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The Invisible Barbed Wire

The Invisible Barbed Wire

The barbed wire wall of Balikpapan refugee prison in East Kalimantan is electrified to discourage refugees from escaping. (Project M/Ali Ahmad Haidari)

I heard my name “Hussan Sa Rezi” on the loudspeaker. Puzzled, I looked at my cellmate for confirmation. During my whole imprisonment, the security guards hadn’t pronounced my name right. My cellmate nodded that it was my name among a list of thirty refugees who would be released from Balikpapan refugee prison.

I had been waiting for this call for the past 1,277 days. Whenever the loud shhhshhh of the loudspeaker circulated inside the prison, hair at the back of my ears would stand – anticipating my name. I was disappointed three to four times each day for 1,277 days. But not this time. The day and the time for my freedom had arrived. The freedom that was held back by giant walls topped with razor wires high to the sky The freedom that was kept away by the security guards at doors without failing their duties. The Balikpapan refugee prison in East Kalimantan is officially called Immigration Detention Center (IDC). Renaming it as the Balikpapan refugee prison illustrates what we experienced behind detention walls for years. All the refugee prisons across Indonesia were funded by Australia.

Every night, I dreamed of walking on the street without an immigration security guard stalking me, seeing children chasing each other with carefree smiles on their faces, families dining, old ladies selling homemade cookies in stalls. The freedom that came to my sleep every night was now within my reach. I could almost touch it.

A few days later, on February 26, 2018, a bus carried the thirty of us to the Balikpapan airport. I still couldn’t believe I was released from prison. I feared, every second, the bus would turn around and take me back. Keeping an eye on the bus moving in a straight line soothed my fear. The bus drove with its light on. I was yet unable to fully see the outside world. For a few that woke up early, I could see their settled and calm faces before the bus light.

During the half-hour waiting in the terminal, my eyes were going after every Indonesian passenger, in awe like a kid entering an amusement park for the first time. The prison had faded my memories of seeing ordinary people. Now there weren’t any walls between us. With a calmness in their walk, they dragged their luggage to check-in. A calmness that I forgot to see in my face whenever I looked in the glass.

One of the stern-looking immigration officers waved his hand from distance that it was our turn to check our luggage. It was my first close interaction with someone from outside world. At the check-in counter, I stared deep into the eyes of the woman who took my luggage—hoping she would congratulate my freedom and welcome me to the outside world. She didn’t. The same feigned smile she had for the refugee before me folded the skin around her eyes. She shifted her gaze to the person after me, giving me indirect signals to move on.

When the plane hovered over Tanjung Pinang airport in Riau Islands province, all I could see was trees and a few houses in the view. It gave a glimpse of a rural area. I wished that the authorities released me to a big city. Big city provided a better escape to living the life as a refugee. A wave of disappointment engulfed the rest of the refugees too. “Mura da jungle awarda!” one shouted. The rest of us silently nodded.

We landed on the smallest airport I had ever seen – with ours the only plane in the entire airport. Other passengers got into taxis or their private cars. The Tanjung Pinang immigration officers walked us into three gri-gri (a name Afghan refugees had given to the angkot).

They took us for registration to Tanjung Pinang refugee prison. Wall exceeded with razor wires highlighted it from distance. The immigration officers left us outside waiting under heavy heat of the noon calling us one by one inside. I walked after a short officer before reaching a gloomy room. Another officer handed me a paper banner with my name on it. He shouted order to hold it up in front of my chest to the camera. Then he asked to turn my sides to the camera; two more shots completed an official welcome to the outside world. Just like the one you would see in the movies when a prisoner enters a jail.

Series of peaceful protests prior to release of refugees from Balikpapan refugee prison, early 2018. (Refugees Of Balikpapan Facebook page)

By the same gri-gri, we were taken away from the refugee prison toward the accommodation house. A destiny that housed my dream – my freedom? The gri-gri moved away from the city into a labyrinthine road. The road narrowed more and more, and trees began replacing the houses and stores on either side of the road, taller and denser. The word jungle was the first nickname spread among us calling the accommodation. Its remoteness seemed like an exiled-house rather than accommodation.

After forty minutes, the gri-gri slowed before a metal gate with a large sign on top that read Hermes Agro. It mirrored the first time the prison-van took me through the gate of Balikpapan refugee prison—with difference that no more solid doors and barbed wire secured it as the gri-gri went further inside. It was a worn-out resort: walls were peeling off its white coat that was painted many years ago. Wild bushes crouched over the flowers that had been used for decoration. The ground was covered with crushed leaves.

