The truth about Manus, told by a journalist and a refugee trapped in limbo

By Grahame Best in conversation with Michael Green | 19 Jun 17
Abdul Aziz Muhamat. Photo by Michael Green.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat hangs from the tray of a battered ute and leans into the monsoonal rain. The warm tropical wind engulfs him. The ute tears around dirt corners, driven with confidence and recklessness by a local on its way to a secluded Manus Island beach. The thrill and fear and joy is electric. Behrouz Boochani the Kurdish journalist is there, singing songs he wrote in detention, in the queue for the toilet, as is Melbourne journalist Michael Green. They topple onto the beach and spend the day in paradise.

It is the first time that Aziz has left the Australian government-run Manus Island detention centre after the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court ruled the detention of men there to be unconstitutional. Aziz has been found to be a refugee so he can settle in Papua New Guinea, but him and others like him are too afraid to even leave the centre. Violence is a real threat. Aziz takes confidence in Michael being there, his Australian passport imparting a sense of security, but as Michael told me when I interviewed him at his house in Carlton, only at the last minute did Aziz decide to come out. For his courage, he is rewarded with a taste of freedom.

Soon after, Aziz will return to the centre and the fear, violence and lack of options will close the gates as effectively as any lock and chain. He is there still. A refugee trapped in limbo in a moribund offshore camp waiting for the rest of his life to begin. The camp is to close, we are now told, with no chance for the refugees to resettle in Australia, but Aziz is no more certain of his fate than when he hopped a boat to Australia four years ago, his hopes now hanging on the US refugee swap deal.

Michael is part of Behind the Wire, a group of writers and editors who have created a remarkable storytelling architecture which supports men and women who’ve been in Australia’s immigration detention system to tell their stories. These storytellers are at the centre of the process; it is their story, in their words, with their authority over what goes in, what comes out and whether anything is published at all. Behind the Wire are not activists or political campaigners; they are witnesses.

Michael Green

Michael Green

When Michael contacted Aziz some three years into Aziz’s time on Manus Island, Behind the Wire were working on a book and Michael was interested in whether Aziz would tell his story.

They talked by leaving each other 30 second WhatsApp voice messages (reception was too poor for calls), some four thousand in total over the next year and a half. Slowly, and then with such frequency and urgency, Aziz told Michael about who he is, about how he got there and about what its like to live on Manus Island. Behind the Wire in turn partnered with the Wheeler Centre to create from these conversations “The Messenger”, a ten part podcast series that is no less than a tapestry of Aziz’s life.

The podcast is a revelation. It is the story of a man who is also a political motif – the “boat person” – from whom so little is heard. His story puts a crack in the wall of silence that the government has erected to hide the reality of offshore detention from the Australian public. He divulges details that would never emerge from official reports. Listening to the podcast, I feel almost complicit in an unsanctioned leak of information, as if a whistle-blower is telling me his story under cloak and dagger. And now with the centre in its dying days and those left there in such a precarious circumstance, his story is remarkably current and necessary.

Aziz is in the detention centre for the whole seven episodes of the podcast that have been published to date. Hearing him tell his story is an urgent reminder of the power of listening and bearing witness. He speaks with an authenticity that Australian commentators on either side of the divide can rarely match. Take this, his opinion on people smugglers:

The smugglers are very very smart peoples … In their first role they play as a lifesaver. But in their second role they play as a killer. So the role they play as a lifesaver is: you run away from danger and you are looking for tiny rocks or sticks that you can just hold it to save your life. But on the other hand we call them killer because they are always cheating people, they never tell the truth. They say, ok, we’re gonna put you in a ship. But when the day of the journey comes, you will find out only a rickety boats.

The podcast is most compelling when it covers the mundane; Aziz’s day to day. The incessant boredom of detention, the absurd bursts of chaos that envelop him, and his struggle for dignity and autonomy. He speaks about the monotony – coffee, gym, lunch, coffee, soccer and repeat: “same shit; different days”. He tells stories that are rich and heartbreaking. There is a line, he tells us, every night from seven to ten, of men collecting their nightly sedatives. And he laments: “Imagine! Every night from seven pm to ten pm, the clinic is just busy, busy. Imagine! Why are these people coming here to take the seductive? Why are these people on the pill? What’s wrong?”

