Inside immigration detention on Manus Island — Part 6

Issue 
Armed guards watch over asylum seekers after a riot in the Manus Island Detention Centre on February 18, 2014, that left Reza Ba

Carol Hucker worked in Manus Island Detention Centre 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 sixth part of a multi-part series and covers February 2014.

* * *

When I arrived on Manus for this rotation, all staff were briefed about the peaceful demonstrations that were taking place in some compounds.

The most active compounds were Oscar and Foxtrot. Delta and Mike, at this time did not take part in the demonstrations. There were some protests during the day but most took place at night.

The protests would start with men whistling from their compounds to get the attention of the men in other compounds. The whistling would continue for approximately one minute, followed by chants for freedom. The men would then march up and down in their compounds, arm in arm. In some compounds the men had made signs from bed sheets, which they would carry around the compound. The protests were peaceful and there was no trouble.

After a few weeks, Australian Immigration officials announced a meeting with the community leaders so the men could ask questions about their detention. I was told by an Australian immigration official that this was to prevent “another Nauru happening”.

The community leaders met in Mike canteen with officials from PNG and Australian Immigration. The community leaders asked their questions, mainly about how long they would be held in detention, and were told that it would take a couple of weeks for immigration to get back to them with answers.

Rising tension

The protests continued and there was an air of tension. One night a couple of local cleaners went past Oscar compound as the men were protesting at the fence. The locals started to mock the men, which made the men very angry and agitated. The noise level increased and security thought the men may push the fence down. This frightened other staff on duty. The number of security staff on duty in the compound at night was increased.

Over the next few days there were some minor incidents. One person attempted to climb onto the roof in Foxtrot compound. At one point the identified ringleaders of the protests were relocated from Oscar to Mike compound. However, the protests continued.

Many of the men in Oscar, Delta and Mike compounds told me that they did not want to be involved in the protests. The protests were filmed and photographs were taken of the participants by the security guards. Because of this, the men feared their participation in the protests would be used against them.

After about two weeks, immigration officials advised the community leaders that a meeting would be held that afternoon. They would provide answers to the questions the men had asked. The meeting was held in Mike compound again.

As the men were getting onto the bus to go to the meeting, I wished them good luck and hoped that they would get the answers they were seeking. They thanked me from the bus window and shook my hand. All the staff were hopeful the men would get answers that would give them a way forward.

After the meeting, I visited a community leader in Delta. He told me that the meeting had not gone well and his understanding was that the refugees would be held in detention indefinitely.

Later, an Australian immigration officer told me that at a preliminary meeting the PNG immigration official had told Australian immigration officials the message he would be giving to the men. During the meeting, however, the PNG official told the men something completely different. He told them they would be in detention indefinitely.

While I was talking to the community leader I heard a loud noise coming from Oscar compound. All of the men and guards in Delta also heard this and ran to the entrance gate. I quickly headed to the office. I could see in the gym area that chairs were being thrown around. I thought this was a predictable response from the disillusioned, disheartened, frustrated men.

In the office, a head count was taken of the staff. Some staff members were caught in other compounds. They were locked in rooms by security until it was safe for them to return to the office. We were not all accounted for until early evening.

The office was near the road and I could see men running down the road being chased by security guards in riot gear. There were many calls over the radio about detainees escaping. Staff assembled in the office and waited for clearance to leave.

Many staff members rang home that night, but we were told not to speak about what was happening. Many of us were scared. We did not know what would happen or if we were safe. After a couple of hours we were allowed to leave for our accommodation, under tight security.

The next morning we were told by management that it was business as usual and we were sent in groups to try to engage the men in conversation, games or sports in their compounds. The atmosphere was very tense in the compounds. Some of the men were frightened, others were still clearly angry.

We were told where men could go for safety if they did not want to be involved in continuing protests. We were told to convey this to as many people as possible but to do this in secret. If “agitators” knew there was a safe place being offered, they would attempt to “infiltrate the safe group and cause trouble”, we were told.

Violence erupts

The men told us of their experiences during the previous night. They showed us where they had been hit and I saw bruising and cuts. These men claimed that they had not participated in the protest and had been in their rooms. They said the police had entered their rooms and hit them.

Men in Delta compound told us that they were having dinner in the mess tent in Foxtrot compound and that locals had thrown stones at the mess tent. Some men from Oscar compound said they had asked security guards to take them to safety as they did not want to get involved in what was happening.

