Translated by Omid Tofighian.
I’m sitting on the plane, looking out of the window at the boundless blue of the sky. Curses are overflowing from inside me. I am surprised at the situation, surprised at my discontentment. I reason with myself that this is possibly just because I’m heading for something new, and I tell myself that I can handle that.
After a short time I see a luscious, vibrant-green island: a beautiful green dot tucked away between the waves of the ocean. I smile. Its pristineness seems to be something to behold—something unparalleled. When I disembark from the plane, a viscous wave of heat rubs against my skin. After stepping out I expect to see the arrivals hall or security gate, but there isn’t even a kiosk. In fact, the plane has landed on a flattened paddock—a place you wouldn’t recognise as an airport. I look over and see a man with a dark complexion wearing a white shirt. He squints so he can see me better. He is wearing khaki-coloured shorts displaying a patch that indicates an authority other than that of Manus Island. In contrast, two PNG soldiers stand next to him. And I see two guards … they are standing next to someone in a suit. The man in the suit must work for the department of immigration. I can’t help but wonder, why these guards, why all this militarisation?
I don’t ask any questions, I don’t enquire into anything. I’m only concerned with the fact that I’m here now. I walk ahead and shake hands with the formally dressed man. The two guards remain silent. There is also a driver who is a local. He greets me in his native tongue. I nod in return. I realise that I don’t understand the language here. I get into a grey jeep, which takes off and winds through the green trees and the richly beautiful environment. We stop off at a small military camp to rest. I’ve never felt this kind of heat before, and it’s especially difficult since I know we have to stay here for a whole day and night before I receive information about my transfer to that other place, the place I can’t wait to get to.
The psychology team leader comes to see me at the stopover camp. She is a woman of authority, and she’s serious. More serious than the imposing guards in military uniforms. When she announces that I’m to go soon, I’m happy. I get ready well before the time I’m scheduled to leave. I get in the jeep with purpose … this time the destination is the camp, my new place of work. I imagine the camp on the way there. A clean structure? No … It could be a hall with a high roof. Or maybe a hostel with small rooms.
I’m surprised when the vehicle comes to a halt. This can’t be the camp. This place is more like a prison—a prison with fences of a few meters in height. More guards. And even more officers. I step out and halt. In the middle of the jungle … in the middle of this beautiful natural environment … a place such as this? The picture I had created in my mind has been ruined. I’m in shock. I enter through the main gate, where they scan my face and give me a body search. This place could very well be a penitentiary, a prison.
Curious and terrified, I look at the surroundings. This place is full of different kinds of people. Full of people, many young people, all wearing the same clothes. A special kind of uniform. People with different skin colours. Black, brown and white. Different ages, but mostly young. Young men staring at me indifferently, some who don’t see me at all. You can sense these individuals are afflicted just by looking at them.
A cynical smirk appears on my face, and I remind myself that these refugees could very well be the worst of worst, people like Sara. This place is full of people from the same place as Sara … people I despise. Just a bunch of morbid people. Morbid people who are labelled as refugees. I surprise myself. I’m surprised at how I prejudge them. Brian once frowned at me accusingly and told me that they’re not morbid. Brian was always supportive of refugees, and now his refugee girlfriend is on a temporary visa back in Australia. The very girl who took Brian from me.
It takes some time to get used to this situation. It takes time. They arrange my first counselling session and it turns out to be with a middle-aged man. When the interpreter describes the hardships of the man I feel melancholy. I want to hate this man, but it’s not that easy. I can’t remain indifferent. I remember my first session as a hospital counsellor, when I felt overwhelmed with sorrow for my patient. My eyes teared up. Even the story he described was left half told. When the man saw the tears well in my eyes he fell silent. That man wasn’t sick. He had never been sick. He just wanted to talk. My response: I prescribed a fistful of pills and other medicine.
