Helal Uddin — known as “Spicy” because of his love of cooking spicy food — escaped repression in Bangladesh in 2013 and sought freedom in Australia. Instead, he was locked up by the Australian government on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
In 2016, he found love, married and became a father. But he was forced to leave his wife and 3-year-old son behind when he was deported back to Bangladesh in 2018.
Desperate to be reunited with his family, Spicy travelled back to Manus Island by boat, only to be thrown into prison.
Spicy, now 31, has been in prison for the last 15 months, waiting for the PNG Supreme Court to rule on an appeal which it was meant to have been decided in February.
Spicy told his story to Green Left from inside Bomana Prison in Papua New Guinea where he continues to cook for hundreds of inmates.
Life in danger
Before his nightmare began, Spicy worked as a chef at a holiday inn in Dhaka. He left Bangladesh after being involved in a protest in his family’s village — Burichong — against the ruling Awami Party.
“I support the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and they fight with the Awami. They fight me.” Spicy was hit with an axe, and was one of many BNP supporters to be hospitalised. If he had stayed, he believed he would have been tortured in jail for supporting a rival to the ruling party.
“From that time, my life was in danger. My head was broken, there was a lot of blood and I went to hospital. I hide because police were trying to find me. I supported the opposition so I must hide in another province.”
Spicy and other BNP supporters escaped to a neighbouring district. They had no choice but to find a way to survive.
Spicy had heard the Australian government would give citizenship to people willing to travel to Australia. “I had to find a smuggler to save my life.”
With the help of a people smuggler, Spicy left his village in Chittagong in 2013. For six months, he and others hid in a Thai jungle until they could take a boat to Malaysia. There, they also had to hide before leaving for Indonesia, where they again hid in a jungle for five months before eventually being picked up by the Australian Navy and taken to Christmas Island.
Spicy spoke about the terror. “For 6 months, I hid and slept in the jungles. In Indonesia, we hid in the bush from police. It was frightening. At that time, I was Muslim and so the Indonesian people helped me. They were very good, they helped us with food. There were 2000 people cooperating together in 21 groups.”
Spicy waited for others to board the boat for Christmas Island. The boat was a “small dingy boat with a capacity of 100, [but] took 250 people. We needed 12 tonnes of fuel but we only had 6 tonnes. We ran out of fuel in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
“There was also a pregnant lady on board. What do we do? We needed fuel and we needed to deliver this baby. The lady was from an Iranian family, and I told everyone that she was like our sister and that we needed to help her.
“Both mum and baby miraculously survived. But after the baby was born, the seas were rough, the GPS was damaged, the petrol had finished, the baby was crying — everyone was crying.
“This situation was so stressful, the captain tried to run away. We told him, ‘You don’t run away. You die, we die. We all die together.’
“We saw the Australian navy and thought they will arrest us because we can’t cross borders. But they took us on the ship, to Christmas Island.
“I was feeling dizzy. They put us in hospital, gave us medical treatment and an ID number. I didn’t eat for 6 days.”
The Australian government had announced that those asylum seekers who came before July 19, 2013 would be sent to the mainland and those who came after that date would be sent to Manus Island in PNG or Nauru.
From Christmas Island, Spicy was sent to Lombrum Naval Base, Australia’s Offshore Processing Centre on Manus Island, on October 4, 2013 and was detained there until 2018.
“Serco guards handcuffed me, put me on plane and brought me to Manus Island. I was very scared. I didn’t know this country.”
Before sending asylum seekers to Manus Island, Australian Border Force (ABF) scared them with racist ideas about Papua New Guineans.
“Immigration showed us a video of PNG culture, their national dance and dancing without clothes. I didn’t want to be there. Australian security on Christmas Island told me that they were cannibals — it made me afraid.
“Now I know it’s not true. I like the people. I learned a bit of the language.”
In detention Spicy spent his time cooking for the other detainees and wrote a cook book. He also helped organise hunger strikes involving hundreds of refugees.
A hunger strike in 2015 was instrumental in raising awareness about the asylum seekers’ imprisonment. Guards eventually attacked them, handcuffing around 50 strike leaders, including Spicy.
“At that time, I see that some people in Australia understand our situation.”
Spicy spoke about the death of friend Reza Berati and the violence of the Australian and PNG guards. “The guards attacked us. I was there when he died. I hide. I didn’t want them to find me. PNG and Australian security beat us.
“Reza was a very good person; he tried to run away, lots of security held him. They didn’t take him to hospital and he died.”
Unlike hotel detention, asylum seekers on Manus Island were allowed limited freedom of movement which is how Spicy fell in love with Alice, a Manusian woman, married and had a son.
Deportation back to danger
ABF and PNG immigration eventually deported Spicy, offering him US$25,000 to return to Bangladesh. He refused as he didn’t want to leave his family.
The Australian government “rejected my refugee status three times”, and, in 2018, Spicy was deported back to Bangladesh despite not having signed anything.
In November 2018, he fled by boat again, making the dangerous trip from Thailand to Indonesia and on to PNG.
Spicy was arrested in PNG in March 2019 for entering without a visa and held for 11 months in Bomana prison until last April when the PNG National Court set him free. His freedom lasted for just two weeks. Spicy was imprisoned again after PNG immigration appealed the National Court decision.
“They arrested me [and put me] in handcuffs and flew me to Port Moresby.”
The PNG Court’s delay in making a decision on his freedom has taken a huge physical and mental toll on him, his wife and his son.
Spicy has had been living in squalid conditions since last April. He said he had no choice but to go on a hunger strike. He ended it on March 8, but said his situation “is still very risky and dangerous”.
“I continue to be locked up in Bomana prison illegally. I’m still waiting for the Supreme Court hearing. I don’t know what is happening with my case or when I can see my family.”
Spicy cannot return to Bangladesh. He doesn’t mind which country he lives in as long as it is not Bangladesh and it is with his wife and child.
Spicy’s wife and child are PNG citizens but he was told he could not apply for citizenship.
[Chloe de Silva is active in the refugee rights movement in Melbourne.]