Our self-harm, your free speech: an open letter

There are so many disgusting comments in social media about the self-harming and suicide attempts in Manus and Nauru. Every person is entitled to their opinion but they should be well aware of the situations on Manus and Nauru before they make a judgment, especially after our six years of indefinite detention. I will not be responding to the people who call us terrorists and criminals. I am going to ask instead that people turn toward their humanity and try to think beyond the propaganda they consume.

Many people think that the men on Manus Island are self-harming and attempting suicide to blackmail the Australian government or draw attention to our plight. It’s not a matter of blackmail or drawing attention. It’s a matter of desperation and trauma.

I ask every person who thinks it’s blackmail to put themselves in our situation and think about how they would feel. If they genuinely do this, if they genuinely educate themselves about the realities of life for people detained on Manus and Nauru, they would understand that it’s not an act of blackmail or attention-seeking. Self-harm and suicide come from a person’s unbearable pain and hopelessness. It is about the pressures that have been placed on our bodies and minds by six years of indefinite detention, of systematic torture and the loss of hope that there will ever be an end to this.

Our trauma is complex, it is an effect of past traumas and years of ongoing systemic and daily violence. As we become more and more traumatized, we have reached a place where we cannot share our burdens with our friends because they are going through the same suffering. We cannot share our burdens with our family because we don’t want them to grieve further. In their publication ‘Indefinite Despair’ about their time with refugees detained on Nauru, Medicines Sans Frontieres writes:

Over time, the number of suicide attempts increased … This is an expected and unfortunately predictable consequence of longterm, indefinite processing, when people’s sense of hopelessness increases and their mental health state worsens.

How many of you know our real situation and what we have been going through? Have you ever seen someone mourn and cry because they are not allowed proper treatment? Do you know how someone feels when a parent or family member has passed away and they cannot attend the funeral? Have you ever experienced years of enforced isolation from your family or friends? Have you ever experienced being treated like a criminal without having committed a crime? Have you ever been detained when you have sought help? Have you ever heard the words: ‘When will I see you?’, from your loved ones, year after year, and been unable to give any answer because your life is in the hands of others? Have you ever desperately waited for your freedom without knowing when or if it will come?

When someone keeps their burdens within themselves without sharing them with anyone, the pressure builds up day after day. In the end, it will blast out upon them, as there is a limit to what a human can bear. This is the only reason why people in Manus and Nauru attempt suicide.

I ask you to think and feel deeply about all of this.

I ask you to think about what our crime was. Even a convicted criminal knows their sentence and how long they will be detained. In our case, seeking refuge – an internationally recognised legal act – is our only ‘crime’.

It’s easy to say the words ‘six years in detention without any hope of future and freedom’. It’s easy to say, ‘go back to where you come from’, when you know nothing of our circumstances of exile. It is not easy to live this.

There have been three elections, four prime ministers and we are still being punished. After six years of no real medical support, after six years of imprisonment and of not knowing what will happen to us, trauma has completely destroyed our lives. Three out of four men on Manus are mentally ill and need immediate medical support but are kept here to suffer more, to get sicker. There are too many men suffering with various illnesses that are not being treated. They are mourning the loss of their health, a loss that will affect them forever. They are fighting to survive every single minute while waiting years for treatment. This tragedy, this cruelty can be stopped but it continues for political purposes. This trauma is not separate from you. It is being perpetrated against our bodies and minds in your name. It forms who you as a country are and will become.


Shamindan Kanapathi, with Writing Through Fences

Image: a detainee cut down after a hanging attempt on Manus Island (supplied)

Shamindan Kanapathi

Shamindan Kanapathi is a 27 years young Sri Lankan Tamil man and refugee. He has been detained by Australia on Manus for six years. Over a number of years he has been reporting from within the prison camp through social media. In Sri Lanka he was a marketing executive and student. He says: ‘My hopes have been that some day I will be free, will see my family again, be able to help to raise the voices of those who are not heard, to care for those who are not cared for and pursue my dream of becoming a veterinarian.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. This is Australia’s shame. The blackout by media is politically driven.
    I do not believe most Australians would not help anyone if they saw they needed it as we are decent ppl. If Australians knew the truth they’d not tolerate what this Gov are doing.

  2. I’m so sorry and like many others I’m working to change the appalling policies that keep you there. There are groups all over the country like our group of grandmothers here in Hobart, Tassie Nannas. Our love to you all.

  3. I hang my head in shame at the injustice you describe that is being thought of and carried out by our government.
    I’m ashamed of Australians’ gullibility in believing we need to be protected from the unknown-you.
    All strength to you as you resolve not to be broken by this.

  4. I am so ashamed of how our government is treating you. Sending prayers and love is not enough. I want you to be free.

  5. Reports like this should be in the mainstream media, who mostly ignore this shameful cruelty and abuse of human rights. Thanks to Overland for publishing Shamindan Kanapadhi’s account.

    The deliberate damaging of vulnerable human beings on Manus and Nauru,the demonizing of innocent men by Morrison and Dutton, and the way those politicians have spent a fortune in the courts, trying to deny them proper medical care, make Australia despicable.

  6. Libs and Lab avoided this at the election, a human rights disaster perpetrated by Australia. Nasty Aussie Imperialism across Christmas Is. (Indonesian Archipelego) Manus (Admiralty Is.) and Naura (Micronesia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *