Many prisons, many borders, many islands: Spicy’s story

This is the story of a man who for over eight years has been crossing borders, oceans and seas. Helal Uddin, better known as Spicy, has been incarcerated in many different prisons. He is now languishing in Port Moresby’s notorious Bomana Prison, but this is only the most recent part of his saga. Spicy’s story is epic.

Spicy’s journey covers a large part of the globe. He has been moving through more than seven states and struggling against their political jurisdictions. Crossing one border after another. From one boat to another boat. From one prison into another prison.

A Bangladeshi man, Spicy asked for protection from the Australian government and was exiled to Manus Island in 2013.

Australia reestablished the Pacific Solution in 2012 (first iteration from 2001 to 2008) and then Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013. Many refugees remain in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Many others have been deported or ended up in the US (as part of the Australia-US resettlement arrangement signed in 2016), Australia (some still imprisoned onshore) and other countries, including Canada.

Both the Australian government and the Papua New Guinea government have denied any responsibility for Spicy’s fate, and neither government has any idea what options are available to him. His situation is made even more extraordinary due to the many encounters he has had and the relationships he has made during his time searching for freedom and safety.  

In 2013, he travelled from Indonesia by boat to Christmas Island and was immediately exiled to Manus Island. There, he was incarcerated in the Delta prison camp, a small compound about the size of a football field.

Inside the prison camp, he and more than three hundred other refugees had to endure the extreme conditions and brutality of the Australian detention system. Together they organised numerous forms of collective resistance and challenged the system in remarkably creative ways. Spicy was involved in many of them.

Spicy was one of the most active organisers of the hunger strike in 2015, which involved a few hundred refugees. They were determined to use peaceful means – a hunger strike – to challenge the system that had imprisoned them without any legitimate reason. Things went well for the first ten days, and they were able to attract media attention. We witnessed a shift in public opinion. The protestors were able to raise greater awareness about their situation and there was hope for change. On the twelfth day, dozens of guards attacked the prison camp and handcuffed approximately fifty strike leaders. Spicy was one of them.

He was immediately handcuffed while still on hunger strike and taken to the horrific solitary confinement cell known as ‘Chauka’ – a site outside the prison camp. After five days he was transferred to another prison on the other side of the island, where he was held for twenty-four days with the local prison population. He was then returned to the Chuaka solitary confinement cell and then to the detention centre where he was placed in isolation within the Charlie prison camp. Finally, he was sent to stay in the Fox prison camp.

Those who have experienced prison know all too well that one of the harshest punishments for a prisoner is to be forced to change prisons. This is exactly what happened on many, many occasions for Spicy over the last eight years. He suffered through this ordeal more than any other imprisoned refugee caught up in the Australian detention system.

In 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that imprisoning refugees who have not been convicted of any crime is illegal and unconstitutional. The doors of the Manus prison camp were opened, and Spicy could now leave the prison for hours at a time.

It is here that his life story takes an even more dramatic and fundamental turn. He met his future wife, a local woman from Manus Island. He told us:

I was sitting on the rock surface nestled along the sea and I was looking out at the water when Alice came and sat next to me. We met a few more times on those very rocks and fell in love – it was that simple.

Obviously, this was not a normal relationship; the foundations of their love were built on the border of freedom and prison.

Spicy would leave the Lombrum prison camp during the day and travel thirty-five kilometres until he reached Lorengau town to see Alice. In the afternoons, he would travel the same distance back to the prison camp. That year, their son Mohammad Ali was born.

In 2017, the refugees incarcerated by the Australian government were under siege. Authorities decided to close the original prison and when the imprisoned population refused to be moved to other prisons, they shut off the power and water, ceased the distribution of food and discontinued medical and other services. Security staff left the refugees alone, with nothing.

The first person to bring food for the protesting refugees was Spicy. He received a call from the leaders of the resistance and travelled from Lorengau at 10 pm with food supplies. PNG Navy officers were still around the camp, so Spicy waited in the mosquito-infested waters for seven hours so that his companions could have food.

This act of solidarity and friendship started a wave of other shipments by local people over the coming weeks. On that first night, Spicy returned to Lorengau early in the morning only to transport a stranded Australian journalist to the prison camp. Roads were closed and private fishing boats were the only mode of transportation.

One scorching hot morning, as Spicy and his family were still enjoying special moments together after the birth of a child, the police and immigration officers came looking for him.

They told him he only had a few hours to say goodbye to his family. He was going to be deported.

Spicy remembers that day: ‘This was the most bitter moment I have ever experienced in my whole life, when my family was crying in my arms.’

He told his wife: ‘I am an honest person and I love my family. I will definitely return.’

It is almost impossible to imagine someone ever returning to Manus Island from Bangladesh but Spicy was determined to come back no matter what. He had to be with his family.

He was deported to Bangladesh through Singapore, with four Australian and PNG officers accompanying him along the entire route.

Once back in Bangladesh, he could not stop thinking about his return to Manus Island, not even for a second. Life in Bangladesh was not easy for Spicy. Because of his political and religious views, he was under pressure by authorities and the system. As a result, he was forced to stay in a rural village named Jagatpur. Bangladesh and PNG do not have embassies for each other, so Spicy and Alice ended up at dead-ends when trying to acquire visas. They could never visit each other using the authorised channels.