International Organization for Migration (IOM) staff handed each of us half of our monthly allowance. The allowance that comes from thousands of kilometers away; Australia, United States, Europe Union… funding our incarceration. The IOM staff insisted me to count—625,000 IDR preventing any future complications. They handed us the agency to buy our own food, clothes, personal hygiene, transportation fee… An amount that barely covers our food expenses nowadays.

The accommodation workers gave me a paper map leading to the room I was needed to live in. I was assigned with three refugees that came with me from Balikpapan. The rest were paired with one or two refugees newly released from other refugee prisons. The room was small. Four of us could barely cram in. Double beds on either side of the room left little space to move to the bathroom. Yet the space was bigger than the cell I lived with eleven other refugees inside Balikpapan refugee prison.

A couple of days later, my roommates and I walked to the nearest minimarket seven kilometers away. There wasn’t any public transportation, but it didn’t hinder us from celebrating the freedom before our steps. Back inside prison, the longest I could walk was the length of a small playground. Now the distance stretched as far as my feet could drag themselves, and I had the exemption of seeing trees in the view instead of barbed wire.

I still feared being called back with each step I took away from the accommodation. No one called. For the same celebration, refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan occupied the sides of the road. Some moved away from the accommodation. Others moved toward it.

My roommates and I returned before six pm. Other refugees had warned us that if we didn’t return before six pm we would be detained in the Tanjung Pinang refugee prison. Everyone carried the unpleasant mark of the prison. No one dared to exit the accommodation gate or stayed outside after six. A few that came after six pm to test the rule – not necessarily break it but to see if it was implemented or not were locked back inside Tanjung Pinang refugee prison.

Refugees leave Tanjung Pinang refugee prison in Riau Islands for new community housing. (IOM)

The following week, the immigration officers summoned the newcomers to the lobby where they briefed us of a long list of rules and regulations. We sat in a classroom like the kids at school and the immigration officers in front of a white board explained each rule. A female officer handed us the regulation sheet:

–         Refugees are only allowed to go outside of accommodation from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm.

–         Refugees have to avoid approaching port/airport unless they are accompanied by immigration officers.

–         Refugees are not allowed to host any guest that will stay overnight.

–         Refugees are banned from driving or bringing motorcycles both inside and outside of the accommodation.

–         Rules and regulations in Indonesia must be followed, including not finding work (work is banned), doing activities related to receiving money, driving a vehicle, and traveling.

–         Those who violate any above rules will be punished by keeping them in solitary confinement in Tanjung Pinang detention center.

The list was twice this size. Each number acted like a barbed wire wrapped around my neck: pushing the air down into my lungs. I found it hard to breathe as I read through the list. All of a sudden the classroom seemed like the cell of prison closing in over my head.

The humiliating registration, the remoteness of the accommodation, and now the long list of regulation, none of it matched the freedom I had held in my mind back inside prison. The physical walls and barbed wires that used to limit my freedom now turned into invisible forces serving the same purpose to keep me prisoner in this land. It was like releasing a bird from a cage and cutting its wings and expecting it to fly.

Every morning before six am, three to four gri-gri came at the gate to take refugees to the city. With no public transportation available, the gri-gri drivers found a new line of profit. Excited, I crammed with twelve other refugees inside a gri-gri to see if the world was freer in the city. The city sounded a perfect escape route from the suffocating environment of the accommodation.

Two refugee men walk from the accommodation house to the nearest minimarket seven kilometers away in Tanjung Pinang. (Project M/Hussain Shah Rezaie)

The first thing caught my attention when I got off the gri-gri was a hair salon with two giant pictures of a man and woman occupied half of the salon’s front. I always dreamed of honing my hair dressing skill. I had learned it during my incarceration by cutting other refugees’ hair. I pushed its heavy door. Inside the salon was dimmer than the outside. Three women to the right with their heads laid to the chairs’ backs. A few young girls were tending to them. I asked if their manager was available. An Indonesian-Chinese man appeared behind a tall desk smilingly greeted me.

“I would like to work here as an apprentice. If you need an assistant,” I said. He was attentively listening. “I don’t want to get paid,” Having the immigration rules in mind.

“Where are you from?” He had a tiny accent in his English. I said I was from Afghanistan and living in Tanjung Pinang as a refugee.

“Oh, refugee! I know about them.” His face altered with whatever he knew about refugees. I felt that it wasn’t a happy alteration. Unenthusiastically, he asked that he would call me later if I wanted to leave my number.

