With remembrance goes compassion: Manus

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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.

Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani is forced out of the Manus Island centre'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 of the closing of the detention camp is retold, it will provoke national shame at the political cynicism and incompetence of successive Australian governments and their ministers."

 

One can easily imagine the pain as family photos and personal mementos preserved at great cost are now trodden underfoot, and the sadness as eventually the asylum seekers are put on buses, resistance crushed by overwhelming power.

This story will not occupy the attention of the media or politicians longer than did the land dispute at Ballyrush. But it is important for Australians to remember as the human story of brave human beings who for four years have endured the humiliation and pain inflicted on them by the Australian Government, and now by Australia's client state PNG. Like Homer's soldiers encamped by Troy and the Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Trail, they have endured living in filth with their spirits uncrushed.

With remembrance goes compassion. The refugees on Manus Island are not simply actors in a dramatic poem. They are human beings like us to whom we have a responsibility. They could have enriched us by their ingenuity and bravery had we accepted them. We should continue to listen to their voices and keep them in our hearts.

When in future years the story of the closing of the detention camp is retold and is set in the broader context of the decision taken by those responsible for Australian government policy, it will provoke national shame at the political cynicism and incompetence of successive Australian governments and their ministers. It will also encourage international celebration of the courage and endurance of those who took this journey through hell with their spirit intact.

At the end of his poem Kavanagh emphasises the claim of the local and the personal: 'Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind. / He said: I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.'

This 'local row' invites us, like Homer, to name what is important to us in it, and what value we put on decency, the life of each inconvenient human being, human solidarity, compassion and justice. The gods we have inherited, whether the gods of the great religions or the gods of our political and social philosophies, have handed down traditions that spell out what is important. By their standards the people who resisted on Manus Island deserve remembering, applauding and supporting.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani is forced out of the Manus Island centre.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Manus Island, asylum seekers


 

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Existing comments

The reports by the auditor general provide the facts of the multiple failings of the DIbP built on flawed policy. These are public documents. Here is link to most recent pair, but plenty of earlier ones on ANAO website. https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/offshore-processing-centres-nauru-and-papua-new-guinea-contract-management
Jane | 26 November 2017


This is a profoundly moving article. It transcends our political divisions and lays hold of the deepest commitments which bind us as human beings. Poetry, ancient or modern can move us beyond political expediency and self interest.
Brian Johnstone | 27 November 2017


Thank you Andrew for this thoughtful, wise ,timely article. We need to continue to protest this dreadful , shameful, do nothing approach from our govt and opposition parties. May the refugees soon be granted freedom and safety and justice. They deserve this at the very least.
Monica Phelan | 27 November 2017


What Manus tells us is that moral capital is easily lost. The capital accumulated for protecting the territorial integrity of the nation by quarantining the abettors of those who would for financial gain spite the lawful processes of entering it was wasted by the careless treatment of them in quarantine. The Church knows this from the child abuse scandal and, in its secular equivalent, Weinstein and Stacey, among others, are teaching the Hollywood/Democratic Party liberal establishment the same lesson. The oft-cited (whether true) Chinese saying, that a person who stops another from committing suicide becomes responsible to look after the material needs of that person for the rest of the latter’s life, in a sense, applies. A person who damages another becomes morally obliged to look after the latter. After the sumptuous donation out of his socially liberal bounty to the temple of SSM, perhaps housing the detainees here can be Malcolm Turnbull’s two mites to the temple of Manus.
Roy Chen Yee | 27 November 2017


Thank you, Andrew, for this beautiful and true tribute to the men who were forcibly moved on Thursday and Friday last week to the new unfinished facilities on Manus Island. Shameful and distressing to see their action quashed by power. The men's (many around the same age as my sons) peaceful, non-violent action affirming their freedom as human beings against the odds reminds me of the actions of people like Rosa Parks who said enough, I am a free person.
Anne Elvey | 27 November 2017


