I am outside of detention, but not outside of grief.
On Sunday night, we watch the footage from Kangaroo Point Central Hotel, Brisbane: blue plastic gloves on working men’s hands, uniformed arms pulling and lifting bodies that beg for the ground. The bodies are men who have been imprisoned in hotels since 2019 under Medevac legislation for asylum seekers in indefinite detention. We see them, face down, torsos and arms and legs grabbed by those blue hands. We can’t see their faces, they don’t turn to their friend who is filming the relocation to share it with the networks of people against detention. Where are they being taken?
Then on Monday morning come the videos from Brisbane BITA detention centre. I know the sounds, the yelling. Seventeen medevac refugees are being moved by force from BITA detention to Melbourne while someone else films them. The guards confiscate the detainees’ mobile phones and handcuff three men. Serco, the police and Australian Border Force know where they are taking these men, but they do not tell them. We, who have been recently released, feel pain for them. We know what it is like to be moved without knowing where you will be taken.
These are men who were brought here from Manus and Nauru prison for medical treatment almost two years ago. They have received little medical treatment, and their physical pain has been compounded by two more years of stolen time and literal torture. To imprison anyone is to torture them. To keep a human from free movement is torture. To keep a person from being able to plan any future at all is torture. This is what indefinite detention is: they tell you only that you will never be released. To put people into hotels as prisons, and to forcibly relocate them without information or notice is a special kind of torture.
I know, I’ve lived through this. I’ve been outside for almost three months now. I still haven’t seen the doctor I need.
Let me tell you how they move us. I was moved twelve times while they detained me. Forced relocation within imprisonment is its own act of torture.
I was in one shared room at the Mantra hotel for fifteen months. I was lucky – can you believe I can say that? – because when I was taken there, Serco had recently allowed the prisoners to wind open the awning windows for air. That 10-centimetre space at the bottom of the window brought us the sounds of Bell St traffic and sometimes the voices of protesters calling out to us. Wind could reach us and tell us of outside.
One day, a Serco man came to my room. He held a piece of paper with a list of names printed on it. He knew me, just as I knew all of our guards, and he said ‘Hi Mardin, go to the activity room.’ All sixty of us detainees were sent to different rooms. Split-second analysis: is there an order here? Why am I in this group and not in another? How was that list ordered – not alphabetically, not by ethnicity. As always, there was no answer. The randomness confounded us.
A uniformed Border Force employee waited in each room.
‘You will be transferred to a new hotel very soon.’
Soon? How soon!?
‘We don’t know.’
Where will we be taken to?
‘We don’t know.’
‘We don’t know. We’ll tell you to pack when the time comes.’
They decided that we shouldn’t know anything. Sent back to our rooms, we didn’t talk – we were in shock. Anyway, what was there to say? We couldn’t imagine our transfer to Manus, or from Port Moresby to the Mantra Hotel. This was the twelfth time that they were moving me.
Two days later, I woke to the sound of shouts. A Serco officer was clapping his hands in the corridor and called out, ‘Collect your clothes! You are moving soon, go!’ It was 7 am. The stress was pervasive, I felt it through my whole body. This stress explodes focus and thought, it shatters any ability to see around or outside the pain. Hopelessness. The feeling was no longer like wanting to cry, but like I needed to cry with my whole soul. The strong pain in my throat couldn’t be relieved by tears although it grabbed me there. My body was crying.
I opened the drawers and pulled everything out, I shoved clothes and shoes into my bag. I am a neat person but I didn’t even care that I wasn’t folding my clothes. Hopelessness.
My brain cycled through the same three words.
What will happen?
What will happen?
I searched my past, again. Did I do something wrong? This pain has words, too. Am I a criminal? This is how the state forces dangerous criminals to live, they get moved from prison to prison. They are not allowed to control their own time, their right to place, to a home, to a life, to a family. All of this is taken from them. This is wrong for any human being.
Every moment from 2013 onwards flooded my mind as I carried my bag along the corridor. I have never been dangerous. Why was this happening? Security guards lined the hall, and when we reached the outside carpark, police had cleared all the cars and people. Hundreds of police officers, literally hundreds, lined our path and patrolled the new temporary borders of our incarceration, to the edge of the hotel’s car park.
They divided us again, now sixty men split into four buses. Serco guards rode with us inside the buses, and outside we had an elaborate police escort. The police motorbike was directly in front. The road had already been cleared and we drove in the central lane with police cars in front, at our sides, and behind us. People on the footpath held their phones up to film us. Are we so dangerous? We all noticed that we don’t stop once in the 10-kilometre drive to inner city Carlton. There are so many police cars, hundreds of police officers, and they were afraid to let our buses stop?
We arrive at another building close to Melbourne city and were only released from the buses when the police were in place again. This is the Park Hotel. The third floor was to be again our prison. Serco guards read out names, two to a room.
I walked into my new room and looked at these four walls. White. One window. Large, but my eyes travelled just one metre to reach a brick wall. I searched, but, no, there were no windows in that wall, no people in no windows. They made sure our view would be restricted to the brick wall outside.
When I didn’t want to look at the bricks, I pulled down the blind. One of the walls had a slightly different texture, cream-woven fabric for the brick wall to sleep behind. A small TV screen was mounted above the bathroom door.
I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. I lay down. I didn’t eat. I didn’t unpack. What was this? Is this life? What have I done that is so wrong? I am an asylum seeker. Why have they taken eight years of my life? Eight years of my life.
Looking towards the window from the door of the room, my eyes could see beyond the brick wall of the building next door. If I sat with my back to the window and open the door to the corridor, I could see only the white wall on the other side of the hall. I felt the effect that not being able to look beyond a few metres has on my eyes. I could no longer stretch the muscles in my eyes. They ached. Moreover, incarceration forced us all to look to our mobile phones for communication with the outside world, that huge, beautiful place where everyone else lives and takes their freedom for granted.
When I was finally released, I could test my hypothesis. I was correct, my eyes can no longer easily focus beyond three metres.
I have spoken here only a little of torture. Indefinite detainment is torture, of course, and the forced removal and relocation of people within this network of prisons is its own unique and painful act of torture.
Watching the video footage from protesters, I see that the buses arrived at the Park Hotel. I know how those men feel as they walk inside, and I am so sad for them. Sadness is too small a word. I grieve for them. This is too much. I call my friends inside and outside detention and we talk. I want to tell you, reader, how they move us. No one knows when this will end, no one knows. This is torture.
Written with Shannon Woodcock. Shannon is a colonist living and working on Gunai Kurnai Country. They write about violence, racism and incarceration in Europe, Iran and unceded Gunai Kurnai Country. They are the co-author, with Rob Hudson, of Self-Determined First Nations Museums and Colonial Contestation: The Keeping Place (Routledge, 2022).