A group of men told how they had been taken to a secure place, but when they returned all their belongings were gone. They claimed the police had taken everything they owned. One man told me that even his underwear was taken. I told them where to go for safety for the coming night.

Before I could see if they understood this advice I was called out of the compound by security. In Foxtrot compound there was a group of men sitting down who seemed very angry. They would not look at us or speak to us. Non-essential staff were then evacuated from the Centre. This was very unusual but security advised us that they were expecting more “trouble”.

Later I heard a series of loud noises. Not long after that all staff were requested to go down to the wharf, where the staff boat was moored. Security were coming onto the boat with blood running down their faces. The wharf was covered with injured men. Cars kept arriving with more injured men. The injuries were horrific. We helped the medical staff to comfort the men and hold IV bags.

Injuries

Many men had been injured. After being driven to the wharf some could sit in chairs but others were unconscious. There was so much blood.

I walked past a man who had a deep gash on his head, which was bleeding profusely. I walked past another man who had told me previously he did not want to be involved in the protests. He was sitting with other injured men, all bleeding.

As I walked past all I could do was to put my hand on my heart and say sorry. I then had to go to hold an IV bag for a man who was unconscious, lying on the ground.

I noticed there were more men from Mike Compound, from my caseload, who were unconscious, lying at my feet. A colleague who was standing close by holding an IV bag saw some of her clients and fainted. I kept thinking that these men matter to someone. I attempted to stroke the men's foreheads to comfort them.

One man who was lying on the ground kept saying thank you, thank you to me. He had been hit very badly on his face and he had purple bruising on the right side of his face. If I were in the same situation would I be gracious enough to thank the person offering me comfort? I am still astounded by his gratitude and will probably remember it for the rest of my life.

I asked the men who were conscious for their names so when the doctors or nurses came around they could be called by their names and not just “he” or a number.

The more critically injured men, including Reza Barati, were being treated at the end of the wharf. That night I was told that no one had died. But the next day I learnt that the doctor treating Reza had held him while he died.

Due to the severe nature of his injuries the medical staff could do little for him, although they tried their hardest. I could see what was happening from where I stood and knew that it was serious.

I asked a colleague from the medical staff if someone had died. He told me that one of the men had to have a tracheotomy and that he had to be resuscitated but that he was alright.

On the wharf that night a nurse, who was triaging people told me that another victim with gunshot wounds had been brought in. I was shocked that people had gunshot wounds because I knew that the security guards did not have weapons other than batons.

Later, I was told by a colleague that the PNG police had used guns and the local people had used machetes during the riot.

Aftermath

The staff accommodation area was heavily guarded that night as there was fear of an attack by the local people. However, all the detainees who could walk were returned to their compounds. Those in a more critical condition went to the medical clinic or to the local hospital at Lorengau.

The next day we were told who had died as we were preparing to leave the island. Management advised us only of the boat ID of the person who had died, but not his name. I thought it was particularly insensitive that a person who had died was referred to as an ID number and not a name. The staff were in shock that someone had died and even more so when they found out his name. Some of my colleagues knew Reza Barati very well.

Non-essential staff could not enter the compounds after the riot. A staff member from the trauma counselling service was allowed in and told me that Mike compound looked like a war zone with many rooms ransacked and the compound littered with debris.

The next day a Salvation Army manager from the mainland informed us that the refugees had attacked each other. The staff reacted to this announcement with disbelief.

They refuted this claim by recounting witness accounts that the detainees had told them on the night. The men from Mike compound told us that they had been attacked by the police and locals. They said that the locals had broken into the compound and attacked them. The PNG police also entered the camp and attacked the detainees.

We were very concerned that there was going to be a cover up of what happened. A colleague observed that the stories told by the men — from different compounds and who spoke different languages — to the many different staff members were consistent. The detainees' version of events did not match what the manager was saying. The manager refrained from any other comments about the night as he could see we did not believe him.

While I was at Manus airport waiting to go home, I was told by a security guard that they had been close to losing control of the centre to the local people and the PNG police. He told me that the PNG police were firing bullets at the security guards during the riot. The security guards had to retreat so that they could protect at least one section of the centre.

My rotation ended and I went back to Australia. I had many concerns for the safety of some of the men I knew well. I had to leave before I could check on their wellbeing. I could only hope that they were uninjured.

I struggled when I returned to Australia. Mentally I did not know where to put what had happened in my mind. It still refuses to be settled anywhere. I had to decide what I would do next. Would I go back or find something else to do?

[Part 1 of this series is here; Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here; Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here. The final part will appear in the next issue.]

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