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With remembrance goes compassion: Manus

  • 26 November 2017


In 'Epic', Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh mused on the relative importance of world and local contemporaneous events — Chamberlain's meeting with Hitler in Munich and a bitter local dispute about a patch of land.

'I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided, who owned / That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land / Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.'

This poem came to mind when the refugees on Manus Island were forcibly evicted from their quarters. In Australia it was a small event reported in the inside pages of the newspapers through the prism of dismissive comments by Messrs Dutton and Turnbull, and marked by a few hundred protesters and attendant police in Melbourne and elsewhere.

Seen through the eyes of the refugees it was a large event, yet another circle in their Inferno that has taken them from persecution in their own lands, through peril at sea, their Australian capture and despatch to Manu Island with its deprivations, neglect and humiliations, the occasional false hopes that Australia might discharge its responsibility to them, culminating in this transfer to new quarters.

A short bus ride in terms of distance, but symbolically a transfer to the physical danger and neglect of a future in PNG by which Pilate-like Australia would wash its hands of them. The refusal to leave the detention quarters, now neglected and without water, food and power, with only social media to tell their story.

That story deserves to be remembered in its tactile detail, like 'the half-rood rock' in Kavanagh's poem. It is caught in the small details of the photos sent by the asylum seekers — they sit in peaceful solidarity, hands over their ears to blot out the shouting by police; the huge sticks wielded by the police as they patrol the camp; the hunched shoulders of the brave Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish journalist chronicler of human rights abuses in Iran, and now the chronicler of the daily humiliations on Manus Island, as he is led away in handcuffs by police.

Caught, too, in the steady voices heard in the asylum seekers' reporting to Australia as they try to elude the police effort to capture their phones; the matter of fact courage and anxiety of the asylum seekers as night draws near; the befouling of wells from which the asylum seekers had drawn water, and the trashing of their belongings.


"When in future years the story