Ok, so, the second boat of refugees, totaling 43 people were in a slightly different situation. Their boat engine had finally broken beyond what just “creativity and prayer” alone could repair, and plus they ran out of food, so after floating adrift for 10 days and then being rescued by a fishing boat off the coast of North Pagai island, they were only too happy to get down off their boat and except the government’s offer of food and a place to stay. The government turned the local gymnasium, which was actually a center set up for tsunami victims two years ago and then later converted into a gym, back into a center for the refugees with mattresses for sleeping and small kerosene stoves for cooking. This group, too, were adamant about going to Christmas Island, but seemed to realize the negotiation status was not something they had at the moment.
Boat 2 refugees in the gymnasium.
Because this group was more cooperative from the get go, the local community quickly warmed to them and was eager to help in any way needed. When their same efforts were rebuffed by the first boat for no discernible reason, hard feelings quickly arose against the first boat who was acting, in the eyes of the community, just plain rude. This was the state of their relationship when I joined the mix 8 days into the hunger strike.
From stories shared by members of the first boat, I was able to explain to the community how terrified the first boat was of being sent back to Sri Lanka. They had heard stories of refugee boats landing in other countries, like Cambodia or Malaysia, and being poisoned after being invited to eat by the government, or being beaten and sent back to the country as soon as they disembarked despite promises from the police or government that they would not be harmed. Of course the community and local police indignantly insisted that those scenarios could never, and would never, take place in Sikakap. The refugees on the first boat, to their credit, were willing to believe the good intentions of the local people here, but what if the larger government ordered them to hurt the refugees under the threat of repercussions to their own families if they did not cooperate? The local people of Mentawai were stumped by this kind of paranoia as such thoughts and deeds have never occurred here, and could not be imagined, but it spoke volumes to the trauma experienced by the refugees and gave insight into the kind of terror from which they were running. The fact that nothing terrible had happened to the members of the boat who had already disembarked was offered as proof to the first boat that Sikakap’s efforts to help were sincere, but the first boat feared they were being baited into a trap. As soon as they stepped off their boat, they worried that they, along with all the members of the other boat who had been treated well, would be immediately arrested or worse.
The boat who had willingly disembarked seemed calmer and less paranoid on the surface, but revealed the fragility of their own mental state when immigration officers from Padang (the closest big city to Sikakap on the mainland) came to Mentawai to try to escort them to the immigration office in Padang so they could begin being processed as legal refugees. When the immigration officers arrived on the weekly ferry early Wednesday morning, the first boat had only just broken their hunger strike the night before and was still refusing to disembark, so immigration focused on the second boat instead. Using me as their translator, they explained that the refugees would need to come with them back to Padang, but the refugees instantly refused and insisted on being sent directly to Christmas Island. They did not trust the immigration officers and wanted to deal only with IOM, the UN refugee organization who was waiting in Padang to meet with the refugees. Unfortunately, IOM could not come to Sikakap to negotiate with the refugees directly as IOM also has a standing agreement with the Indonesian government to not get involved as refugee advocates until the refugees have agreed to cooperate with the government first. It took me several phone conversations with IOM, to convince the refugees that the government would absolutely not send illegal refugees to Christmas Island as per their agreement with Australia, and that the only way they could meet with IOM was to agree to accompany the immigration officers back to Padang. Fearing a trap as well, they had a list of conditions they wanted met first including identification badges clearly stating their status as refugee – not criminals – and they wanted to be kept together and allowed continued freedom to use their cell phones (only 2 had cell phones that had been given by Sikakap locals), etc. I salute the immigration officers who came that day as they were amazingly patient and kind to the refugees, and agreed to as many of their conditions as they reasonably could. It seemed to be going well and I felt like we were finally about to reach a solid agreement when suddenly a final latent fear of the government seemed to emerge, and they suddenly insisted that an international NGO member accompany them to guarantee that the government would hold its promises. They wanted me to go, but I had already promised the first boat I would not leave as a condition for them breaking their hunger strike (which also taught me that from this point on all negotiations with either group will have to be WITHOUT using my physical person as a bargaining tool). Since there are no other foreigners in Sikakap, this was a condition that could not be met. “Tavi”, the spokesperson for this group and the only one who spoke good English translated this to the other refugees, and suddenly they panicked. I can now say I have witnessed the phenomenon of mass hysteria as “Tavi” who only seconds before had been calm and rational suddenly started jumping up and down screaming wildly that they would rather the government just give them poison right now and let them die rather than agree to any other terms. All 43 of his group seemed to start shouting at once, pumping their arms in the air, and apparently demanding poison. It was a bizarre moment, and almost in slow motion I saw out of the corner of my eyes the military soldiers who had accompanied the immigration officers shift their military rifles in their arms. I immediately waved the immigration officers back against the far wall, grabbed “Tavi’s” arm and forced him to suddenly sit down with me on the floor. That forced him to stop shouting and the rest of his group stopped shouting too, and also sat down on the floor. Speaking slowly and looking them each in the eye one by one, I reiterated everything that had happened to them since they arrived and stressed how well they have been treated, how cooperatively and kindly the immigration officers were trying to meet all their requests, etc., but also reminding them they were in the middle of nowhere (Mentawai), and that there was no possible way to have an international NGO person go with them because THERE ARE NO INTERNATIONAL NGOs in Mentawai. Gradually they started to relax and started nodding in agreement and understanding as “Tavi” translated to them everything I said. After several tense minutes of them talking among themselves in their own language, “Tavi” finally announced that they all agreed to go if at least a few of their other conditions were met. I walked back to the immigration officers and soldiers who were all waiting by the far wall, and related the conditions and terms to all of which, thankfully, the immigration officers agreed.
As this took most of the morning, there was only time for a quick lunch and packing their scant belongings before being transferred 10 at a time in the back of a pick-up truck to the ferry waiting to start its 14-hour night-long journey back to Padang.
Hugs and tears were exchanged with many of the local community who had grown quickly attached to these strangers who landed so unexpectedly in our midst, and a large group accompanied them to the boat to wave them off.
And so that’s how one boatload of 43 Sri Lanka refugees came to go to Padang, and one boat of 53 refugees remained in the international hub of absolutely nowhere, also known as Sikakap, Mentawai…
Next: Part 3–Back at the ranch with the first boat…