The refugees of Manus: A style of poetic resistance
11 December 2017
TUMBY BAY - There was an inspired piece of journalism published over the weekend in Australia’s The Saturday Paper. It was one of the best essays I have read this year.
It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist from Iran. He is currently a refugee held on Manus Island.
The essay was read before an audience by Maxine Beneba Clarke at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. Maxine is a black Australian writer with origins in the Caribbean.
What struck me about the essay was its underlying humanity. Boochani is a man who has great cause to be bitter about his treatment by the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments but what shines through is his and his fellow refugees care for those things in life that are truly important.
These stand in stark contrast to what our politicians deem important. This contrast is becoming more and more apparent, in so many ways, every day and is a cause for great concern.
In his essay Boochani chronicles the recent events that took place on Manus with the forcible removal of the 600 odd men there from the relatively isolation and safety on Los Negros to places where they are much more vulnerable close to Lorengau.
Here are some excerpts from his essay that attempt to convey what the resistance to the move was all about.
“The refugees are overpowered. The refugees have had extraordinary pressure imposed on them.
“The refugees have resisted an entire political system; they have stood up to the power of the whole government.
“From the beginning right through to the very end, the refugees only used peaceful means to stand up and challenge power.
“The refugees have asserted their authority. The refugees have claimed power. The refugees were able to reimagine themselves in the face of the detention regime.
“The refugees were able to re-envision their personhood when suppressed by every form of torture inflicted on them and when confronted by every application of violence.”
And if you think that’s interesting, what about the further ramifications?
“The refugees have identified and exposed the face of emerging 21st-century dictatorship and fascism that will one day creep into Australian society and into people’s homes like a cancer.
“The refugees have been resisting with their very lives. Against the real politics of the day. With their very bodies. With peace as a way of being and as an expression. With a rejection of violence. With a kind of political poetics. With a particular style of poetic resistance.
“Refugees pushed back. Risking their lives and bodies. Just fragile humans risking everything. Risking everything that is beautiful. Risking the only things of value left to them. Risking what nature had bestowed upon them.”
Boochani sums up by saying, “Ultimately, they beat us down and with violence put an end to our peaceful protest. But I think we were able to communicate our humanitarian message to Australian society and beyond.
“This sentiment is what all people, whether in Australia or elsewhere, need more than anything else these days.
“Feelings of friendship. Feelings of compassion. Feelings of companionship. Feelings of justice. And feelings of love.”
What is particularly significant in this sorry saga is the help that the refugees received from ordinary people on Manus.
These people risked their lives smuggling food to the refugees. Until Australia put pressure on them, the Papua New Guinean police also exercised considerable constraint and compassion.
I was particularly touched that Boochani mentioned that this smuggled food was democratically distributed to everyone, including the little band of dogs that the refugees have befriended.
As he says, “…we were adamant about the fact we had to show even more compassion to these dogs than before. Feeding them was imperative.”
I don’t know who said it but it is a truism that you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals.
A couple of years ago I visited Manus to prepare a social mapping study for one of the service providers to guide them in their dealings with the Manus people.
What I concluded was that the presence of the refugees would have a profound effect on the local people and this had to be managed very carefully.
As you can guess, my recommendations were ignored.
If I went back there, I think I might modify my comments.
If Behrouz Boochani is any guide I think that Manus and Papua New Guinea in general might actually benefit from the presence of the refugees.
If they are, as Boochani says, men who have lived through hell and survived as better human beings they could be a real asset for Papua New Guinea.
I suspect that the New Zealand government realises this too. Donald Trump obviously doesn’t and as for Mutton Dutton.…
If I were to advise the Papua New Guinean government about what to do next I would tell them to consider trying to retain these men in their country.
They might actually make it a better place.
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