“They’re trying to kill me, if they kill me take care of my son.”
These were the last words of Faysal Ishak Ahmad before his death on Christmas Eve. The Sudanese refugee uttered these words during his last visit to his friend Walid Sandal. This is not a scene from a tragic film or novel. This is the reality of the prison on Manus Island, hundreds of kilometres from Australia and in the middle of a silent ocean.
Faysal was born in Darfur, Sudan – a region associated with war, genocide and displacement. A symbol of affliction in western media. In other words, Faysal was born into war. In 2004, at the age of 13, his family was displaced and moved to the Kasab refugee camp north of Darfur, a camp managed by international organisations. No refugee from the camp had the right to work and once every few months the organisations would distribute food between the families. It is a place full of hardship, suffering and hunger.
In the month of July 2013, after nine years living in a camp for displaced people, Faysal left behind his nine-month-old son and wife destined for Australia. First he arrived in Egypt and then Indonesia. He spent two months displaced and hungry in Indonesia until, on 1 September 2013, Faysal travelled to Australia on a decaying boat with 90 other people.
The journey was difficult and dangerous and they encountered waves that may have destroyed the boat at any moment. However, after nine days Faysal arrived in the Australian city of Darwin.
In my interview with Omar Jack Giram – who was on the boat with Faysal – he told me:
After five days we had consumed all our water and food supplies. We were starving for four days and practically unconscious – as close to death as possible. Faysal vomited many times along the way, however he was mostly worried about his family and was always thinking of his son.
The boat was intercepted by the Australian navy, and without attending to the sick people the navy immediately transferred them by boat thousands of kilometres to the west of Australia, to Christmas Island – a trip that would take approximately five days and nights.
After roughly one month, Faysal was forced onto a plane and exiled to another island prison, a flight nine hours north of Australia. From a refugee camp in Darfur to Manus Island; from the western hemisphere to the eastern hemisphere in something like four months.
First, Faysal was taken to Delta prison together with his friend, Walid, and put in a small cage with dimensions of 70×70 meters. After three months he was transferred to Mike prison with a cage of 80×80 meters. The transfer to Mike marked the beginning of Faysal’s physical ailments. It was there that, for the first time, he became sick with stomach aches.
Walid shared with me the following: “He had severe stomach aches and the only medicine we received were pain relief tablets such as Panadol. He couldn’t sleep most nights because of the intensity of the pain.” When I asked Walid about the attacks on the prison by locals in February 2014 he replied:
That night Faysal and I didn’t leave our room and we secured the door using the bed. We heard the sound of shots fired and then everything went dark. That’s when Faysal hid under the bed for one hour – he was more afraid for his family than himself. The next day we found out that Reza Barati was killed by officers just meters away from us – it was a horrible night.
Faysal was lucky, this was the second time that he escaped death. But with the stomach pains he was now experiencing his life was to take a different turn. Faysal spent over two and a half years in Mike prison waiting in the queue to use the telephone, otherwise on his way to the medical centre to receive his pain relief tablets.
Regardless of this state of affairs, Walid tells me: “Faysal was a very warm and cheerful man. On most occasions he would make us laugh and/or he would analyse current news reports. He was so clever that we would call him ‘The Honourable Minister’.” It was in this very prison – Mike prison – that he would eventually receive a response to his asylum case.
His case was accepted, meaning that he was officially recognised as a refugee; a person who the government must treat as someone in need of protection.
In April 2016, the responsibility for asylum seekers who received positive assessments as refugees was transferred to Oscar and Delta prisons, and Faysal was moved to Oscar. In the same month, the Papua New Guinea courts ruled that Manus prison was illegal, which meant one step towards freedom.
But entering Oscar prison was marked by two terrible incidents in Faysal’s life. First, he lost his mother who was living in the same refugee camp he left in Sudan. And then Faysal began to experience severe heart problems. He was able to tolerate his stomach aches with pain relief tablets, but heart problems were a dangerous issue and he realised, quite rightly, that this time he needed to fight more seriously for his wellbeing.
For the next six months he would visit the medical centre every day and would stand in long and slow queues for medication. Walid recalls:
Faysal became unconscious and collapsed over and over again but every time he visited the medical centre the doctor would tell him he was fine. On every occasion he returned empty handed and angry.
For six months he wrote more than 20 letters to the medical centre but every time he received a patronising and dismissive response. This continued up to the point when even Walid asked Faysal to be honest and tell him if he was really sick or not. Faysal responded: “I swear to god I have pain in my chest (heart), I swear to God I’m sick, I’m not faking.”
In the face of all the indifference from the doctors he continued to write to them, he desperately begged them for assistance; he sought help from the medical centre but returned unsuccessful every time.
During his final encounter his situation was so critical that the other refugees wrote a collective letter to the doctors describing his crisis. There was no reply.
A few days later, Faysal collapsed for the last time. After 24 hours they finally transferred him to Australia. The next day, news of his death was published in the media.
He was a man whose life was full of pain; he spent more than half his life in refugee camps. Faysal’s brother Salih shared his feelings on the loss. Salih said:
When we were told that Faysal died we were shocked! Because Faysal was the only person we were counting on to transform our lives from the refugee camp to a safe world. We don’t actually know how he died and the only thing we know is he was sick. He told me so many times that he was sick but I have no idea how he injured his head.
On the day of Faysal’s death, a picture was shared on Facebook of the immigration minister and his smiling son. It was Christmas: a time to celebrate, a day to be merry.
Translated by Dr Omid Tofighian, Sydney University