Nauru, officially the Republic of Nauru, is an island country in Micronesia in the Central Pacific and the smallest republic in the world. Formerly known as Pleasant Island, it was once a British colony which has however long passed under the aegis of the Australian government and in recent years run into controversy as a site for the “offshore processing” of people who seek asylum and protection. Since 2013, Australia has sent all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into detention on Nauru, Papua New Guinea or Manus Island, and denied them resettlement in Australia despite an outcry from rights groups. In fact innumerable countries, the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented such instances of illegal detention. Unfortunately, as per recent statistics, more than 77% of the population forcibly sent to Nauru by the Australian government consists of refugees who are not allowed to leave the island. In the critically acclaimed They Cannot take the Sky, Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope as editors have courageously and painstakingly documented the first-person narratives of the people detained as they reveal not only their extraordinary journeys and their daily struggles but also their reflections on love, death, hope and injustice, thus breaking the culture of silence and suppression that surrounds them from the moment they are taken to the island. A creation of the Behind the Wire publication stable, which incidentally is an award winning oral history organization, They Cannot take the Sky carries forward the tenor of exploring and documenting the truth in incidents of illegal detention in the aforementioned islands. Below are my impressions of reading an extract from the book, the narrative of a child called Benjamin.
(Nauru satellite image, courtesy Google.)
Reading Benjamin’s first person narrative from They cannot Take the Sky, one is left with the feeling that it is hope that kills, albeit silently; yet it is in hope that people live. This dialectics or palpable tension runs as an invisible thread across the length and breadth of this particular oral narrative as it tries to document the tryst of a refugee boy from Nauru with un-freedom, detention and conscious and continuous thoughtlessness by the Australian government as like countless others of his generation, Benjamin grows up negotiating with pain and an inhuman existence. While “They cannot Take the Sky” revolves around the general thematic of wrongful detention and first person case studies of the people who are forced to experience life as asylum seekers in the island of Nauru, this extract focuses mainly on the travails of Benjamin. A boy of impressionable age, Benjamin spent his teens in the family camps at Offshore Processing Centre compound number 3 in Nauru. Since this tiny island continues to accept aid from the Australian government in exchange for hosting the Nauru Detention Centre, the de-facto control of the latter on this republic continues unabated and thereby informs the lives of all the persons detained in there. Benjamin or his family was no exception to this. Thus wait and uncertainty assume new meaning for him when one day on extremely trivial charges his father is taken into custody. Benjamin’s firsthand account reveals how he knew that it was because his father had curried disfavor with the Wilsons (the security guards in charge of the camps) that he was singled out and imprisoned. His father’s forced confinement in Darwin where he was taken to from the island (for apparently ‘disturbing’ the distribution of food in camp queues) and his subsequent cardiac arrest, left an indelible scar on Benjamin’s mind and identity. He was barely 18 then, his sisters being minors and this extract documents how he failed to cope with the sudden dissociation from his father as insecurity stalked his very existence.
(Refugees at the Nauru detention camp. Courtesy: Google)
It speaks of the pathos of the life of an asylum taker and the absolute insensitivity and non-engagement of the asylum giving nation in great detail and certain anecdotes are heart-wrenching to say the least. For instance, Benjamin recounts how the psychologist laughed when he heard that the boy was finding it difficult to come to terms with his father’s long and sudden absence from his life and wished to commit suicide. The dark and disturbingly uncompromising attitude of the Australian authorities becomes uncomfortably clear and vivid in such retelling of anecdotes. It is perhaps this stark, nonchalant negligence of the authorities that laces all the anecdotes of Benjamin as he tries to map his experiences in the camp taking the reader through his failed suicide bid to those years when his father was returned to them, albeit in a physically non-functional state. He recounts how he pleaded with the immigration authorities to let him be with his father since he was infirm and how he was allowed to reunite with his family after two long years, although in a physically defunct state. Benjamin’s angst knows no bounds as he talks about his neighbor Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee who could not take the pressure of living, being stripped of basic human rights and decided to end his life. It was a personal loss as Benjamin, for long, apparently suffered from the guilt of not being able to save Omid as he poured petrol and burnt himself in front of his very eyes. A life ended unnecessarily as it does almost every other day in the camps of Nauru but somewhere Omid’s death was an eye opener. Benjamin, despite his innate nature to cling on to tomorrow, started believing that it was almost the end of their dreams—the dreams of being free, being elsewhere but in Nauru, being able to pursue higher education and being able to be successful.
(A child’s drawing at Nauru. Courtesy: Google)
The oral narrative also familiarizes us with Benjamin’s uneasiness as he paints rose tinted pictures of a different, freer tomorrow to his family, albeit with the sole motive of saving it from falling into the pits of despair.
“I’m 100% sure that in 2017 we are gonna get out of this island.”…
This interview was recorded in 2015 and as the year rolled on to the next year, Benjamin, his family and a host of others still continued to remain detained in Nauru. Hope seems to be a mirage, but it is the only thing that has a constant presence in Benjamin’s life, as he still dreams of his sisters living a comfortable life, he being able to go elsewhere for higher education. Nauru meanwhile thrives as a land of no-hope and no-return.
[Dr. Chakraborty is a Research and Programme Associate at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]