I take a deep breath and enter the room. I’m sitting face to face with a man with almond-shaped eyes. He looks weary, very weary. It is as though every hardship and difficulty has transformed into a wrinkle or crease on his face. I just look at him. He stares at the table. From the waist up he is calmly moving from left to right, as though he wants to extinguish the grief that has accumulated within him. Reduce it or get rid of it. But the grief won’t dissipate and tears fall onto his cheeks, his eyes like overflowing bowls. Tears carve lines across his face. I don’t want to be sympathetic—I just want to listen. I repeat to myself: he is just a refugee. A refugee whom I hate. It’s not important who he is, or where he’s from, what kind of life he led. All that matters is that he’s a refugee.
An interpreter sits next to us, and I listen as she interprets the account of the middle-aged man. The only things that attract my attention throughout the time I sit across from him are the creases in the corners of his eyes, his sunburnt face and his almond-shaped eyes, so I don’t understand a word he’s saying. I hear his voice but don’t understand a thing.
His voice is hoarse. I can feel the sorrow in between his words. It is as if he is unaware that I know he is speaking from his endless anguish, this unjust anguish has a way of bearing on my shoulders.
When the interpreter finishes her sentence she quickly turns to me. She has a kind face. She begins to interpret: ‘His name is Ali … he’s from Afghanistan.’
She pauses and is about to speak, but she struggles with her words … it is as if she is choking from sorrow. I’m curious to hear the rest of what she has to say about Ali. She pushes the black frame of her spectacles up to her forehead with the tip of her finger and continues. ‘He escaped the Taliban and has a wife and three children. One month ago he found a way to call his brother who informed him his son … well, the Taliban had decapitated his son. It happened right in front of his wife and children. He says he doesn’t want to live anymore. He wants to end it but he can’t. He still wants to support his wife and his other two children. He says he has no choice but to continue living but he needs peace of mind.’
In between the responses of the interpreter, Ali raises his head and stares at me, continuing to talk in his language. The interpreter tells me: ‘He wants you to help him relax … by giving him some medicine. With whatever is possible, whatever you’re capable of prescribing.’ Ali’s life is like something made up. Something from the news. This story is so unimaginable to me, it seems impossible.
How could I possibly help, how could I possibly empathise? I realise that until I have endured a life with that kind of suffering, I can never empathise. I feel sorry for Ali, and then become angry with myself. I’m ashamed of myself. What was the point of all the hate I felt before entering the room? Ali already has to live with the worst kind of pain and suffering. I write a prescription for him. I know that with this medicine he will sleep more and think less—this could help him. It will help him because he won’t have to think so much. Thinking drowns you. When I leave the room, I wish I could include in the prescription that he needs to spend time with his kids, with his family … but that’s impossible.
Ali is the second refugee I have met. The psychology team leader had told me what this place would be like. I thought about all aspects of this place before arriving, and I constructed it in my mind. But I was thinking about it all wrong. This place is a prison—a prison they label as a camp so that they can hide the reality.
It is a prison where inmates can’t call their family members. It is a prison where inmates don’t eat decent food, where they have nothing to occupy their time. Ali can only call his family once a week. When he stands in the queue to call it is never clear when it will be his turn. Will his turn come when it’s a good time, when it’s not night-time in Afghanistan? When his family isn’t sleeping? My team leader spoke to me about many things. She told me that I can’t be alone with my patient and that I always have to be accompanied by a guard and an interpreter—integral parts of every session. She told me that meal times last two hours and if they arrive late, they won’t receive a portion that day. I’m not permitted to speak to anyone alone.
I begin to think that working in a hospital where I am sure everyone is sick is better than working on a remote island that has actually made the people there sick. It’s set up to make people sick. Manus would be a nightmare for anyone. I ask myself: Why did I come, why am I staying in this wasteland?
The refugees have long, unkempt beards. Sometimes I ask myself why such long queues are allowed to form. Queues just for acquiring one razor, which would have to last days, maybe even weeks. I have no idea why … they just have to wait. I mean, I’m not supposed to know why.