Thanks Andrew! Australia's unjust treatment of asylum seekers began with the Tampa crisis and John Howard starting to play politics with the lives of desperate asylum seekers. Both sides of politics have ever since then engaged in a political game of trying to wedge one another on this issue for political purposed. Very few Catholic clergy have stood up to be counted on this issue too. I admire Dean Catt, the Anglican Dean in Brisbane who has declared the Anglican Cathedral as a sanctuary for desperate asylum seekers. As I write this I personally know one Tamil asylum seeker who is appealing the Australian Govenment's decision to send him back to Sri Lanka, where he expects to be treated badly by Government forces and possibly even killed. I appeal to all People of Good Will to stand up for the asylum seekers who have sought protection in our country.
Grant Allen | 27 November 2017


A timely and sad expression of our national shame. The only quibble I would have is with the comment that the event was "marked by a few hundred protesters". I do think this underestimates the extent of the waves of resistance demonstrated by thousands in the major cities as well as small demonstrations in many other parts of Australia. Perhaps this callous act has in fact sparked a more widespread shame that will continue to grow, joined as it is with a growing anger of Australia being let down by inadequate leaders.
John Bartlett | 28 November 2017


Thanks, Andrew. My sense is that, like those on Nauru and Manus Island, I too am powerless to ameliorate their plight. There is little consolation in knowing that history will judge Dutton and Turnbull poorly. Nor does it help to know I am in a minority when it comes to changing things. Australians seem to lack the capacity to imagine what it might be like to be in the position of the oppressed, unlike the child who on enrollment interview with my wife stared at the crucifix and murmured "Jeez, that must have hurt." Children can see immediately that what adults are perpetrating is inhuman.
Kimball Chen | 28 November 2017


Thank you, Andrew Hamilton, for this beautiful reflection on the moral disaster that is the Government's policy regarding refugees. I have long argued that in this whole unsavoury shameful time Australia has lost its ethical soul. We are a degraded nation now and reclaiming the positive, non-punitive energy we have lost will be difficult.
Ellen O'Gallagher | 28 November 2017


Thank you Fr Andrew for expressing what goodness in human hearts actually is: "They could have enriched us by their ingenuity and bravery had we accepted them. We should continue to listen to their voices and keep them in our hearts". What price arrogance ... Jesus weeps ... and Pilate lives among us.
Mary Tehan | 28 November 2017


Very good article and some excellent comments. Grant Allen in particular has it right: as in so much/all of current Australian governance good policy is subverted by bad politics on all sides. As mentioned there is "Tampa", but also the equally disgraceful undoing of the Gillard regional-processing initiative which was the best last hope for good policy but cynically destroyed by Abbott and the Greens working together in opposition to everything and manipulating their respective voting bases. This ongoing era of cynical, values-free politics will be looked back upon with a mix of national shame and disbelief. We are all poorer in literally every way.
Eugene | 28 November 2017


Thanks Andrew for a beautiful article expressing the amazing spirit of the men that Australia has deserted on Manus island. I agree with John Bartlett though, that there have been many more than 'a few hundred protestors' in Australia. Add the people who demonstrated, those who have contacted members of parliament, the congregations in churches who have prayed, those who are in asylum seeker support groups and the figure is well into the high thousands. The challenge is to continue protesting until New Zealand's offer is accepted and processing continues, not on Manus, but in Australia.
Maureen O'Brien | 28 November 2017


Thanks you Andrew for your focus on our 'leaders' - so-called - huge failure to these devastated people. Over and over, they're being 'punished' for having to get up in the night's darkest hour, and run - for their lives - no choice, and no way to join the 'correct' queue to travel to safe new lives in our country. So many others coaught in same desperate journey - to 'nowhere' - like Rohinghya people fleeing persecution - and worse - in Myanmar, and reaching bangladesh. Am so proud of my friends from Bangladesh who are supporting appeals from UNHCR and other agencies to help them find new homes, and safe lives. Am reminded of other words, used in one of the songs for prayer from Taizé, which began with John of the Cross; "By night, we hasten in darkness, to seek for the living in water. Only our thirst leads us onwards . . " May our thirst for justice keep us trying to shine a light on their hard journey!
Lynne Green | 28 November 2017


