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Farhad Bandesh and Manus Island

The older we get, the more finely attuned we become to a sense of time ticking away. While we come to terms with the ageing process as best we can, how soul-destroying must it be to experience your most productive years slipping away, with no end in sight....

Late last year, I stumbled across the Youtube video of a song — 'Mey' — performed by Farhad Bandesh and Mostafa Azimitabar, Kurdish asylum seekers held in detention on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.


The melancholy simplicity of the performance hints at the bleak outlook of daily life on Manus. The detention centre, which at its busiest held some 1,350 men in January 2014, was officially closed in October 2017 with approximately 600 residents forcibly removed to other accommodation on the island. Their detention continues to attract criticism from the Australian public, from politicians and the media as well as from bodies such as the United Nations.

Australia's involvement with refugees and asylum seekers stretches back to the 1980's and the opening of immigration detention centres at Villawood, NSW (1981), Perth, WA (1981) and Maribyrnong, Victoria (1983). With the expansion of border protection operations — Pacific Solution (2001-2007), and Operation Sovereign Borders (2013-present) — came the establishment of offshore processing detention centres on islands including Manus and Nauru.

The public response to on- and off-shore detention of refugees and asylum seekers has been divided. In 1999, in my part of the world (Tasmania), we witnessed the arrival of 500 temporary refugees from war-torn Kosova, and in 2011 the opening of a federal government immigration detention centre at Pontville on Hobart’s periphery. Neither centres were without controversy, just as there was no shortage of those opening their hearts to the new arrivals — school teacher Emily Conolan, for example. In his essay 'Brighton's Open Hand', James Dryburgh notes the inspired role Conolan played when the Pontville centre ran into political difficulties....

' … Hobart teacher Emily Conolan had an idea. "Before I could find a good reason not to do it, I went home, told the Mercury newspaper and put up a website. That way I’d made it public so I couldn’t stop myself," Conolan explained. That day she founded Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support (TASS). The Mercury rang her straight back wanting to know how many members the group had, and requested a photo. At this stage Conolan was the only member, but she quickly got hold of ten interested friends and neighbours. The Mercury took the photo on a Thursday night, and by the time they ran the article on the following Monday there were more than 200 members.'

Writing to the Wire When a government's social policies attract adverse public reaction, more often than not it's compassion (the cornerstone of Conolan's activism) that lies at the heart of the ensuing demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins and marches and the plethora of attendant written material that come with it: responses to public enquiries, letters-to-the editor, books and commentary.... Such marks the conception of the 2016 poetry anthology Writing To The Wire, a seamless compilation of material from both Australian poets, and asylum seekers in detention. The book 'is very much a book of hope — a book to make us look and think and feel again', according to editors Dan Disney and Kit Kelen. 'And so we commend these many and varied voices to you. And we hope, by reading here, to learn to be better listeners, and to act with compassion and on the best advice of our hearts.'

With some exasperation, Disney and Kelen point to the abrogation of obligations as defined by Section 14 (i) of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 'Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution'.

Successive Australian governments, they argue, have similarly 'acted legally (by their own, if not international, lights) — and with no moral conscience — by first rendering asylum seekers as unlawful non-citizens (and therein rightless) before next imperilling the lives of those sent back to dangerous regimes; this "re-foulement" contravenes the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), to which Australia remains a signatory.'

Yet who's surprised? Politicians are adept at sidestepping unwelcome judgement calls on issues involving migrants and asylum seekers, when they arrive on your border what's more natural than a call to change the law?

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump - Oct 22
Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!

Farhad Bandesh

Farhad Bandesh and t-shirt featuring original artwork. Image © Tim Maisley, March 2018.


Farhad grew up in Ilam, Iran. The prevailing political climate forbade expression of his native Kurdish language, setting in place all manner of impediments to the practice of Kurdish culture. 'It's hard to promote our own culture, music, dance.' Nevertheless, he learned how to build a santur (a hammered dulcimer) and guitar, and performed his music in a 'background music band'. He had no teachers to help build the instruments. 'I just thought how can I build them? I looked at instructions for building the instruments, thought about their acoustic sounds'. He prefers to write poetry in English, and to sing in English and Kurdish. A supporter's generosity saw him gifted a guitar early in his detention on Manus, and it's always close at hand.

