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  • Published: 2 July 2021
  • ISBN: 9781761040214
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $34.99

Escape from Manus

The untold true story



‘I’m going to die tonight. I’m going to die tonight.’

I was sad to realise I’d never feel the sun again. Most likely none of us would. It was past midnight and I’d had time to think things through. I accepted the finality. I was at peace.

Crouched around me in the darkness were a hundred men, women and children. The wind howled, and the air grew louder with the cries of desperate souls. Like me, they could see the world ending. Young families prayed together, united in their terror and grief. A mother clutched a baby close to her chest, looking at her child for perhaps the last time. A silent farewell.

Next to her, a group of men – fathers, sons, survivors – tried to project strength and calm. Others wept loud and long. They had made it this far, only to die on the relentless waves. Lost to history, soon to be forgotten. Their stories would never be written.

For all the desperation and pleas for help from God, it had fallen strangely quiet inside my head. I’d somehow managed to turn down the noise and switched off the lights, so I could have a final, frank conversation with my soul.

‘Have I been a good person? What is the measure of goodness?’

Staring straight at death made me look at my life. Twenty-one years on earth, and what had I done with them? Were my days just a waste of effort, or had I been a contributing member of the human race? Did I use my time here wisely? Had I made any difference at all?

I lifted my eyes to search for comfort in the permanence of the stars, but heavy clouds had muted the sky. The only light came from the wavering glow of a kerosene lamp and the glare of a couple of flashlights from the depths of the boat, where people took turns bailing out the rising water. They were fighting a losing battle. We were far from land on an angry sea and our broken vessel was sinking fast.

It had been three days since we’d all scrambled aboard the old fishing hulk off a far-flung beach near Kendari, Indonesia. The crew was supposed to sail us to Darwin where, according to a rumour that everyone had heard at one time or another, Australians opened their hearts and their country to people like us – those on the run from torture, persecution and death. We thought they were good and caring people, so different from the ones we were fleeing from.

The final maritime push in our gruelling odyssey toward salvation had been an almost comical study in human error. The agents we’d put our trust in turned out to be sneaky and unreliable. Alarmingly, they appeared to be incompetent as well.

The rickety boat they surprised us with – so unprepared for a long sea voyage – had bled oil and breathed smoke from the moment it departed. There was precious little food or water onboard, no navi­gational equipment beyond a compass, no radio and no life jackets. Now, seventy-two hours later, the hull had ruptured and we were sliding into the watery abyss.

That so many people – all of us strangers from different lands – would wager their lives on such a hopeless journey testified to our shared desperation. Each of us was fleeing conditions we considered harder to bear, on balance, than the possibility of death by drowning. When the only choice is between a murderous homeland and the cruel sea, it’s not much of a choice at all.

Panic had swept across the deck earlier that afternoon when the bilge pump failed and the engine sputtered and drowned. An army of green waves pushed the boat sideways to the wind, and rocked it savagely. When word spread that its belly was filling with water, our belongings were dragged from the hold below and hurled into the sea.

Everything we owned, all the possessions we hoped to carry into our new life, was tossed out on the faint hope that we might survive the ordeal. My backpack was out there somewhere, bobbing along in the sad slick of our last worldly possessions. Not that mine amounted to much: some spare clothes, a few toiletries, and documents from Burma, the only place I’d ever known. Once my homeland, now the stage of a bloody genocide. It was with mixed feelings that I was leaving that life behind.

Whatever wasn’t nailed down eventually joined the sinking trail of luggage. Even the remaining diesel was drained from the fuel tanks and tipped overboard. The men took turns descending in small groups to bail sea water out of the hold using plastic containers. During my first shift, the water sloshed up to my knees. The next time I went down, at dusk, it lapped at my hips.

When night fell, our fears grew. It seemed the habit of the ocean to grow more combative once the sun had turned its back. Our timber hulk twisted in the peaks and valleys of unseen waves, each new swell promising to throw us overboard once and for all. We clung to the bucking, waterlogged boat with cold and aching fingers.

It was the end of our second day without food or water, and those of us who’d been scooping up buckets of the oily sea were worn out, as weak as kittens. It was around 11 pm when I last went below to help. Now the water was chest high. While I tried to stay strong, eventually my body gave out. As I dragged myself back to my place on the roof of the doomed boat, I knew what would happen next. ‘I’m going to die tonight.’

As someone who had always been a good believer, I was surprised the fear of God didn’t stir in me as I sat among the others and waited for the end. My shipmates were a mystery to me, and their hopes and the dreams they’d had would remain unknown.

For myself, I was fairly certain that death would come swiftly. Although I’d grown up near the coast I’d never learned to swim. I might have made peace with dying but I dreaded the thought of water pouring into my lungs. My only prayer was to ask God for a gentle end.

My thoughts turned homeward to Burma, where my younger brother Shahed would be waiting for an update on my journey to Australia. My cell phone hadn’t been in range of a signal for days, but I typed a message anyway: ‘Dear brother, tell Mom and Dad that I love them, and forgive me if I was not a good son. The boat is sinking. I didn’t make it. I’m sorry. Goodbye.’

I saved the message and pushed the phone into the pocket of my jeans. I hoped if my body washed up on the shore that maybe someone would find it, and somehow retrieve my dying words. Hungry, exhausted and balanced on the precipice of my remaining moments, I felt a wisp of sleep wrap around me like a blanket. As my eyes closed, I reminded God of my final wish.

‘Please let me die in my sleep.’

It wasn’t to be the last time I recited that prayer. On many a night in the years that followed – after I had finally made it to safety, and started an unexpected new chapter in my life – I begged God over and over again, ‘Please, kill me before I wake up.’

Eventually, the prayers would stop.

Escape from Manus Jaivet Ealom

The powerful account of how one man escaped the prison of Manus Island. A true story of bravery and resilience.

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