Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Burmese Taboo

Nous, les innommables. Un tabou birman

[We who cannot be named : a Burmese taboo]

by Habiburahman, with Sophie Ansel

Steinkis, Paris, 2012.

We who cannot be named is the story of Habib, a tireless activist and fighter for the rights of the persecuted Rohingyan minority in Myanmar, now a refugee facing the prospect of lifelong detention in Australia. Habib arrived on Ashmore reef on 29 December 2009 and was recognized as a refugee in 2010. His book recounts the recent history of his persecuted people and his own odyssey to reach Australia, where, instead of the freedom he craved, he has only faced further persecution, confinement and mental torture.

Habib’s book is the fullest account ever given of the psychological effects of mandatory detention. It presents the harrowing costs of Australia’s asylum seeker policy from the point of view of one of its victims, detailing in unprecedented depth the human cost of detention: bureaucratic indifference, senseless cruelty, suicide, self-harm, despair.

Never before have readers been given such a glimpse into what it is like to be a refugee imprisoned in an Australian detention centre. Among other things, the book recounts

• the way in which solitary confinement is used as a control measure in detention;

• how Habib was kept in solitary confinement for refusing to sign a letter admitting to offenses he did not commit ;

• the details of a suicide attempt at Darwin ;

• the negligence of SERCO guards in failing to attend quickly to a severe electrocution.

It also throws new light on the psychology of detention, particularly the state of mind behind rooftop protests.

Habib’s determination to fight for justice for the Rohingya is both an inspiring story of selflessness, and an indictment of the inhuman brutality of Australian refugee policy.


‘From the deck of the navy boat, I look onto the endless blues of the sky and ocean, the blues that have become calm and peaceful again and which have finally given us a reprieve.

Our dream and prayers as lost, unnameable, stateless, clandestine refugees have been heard. We’ve reached [Christmas Island].

A simple dream, but an impossible one for a whole people over three generations – the dream of a humble, ordinary life, free from extortion, violence, threats and prison. A life free from the fear latched to the pit of my stomach. A life with children with the right to go to school, to dream of the future. A life with two meals a day. A life with the right to start a family without being taxed and arrested just for wanting to love. Soon we’ll have peace, rights, freedom and democracy.’ (p. 318)


‘We remain under surveillance and our freedom is restricted.

Immigration personnel question us about our past. We understand that our odyssey isn’t yet over and we still have to clear the walls of the detention centre in order to find peace and freedom.’ (p.318)

‘Now in a world where everything is subject to the law, we find it difficult to talk about our former life spent in hiding, just trying to survive and work, sometime by using false papers; our life spent avoiding arrest by paying to avoid human traffickers. We spent our lives in the most illegal kind of illegality. That was the life the Burmese regime reduced us to, right up to exile.’ (p. 320)

he gives English lessons to his fellow detainees. (p. 320–1)

‘Sport is our first taste of freedom’. Just being able to play soccer with other Rohingyans was unimaginable until now. (p. 321)

May 2010: now in Darwin. 125th day of detention. Hopes of freedom dwindling. Men miss their families. Anxieties return. People feel paralysed, and can’t accept not being able to help or provide for their families. (p.323)

August 2010: depression sets in. People lose contact with their wives in Malaysia and don’t know what’s happened to them, don’t know where their children are. (p.323)


‘My initial enthusiasm is distinctly shaken. I’ve realized that the personnel’s politeness isn’t the sign of any respect for our rights and humanity, but just their systematic procedure and professional discipline. Resigning oneself to wait in a confined place with no power to make decisions about our future is a totally new kind of mental torture. The guards’ replies to our questions are hazy and send us mad: ‘the process is underway’. Rohingyas are set free in a tiny trickle. I’m eaten away by bitterness. I can’t distinguish day and night anymore, because my nights are sleepless and my days have no light. I’ve become a zombie. I pass whole days in bed. I avoid the dining room at meal times, and only leave my bed to make myself Burmese style rice in the middle of the night, with the kinds of spices I like. Then, when my courage and faith reawaken, I spend hours on the internet to communicate, call for help, in everyone’s name.