Listening to the podcast, I feel almost complicit in an unsanctioned leak of information, as if a whistle-blower is telling me his story under cloak and dagger.

The centre is volatile. Events spring from nowhere. Sometimes they are newsworthy. Aziz, for example, was a leader in one of the hunger strikes which ended with him interned in a local prison in an attempt to stop the hunger strike. In another, officials at the centre separated the men, without warning, into two groups: those with positive refugee determinations and those without. The negatively assessed men presumed they would be deported and were driven to self-harm, and Aziz, as both a leader and a strong and supportive personality, was swept up in trying to help the vulnerable. Eventually, the officials shelved the plan.

The effects of indefinite detention are inescapable in all of this. Aziz calls indefinite detention “one of the worst things” that is “always destroying people”. It is both interminable and uncertain. Michael put it this way in our interview:

Each day that I was speaking to Aziz I didn’t know if we’d be continuing. The whole thing felt really on edge, because I felt like any day might be the end of the detention centre. It was a really strange situation. And even though that has been going on and on for four years and it’s interminable and it’s boredom, it just felt so volatile.

Aziz and Michael share a deepening friendship as episodes progress. They talk about sports – Michael has his Coburg basketball team and Aziz his soccer games – and they are warm and kind. But there is also no escaping just how radically different their lives are. As Michael tells me, “in some ways it just feels like we’re two guys having chat. And then you realise that he can’t go anywhere. I don’t know how to understand that.” But that is also where the podcast draws depth.

“It seems such an obvious thing to say, to talk about the differences in our circumstances and the fate that has led that to be the case. But it is profound and it’s a large part of the human dimension of the show,” Michael says.

“I got to know Aziz and I realised where he was born and the random collection of rules and international law that led him to this particular bind that he finds himself in. There’s no foreseeable circumstance in my life in which I could be in that sort of situation. It’s impossible for me to stop thinking about that, even though it doesn’t really lead anywhere.”

Aziz and Michael share a deepening friendship as episodes progress.

In all of this, the podcast has moments of great beauty and it’s more uplifting than one expects. Aziz is infectious. He plays pranks, builds a garden with lettuce and chilli seeds from the mess hall and bounds around with energy that belies his context. His voice is warm and he shares so much.

The podcast is filled with the background mosaic of Manus Island sounds. Rain, birds, radios, chatter. John Tjhia from the Wheeler Centre, who orchestrates the sound production, tells me that “all the non-verbal sound in these voice messages is information. Noise is part of the story, interference is part of the story, and time is too.” It is a delicate thing to leave noise in and John does it masterfully.

Earlier this year in April the Wheeler Centre put on a panel discussion about the Messenger, with Michael, Guardian journalist Ben Doherty and Dr John Zammit, a psychologist who worked on Manus Island from early 2013 and features in episode two of the podcast.

The highlight of the evening is when Aziz Skypes in from his hospital bed in Port Moresby, where he’s recovering from surgery for a soccer injury. I’m told that it was pure coincidence that he was there with an internet connection at the time of the event. There is an audible gasp in the room when he appears on screen. The woman in front of me emits a soft moan, the sound one makes when seeing a loved one after a long journey, and the first audience question for Aziz is “how are you”? There is a palpable sense of affection in the room. Aziz has touched many of these people. He feels like a rock star.

There is a falsehood in that feeling though. A sort of seductive delusion, which we as the audience can come to believe, that through this process of immortalisation in culture and word Aziz has become that rock star, that his status has emancipated him from his station. And in some respects this is true. What he and Behind the Wire and the Wheeler Centre have done is arguably great.


Aziz on Manus Island

But the only real game for Aziz is freedom and in that he is still nowhere.

After the podcast launched, Aziz received Facebook messages from listeners, who told him how he had touched them, some reduced to tears. When Aziz told Michael about these messages, Michael, amazed, asked Aziz how it made him feel.

“Well for me I feel good about it, but it’s hard to have that kind of feeling, especially when you’re still not knowing your future,” Aziz replied.

“The only thing you keep yourself busy with is how to obtain your freedom from this trap.”