Arriving late for whatever reason to join the meal queues means going hungry. I wish I could help, I wish I could take biscuits for the children of Kobanî, those kids have black marks on their pale faces due to the lack of health and hygiene.1 I have learned about this over these last two or three days. I have begun to think that the extent of my hate is unwarranted, I don’t hate them so much as to wish that they remain in such a place. They deserve better than this island, better than this hell, where no-one could find any happiness.
It’s nearly midday. The heat is overwhelming. The white top I’m wearing isn’t enough to keep my body cool. I stare at people as I pass between them until I reach the camp for the psychologists and I tell myself it’s too early to give up and go back. Brian had told me Manus was not the place for me. I remember our last conversation. Oh, Brian! How merciless someone can be. We spent many lovely days together, days I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. The worst anguish I’ve ever felt came from being rejected by Brian. Brian, who fell in love with a brown-skinned girl in one of Australia’s onshore camps. A girl with dark eyes and dark skin. I only saw her once. After that, Brian became colder and colder towards me.
My eyes well up with tears. Here I am comparing myself with Ali in the stupidest way possible. Ali, who has lost his loved ones. It’s ridiculous. I came to this island to escape the memories of my time with Brian; I came here to forget him and that filth, that trash, that foreign girl … who hurt me, who ruined my life … I came here to deflect that harm onto these people. But, after my very first interaction, after meeting Ali, I can’t ignore that these people have experienced a severe injury, that they are being hurt by my own government.
I return to my room. It’s a small space, which I share with a nurse. I don’t like this place, and I’m exhausted after my first session. Even the medicine I prescribed for Ali was incorrect. I have a headache and rest my elbows on the table and my face in my hands. The sound of Brian’s voice echoes through my head: ‘You’re still beautiful.’
Angry, I reply: ‘With all my beauty, that girl stole you from me.’
Brian pauses and prepares to speak. He wrings his hands, and then responds, ‘Love isn’t about physical beauty, Tanya. You still haven’t been able to fall in love?’
I give a melancholic smile, ‘I was in love with you.’
Brian smiles back and tells me: ‘Love is more than a beautiful touch; it’s endless attraction. I didn’t think about physical beauty. I have Sara now, and I always think about her with affection.’
‘You’re still with Sara?’
Brian takes a deep breath and continues, ‘She’s living with me after getting her temporary visa. Sara can give me all the peace and comfort I want from life. I ask you to pray for us to remain together.’
I can’t help but frown as I answer: ‘I can never be so forgiving—so I won’t pray for your happiness.’
‘Doctor … doctor!’
I look up. One of the guards is standing in front of me. He’s in a panic. He tells me, ‘He’s attempted suicide again. Come over, hurry up.’
I don’t know what he means by ‘again’. I don’t know whom he’s referring to but I get up immediately and go with a nurse to leave the camp again. This time they don’t do a body check or scan us. We’re in a hurry. We rush over to one of the little rooms and I fall into shock as soon as I see the bedroom floor. There is so much blood, blood everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It is here that I hear Brian’s voice in my head: ‘That’s no place for you!’ He’s right, this is no place for me. I can feel that my face has gone pale.
The bloodied man has sunburnt skin and light-brown hair of medium length, which covers his forehead. He’s kicking and waving his arms and won’t let the guards hold him down to treat him. He won’t let them bandage him, won’t let them get near him. What reason would someone have for treating themselves so brutally? Wide-eyed and terrified, I look at the nurse; she’s trying hard. I hear the sound of a young boy who looks like a broken middle-aged man: ‘Leave me alone, leave me alone, you bastards!’
He speaks English, he knows our language. I understand what he’s saying, that he doesn’t want help. Releasing his hands and freeing him would be like giving him a gift. The officer who is highest ranked of the guards in the room walks towards me, giving me a threatening look. ‘Did you come here to see the performance?’ I’m shocked. It’s as if I freeze and step outside myself, remove myself from all my fears, move away from the scene and just watch him. I become nervous and fumble, I walk slowly towards the boy. The guards have tied his arms to the bed and the nurse is removing the bloody tissues. The boy is lying on a mattress that is red with blood.
