Omid Tofighian and Behrouz Boochani tell the story of Bangladeshi refugee Spicy – across borders, seas and prisons.
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This is the story of a man who, for more than eight years, has been crossing borders, oceans and seas. Spicy has been incarcerated in many prisons, and is currently in Port Moresby’s notorious Bomana. If we were to track his journey over all these years, we would see him moving through – and struggling against – seven states or political jurisdictions. Moving from one border to another border. One boat to another boat. One prison to another prison.
Helal Uddin, better known as Spicy, is a Bangladeshi man – one of the refugees who were exiled to Manus Island in 2013 by the Australian government. Both the Australian and PNG governments have consistently rejected responsibility for him.
In 2013, he travelled by boat from Indonesia to Christmas Island. He was immediately sent to Manus Island and incarcerated in the Delta prison camp, a small compound about the size of a football field.
Inside the camp, he and more than 300 other refugees had to endure the extreme conditions of the Australian detention system. Together, they organised numerous forms of collective resistance, challenging the system in remarkably creative ways. Spicy was involved in many of them.
He was one of the most active organisers of the hunger strike in 2015, which involved a few hundred refugees. During those days, the refugees were determined to use peaceful means to challenge the system that had imprisoned them without legitimate reason. Things went well for the first ten days, and they were able to attract the attention of the media and public. On the twelfth day, dozens of guards attacked the camp, handcuffing approximately 50 strike leaders. Spicy was one of them.
He was taken to the solitary-confinement cell known as ‘Chauka’, which was situated outside the prison camp. After five days, he was then transferred to a local prison on the other side of the island. He was held there for 24 days, before being returned to Chuaka before being held in isolation inside the Charlie prison camp. Finally, he was sent to stay in the Fox prison camp.
Those who have experienced imprisonment know all too well that one of the harshest punishments is being forced to change prisons. This has happened to Spicy on many, many occasions over the last eight years. He has suffered this ordeal more than any other imprisoned refugee caught up in the Australian detention system.
In 2017, the refugees incarcerated by the Australian government were under siege. Authorities decided to close the prison and, when the incarcerated population refused to be moved, they shut off the power, stopped the water and food, and discontinued medical services. The security staff left the refugees, alone, with nothing. The first person to bring food was Spicy. He received a call from the leaders of the resistance, and he travelled from Lorengau town at 10pm with supplies. PNG Navy officers were still present around the camp, so Spicy waited for seven hours in the mosquito-infested waters before he could bring his companions food. This act of solidarity and friendship started a wave of ‘shipments’ from local people. On that first night, Spicy returned to Lorengau early in the morning, only to then transport a stranded Australian journalist to the prison camp; the roads were closed, and a private fishing boat was the only viable mode of transportation.
Spicy could make these journeys of solidarity because, in 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that imprisoning refugees who have not been convicted of a crime was unconstitutional. The doors of the Manus prison camp were open, and Spicy could now leave the prison for hours at a time.
Here, Spicy’s life takes a fundamental turn: he meets his future wife, a local woman from Manus Island.
He tells us: ‘I was sitting on the rocks nestled along the sea, 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’.
This was not to be a normal relationship. The foundations of their love were built on the border of freedom and imprisonment. Spicy would leave the Lombrum camp during the day and travel 35 km to see Alice in Lorengau. In the afternoons, he would travel the same distance back to the camp. In that year, their son Mohammad Ali was born.
One scorching-hot morning, at a time when they were still enjoying special moments together after the birth of a child, the police and immigration officers came looking for Spicy. They told him he only had a few hours to say goodbye to his family before he was deported.
Spicy remembers that day: ‘It was the most bitter moment I have experienced in my difficult life. Holding my family as they cried in my arms’. He told his wife: ‘I am an honest person, and I love my family. I will return’.
Spicy was deported to Bangladesh via Singapore, with four Australian and PNG officers accompanying him for the duration of his journey. Once back in Bangladesh, he says he could not stop thinking about his return to Manus. Life in Bangladesh was not easy for Spicy; because of his political and religious views, he was under pressure from the state, and had to lay low in a rural village. Bangladesh and PNG do not have embassies for each other; despite their best efforts, Spicy and Alice were unable to acquire visas in order to visit each through authorised channels.
Spicy eventually decided to begin his journey back by boat. He went first to Thailand, which took five days. On the way, his boat passed the Arkan region, part of the Rohingya homeland, where there they were attacked by the Burmese military. Only Spicy and the captain survived.
From Thailand, he boarded another boat to Malaysia, arriving three days later. Then a two-day sail to Indonesia, and from there a fifteen-day odyssey to Jayapura on the border of West Papua and PNG. It was only a short trip from here to Manus Island.
Spicy arrived in Manus and on 14 October 2018 he was able to hold his family again; they met on the small island in the Ninigo Islands in Manus Province, with less than 100 inhabitants. For five months, they lived there in secret, in a small village hidden in the jungle. Spicy recalls: ‘We did not feel safe, but we were happy’.
Their life here would not last; they were destined to be separated again. Immigration officials eventually found Spicy and sent him to Bomana prison, where he has now been held for two years. It is the same prison in which he was briefly held before being deported to Bangladesh in 2018.
In Bomana, Spicy has three shifts a day cooking for the prison guards. He gives Bible Studies classes every night, and in his spare time has been writing his cookbook: Spicy Life: Recipes from Bomana Prison. In another life, Spicy was a chef – the origin, of course, of his name.
During his time in Bomana, Spicy has once been able to see his family, when a few Australian friends helped Alice and Mohammad Ali fly to Port Moresby. He tell us: ‘I have one wish, and that is to see my family one more time’.
He is still waiting for the court decision that will determine whether he can stay in PNG. But, he says, ‘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 I can image a beautiful future for him. This country is no place for refugees’.
Omid Tofighian is an award-winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate, combining philosophy with interests in citizen media, popular culture, displacement and discrimination. He is affiliated with University of New South Wales, Birkbeck, University of London and University of Sydney. His publications include Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave 2016); translation of Behrouz Boochani’s multi-award winning book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018); and co-editor of special issues for journals Literature and Aesthetics (2011), Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (2019) and Southerly (2021).
Behrouz Boochani is Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Sciences at UNSW and Senior Adjunct Research Fellow with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury (New Zealand). He is an author and journalist who was incarcerated as a political prisoner by the Australian government on Manus Island and then held in Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea). In November 2019 he escaped to New Zealand where he was granted asylum in 2020. His book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018) has won numerous awards including the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. He is also non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre (SAPMiC), University of Sydney; Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, University of London; member of Border Criminologies, University of Oxford; Honorary (Principal Fellow) within Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne; Honorary Member of PEN International; and winner of an Amnesty International Australia 2017 Media Award, the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Liberty Victoria 2018 Empty Chair Award, and the Anna Politkovskaya award for journalism. Boochani is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time; collaborator on Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s play Manus; and associate producer for Hoda Afshar’s video installation Remain (2018).
A version of this piece was originally published in Overland.