We force ourselves to contain our anxiety. We have to stop ourselves complaining or getting carried away because we’re under surveillance. Any excess emotion is looked on badly and noted down. Stay calm. Don’t ask for information on the months of detention in front of us. The future is a blank page which we’re forbidden to write anything on – that’s the authorities’ job, in their own time. Our freedom is in the hands of the administration, public servants who evaluate us for an indefinite amount of time.

Some crack. Then it’s solitary confinement and drugs. That happens to me sometimes. They separate me from everyone. And then I find the strength to continue within myself. I take things back in hand. I read legal texts. I write. I tell the story of our detention, the things we feel, the injustice.’ (p. 323-4)


they ask themselves why they’re not told how long they’ll be detained. Even criminals have that right. No one tells them what they’ve done wrong. Will they have to spend their whole life there? (p. 326)


‘We spend hours going over the problem again and again. In vain.

“Australia’s a democracy, isn’t it?”

“We’re not criminals. We’ve always worked hard and we’ll continue doing so if they give us a chance.”

“We’re not asking for anything, only the right to live, work and adapt to their laws, contribute to the development of their country.”

“What’s the use of leaving us in these detention centres? We don’t do anything, we just go mad. We don’t work and we lose our minds and our lives and our hearts are broken. They feed us and give us somewhere to stay. That costs them money when we could just work for their country and pay for our food and lodging ourselves. All of this is absurd and unjust.”’ (p. 326-7)

Habib thinks that his past as an activist may complicate things for him in Australia. Maybe the government will keep him locked up as a disincentive to other Rohingyas. (p. 327)


‘Around us, detainees from other countries attempt suicide on several occasions and mutilate themselves repeatedly.’ (p. 327)

‘Every day, I ask the officers how my case is going, along with those of Bilal, Fadel, Assim, Nour, Wadi.

“They’re being processed. Wait for them to get back to you.’ (p. 328)


‘A commotion breaks out at the other end of the courtyard. Detainees are leaping and running round. I come out of my torpor.

Abdul is already on the tree in the courtyard, putting a foot onto a high firm branch. All the prisoners gather round the tree. He is going to take the final step. I barely have the time to get up before he has put a long sheet around the broad branch. I have just a single thought: save Abdul. He puts his head through the knot. I race over there, feeling my blood freeze as I do so. He lets himself drop down into the empty air. His heavy body is caught at the neck by the piece of cloth which is already tearing him away from life. The guards run up and surround the tree, pushing away the detainees clamouring around it. Abdul’s body is already swinging calmly. One of the officers tries unsuccessfully to climb the tree. Too heavy, too clumsy, he gets stuck half way up. I push back the arm of the guard blocking our way and leap onto the trunk, followed by Nurul, another Rohingyan friend. The survival drive gives us new energy. Not a second to lose. We reach the fatal branch. I sit astride the branch and lift up Abdul’s arms to immediately stop the pressure of the knot on his larynx. Nurul grabs the sarong strangling Abdul, untightens it. Our movements naturally synchronise with each other in the urgency of the moment. We hitch him upwards to free him completely from the grip of the cloth before gently sliding him into the arms of the dozens of detainees and officers on the ground and instantly carefully take him before lying him down on the ground where he is given first aid. He is still breathing. Ten minutes later, the emergency services arrive and take him away in an ambulance.’ (p. 331)


‘Our mental health is gravely harmed by this interminable wait and lack of information. Four of us have tried to commit suicide in the last year. One of them set himself alight. After getting first aid, he was informed that he would be prosecuted for destruction of Commonwealth property!

Suicide cases affect everyone’s state of mind and are contagious. I suffer from violent headaches, and I feel like my chest is in the grip of a vice. I have trouble thinking. I continue to shut myself away, my head under the pillow so as not to see these guards, these walls and these fences whose very perpetual presence in my field of vision is a torture. In the pillow, I try to go blank, to imagine that I’m somewhere else. I now only eat during the night. As much as possible, I refuse their drugs, anti-anxiety medicine, sleeping pills, antidepressants. When I accept them, I sleep. For a long time. I forget. Here, I’ve lost control over my life. I can no longer choose dangerous routes, whatever they are. The ambivalence between my body and mind eats away at me. I’m treated properly, without physical violence, and given healthy food, but emotionally I’m going through hell. And, insidiously, my mind tortures my body.