It’s abhorrent. Distressing. The ill-tempered senior guard leaves the room. The nurse exhales heavily and collapses on a chair right next to the bed. The guards are exhausted and one of them kicks a leg of the bed in anger, yelling, ‘I should have strangled you myself!’ He passes us and leaves the room.
I look at the youth’s chiselled jawline. I look at the side of his face, at the pulsating veins in his neck and his temple. He’s bright red. I ask him, ‘Are you all right?’
I don’t know why I ask this question. I grin when I hear myself ask this question. The youth also grins and looks over at the wall. He won’t even peer over at me … he won’t speak to me. He’s in shock, now he’s frowning. I don’t want to accept that until a few minutes ago he was on the verge of death. I don’t want to be merciful. So I say, ‘Sleep well.’
This is probably the stupidest phrase I could’ve uttered, the most ridiculous advice I could have given him. It’s so stupid that I leave the room in embarrassment. Outside I smell the fresh and free-blowing air, and take pleasure in the surroundings. It doesn’t smell like blood. The image of the young man lying on the bed between layers of red won’t disappear from in front of my eyes. I’m only a psychologist. I didn’t expect to see such things, and the senior guard expects me to move on from this situation with indifference. What is this place?
The nurse comes out later, telling me that they called the doctor to get treatment for the man. Applying stitches is difficult, apparently. The thought sets my teeth on edge. The sight of skin stretching as the needle passes through layers and layers!
The youth had slit his wrists. What does it take for someone to reach their limit and give up on life? I’m so absorbed in these inner thoughts that I don’t realise the nurse has left the room again. She stretches out her whole body. She whispers, ‘He wears me out.’
She continues talking to me while I look at the bloodstains decorating her white attire. I pause and clear my throat to ask, ‘How many times for him?’
‘Third time! We’re sick and tired. Maybe this is terribly wrong but every time I wish it were his last.’
I know she’s talking about his death. I frown. How could she wish for someone’s death? When she notices the look on my face, she says, ‘Sometimes people’s lives end before they actually die. I mean their lives are over before death takes them. Mardin is one of those people.’
I whisper to myself, ‘Ma … Mardin?’ My tongue rolls awkwardly over the syllables. It’s hard for me to pronounce his name.
The nurse smiles. ‘It’s the name of his birthplace … Mardin. It was hard for me to get used to it, too.’
‘So what’s his problem?’
‘I don’t know, he only ever mentions one person named Saeed. Until now he hasn’t talked about anyone else in his life. But as far as I know he wants his belongings back, the ones they took from him when he was sent to Christmas Island. It seems there’s something valuable among them.’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘Something expensive?’
She laughs. It’s bizarre seeing a person stained with blood laughing. ‘No-one thinks about gold here. People just want to stay alive in this place. They want to leave—one hour out on the island far away from this camp is worth more than gold or diamonds. It’s like someone being stuck on an island with ten suitcases full of banknotes but nothing to keep them warm. They would freeze to death. That person would light up the banknotes to make a fire … just like that!’
This makes me think. What is valuable to me? What she says is true, this blood-soaked nurse for whom the easiest thing is discussing someone’s death. My mind is still fixed on the situation there beside the bed, next to Mardin. With all the blood and that pale face, I couldn’t see his eyes, he wouldn’t look at me.
A few days pass. Sometimes I see him under the shade of a tree, sometimes next to the tall fences. Every time I go to a counselling session he’s in some open space. Seeing him around has become normal. It’s not like I’m curious, but I want to see him. With all his brokenness, I have a special interest in him. I’d like to know what he’s thinking about and what he left behind on Christmas Island.