I returned to the accommodation with defeated spirit, feeling that there was no escape from the identity that glued to my forehead many years ago. Soon the whole city began seeing that identity wherever refugees walked. Noticing our struggle in communicating in the Indonesian language, the shopkeepers always asked where were we from and why we were in the city? Most of the refugees couldn’t escape from telling the truth because we needed to go back to them over and over again.

Refugees became known faces among the taxis, Gojek, and all gri-gri drivers. Wherever they see us in the city they shout after us “Hermes?” When it’s irrelevant, it started disturbing and became offensive! Hermes nested within a larger identity: a refugee, an outsider. That also tied into the fact that a refugee who has deviated from the normal timeframe—away from his family, without his home for nearly a decade. To be constantly reminded of that even by a genuine riding-call from those drivers is hurtful.

I went three times over the following weeks to the city until I had spent all my allowance. I noticed that I grew restless to return to Hermes. A strong twinge bothered me from inside. I couldn’t stop comparing:

The uncertainty before my step

The cloud before my eyes

The darkness in my voyage

The wire around my feet

The distance between me and my family

…to the carefree smile of people sipping their coffee while a handful of smoke came out of their mouths or to the children exiting the school gate chasing each other along the street or to the young around my age going to university or to a family sitting around a table in a restaurant without a missing member.

I couldn’t erase

The intimacy in their sitting

The care in their talking

The love in their bonding

From my mind for days after I came back from the city. The things I thought I would enjoy once I would be released from the barbed wire of prison were now giving me envy – pain – suffering.

To have fewer of these grim experiences, we went less and less to the city. The gri-gri stopped coming at the gate unless we asked them on the phone. Each month, going for food supplies became a torture for me.

The only place I went outside of the accommodation was in the neighborhood. I would climb the accommodation walls next to my room because going through the main gate would double the distance. I knew I was breaching the Immigration laws. One of the rules on the list was not climbing the walls. Almost every refugee did it, and the immigration grew indifferent to punishing it. I would go to the little volleyball playground where the neighboring women had cleared a small field from wild bushes and installed a net. Both men and women from the neighborhood wore the dull late afternoon bouncing the ball around on their hands – an activity that most women in my country are deprived of. They always cordially invited me and other refugees to join them. I didn’t play, but others did and I enjoyed watching them. Their untroubled cheers sometimes made me forget myself – my identity as a refugee.

The bond between refugees and the neighbors grew bigger than mere playing together. I began interacting with them and got comfortable calling them ibu. I saw the reflection of my own mother in their eyes. They invited us to their houses for the Eid festivals, and now on each Eid my roommates and I go to their houses. We have learned to take their hands to our foreheads in greeting the elders and sit on their floors eating their homemade cookies. Sometimes, putting some Indonesian language words we learned into practice, we talk about the similarity and subtle differences in how we celebrate Eid in Afghanistan.

June 2019, visiting a neighbor’s house for Eid al-Fitr in Tanjung Pinang. (Project M/Hussain Shah Rezaie)

Occasions like Eid and New Year are the saddest day in refugees’ lives. These are the festivals family members gather together to celebrate and strengthen their bonds. Being far from them creates nostalgia in us and going to the neighbors’ houses puts a temporary pause to that sadness.

For the majority of time, I stay inside the accommodation. The place I wanted to escape from has turned into an emotional and psychological shelter for me. Living the notion if you cannot see it then it stops existing for you. I bought a chair to reach a small shelf that is attached to a closet at the corner of my room. The small shelf became my study desk. With a pen, paper, and connection to the internet, I began my self-professing journey from photography to psychology and to writing. I lost my way of seeking freedom in the physical world into the moving direction of my pen on the paper. Days and nights, months and years passed by without me noticing the changes. The small shelf gave me enough security to forget myself—my identity as a refugee. Otherwise, it was too debilitating to have it at the forefront of my thoughts all the time and it would disable me from self-study.

Overtime I have gained the courage to look back at the world through the words unfolding here before your eyes. Landing on the right word became my line of survival – my way of fighting back the invisible barbed wire that has limited my physical freedom. And it has given me the tools to define my identity as a refugee. I started to see myself as a writer before a refugee.

I am always disheartened when I see thousands of refugees suffer in their own silence, not yet armed with a way to express themselves. When that silence breaks loose, they find themselves on a rope wrapped around their neck or a bottle of petrol in hand to release themselves.



This is the first piece in a collaboration between the archipelago and Project Multatuli. Project Multatuli is a public service journalism initiative dedicated to serving the underreported and holding power accountable. You can read this piece translated to Indonesian language here: “Kawat Berduri Tak Kasatmata.



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