The prolonged detention of the men on Manus has been cited by the United Nations as a 'damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations'. But who listens? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Dawn Barrington with Farhad Bandesh In an effort to draw attention to conditions on the island, musician Dawn Barrington teamed up with independent film maker Tim Maisey to visit Manus asylum seekers in March 2018. The outcome is Maisey's TMCG Productions' 'Music From Manus — 5 days not 5 years', a mix of song and stories in collaboration with a number of the men. (Barrington's contribution earned a local 2019 Citizen of the Year Awards nomination). Farhad appears in the production, demonstrating his fine musicianship but leaving others to relate the harrowing individual accounts common to all. A young Rohingyan offers his matter-of-fact story of life in Myanmar. Then, 'I came in Australia by boat because I don't have anything. They knew, I don't have any passport. If in Myanmar I say I am Rohingya the police will put me in jail the rest of my life. They can not recognise us as Rohingya, as a citizenship in Myanmar. They try to clear the Rohingyan name.' Another speaks of seeking treatment from authorities for an injury to his hand, of being sent to Port Moresby General Hospital ... 'And when he's doing my operation, I think he's doing it wrong and he's cut all the nerve ... here in these two fingers, I can't feel anything. This finger now? Cold! I take medication three times every day, for the pain. Tramadol — I'm right now addicted! I can not sleeping, I can not anything.'


Beached Dreams

After Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial”

Silently and gladly to the reefs of Christmas Island
the convoys of asylum seekers come;
at night they cling to the boards of wooden boats that roll
and list in heaving seas.

Between the fob and mincing of the sound bite,
no-one, it seems, has time for this—
to pluck them from a watery grave, wrap them in blankets
and raise a glass to honour

their remarkable courage, their very ordinary dreams
and their right to be proudly Australian. Instead,
we drive shards of broken tidewood into their beating hearts,
sealed by the signature

of our feckless leaders, written with such pragmatic
cowardice, with such unfeeling stubbornness
that the words choke as they begin—“Unknown human”
the ink bleeds and fades

in a sea strewn with the wreckage of decency,
the withdrawal of compassion, the failure
of a nation to face its fear, to understand, that like all of us,
they come in the hope of a better life.

Nauru/Papua New Guinea

(from the anthology Writing To The Wire, UWA Publishing 2016; reprinted with permission)

'I haven’t been accepted for America,' Farhad writes — and I find myself wondering, is this a way of suggesting settlement in Australia no longer appeals? A muted version of 'I’ve suffered enough at the hands of your government and I’d prefer an alternative destination if one's on offer'? (Anywhere but Manus Island or Cambodia!) But it's conjecture on my part....

In any case, perhaps the status of his asylum seeker claim is irrelevant since both the government and opposition have indicated there'll be no entry for those who've sought to come to the country by boat. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who personally initiated Operation Sovereign Borders during the Abbot prime ministership, has in December reiterated support for the policy. 'I will fight ... using whatever tool or tactic I have available to me to ensure that we do not undermine our border protection laws.'

Labor's policy platform on asylum seekers remains that 'Labor will not do anything to provide the people smugglers with a market to exploit vulnerable people. As such, bringing people from offshore regional processing centres to Australia is not an option.' Nevertheless there were hopeful signals to come out of the 2018 Labor National Conference in December. Labor Immigration spokesman Mr Neumann, quoted in The Australian, suggested 'We will end indefinite detention of refugees on Manus and Nauru', while Ged Kearney, Member for Batman, moved a resolution calling on the government to act immediately to take up an offer from New Zealand. Additionally, 'They can and must support the medical evacuation of refugees who need medical treatment to Australia, and their families.'

Greens policy includes closing the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, bringing 'every single person man, woman and child to Australia', introducing a seven day limit for onshore detention, and increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake to 50,000 per year.

Greens Senator Nick McKim, who's clearly of the view that decisions taken at the 2018 Labor National Conference failed asylum seekers, suggested recently that the tide had turned on offshore detention, '... the Australian people want it to end. Additional support for the UNHCR is welcome, as is an increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake. But it is long past time for Labor to commit to ending the cruelty of offshore detention.' (To those on Manus, McKim is possibly the most visible of Australia's parliamentarians, and the most supportive: in Hobart in November, he and author Heather Rose joined Behrouz Boochani in conversation by videolink to launch Boochani's memoir No Friend But the Mountains, shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier's Literary Award).

The question of offshore detention remains the major political difference between not only the Greens and the major political parties, but of independent political strategists such as Robert Manne and supporters Tim Costello, Frank Brennan and John Menadue.