Spicy eventually decided to begin his journey back by boat, first to Thailand, a journey that takes five days. However, after leaving Bangladesh, the boat passed the Arkan region, part of the Rohingya homeland. There it was attacked by the Burmese military, who were targeting the Rohingya people aboard his vessel. Only Spicy and the captain survived.

After Thailand, Spicy boarded another boat to Malaysia, which took three days. Then a boat journey over two days to Indonesia, and from there a fifteen-day odyssey by boat to Jayapura, on the border of West Papua (Indonesia) and PNG. From there it was only a short trip to Manus Island.

On 14 October 2018, Spicy and his family met on the small island of Mal, very close to the main island in Manus Province. They lived there in secret for five months, in a small village hidden within the jungle. Spicy recalls: ‘We did not feel safe, but we were happy.’

Their life in this village tucked away in the jungle would not last. They were destined to be separated again. Immigration officials eventually found Spicy and sent him to Bomana prison, the same place he was imprisoned for two nights before he was deported to Bangladesh, and where he is still held, two years later.

During this time Spicy was only ever successful in meeting his family on one occasion, when a few Australian friends helped Alice and Mohammad Ali fly to Port Moresby from Manus Island. A special moment, but very short.

In prison, Spicy works three shifts a day cooking for the guards. He also gives bible studies classes every night, and in his spare time he writes his cook book: Spicy Life: Recipes from Bomana Prison. For Spicy is a professional chef, something he is very proud of, and is always sharing his cooking skills and knowledge with others.

In 2019, when other refugees imprisoned by Australia were transferred to Bomana Prison, Spicy was there to help them and made sure they could contact their friends and family through his contraband phone.

These days, Spicy is waiting for the court decision that will determine whether he can stay in PNG. He tells us:

Even if I get to see my family again we are still not safe in this country. I just want Mohammad Ali to live in a place where he can have a beautiful future. This country is no place for refugees.

I have one wish and that is to see my family one more time.

Spicy’s story is just one of hundreds of stories from Manus Island, stories with different dimensions that extend to other parts of the world. The tragedy of Manus has multiplied, it has been replicated and disseminated all over the world. It will continue like this for decades.

Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani is Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Sciences at University of New South Wales (Australia) and writer in residence at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand). He is an author and journalist who was incarcerated as a political prisoner by the Australian government on Manus Island and then held in Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea). In November 2019 he escaped to New Zealand where he was granted asylum in 2020. His book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018) has won numerous awards including the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. He is also non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre (SAPMiC), University of Sydney; Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, University of London; member of Border Criminologies, University of Oxford; Honorary (Principal Fellow) within Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne; Honorary Member of PEN International; and winner of an Amnesty International Australia 2017 Media Award, the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Liberty Victoria 2018 Empty Chair Award, and the Anna Politkovskaya award for journalism. Boochani is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time; collaborator on Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s play Manus; and associate producer for Hoda Afshar's video installation Remain (2018).

More by Behrouz Boochani ›

Omid Tofighian

Omid Tofighian is an award-winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate, combining philosophy with interests in citizen media, popular culture, displacement and discrimination. He is affiliated with Birkbeck, University of London, UNSW and University of Sydney. His publications include Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave 2016); translation of Behrouz Boochani's multi-award winning book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018); and co-editor of special issues for journals Literature and Aesthetics (2011), Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (2019) and Southerly (2021).

More by Omid Tofighian ›

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  1. Incredibly moving story. The lengths this government goes to imprison, punish and isolate people is awful

  2. Thank you for bringing Spicey’s story to light and telling us of the suffering the government keeps from us

  3. Thank you for telling us Spiceys story. This government does not appreciate the people they have detained because they thought it would keep them in parliament

  4. Incredible story that has to be retold. History will not be kind to the sort of politicians who judge these people as disposable trash, because from my perspective, they are geniuses at the top of their game. We are the losers.

  5. I needed to read this article again. Spicy is so brave, courageous and as he himself says, honest. He genuinely cares for others, as shown when he stood for hours hidden in mosquito-infested waters, until it was safe for him to deliver food to his imprisoned friends.
    Written by Behrouz B and Omid L whose own efforts to write “No Friend But The Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, still gives me goosebumps.
    I look forward to Spicy’s cookbook, and further writings by Behrouz Boochani. Most of all I look forward to the day when Spicy is free and safe together with his family.

  6. My Adopted son Spicy… im gonna do everything in my power to get your freedom, Australian government are murders and I fight them for justice and doing whats right with 1st hand lived experiences by either my own issues or that of my friends… love you Spicy

  7. Petition immigration with Australian signature to make our government recognise he is unable to return to his country he is a refugee no threat to Australian people

  8. What a courageous and loving person.
    What a time we live in when someone like Spicy is treated worse than a criminal.

    May these days end, may we see justice and fairness

  9. Thank you for this documentary story. A man wants to be with his family, to whom he is loving and loyal. A man wants to care for them and support them. He lives his love for them. We say: no, you may not do this because you do not have the correct form issued by the authorised official. For that, we gaol you. What kind of authoritarian madness is this? Let the man be free! For goodness sake!

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