used for English lessons and general groups. Men would sometimes sleep in this area, as it was air conditioned, to get some relief from the heat. But security would chase them out and tell them not to sleep there.
The men were allotted exercise times on a large oval, which was accessed via a walkway which went from each compound to a gate. The men had to wait for security to open the gate so that they could walk the short distance across to the oval, which was a large grassy area. They normally exercised by running, walking, playing volleyball, cricket or soccer.
During this rotation I got to know the men through the groups that I conducted with another counsellor and by socialising with them.
One man was a carpenter and at the time an open air gym with a roof was being built in the corner of the oval. I asked him what he thought of the quality of the construction. He just shook his head and said “no good, no good”. He explained that there were no proper tools and there was no method to the construction. He could see the flaws in the structure.
Another man told me he had come by boat as he had been bashed in his country for speaking out about government injustice. He had taught himself to play a recorder. It was very clear that when he played it, the music came from his heart.
He told me his original recorder had been confiscated and asked me to find out where it was because it was valuable. I tried to find out where it was several times but was given conflicting information about its whereabouts and how he could get it back. I had to tell him that I could not find it, which he accepted.
The recorder he played had been lent to him by the Salvation Army. It had been donated by someone in Australia. Before I left he asked me to come to his compound so that he could play a farewell song. The song was very moving and I had tears in my eyes as he played.
On Manus I had my first experience of Ramadan. During Ramadan the men were often too tired to come to morning groups. Some prayed four or five times a day, including night and early morning prayers. Most men took part. Makeshift prayer rooms and tents were established in the compounds for Ramadan. Even though the spaces were small, the men took great care to keep this space clean.
Watching the men pray was touching. They were so committed and respectful. This was when I first learnt the term “Inshallah”, meaning “God willing”. The men would say this about many things that were impacting on their lives. I also learnt that when they touched their heart, with their right hand, that this was a greeting of great respect.
New men would arrive on Manus on a weekly basis. They often looked exhausted and I could see the shock on their faces as they took in their surroundings.
Most of the men still hoped to settle in Australia. But then an announcement was made that if they had come before July 19, 2013 they would be processed as refugees on Australian soil, but if they came after that date they would be processed for Papua New Guinea resettlement. Most of the men there had come before the cut-off date and were sent to Australia to be processed. About a week after I left, nearly all of the men were sent to Australia.
We were advised as part of staff orientation to have a “go” bag with documents, non-perishable food, water and any personal medication ready in case an evacuation was necessary. A staff member told me that staff and refugees on Manus had been evacuated after a tsunami warning.
On the night of the riot on Nauru we were told to take our bags and assemble in our office area. We were told the men knew there was a riot on Nauru. All internet and phone connections were terminated by the security staff so that the men could not hear what was happening on Nauru. Security feared that a riot would also take place on Manus.
We were put into teams to prepare medical supplies. We were not told if our colleagues on Nauru were safe and only found out the next day that staff had been evacuated before that camp was burnt down. We were told by security to return to our rooms once there was no threat of a riot.
Towards the end of my rotation the Australian Army came and I saw them measuring out the oval. I didn’t give it a second thought at the time because the oval was very important for the general physical and mental health of the men. I did not anticipate that this would change.
That was my first rotation and I was very ready to return home to process my experiences. When I got home, I felt that my experiences had been positive, despite the extremely difficult conditions. The men had seemed welcoming and there was no sense of them being under any pressure. I was excited and ready to return for my next rotation.
[Part 2 of Carol Hucker’s account will appear in next week’s edition of Green Left Weekly.]