With remembrance goes compassion: Manus

By Andrew Hamilton SJ.  Article originally published on Eureka Street, 25 November 2017. 

In ‘Epic’, Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh mused on the relative importance of world and local contemporaneous events — Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler in Munich and a bitter local dispute about a patch of land.

‘I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided, who owned / That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land / Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.’

This poem came to mind when the refugees on Manus Island were forcibly evicted from their quarters. In Australia it was a small event reported in the inside pages of the newspapers through the prism of dismissive comments by Messrs Dutton and Turnbull, and marked by a few hundred protesters and attendant police in Melbourne and elsewhere.

Seen through the eyes of the refugees it was a large event, yet another circle in their Inferno that has taken them from persecution in their own lands, through peril at sea, their Australian capture and despatch to Manu Island with its deprivations, neglect and humiliations, the occasional false hopes that Australia might discharge its responsibility to them, culminating in this transfer to new quarters.

A short bus ride in terms of distance, but symbolically a transfer to the physical danger and neglect of a future in PNG by which Pilate-like Australia would wash its hands of them. The refusal to leave the detention quarters, now neglected and without water, food and power, with only social media to tell their story.

That story deserves to be remembered in its tactile detail, like ‘the half-rood rock’ in Kavanagh’s poem. It is caught in the small details of the photos sent by the asylum seekers — they sit in peaceful solidarity, hands over their ears to blot out the shouting by police; the huge sticks wielded by the police as they patrol the camp; the hunched shoulders of the brave Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish journalist chronicler of human rights abuses in Iran, and now the chronicler of the daily humiliations on Manus Island, as he is led away in handcuffs by police.

Caught, too, in the steady voices heard in the asylum seekers’ reporting to Australia as they try to elude the police effort to capture their phones; the matter of fact courage and anxiety of the asylum seekers as night draws near; the befouling of wells from which the asylum seekers had drawn water, and the trashing of their belongings.

“When in future years the story of the closing of the detention camp is retold, it will provoke national shame at the political cynicism and incompetence of successive Australian governments and their ministers.”

One can easily imagine the pain as family photos and personal mementos preserved at great cost are now trodden underfoot, and the sadness as eventually the asylum seekers are put on buses, resistance crushed by overwhelming power.

This story will not occupy the attention of the media or politicians longer than did the land dispute at Ballyrush. But it is important for Australians to remember as the human story of brave human beings who for four years have endured the humiliation and pain inflicted on them by the Australian Government, and now by Australia’s client state PNG. Like Homer’s soldiers encamped by Troy and the Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Trail, they have endured living in filth with their spirits uncrushed.

With remembrance goes compassion. The refugees on Manus Island are not simply actors in a dramatic poem. They are human beings like us to whom we have a responsibility. They could have enriched us by their ingenuity and bravery had we accepted them. We should continue to listen to their voices and keep them in our hearts.

When in future years the story of the closing of the detention camp is retold and is set in the broader context of the decision taken by those responsible for Australian government policy, it will provoke national shame at the political cynicism and incompetence of successive Australian governments and their ministers. It will also encourage international celebration of the courage and endurance of those who took this journey through hell with their spirit intact.

At the end of his poem Kavanagh emphasises the claim of the local and the personal: ‘Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind. / He said: I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.’

This ‘local row’ invites us, like Homer, to name what is important to us in it, and what value we put on decency, the life of each inconvenient human being, human solidarity, compassion and justice. The gods we have inherited, whether the gods of the great religions or the gods of our political and social philosophies, have handed down traditions that spell out what is important. By their standards the people who resisted on Manus Island deserve remembering, applauding and supporting.