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.