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Four birthdays in Manus Prison

Life is made intentionally cruel for refugees trapped on Manus Island

Imran Mohammad. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen/SMH Imran Mohammad. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen/SMH

Imran Mohammad is a member of the Rohingya ethnic group of Myanmar and has been officially declared a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Read his introductory piece here.


Last month, I spent yet another birthday in this God-forsaken place. It was my fourth birthday in Manus prison. I was a young boy of just 19 when I stepped onto Papua New Guinea on October 29, 2013. Today I am 23, and I have suffered every day since.

As soon as I got off the plane, I was forcibly moved to this isolated place, where everything could be concealed from the rest of the world. I didn’t know how appalling the punishment would be. This was a hole designed to make humans suffer in a way that the world will struggle to ever comprehend. It is beyond human understanding, unless you are living it. 

When I arrived, I was placed in Delta compound with three Somali men. Our room was a narrow shipping container. It was agonising to live in; there was absolutely no place for us to move around.Two sets of bunk beds took up almost all the space, so we always got changed and dressed on our beds. It was the smallest compound on Manus but there were around 300 men living there, which made it extremely unbearable. Outside there was no place for us to sit in peace, as there was machinery, security guards and detainees everywhere.

I could never escape lines in Delta compound — there were lines for every single thing. We had to line up in the heat of the sun, or in the pouring rain, for breakfast and lunch. It was still horrendously hot when we lined up for dinner at night. There were lines for toilets and showers, as there were only five toilets for 300 men.

I waited for more than 12 hours to wash my clothes. There was only one washing machine for all the men, and often we would not have washing powder for months. I can still remember the poor quality razor we had to use for months — if someone lost theirs, it took months to get another. There was no timeframe for anything, so we never knew when we would receive what. We would wake up at 3am to queue for a razor, or wait in the heat of the sun for hours to exchange razors and collect washing powder. Many times we did not receive either, as there was not enough for everyone.

I didn’t know how I would survive in this environment, as I was very young and very small compared to the other men. I talked to my God after praying five times a day. We didn’t have a place to pray so we used to pray in D block on the concrete floor, which was in front of the toilets. We used bedsheets and papers to pray on, but could never concentrate properly as there were people walking all over the place.

I spent hours crying in my bed. I skipped meals and other things, just so that I could be away from the chaos.

I moved to Mike compound at the end of  2013. There were more than 400 men in the compound. It was a little bigger than Delta compound as it was newly constructed, however our suffering didn’t end. There was a TV room that could only fit 50 men, so more 350 men had nothing to do in the evenings. The TV created so many fights, arguments, and distance between friends.

There were six air-conditioners in the laundry, but none in our rooms. Our rooms were converted metal shipping containers, so when the sun was out, it felt like being thrown in boiling hot water. We didn’t have any devices with which we could listen to music.

I didn’t know how I would survive this nightmare. There were times when I thought of killing myself; tears of anguish always filled my eyes. Yet with some miraculous blessings, I held onto my hope and managed to find the strength required. I stopped going to the places other men went, and I did not do the things others did. I was in bed when everyone was awake and I was awake when everyone was asleep. I went to have my meals just 10 minutes before they closed the mess so that I could avoid the lines. I spent most of my time with my teachers, as most men had no desire to be around them. I was very committed to my learning and keen on improving my writing. I knew the power of a pen and paper. One of the psychologists taught me an idiom during a conversation with him and I took it on as my motto:  the pen is mightier than the sword.

There were too many spiteful measures imposed upon our lives. I saw a lot of food and fruit thrown away after every meal, yet we were never allowed to take one apple with us outside of the mess. We used to hide an apple in our underwear so that we could have something to eat in the evenings. I fell asleep hundreds of nights with my pen in my mouth, as I couldn’t endure the hunger.

On my 20th birthday I was not allowed a phone call, even though I saw the phones were not being used. We could only ring our families when our names were on the list. I saw many men begging the guards for a phone call on special occasions to talk to their wives, mothers, fathers, children and siblings. I told myself that I would not request anything from now on. I had less interaction with the guards and other workers, which made my life easier.

These days we are allowed to have phones but we can’t talk on the phones, as the Internet connection is excruciatingly slow. We will never be able to eradicate the daily hurdles in this environment. More obstacles keep appearing on top of the existing ones, and we go through too many heartbreaking events every day.

There is much to be said about our lives in indefinite detention. If we used all the water in the sea as ink to describe our sufferings here, we would run out before explaining everything.

I have wasted four birthdays in this gruesomely torturous environment. If only I was free and with my family.

I should not have seen and should not have experienced all that I have.  If we survive, I can guarantee we will be able to survive anywhere on this earth. We knocked on Australia’s door for a safe life, yet we have been gifted with pain, anguish and in some cases, death.

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