The men packing the boat with rice, cigarettes and medicine had fled war and persecution in their home countries.
Now, at 1 a.m., off the coast of a remote island in Papua New Guinea, they were speeding back to the detention camp they hated.
Why, I asked, would they return to the prisonlike “refugee processing center” where they had been trapped for nearly five years?
“We have brothers to feed,” said Behnam Satah, 31, a Kurdish asylum seeker, as we cruised over moon-silvered waves on a hot November night. “We have brothers who need help.”
More than 1,300 asylum seekers have been dumped on Manus Island since the end of 2012 as part of Australia’s contentious policy to keep migrants from reaching its shores. They were all but forgotten until last month when Australia’s attempt to shut down the center and move the men to facilities near the island’s main town of Lorengau hit resistance.
Hundreds of the men refused to leave.
Many said they were afraid to move closer to town, where some had been attacked and robbed by local residents. But it was more than that. With the attention of the world finally on them, the camp’s detainees had turned their prison into a protest, braving a lack of water, electricity and food to try to jog loose a little compassion from the world.
They had already suffered and understood danger. Fleeing more than a dozen countries, they had risked their lives with human traffickers on ramshackle boats leaving Indonesia. And ever since the compound started filling up in 2013, it has been plagued by illness, suicide and complaints of mistreatment.