The midday heat is oppressive. My clothes are too thick for this place. They make me hot. I’m walking next to Jack, one of the guards, on our way to a counselling session requested by a young Kenyan man. I see Mardin sitting down, staring at the sky without an expression on his face, totally oblivious. His eyes are fixated on the sun. Doesn’t it bother him?
I stop thinking about him and enter the counselling room. It’s been a long time since this Kenyan youth has made an appointment. Listening to the refugees’ problems has become routine for me. The truth is there’s no medication that can help them, and they just want to talk about their hardships. I feel myself become weary, impatient. Instead of having an influence on them the way I’m supposed to, they have had an influence on me. I become more and more depressed. Every day the things I witness get worse.
Mardin is seated across from me. It’s the first time he has wanted to speak with me. He deliberates, then he opens his mouth, ‘I haven’t come to speak with you.’ I’m disappointed. I stare at him. The interpreter sits between us. The interpreter doesn’t want to interpret because Mardin knows how to speak English. When he notices me staring at him, he asks, ‘Can you bring my belongings? From the Christmas Island?’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘What do you have there?’
‘Have you ever lost a loved one in front of your eyes, lost them as you struggled to save them?’
I frown, thinking about his question.
I love my family—my mother more than anyone. My mother is still not talking to me because I accepted the offer to come here. She’s angry for my sake. Now that time has passed I realise she had every right to feel that way. I say to Mardin, ‘You chose to come here—you did not have to witness his death.’
He grins and leans back on his chair.
He stares right into my eyes, a profound stare that draws me in. ‘Did I say something wrong?’ I ask.
‘Nationality is the only thing you can’t choose. Nationality and family.’
‘Do you regret being a Kurd?’
This time he smiles at me cynically, as if remembering something that pleases him. He replies, ‘I love my homeland, I love my people.’
‘Why did you come here? Why did you leave them?’
‘I’m a refugee. Don’t you know what that means? It means I seek protection. Protection from hardship. Protection from an environment that had no place for me.
I sought protection! Between bad and worse, I chose worse. From a distance seeking asylum looked good. But now it’s different. When our boat sank I was rescued. But Saeed drowned. His kicking and waving, his cries for help … I heard his pleas and I couldn’t do anything. Right there and then I saved my own life and got away. Saeed is watching me now. He is everywhere. He’s right there in the corner of that damn room. Even up there near the sun.’
‘I … I want to go after him. I’m not a dastard. It was just … just that moment. At that moment I was scared. I’m not scared now.’
I move forward in my seat. Mardin is not well. I try to reflect the seriousness of his distress back to him in my face and my voice. ‘Saeed isn’t here,’ I say.
‘He is. Saeed is right here. They won’t let me call his mother, nor will they let me call my mother. He wrings his hands in disgust and tells me that I’m dirty … I’m very dirty … I feel terrible.’
‘Can … can you give me some pills?’ he pleads with me.
I just look at him. The guards see Mardin’s state and become alert. This makes me worried. He gets up and leaves the room, his body moving slowly, with anguish. This isn’t the right place for him. Mardin is a person, a human being. I turn to the interpreter who is sitting there, emotionless. ‘He doesn’t feel well,’ I say.
The interpreter takes a deep breath and stands up, indifferent. He heads in the direction of the door. ‘None of them feel well. What are you expecting from them? Just do your job,’ he says to me.
I think of Mardin all day. I want to be close by—I worry that he might be successful on one occasion and put an end to it all. He might orchestrate his final moment.
After weeks of trying, I get a meeting with the psychology team leader. After a while she crosses her arms and says, ‘Tanya, it’s better not to discuss this.’
I reply with more frustration, ‘He’s dying!’
Without thinking she responds immediately, ‘To hell! Why can’t you fulfil your duties? No-one doubts that this is his fate!’
I’m shocked. ‘What are you saying? Can you just allow someone to die? Someone whom you can help?’
She’s surprised and leans over me. ‘Save him? Did you think they could just leave this hell, just like that? Don’t be an idiot.’
