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The dogs of Manus

Dogs of Manus (Stefan Armbruster  SBS News)
Dogs of Manus (Stefan Armbruster,  SBS News)

| Newsroom | Translated by Mohsen Kafi

AUCKLAND - This is a topic that has rarely been written about, simply because few people care about how dogs live.

The story dates to the time I was imprisoned on Manus Island. In 2013, the Australian government exiled me and almost 1,000 other refugees to Manus in the north of Papua New Guinea.

A Navy garrison was based close to our prison camp and every day we could see large groups of soldiers driving along the nearby dirt road in their military vehicles.

Across from the camp was a rainforest that was cut down shortly after we arrived, giving the prisoners an unobstructed view of the ocean.

In those early days, we saw armed soldiers chasing stray dogs. We later found out that the soldiers were ordered to kill a few dogs on occasion to control their population.

Those dogs were already suffering from illness and hunger; you could count their ribs. Some were three-legged, limping on the beach in search of crabs, while others licked rotten coconuts to stay alive.

Manusian dogs resembled ant-eaters in the way they kept their heads down, constantly looking for something to chew on. When not searching for food, they lay under trees, deprived of the care and affection enjoyed by pets. In hindsight, I believe this lifestyle allowed them to use less energy, thus staying alive for longer.

Some refugees had formed bonds with the stray dogs, occasionally feeding them through the wire fences, but security guards did not hesitate to disperse the dogs. A 'No Pets Allowed' sign was also attached to one of the walls inside the prison.

Three years passed before the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled against the imprisonment of individuals who have not committed any crimes. Following the Court’s ruling, we gained more freedoms, including the right to own pets.

An Iranian guy was the first refugee to bring in a pet, a puppy he had named Cotton Candy. A tiny dog with a fluffy tail, Cotton Candy soon began showing off his tricks, making a name for himself within a few days.

However, he developed an aggressive attitude as his owner was overly possessive of him. This attitude led him to bite a few prisoners. He even attacked me once. I was walking by the Iranian guy’s tent when the dog silently bit my ankle. This was particularly strange as I had not encountered him before. His attacks became so frequent that the guards removed him from the camp.

The Sri Lankans brought in Tiger, a black puppy with thin hair and smooth skin. Around the same time, the Iranians introduced a long-eared dog to the camp: Puppy. In the evenings when the weather cooled down, Tiger and Puppy rolled in the earthy parts of the camp until one or both ran out of breath. It was as if they were twin brothers.

The Kurds brought in a yellowish puppy they named Shalaan. Shalaan preceded Foxy, a small Dingo. Foxy was very lovely and calm, but he had a controlling owner. A year on from the lifting of the ‘no pets’ rule, the camp had become home to 15 dogs.

A short, black puppy once entered the camp, uninvited, through a tiny hole, but was soon thrown out. No one was willing to take him under their care, as he was too frail and vulnerable. The little fighter came back two days later but was kicked out again after stealing some food.

The third time was his lucky break as he finally got to stay in the camp. Although he was the youngest, he turned out to be the strongest, cleverest, and kindest of the lot.

No one had chosen a name for the unexpected guest, but everyone tacitly agreed to call him The Black One. This playful puppy had a daily routine of sneaking into the camp from underneath the fence, feeding himself on whatever was available, and returning to the beach full-bellied, ready to play with his butterfly friends.

He had mastered the drill. As soon as the soldiers showed up, he crept into the camp and stayed for a few days until the dust had settled.

I was reluctant to get emotionally close to The Black One or any of the other dogs. I never fed or petted them, or acted on the urge to play with them. I merely looked at the dogs, having closed my heart to their love.

I was scared to form bonds with them because I knew I would one day leave the island and they would return to a life of starvation and sickness.

I will never forget the day I left my dog, Goosh, in Iran. A wolf-like dog, Goosh knew I would not return from my journey. I held him tightly and acted as if I would be back soon, but he had sensed that this was going to be the last time he set eyes on me.

When you become a refugee, you lose everything that once defined you, as if experiencing death and rebirth. You lose your job, your status, your family, your lover, and even your pet. Those days on Manus, I was afraid of losing everything all over again.

