Azita Bokan was on Manus Island as an official Iranian interpreter during the recent violent clashes. What follows is an edited version of her interview by Richard Glover on ABC Radio Sydney on 21 February 2014.
I came to Australia some 27 years ago and am a proud Australian. My father was a writer and had a newspaper of his own. He was imprisoned in Iran as a political prisoner for his anti-government views. I escaped Iran and was forced to wait three and a half years in Turkey for my turn to migrate to Australia. At the time Turkey was unsafe and dangerous, rife with smugglers, drug dealers and organised prostitution but I had to wait there alone as a little child without a family. I was very grateful to Australia for rescuing me as a refugee which was why I recently enlisted to assist the Department of Immigration in its efforts to protect Australia’s borders.
I was previously in Nauru and it is bad, but the situation on Manus is simply horrendous – the heat, the physical conditions, the malnutrition [mostly raw red meat without any vegetables] leading to diseases of many different kinds, and so much more. Oral hygiene is almost completely absent and what dental treatment is available results not in remedial attention but in the detainees having their teeth pulled out without anaesthetic. Most upsetting of all is the absence of anything for the inmates to do day after day and the fact that they mostly sit in dirt looking out to the surrounding fences, which have resulted in personal suffering with deep mental conditions which I can only describe as psychological numbness. When I became aware of this situation, my immediate reaction was that I would prefer to be dead than to live in a camp like this for a day.
Until the recent troubles, I saw and heard no unruliness or misbehaviour still less violence on the part of the detainees. In fact I could not believe their calm patience, waiting seemingly for better days to come. They told me that they had been warned by departmental officials that if they misbehaved in any way or that something goes on their files suggesting that they were or might be troublemakers, their cases would not be processed and they would not be allowed access to lawyers.
Then on the Sunday morning, with all of them holding onto the hope that they would one day get out of that hell, they were told by departmental officials that they will never see Australia, that no third country was volunteering to take them, and that because if its awful economic situation PNG would never be able to assist them.
Despite the fact that most of the Iranians were well educated and their leader was a PhD who was against any protest or uprising, that news became a catalyst for the first real reaction among the inmates. Two guys climbed a fence even though there are many fences, each one further away than the others, and absolutely no chance of escape. The men had no weapons so they threw fruit at the guards, mostly peaches. The response of the guards was to use rocks and metal legs of dismantled tables destined for junking to attack the detainees. Some of the detainees may have thrown back the same rocks at the guards.
On the Monday morning, we interpreters were told that there was no work for us as no lawyers were being allowed to enter and only the medical team was being admitted. After some delay, some of us were in fact allowed in to assist the medical team and from a distance of 6 or 7 metres, I saw one detainee pushing another guy in a wheelchair. The wheelchair guy was “brain dead” – his mouth was distorted, one arm was hanging down and he could not pull it back up. One of the guards called out to the man pushing the wheelchair – “Get out, get out!!!” The guy pushing the wheelchair held tight to the wheelchair and refused to let go. In very broken English, which I did my best to translate, he said that the guards had killed his mate the previous night and he did not trust them with the wheelchair man. He said he was going to stay with him in the medical room to wait for his turn with the doctor.
Because of my efforts to interpret, the guards turned on me and accused me of interference and of sticking up for the detainee. This was nonsense as all I was doing was interpreting what he was trying to say. The man said to me that he feared the guards would kill the wheelchair guy if he left him. I offered to the guards that I would push the wheelchair or that they could get someone from the medical team to do so. There were many guards there at the time and one or more of them pushed me away and jumped on the guy pushing the chair. He was strong and would not let go of the wheelchair until 7 of the guards threw him to the ground and held him down. I pleaded with the guards to stop the violence but they and others in the pay of the Government turned against me.
When my attention was again drawn to the guy in the wheelchair, I could see there was blood all over him. There was a needle in his arm as if for a drip but his arm was bleeding and there was no drip attached to it. No nurse would have done something like that. His head was injured, he had no eye movement and his mouth was hanging to one side. He was just hanging like a piece of meat. Any human being would want to help a person in that state.
I remonstrated with the guards. I said that you cannot do this to people to whom you owe a duty of care. These people paid everything they had to a people smuggler, they put their lives on the line coming through a difficult journey. Many of them lost loved ones on the way yet they somehow got to Australia. Now you shift them to the most dangerous place in the world away from the media and from the eyes of good hearted Australians. I cannot believe that Australians support what you are doing to these people. You are killing them.
This outburst had me escorted out and treated worse than a criminal. I knew I would lose my job but I refused to let them do such awful things in silence in the name of Australia so that people elsewhere can think of Australians as a violent people intent on killing innocents.
While I was sitting in the interpreters’ room waiting to be deported myself, I heard the sound of shooting and a lot of noise and disturbance. So I went up on the roof where I saw some horrendous things. There were many people badly injured. I saw one man who had no brain, and nothing on his neck. His skull was crushed. Another man had his throat cut and a doctor was trying to push a tube through the hole in his neck but there was too much blood coming out. He could not find the man’s lung to get the fluid out while telling someone else to pump air in. I actually heard the doctor say that he was very tired after three days of constant work. I come from a country that went through a violent revolution. I have been through a war. But I have never seen anything like this. It was barbaric.
I am for stopping the boats and the people trafficking but I want Manus and Nauru closed and the people treated properly. Australian taxpayers are paying a fortune to the Governments of Nauru and PNG to have these terrible camps in their countries. People who cannot pay their mortgages are funding these other Governments for this sinful activity. Bring them to Darwin or other places on the Australian mainland where we have ample facilities to house them. Those who are found not to be refugees should be sent back to their homes. But those who are genuine refugees should be introduced gently to the Australian way of life and culture and then into the community.
The politicians do not like to admit they are wrong but they have made the wrong decisions here. I appeal to them – please be honest with yourselves. You have children and families. What would you do if your brother’s throat was cut? What if your children were starving, without water or showers, and standing in 50 degree heat? What if they are dehydrated, have diarrhoea vomit every day? Where are your consciences?