'I don't have dreams': my pen pal on Manus Island
Five years ago I wrote someone I didn’t know a letter. It was a bit awkward. I didn’t know what to say. I described my family. I said I was studying law at university. I wrote that I thought what our government was doing to refugees was wrong. I included my address so the someone I was writing to could write back. I sent the letter to an address on Julian Burnside’s website and it presumably got bundled up with others and sent to Manus Island.
Five years later a “Mustafa” commented on a photo of a refugee rally I posted on Facebook, and asked whether I was the Sophie who had written him a letter. He posted a photo of an envelope with my handwriting on it, and my Canberra address.
“When you sent letter you were 23 in 2014 and now you are 27 in 2018, but I have spent my entire life on one bunk. I don’t know what is world or freedom.”
When I wrote the letter to Mustafa I was living in Canberra and studying Law at ANU. I worked for the Greens as a political staffer. I lived in a leafy suburban street and went for morning walks up Mount Ainslie and drank at the local pub after work.
When Mustafa found me on Facebook in July this year he was still trapped on Manus. He wrote to me, “World is not for me. It’s all for you … enjoy it ... World is yours.”
“Some people like me die with dreams. But now I don’t have dreams. I am a dead man.
Since I wrote to Mustafa I have moved to Alice Springs. I have become a lawyer. I have fallen in love. I spend my weekends exploring this extraordinary red desert country. I live with three wonderful women and four dogs.
Mustafa has spent those same five years imprisoned by Labor and Liberal governments on Manus Island. Three weeks ago he was finally granted a glimpse of mercy and resettled in America (is it called “mercy” when a torturer stops torturing you?)
He found a copy of the reply letter he wrote me that I never received. Before he gave the letter to an Australian guard and asked them post it for him, he copied it out word for word and kept it. He sent me a photo of it: “Dear Sophie … My name is Mustafa and I am from Pakistan and I am 24 years old.”
He explained that he had to leave Pakistan for political reasons. He wrote about his family – that he was scared for his little brothers and sisters, that his parents were still alive and very young and that he loves and misses them. He wished me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. He asked me to keep writing.
I didn’t, because I never received his letter.
By the time Mustafa found me on Facebook, his father had died. He died in February this year, six months before Mustafa was finally freed. He has been resettled in the USA. His mother is now very sick, he thinks from the worry.
“I lost my youth, my eye sight, my 12 friends were killed and my father ... I lost everything …”
“I am free now. Forever. But trapped from the inside.”
Kevin Rudd’s Labor government locked up Mustafa on 19 July 2013. Malcolm Turnbull’s – and now Scott Morrison’s – Liberal government kept him there until September 2018.
There can be no justification for stealing five years of Mustafa’s life, for taking the futures of 12 of his friends, for instilling such profound despair in the hearts of children that they lose the will to live, and for tearing families apart.
The Liberal and Labor parties have spent years confecting the lie that they are faced with an impossible choice between people dying at sea and killing them slowly in offshore detention. But can we really believe that the same politicians who are willing to indefinitely lock up innocent people are worried about lives lost at sea?
We have stolen five years of Mustafa’s life because the Liberal and Labor parties decided that it was an acceptable price to pay to win elections. And finally, maybe, the Australian public are saying no more. The voters of Wentworth made it clear that they no longer have confidence in a government that persecutes human beings and wilfully lets our planet burn. Opinion polls show that public sentiment is turning. Liberal MPs have spoken up about their discomfort with their party’s policy.
Here is a solution. Bring the children, the families and the desperate people who have asked for our help to Australia. Increase our foreign aid (which is notably at an all time historic low) in the region and support our regional neighbours to process asylum seeker claims quickly and humanely so people are not forced to take dangerous boat journeys from Indonesia to our shores. And then put those who are found to be refugees under the Convention on a plane and bring them here quickly and safely.
Australia is a big and generous nation. We could have helped Mustafa five years ago and we can help the kids of Nauru and Mustafa’s friends on Manus now. The only thing holding up this regime of utter cruelty is political will.
• Sophie Trevitt is a lawyer based Alice Springs and works for an Aboriginal legal aid service. She is a member of the Greens and has been active for years in calling for the end to Australia’s policy of offshore detention.
“When you sent letter you were 23 in 2014 and now you are 27 in 2018, but I have spent my entire life on one bunk. I don’t know what is world orfreedom.”