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Incarceration, Autonomy and Resistance on Manus Island, by Behrouz Boochani

Our resistance demonstrated our rejection of violence, affirming our dignity as human beings by imbuing our struggle with peace.

If autonomy is the freedom to act without external control, then our 23-day resistance on Manus Island was an exercise in an autonomy temporarily wrought back from an institutionalised and otherwise indefinite state violence.

The PNG Supreme Court had determined our detention in Australia’s refugee prison camp on Manus Island unconstitutional and illegal, but instead of facilitating our safe resettlement, the Australian government planned to close the centre around us and simply shuffle us to new camps elsewhere. For those twenty-three days in November 2017, we used our weakened bodies to resist our forced removal—even as power, water and medical care were cut off—rather than submit passively to this continued deprivation of our liberty.

My ‘poet’s manifesto’ has already described the ways in which our resistance demonstrated our rejection of violence, affirming our dignity as human beings by imbuing our struggle with peace—as a political principle, as an expression of values, and in profound opposition to the dangers of a creeping fascism of which the incarceration of refugees is perhaps only the most visible sign.

In this visual essay, I want to show how we enacted our resistance in practice. Fundamentally, it relied on cooperation not only within the prison camp but also with sympathetic Australians and Manusians who supported our stance.

After our first few difficult days without services a democratic system emerged to manage our basic needs. At daily camp meetings we divided the necessary tasks. The engineers among us became our saviours, taking on the critical responsibility of meeting our most pressing need for clean water. They advised us where and how to dig wells, how to keep them clean, and how to collect rainwater in tanks and rubbish bins. They saw us through a constant battle with the elements as we waited for rain, and with the authorities who were intent on destroying or contaminating our water-storage systems.

Other people took on equally important roles. Some became lookouts, keeping watch through the night with whistles ready to alert the camp at the first sign of a police raid. Those willing to risk smuggling food into the camp made trips to buy food in Lorengau town. As they returned by boat, usually in the dark night, scouts surveyed the beach for PNG navy and our Manusian supporters rowed their boats the last 20 metres so the engines would not give away where they were coming in to shore. Some Manusians were arrested for their efforts.

We never had enough food, but whatever we could bring in was distributed according to an egalitarian system. We made numbered lists of the people in each community—Afghan, Pakistani, Rohingya, Iraqi…—so the correct number of portions could be allocated to each group. Those without a national or ethnic community were formed into a group of their own. Sometimes we had no food for three days. But our system meant that everyone had just enough to get by.

Solar panels—bought along with the food in a makeshift international supply chain funded by Australian donations—proved essential for charging mobile phones that were our lifeline to the outside world. Dedicated crews managed the charging of phones for twenty-three days, with a never-ending cycle of phones being delivered, carefully labelled to ensure they could be returned to their rightful owners, connected to the power supply and then eagerly collected at least partially charged. When it became clear that the solar panels were insufficient to meet our needs, the same international supply chain allowed us to secure a small generator that charged phones for two hours each night.

After water, sanitation emerged as our next greatest need. Again, our endlessly creative engineers stepped in, allocating some wells to clean the toilets with bucket systems as best we could, and rationing the limited power supply to regularly flush the sewage out to sea. The different communities within the prison camp developed a roster for toilet-cleaning duties: Kurdish one day, Iranian, Sudanese or Somali the next.

Medical problems remained a major risk, and as our bodies weakened many people began to get sick. Critical cases were always encouraged to leave the camp and seek treatment in Lorengau, but for those who refused, one man took responsibility for managing the camp’s medical needs. He dispensed our small amount of collected antibiotics and other medicines according to medical priority, and remained in constant contact with a network of Australian doctors willing to give over-the-phone medical advice.

It was crucial that journalists could come into the camp and see our situation. During our years of incarceration they had been prevented from seeing the conditions first hand. Perhaps surprisingly, this was among our hardest work. We were hungry, tired, and needed sleep, but we used the cover of darkness to bring in a succession of journalists and human-rights defenders from around the world, showing them the camp and arranging interviews before smuggling them back out again before dawn.

For these twenty-three days before our violent removal we experienced, for the first time in over four years, some sense of autonomy. But it was not individualistic or rationalistic. Propelled by the deprivation of our liberty, we found an autonomy embedded in social relationships and shared experience. In giving primacy to relations of care and cooperation we did not compromise our autonomy but instead made it possible. We became free only in relation with others. This was compassion, egalitarianism and interdependence in direct opposition to oppression and domination. It was the embodiment of feminist values, but it emerged and was nurtured among hundreds of incarcerated men.

Two refugees in Delta compound boil water on a fire. The water had to be boiled before drinking, and when there was not enough food the water could be mixed with a little sugar.

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