Manne sees the situation on Nauru and Manus Island as 'the most terrible act to have been perpetrated by the Australian state during the course of my lifetime'. Yet he remains uncomfortable with his own projected solution - the acceptance in Australia of asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru, coupled with the continuation of the government's 'turn back the boats' policy. Manne reasons the policy has demonstrably worked in stopping drownings at sea, but admits he's found it 'painful to advocate a solution which so conspicuously involves vacating the moral high ground'.

Responses to Manne's proposal haven't been widely taken up — certainly not by Labor, perhaps fearing one of those 'barring major mishaps' calamities keeping them out of office. In response to Manne's opinion piece, one Guardian reader made the point that 'An incoming Labor government could do all you suggest under the guise of "medical treatment" and then "response to a psychological assessment". But, they'd better not suggest or even hint at such a compromise, lest the Murdoch press use the opportunity to tear them down and re-elect a Morrison government.'

I should have queued
or appealed to you in a letter
or reasoned prose, delivered
to an embassy of your orderly authority.

You have made this example of me
for I should not have sought safety
by paying for passage across murky borders
then more for a place in a filthy, petrol-sodden boat
with the money left from selling everything
my family owned.

from Kevin Brophy's poem 'From The Book of Examples'
pgs 83-84, Writing To The Wire, UWA Publishing 2016

Labor attempted to introduce legislation on the final day of parliamentary sittings for the year (Thursday 6th December), that would ensure medical transfers from Manus Island and Nauru to the mainland. But Senate filibustering by the Coalition, Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson successfully blocked the legislation. Nevertheless the bill faces defeat on the resumption of parliament early in the new year.

Meanwhile Christmas is upon us, the new year's close at hand.... Via his twitter account, Behrouz Boochani notes 'The world is awaiting and preparing for the Christmas celebration while two thousand people are still taken hostage by the Australian government in Manus & Nauru. This is the sixth Christmas that we spend in exile. Dark days marking humanity and history'.

Farhad and Moz continue much as before, sustained — though barely, I'd suggest — by social media interaction with supporters and civil rights advocates. Telephone internet coverage relays news of the outside world. Music makes endurable the long days and nights of detention, as does the comradeship of fellow detainees. I imagine them filling in time poring over practice questions for the Australian Citizenship Test ...

What do we remember on Anzac Day?
What are the colours of the Australian Aboriginal flag?
Identify the following:

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.


[1] 'All the same', Mostafa (Moz) Azimitabar's song recorded in Manus Island detention centre August 30, 2017. Filmed by Farhad Bandesh, produced and edited by Dr Emma O'Brien: All the same — 3:16
[2] 'Far from home', a digital track released on bandcamp (US $3), sung by Farhad Bandesh and Anna Liebzeit in a traditional Kurdish style about being far from home and surrounded by no one. 'The song developed after we began sending sounds of our environments over the internet, as well as listening in real time through headset microphones on the phone, with the idea of creating a composition of field recordings. From there it grew with those original sounds of gates, construction, the boiling kettle, insects and walking developing into a new work with singing and electronic and live instrumentation (such as the duduk)'. Far from Home — 4:20
[3} Website, writer James Dryburgh
[4] Website, poet Andy Kissane
[5] Melbourne Artists for Asylum Seekers (MAFA). A public Facebook group.
[6] Melbourne Artists for Asylum Seekers (MAFA).
[7] Musicfeeds, Sept 4th 2017: Asylum seeker releases music video inside Manus Island detention centre
[8] 'Music from Manus — 5 days not 5 years' - story. TMCG Productions.
[9] 'Music from Manus — 5 days not 5 years' — Filmmaking — 39:57
[10] 'Parwardeh Kurdem', sung by Farhad Bandesh: Parwardeh Kurdem - 4:21
[11] Tania McIntyre, essay '19 July 2013': Five years have passed
[12] 'The Birds', sung by Mostafa (Moz) Azimitabar with Ruth Mundy, available from bandcamp (Aus $3) The Birds — 3:50
[13] 'Writing through fences'. Farhad Bandesh: poetry
[14] 'Writing to the Wire', edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, with a Foreword from Julian Burnside. UWA Publishing, August 2016. 'Writing to the Wire is a collection of poems by Australians and people who would like to be Australians. It is a book about the idea of being Australian. It is about who we are and who we would rather be. Writing to the Wire offers new ways to understand injustice, to speak out and tell stories. Poetry can show us what we’re thinking and feeling in a way our politics has failed to do'. Writing to the Wire: book extract