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I've Seen Inside The Manus Camp And It Still Haunts Me

I've never felt so consistently angry, yet so utterly hopeless.

01/11/2017 11:46 AM AEDT | Updated 01/11/2017 1:45 PM AEDT
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"No matter what our government has said since, I've referred to it as an Australian-run centre. This is our thing, always has been, not PNG's."

There's a man with a bile-coloured cotton eye patch gripping my shoulder and I think he's asking for help. There's a bloke next to him who is trying to interpret, but the noise of the dozens of men surrounding us is bouncing off the metal walls and making it almost impossible to hear.

It didn't matter anyway. We weren't allowed to ask questions.

It's March 2014 and the PNG court has let me, the ABC's Liam Fox and a group of local PNG journos into the Manus Island detention centre under strict instructions.

There were still bullet holes and cracked windows and pictures of Reza Barati, by all accounts a gentle young bloke who was murdered in the violence at the centre the month before.

Fox and I were the first Australian journalists to be let inside the centre, so it was a big story and we were in the thick of it.

It utterly broke my faith in our current crop of representatives on both sides of the aisle.

Another sweaty hand with a firmer grip guides me away from the old man with the eye patch to segregated area behind a corrugated iron fence that is huge even by PNG standards.

A guard heaves open the gate to reveal shipping containers stacked on top of each other. This doesn't really register for me as I've been living in Port Moresby for two years.

There are a few men too, half hidden in doorways cut into the shipping containers. But I'm looking at a bloke in his forties or fifties with big round eyes and his violently shaking hand. I want to ask him questions but I can't. He steps back, clutches himself to stop the shakes.

Someone, a guard perhaps, says something about Parkinson's disease. But my professional pride at getting this 'gig' can't stand up to the fear on this guy's face, and even with the adrenaline pumping I have this sense of disgust rolling like a drum.

I find out later from a lawyer that the guy has nervous shock from the murderous violence the month before.

Standing there in the thick Manus heat I hear someone say to an official, "this is completely inappropriate for psychiatric care".

I'd been working as PNG correspondent for Australian Associated Press (AAP) when the Gillard government desperately reopened Manus, and when Rudd desperately doubled down on it, while Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison circled above.

I left the country as they swooped, and returned for the Human Rights court case.

The stories emerging today about our off-shore detention program are all too familiar. Buzzfeed's recent piece about the doctor on Nauru had a quote that sparked me off. It wasn't about the criminal mistreatment of other people, or the inhumanity of this bleak, reckoning-demanding crime both sides of politics are responsible for.

It was a quote about the lies.

"The argument that they use saying, 'that's a question for the government of Nauru', is completely specious."

That vortex of misinformation that roils along with the daily news.

It would have been late 2012, early 2013, and I'd been making lots of requests to get into the centre. Canberra would always go "no, no, it's up to PNG, ask them." So I'd ask them. No dice. So Mr Intrepid here flies to Manus, walks into the naval base and tries to get into the centre.

A PNG migration officer stops me and says, "I have to check with Canberra", before making a phone call and turning me away.

No matter what our government has said since, I've referred to it as an Australian-run centre. This is our thing, always has been, not PNG's.

I cried for a straight day, for a bunch of reasons, after we waded silently and at a court-mandated clip through fear and depression shaped entirely by polling and bureaucracy.

"It isn't easy bearing witness," said Liam as we drove back from the centre. Years of reporting, the week of testimony, rumours of fresh violence and the tour of the centre had taken their toll and I broke our much-needed half an hour of silence by pleading "how can you do that to people" through tears.

It utterly broke my faith in our current crop of representatives on both sides of the aisle. I've never really done the press gallery thing, so I don't have an insider's view.

It feels like we're living in the age of Total Politics, where winning is the point and there's no point to the victory. Just suffering, elevating or maintaining someone in the top job. On repeat.

The phrase "eternal present" popped up on Twitter yesterday and it's stuck with me all night. Immigration headlines in this country have been on a damning loop for almost 17 years.

I've never felt so consistently angry, yet so utterly hopeless.

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