After four and a half years, the Australian government decided to transfer us to a new camp on the other side of the island. We protested because we thought moving to a new place would mean staying on the island for another few years.

Our peaceful protests lasted for 23 days, during which the authorities left us without food and water. Dogs were on the front lines of those protests. Photos of them can still be found in some media.

On the last day of the protests, the authorities used force to take us to the new camp, simultaneously beating the refugees and the dogs. I cannot recall the exact turn of events, but news spread that Foxy had been killed.

The story went that, when the police started beating his owner, Foxy had charged at the attackers, only to be shot in the forehead by one of the soldiers. His lifeless body was left there on the road. Beautiful Foxy was not with us anymore.

A few other dogs were also left behind during the moving process, but Shalaan, Puppy, Tiger, and The Black One somehow got themselves to the new camp. They seemed happier in their new home, perhaps because soldiers no longer annoyed them, or possibly thanks to having access to vaster green spaces where they could play and run after each other.

In the evenings, they could even go to Lorengau, a nearby town, where they teased the local dogs. Having grown larger and stronger, The Black One gained superior status over both camp dogs and local dogs. He truly had a brave heart.

It was during those months that the US Government accepted large groups of refugees based on an agreement it had signed with the government of Australia. Also, the Australian parliament passed a law that made it easier for ill refugees to receive treatment in Australia.

As a result, only 300 of us were left of the original 900, with the numbers dropping daily. Many of the refugees who had closer ties to the dogs were gone, and the once spoiled dogs were left without carers.

One night, when I was sitting outside my room watching the rainforest, which looked stunning under the roadside lights, The Black One decided to lie down close to me, demanding attention. I turned a blind eye to him, but he howled incessantly, making it clear that he was starving. I fed him from what I had in the room.

The following night, The Black One was accompanied by some of his friends and, once again, I had little choice but to feed the hungry gang. They kept at this routine for several nights. The pack followed me wherever I went and The Black One had in effect become my pet.

Our friendship reached new heights when we became playmates, racing up and down the camp and jumping over each other. He enjoyed licking me all over, sometimes stealing my flip-flops and making me run after him around the camp.

Those were good days. The Black One and his friends moved freely on the island, whereas I was a prisoner worried about what would happen to him if I was to become a free man.

Early one morning, the word spread that Manus prison camp would be closed. I was told by security guards that my flight would leave on the same day. This was an order, so my disagreement with it was not going to stop them from carrying it out.

The Black One was lying outside my room. He would howl like a puppy, come inside and lick my feet, walk around the room and go back outside. When I took my backpack and walked towards the entrance of the camp, he ran behind me, as did the other dogs.

A bus was parked on the gravel road. When we boarded the bus, The Black One jumped inside and sat on my lap, howling and licking my face. The guards threw him out and I followed him outside.

Kneeling on the road, I rubbed my face against his and petted him gently. The other dogs licked my feet, too, but all I could do was give them a brief hug. Forcing me back into the bus, the guards stopped The Black One from jumping in too.

Our bus began moving. I could see the dogs running behind the bus for a long distance. The last image I have of that island is the look in the eyes of those dogs as they watched our bus disappear into the rainforest.

This essay was published originally in Newsroom with the support of Creative New Zealand. Behrouz Boochani will talk to John Campbell at the Auckland Writers Festival on 14 May


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Philip Fitzpatrick

One of my earliest memories from Papua New Guinea comes from Kwikila where we were undergoing further training before being sent to our postings as kiaps.

In the course of our training we visited local villages and it was there that I saw the appalling way that dogs were treated. They were starved and disease ridden. We were told that the locals kept their dogs skinny so that they would hunt better. I knew that was utter crap. Over the course of my work as a kiap I saw many more cases of this appalling treatment.

I've always believed that the way a society (and individuals) treat their animals is a sign of civilisation. That early exposure to those poor dogs probably coloured my view of the people I worked among.

It was only in the wilds of the Western Province jungles that I came across well-treated animals. Those so-called primitives and alleged cannibals had strong bonds with their hunting dogs and looked after them well.

When I returned to Papua New Guinea it was heartening to see dogs treated better in many places.

I visited Manus when Behrouz was there and can endorse the accuracy of what he says.

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