I feel trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Where can the stateless be sent back to if Australia doesn’t accept us?

Day after day, month after month, I’m told that my case is being investigated, that I have to wait. During this time I see detainees from other countries released, sometimes without having gone through the same procedures as us. I don’t understand it.

The process is currently stuck at the ‘national security test’: am I a danger for the country or not? That’s the question which arises for everyone at the detention centre. That’s the procedure. …

Sometimes I recover the strength to speak, my fight.

After two long years in detention, bearing witness becomes more important than getting a visa. I don’t want to put an end to my days, nor do I want to be perceived as a victim. I just want to share our reality. This circle of hell which we’re walled up in, away from the world.’ (333–4)

June 2011: ‘My indefinite and infinite detention today has gone beyond 17 months without anyone having asked me precise and relevant questions about my origins, family and the persecutions I am fleeing. The officers seem not to understand that I came neither for a visa, nor for a naturalization. I came for freedom.’ (p. 335)

Asked to be transferred to another country. ‘I prefer a definitive rejection to continuing to roam through an administrative limbo. … I feel as though I am sailing hopeless and alone. The officers around me just try to calm the situation without trying to solve the problems. This detention is completely unjust and illegitimate.’ (p.336)


‘Today I am starting a hunger strike so that a decision will be made. Positive or negative. A final decision. My case has been neglected, with no transparent response. My first hunger strike in June 2010 lasted 12 days, with no result. I have no choice but to start again, it’s the only option I have for resisting and being heard. … My freedom cannot be trampled over and sacrificed to perpetual detention. I am not a terrorist. I shouldn’t be detained to be made an example of because I’m seeking a country of refuge. I haven’t been involved in criminal cases, neither in the past, nor today in the detention centre.’ (P.336)


Habib spends World Refugee Day 2011 (June 20) on the roof of the detention centre, ‘in the air, the only freedom that is left to me.’ (p. 338)


June 24 2011: Habib decides to come down from the roof. He is immediately put into solitary confinement.

‘Then, they come to ask me to sign a letter listing a series of unacceptable acts. I refuse to sign. The truths have been distorted. Deformed. The centre supervisor tells me that I won’t be able to leave my isolation cell if I refuse to sign this letter.

I reply to him with bitterness:

“Freedom of expression isn’t a crime. The cause I’m defending also has to be respected and before I sign a letter like this, I have to have the reasons for my inappropriate detention explained. No one gets hurt by my roof-top hunger strike.”

“The centre has a role and it has rules,” he replies.

Then I understand that there’s nothing I can do. Procedure and regulations don’t enter into dialogue with human beings. The system is a wall that I can only break my head against. Human rights only apply beyond the detention centre walls. I’m in the waiting room for freedom and I’ll only be let in if I stay compliant and mute. Inhuman.

I subside into my bed and roll myself in the sheets like in a shroud. I weep for a long time.’ (p.342) (Habib is later allowed to leave his isolation cell without having signed the letter.)

Habib is in the isolation sector again, following a court appearance for allegedly assaulting a SERCO guard. ‘Here the restrictions are complete: telephone, internet, visits of detainees from other blocks, medicine: everything is refused.’ Between 9 and 12 guards are exclusively dedicated to the 3 Rohingyas who’ve come off hunger strike. (p. 356)


15 November 2011: Habib climbed the fence separating him from his friends in the S1 block, and in doing so was severely electrocuted. He was then shut into an interrogation room by guards for an hour. Finally he was taken to hospital where he was treated for almost six hours. On return to the centre, he was kept in the N3 isolation cells, without being given a reason. Since then he refused to eat.


August 10 2012: 955th day in detention. ‘I no longer count the days of my detention in Australia. From now on I only count the number of deaths in my country. Victims of the hate and racism that have been cultivated for too long in a land of tyranny.

My own detention becomes insignificant. The only thing that’s still important is to go on writing the story of the last Rohingyas. It’s what dad would have done. In Arakan, the last identity papers burn. Soon there’ll be nothing left to prove anything. And now’s the time they’re asking us to prove our identities! Decades of oppression, confiscation of land, arrests, escapes, houses destroyed – and they ask us for papers. Whatever we held in our hands has all gone up in smoke, insidiously cleansed away.’ (p.361)

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