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 so that people can become more aware of what is happening on Manus Island. She said: “It is my hope that through this brief account the men on Manus will not be forgotten.”
This is the second part of a multi-part series and covers September 2013.
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When I returned to Manus Island, the staff was not taken to the centre but to a jetty. On this rotation, staff was accommodated on an Australian navy vessel HMAS Choules, and navy or army barges were used to ferry people to the accommodation.
The accommodation was bunk style, with 24 people sharing a room. Men and women were accommodated in separate rooms on the same floor. On my floor there were four rooms — home for 96 people — five toilets and four showers.
The next day I started my rotation at the centre. In a little more than a month the camp had changed in many ways. The main change was that there were many more men.
These men had arrived after the cut-off date of July 19. Our old staff accommodation within the centre had been turned into Delta compound. However, while staff had shared with only one other, the accommodation in Delta now housed four men to every room.
One of the men on my caseload was living in a very mouldy room, so he and his roommates were moved to another room. However, the bunks in this room were broken so two men slept on single beds and two on the floor. This made it difficult if one of the men wanted to go out, as there was nowhere to walk without stepping on someone.
These bunk beds were eventually replaced but, as with everything on Manus, nothing happened in a hurry. The men continually complained about the cleanliness of the toilet and shower area. Some offered to clean these areas themselves, but were not allowed.
Delta and Oscar compounds were created when more and more men were transferred from Christmas Island and the Australian mainland. Delta now had a fence around it, but it did not seem secure. This was made obvious when a man who was attempting to self-harm ran at one of the fence poles. He was expecting the pole to be strong, as he wanted to seriously hurt himself. But he only managed to knock down the fence, much to everyone’s surprise. Fortunately he did not hurt himself.
Whenever I walked past this compound the men would come to the fence to say hello or ask for something. They could also talk through the fence to men in Oscar compound opposite.
Much of Delta compound was under cover. There was not much room for exercise and only some areas received sunlight. Due to the lack of space in this compound, English classes, groups, canteen and religious services were held at the end or middle of the blocks. One room was set aside as a Muslim prayer room.
There was no mess in this compound. The men were sent to the mess in Foxtrot in small groups of 5 to 10. To get there, they had to walk along a track behind their accommodation. If it was raining, deep puddles would quickly develop and the men grew skillful at dodging these puddles.
The newly-created Oscar compound had previously been the exercise oval. All the grass on the oval had been ripped up during the building of the compound. The new compound consisted of a mess, accommodation blocks, shower and toilet block and a shared area for group meetings, canteen, prayer tent and case management interviews.
A couple of the men tried to grow a vine in front of their accommodation block but were told to pull it out. Security told them they could only grow flowers outside their blocks on a very small patch of ground. Some men were successful at doing this.
There was a large patch of ground left in the middle of this compound, about half of the original oval. The men would walk and run around the compound and play soccer, cricket and volleyball. They would divide themselves into country of origin teams for cricket and soccer competitions.
Scrapes and bruises would often result and one of the men had to receive medical treatment after being knocked out during a soccer match. The gym area in Oscar was the only place that had shade. It was located at the opposite end of the compound from the mess tent.
At meal times the men would line up early to get a good spot for the mess. But, as they were only admitted in small groups, they would sit on chairs in the sun waiting to be allowed in. Some men would not eat during the day as waiting was so hot or they would wait until the queue had dissipated.
Counselling groups were run in the shared long marquee tent, which was air-conditioned. At the end of this tent was the Muslim prayer area.
Trying to schedule counselling groups could be chaotic due to the competing demands of the various activities. Times would be coordinated with providers and Australian Immigration so activities did not clash, but in practice activities often clashed.
A large number of relaxation groups were conducted by IHMS, which worked well for the men. Immigration directed the provider on what groups to provide and the IHMS mental health team leader instructed the counsellors. The idea was to give the men the skills to handle their time of being in detention.
Sometimes the groups worked well, but because most of the men had experienced trauma it only helped in a small way. It did not keep their nightmares away or help them to sleep better. We often reminded the men to do the deep breathing techniques that we had showed them.
Counselling could be difficult for other reasons. One day, in a group I was conducting, a man said: “I don’t want your understanding. I want you to do something.” I was so confronted by this I didn’t know how to respond. The next day he apologised to me, but I assured him it was OK and he did not need to apologise.
Men with trauma were referred to the psychologists. It was announced that a specialist trauma counselling service would be coming to the detention centre to assist with the men’s trauma issues. A list of those who needed trauma counselling was quickly filled and had to be triaged. At times men had to wait many weeks before they were seen. This shows the number of men who had arrived with post-traumatic stress issues.
In the groups I conducted, I would often ask for volunteers to run the relaxation classes. The men had been coming to the groups since July and I would tell them they were the experts and would be able to run the group. The men liked this and would eagerly volunteer to do it.
One time a man who had been a civil engineer read a poem he had written to the group. It was not translated to me until after the man had finished, but I saw the emotional effect that it had on the group. The interpreter later told me it was about having courage, strength and not giving up.
I also conducted activity groups. To make this more interesting I structured these groups as a competition in which small prizes were given to the winners. The men enjoyed these groups and were very competitive with one another. At the end of the group there was always an ultimate champion and it appeared to have a profound effect on the men to be named the ultimate champion. There was much clapping and laughing during these groups.
I also ran a singing group. These men had fantastic voices and great rhythm. We would chant the name of someone in the group so that he would sing. It never needed too much persuasion. We would have drumming on the tables, clapping and anything that could be played was played. It was a very special time and it felt that no-one was in detention but rather in a backyard at home having a relaxing time.
During other groups the men would tell me their grievances. Some of the men told me insects were coming up through the floorboards in their blocks. I told the person who was responsible for spraying the camp to prevent malaria of the men’s concerns. He told me he would look at the problem to see what was happening and I relayed this back to the person who had asked me.
Another man was angry at not being listened to. He was from a minority ethnic group in his country. He felt his group was not being properly represented in the community talks in the centre. He spoke nearly perfect English and was university educated. I approached the provider who looked after this and I was able to go back with an answer to him. It took a couple of months but he was eventually recognised as a community leader for his group, which made him and his fellow countrymen happy.
[Part 3 of Carol Hucker’s account will appear next week. Read Part 1 here.]