As the tropical sun set over Manus Island detention centre on November 23, Walid Zazai wrote on Twitter for the final time that night. He reflected on the day as:
“A day of horror. A day of fear. A day I will never forget.
“I thought I’m back in Afghanistan in a war zone. There was no way to hide, just the sky.
“Friends have been beaten, have been taken by force to town centres.
“Don't know what will happen tomorrow. Remember us in your prayers.”
I first connected with Walid earlier this year when he befriended me on Facebook after I’d put up photos from a refugee rally.
I interviewed him for Green Left Weekly in the aftermath of the death of Hamed Shamshiripour, who was found hanging in East Lorengau in August. At the time Walid said: “We will die one by one. Australia is killing us slowly, slowly. It's very painful.”
The photos, videos and accounts that began emerging in the early hours of the morning paint a brutal picture of human rights abuse that is the direct result of Australia’s detention policy.
Dozens of PNG police moved in to the detention centre with metal poles and began yelling at people and beating them; throwing rocks at people sitting on the roof; destroying people’s few personal possessions and the devices they had constructed to capture water.
Manus Province police commissioner David Yapu reportedly said: “It's an order from Australian and PNG governments to move you out.”
One man who was very sick was punched in the stomach and had his medication destroyed. Another reported: “PNG Immigration and police came here. They hit us, they beat us, now they want to kill us. We need help from international organisations.”
Two refugees collapsed, according to Walid, who filmed the men apparently unconscious. One was feared to have had a heart attack, the other suffers from epilepsy.
Walid tweeted: "This is @PeterDutton_MP ordered operation. The authorities trashed and destroyed our property. They have big rods and big sticks in hands, yelling at us, abusing us and using disrespectful words
“We don't know if we have a future. These might be the last days of our lives."
Most of the men were gathered in Delta compound. But some were in Mike compound when the police sealed it off from the rest of the centre. At least 50 refugees and asylum seekers were moved out of Mike over the course of the day, taken on buses to new, partially-built accommodation blocks called Hillside Haus and West Haus in the town of Lorengau.
A man on one of the buses said: “We were beaten and with force. PNG immigration with police and navy put us in the bus. I didn't want to ride in bus. Immigration beating me.”
Before he was arrested, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani tweeted that police were ransacking the detention centre: “They are destroying everything. Shelters, tanks, beds and all of our belongings. They are very aggressive and put our belongings in the rubbish bins.
“We are blockading right now. So many police and immigration officers are around us at this moment. They destroyed everything and our belongings and right now are shouting at us to leave the prison camp.”
This tragedy was bravely captured by people such as Walid, who walked around the centre, live streaming an account that often showed no more than people’s feet as he hid his phone from the police.
Police tried to silence any reporting from inside the detention centre by confiscating any phone they saw.
They arrested Boochani and marched him off in handcuffs. They beat him and destroyed his belongings because, as the police commander yelled at him, “you are reporting against us”.
Late in the day, Boochani tweeted that he had been released without charge, after being held for more than two hours near the camp.
Lively protests were held across Australia that evening in condemnation of the violence. Several hundred people gathered at a few hours’ notice in Melbourne and Sydney, where they were met with a huge police presence. Earlier in the day activists in Melbourne blockaded Liberal Party headquarters for hours and activists camped overnight outside the department of immigration in Brisbane.
The next morning Boochani tweeted: “I would like to say thank you to all of my friends who were worried about me yesterday and were following the issue.
“Yesterday was a very hard day but at least it proves to many people around the world how we are fighting with a government characterised by fascist thinking. I hope this nightmare finishes soon and all of the refugees get freedom in a safe place.”
Moments later the police returned and again attacked the remaining 350 refugees. Forcing them onto buses and driving them to the alternative accommodation, which has been called “another prison”.
There are three accommodation sites in Lorengau, but they lack running water, electricity, security fences and are still under construction. People are expected to pay for their own food and medication, but they do not have the necessary money to do so.
The men have resisted going to the other accommodation because they do not feel safe in Lorengau after a series of violent attacks on refugees in the township and because of a lack of services, especially health services.
Both Labor and the Coalition parties seem determined to leave the men there to slowly die, whether from inadequate medical support, attacks by locals or suicide. There will be more tragedies in the coming months — more deaths by detention policy.
On November 23, the federal government, with the political support of Labor, sent another country’s police force to attack and break up a peaceful protest by refugees — people it says it has no responsibility for and will never allow into Australia.
Only the Greens stood against the forcible removal of the men. Senator Nick McKim said it was a “sad, dark day in Australia’s national history” and a “foul and now-bloodied stain on our national conscience”, as he called for the men to be brought to Australia.
The refugees’ protests lasted for weeks in spite of being deprived of food and water. Their refusal to voluntarily leave the detention centre and go to another prison was a political stand. They want freedom, nothing less than freedom.
It caused a political crisis for the government and became a beacon for activists around Australia to mobilise and explain the tragedy of Manus Island detention centre. It reached a point where the Australian government had to send in scores of PNG police to violently break it up.
However, whether they are in the detention centre or one of the other prisons, the men on Manus Island are still resisting.