I can’t understand her, or the guards, all of the employees here who are trained to respond automatically. Weren’t they themselves mothers or fathers, don’t they have families? Aren’t they partners? Someone’s son or daughter? Someone’s brother? Can’t they try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes until they understand?
I speak to the nurse. I want to retrieve Mardin’s belongings from Christmas Island. I might be naive, an idiot to think I can, but I want to help him. I’ve forgotten that he’s a refugee. It’s been so long since I thought of Brian or Sara, since I imagined things about my own life, I’ve been distant from my own world. I can’t even sleep properly at night. All I am now is a human being, like Mardin.
On the way to Mardin’s room to deliver his pills, I ask Jack, ‘Doesn’t this job bother you?’
He gives me a cheeky smile. ‘Close your eyes, everything will be easier.’
I put my hand on the door handle and say, ‘But your eyes are open!’
He puts his hand on my hand and pulls down the door handle. ‘Close the eyes of your conscience, young lady,’ he says. The door opens and I don’t see anyone in the room. It’s empty, which distresses me. I turn to Jack. ‘He’s not here.’ Jack frowns and looks around. I follow him inside and freeze, unable to move. My eyes are wide open in shock.
I don’t even remove my hands from the door handle. I turn my eyes to Mardin’s lifeless, breathless body. His neck is crooked. He has hanged himself.
His eyes are half-open. It feels as if he’s staring at me. He’s rebuking me. Out of fear and bewilderment, my legs give way. I fall to the ground and the sound of my body on the concrete floor echoes through my ears. He has tied bedsheets together and hanged himself from the ceiling. The chair is lying on the floor nearby.
Tears slide down my cheeks, wetting my face. Soldiers enter the room and bring him down. The guards remain cool, like stone. How many times must they have seen something just like this?
They’re busy with Mardin and my eyes close. The last thing that I comprehend is that I’m lying down on the cold, hard ground. I forget to breathe, and lose consciousness.
Many years have passed, and I’m an old woman now. For a few days after the incident I searched everywhere for Mardin’s belongings. When I finally found them, the only thing worthy of note was a small photograph of a youth the same age as Mardin, whom I guessed was Saeed.
We killed a person, all because of a photo that they didn’t want him to have. We killed him, he didn’t commit suicide. I said this to the team leader of the psychologists. I didn’t care that she would be upset with me for this. She might speak to the department of immigration about me, or I might lose my job. Nothing else mattered. Right here, someone had left this world.
Back in Australia. I stare at the kitchen table, at the packet of pills on the table. Now I only think of Brian every few years. Sometimes I tell myself I wish I had a heart of stone. Maybe we are responsible for Mardin’s death and the deaths of others like him. People in need seek protection from us, and we reject them. We can’t lend a piece of our land to someone in need of help? Why?
What difference will it make? None. We have been at war during 90 per cent of our history. At the end of this history who will be left? No-one.
I open the foil packet of pills. I take the round, pink-coloured pills and look out the kitchen window at the sunset. There may be many things I’ll never be able to forget. But I’m happy I didn’t continue. I’m glad everything ended. I wasn’t able to keep the eyes of my conscience closed.
Mardin Arvin is a Kurdish Iranian writer and translator who has been imprisoned by the Australian government since 2013: Manus Island (2013–19), Port Moresby (2019) and Melbourne (2019, ongoing). He works in four languages: Kurdish, Farsi, English and Tok Pisin; and he is conducting research and writing a book while incarcerated. His writing has been published in The Guardian.
Omid Tofighian is a researcher and community advocate. He is adjunct lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW, and Honorary Research Associate for the Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney. His published works include Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave, 2016) and he is the translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 2018).
1. Kobanî is a city in the north of Syria, near the Turkish border, with a majority Kurdish population. The inhabitants have suffered various forms of hardship and attacks, including a siege and invasions, during the conflict in Syria.