As a Permanent Resident in Australia for 55 years, my shame at Australia's mistreatment of refugees over the past years, confirms my decision not to take Australian citizenship. Is it too simplistic to say that my opportunities to take full part in Australian life over these years, has something to do with my Anglo/Celtic background? Do current refugees/asylum seekers not have much much more right than I to the Australian way of life? Shame, Shame on us Australia - when we cannot even treat them humanely!
Maggie McNab | 28 November 2017


And thank you too for the trenchant reminder that the refugees are not simply 'actors in a dramatic poem'. Your article places this story under a much bigger arc than the tiny lens afforded by the calculated politics of current and recent governments. Thank you for the trenchant reminder that the refugees on Manus Island are not simply 'actors in a dramatic poem'. Your article places this story under a much bigger arc than the tiny lens afforded by the calculated politics of current and recent governments. The refugees could indeed have 'enriched us with their braveness and ingenuity' – this reminds me of a statements by children who helped create the SievX memorial on the shores of Lake Burleigh Griffin,– “You could have lived in our beautiful valley” – “You could have been my friend.”
Julie Perrin | 28 November 2017


Andrew, I can weep and I can pray . . . but what a rotten inhumane mess Australia is making of these poor people. What now? Who's hearing our pleas for a more just and empathetic way of dealing with these brothers? It's certainly not those who supposedly make our decisions. OUR decisions? Not MINE!!
glen avard | 28 November 2017


Roy, the concept of "quarantining"a human being is wrong and offensive even on the most simplest most superficial level. These are human beings, not plants or rabbits or parrots. And on a more complex level, just because these asylum seekers were not granted refugee status doesn't mean they're money-grubbing fraudsters with no cause or reason to seek protection. It simply means they couldn't prove it under the conditions set out by the government. If you'd ever had to deal with the increasingly stringent conditions of a government department recently, you'd understand this. Just as an example: I'm a fifth generation Australian with all my ancestors arriving by sea in the mid-1800s, and yet last year the Dept of Human Services had reason to believe I was not eligible for support when the company I worked for went into receivership. I had never had any dealings with Centrelink and no online footprint with any government department apart from Medicare. And I only had an extract of my birth certificate and had lost the original required for government proof of identity purposes. So although I was eligible for income support in the months it took me to find full time/permanent employment, I had no income whatsoever and faced the real possibility of homelessness.
AURELIUS | 28 November 2017


"they could have enriched us by their bravery and ingenuity". Agreed. They could have. I have wondered if it is not that bravery and ingenuity that puts fear into the heads of the ruling batches of roosters here. Perhaps fear that such qualities might be a bad influence on a subservient population distracted by bread and circuses, or was it John Lennon: "sex and drugs and TV." Still we'll keep banging on. What else is there to do?
Jill | 01 December 2017


As wise and compassionate an article as one would expect from Dr Hamilton. Following the helpful and inspiring references to the Kavanagh poem, I wonder whether the use of language to describe/comment on this dire situation needs to become more varied. "Responsible" is a good word. But, as is clear once we think about it, there is a synonym, based on the same root: 'answerable'. We give a 'response'; but we also give an 'answer'. While rightly reluctant to tamper with as fine a wordsmith as Andrew Hamilton, I wonder whether reframing or adding to our thinking, from 'they are human beings like us to whom we have a responsibility' to, for example: 'they are human beings like us for whom we, chiefly in our behaviour to them, are answerable.' At this time of year, as Christians reflect on the second coming and the warnings of Matthew's gospel on treatment of 'the least of these', perhaps it is worth recalling to Whom we must, so Christians believe, 'answer' for our treatment of these fellow human beings. The emotiveness of 'answerable' might be deployed alongside 'responsible' to some effect.
Gregory Seach | 01 December 2017


Thank you for this excellent reflection and challenge. So hard to read when, as individuals, we want to change this dire situation for young people - countries shattered, lives broken... their lands still at war - wanting what many of our families have wanted 'yesterday'. What is there for them to go back to? Individual men/politicians deciding in our name. Is it too late to lobby more or differently? Can we do more than hope?
Adele Jones | 01 December 2017


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