When I Ran From The Bombs, I Didn’t Realise It Was A Crime To Be A Refugee

I fled my country due to years of war; I was forced out of my motherland because of imminent danger.

I gave up my schooling, I left behind my children’s books, I lost my friends… everything in my life was taken from me.

With sweat and strain my father had built a home that symbolised love and kindness. He worked day and night, through the hot summer and freezing winter, to construct our home out of mud, stone and wood from willow trees. He made this place for us so we could be safe and live well. But we had to flee.

With eyes full of tears and broken hearts, we left our family home behind in search of a place where we could live life in peace.

Unfortunately, I could not continue living in the place where I was born, and when I was just a youth I tried to find refuge in Indonesia by approaching the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

I was unable to realise of my goals – I always wanted to go to school and finish my studies, but this never happened. I always wanted to live in harmony with others, to love one another, to show kindness to each other. I did not know that pursuing these dreams as a displaced person was impossible.

I did not know it was a crime to be a refugee. As a result of seeking asylum, I have been labelled an illegal human being.
The sun shines through the fence of Indonesia's Pontianak detention centre, where many asylum seekers are incarcerated. (Image: Supplied)

As soon as I arrived in Indonesia, I regret to say, I was deprived of freedom. I was deprived of my natural rights, my human rights, and the thing that constitutes my very existence. For many dark and agonising years I was held within four depressing walls. This place was like a cage used to imprison animals. I became a prisoner there, and I had no freedom of speech and no freedom of thought. Using their harsh laws and brutal regulations, the authorities stole all opportunities for thinking, expanding my mind, and for pursuing knowledge.

Rather than receiving my rights as a refugee, I was instead treated like a criminal. I became a spectacle of sorrow, hopelessness and injustice for all the people living ordinary lives beyond the fences and barbed wire. We were also portrayed as radical Muslims and agitators to the nice and cultured people residing on the other side of the fences in Indonesia. Without knowing anything about us, these people believed the rumours, which resulted in keeping us in prison for longer and prohibiting us from living in the town.

Life inside Indonesia's Pontianak detention centre. (Image: Supplied)

The people of this town are generally easygoing and peace-loving, but they do not have sufficient knowledge about refugees. They have no idea that in this prison exists souls who are weary of extremism, hate and war. They have limited knowledge about the time we spent in prison. They do not even know that there are more than 30 Christian refugees, that there are Muslims fleeing religious persecution, and that there are others like me who have no religion at all.

They do not know that we have hearts full of love and compassion and who live side by side with respect and unity.

Unfortunately, they cannot see that we are looking to live in peace and safety and not trying to promote violent religious views. In our view of the world, human values and a life dedicated to humanity are worth more than any religion in the world.

The first period of time I spent locked up alongside a bunch of weary souls passed like nightmares; these were the days when I was totally exhausted from the uncertainty of displacement. Hopes of freedom, hopes of a dignified life, hopes of living in harmony with nature, hopes of residing in cities, hopes of engaging with people in society… all dashed. But as I was experiencing the peak of hopelessness and extreme depression I started to believe that these difficult days and dark nights would come to an end. The sun was bound to shine on us eventually and better days were ahead.

All of my hopes for a better life were dashed inside detention -- but I started to believe the dark days would eventually come to an end. (Image: Supplied)

During this period  I endured a lot of psychological and emotional torture, but I always believed we would end up living a free and safe life. I was always there to help my fellow refugees as they struggled during the worst situations; I arranged English classes for my brothers while they suffered mental and physical pain. I would interpret for them and explain their health problems for the doctors. I did my best to encourage them with positive thinking and the pursuit of knowledge and compassion. I knew that this period was temporary and we should not lose sight of our bright futures.

Whenever I stood up against brutality and injustice in the prison the authorities would humiliate me and silence me. Regardless of all the problems I had to endure, and the soul-destroying pain inflicted on me, I decided never to lose hope. I had to resist the hardship and frustration I faced in this prison.

I had faith that my efforts were not in vain and I would reach my goal…June 27, 2018 was a great day to me. It was a day of celebration.
A group of refugees released from Pontianak detention centre in June, 2018, after years of incarceration. (Image: Facebook)

From that day on, I no longer lived in that dark cage, I no longer lived behind those depressing bars… I must admit, if it were not for the work and affection of the refugee supporters who I have got to know during this time I would not have left the prison with my sanity and well-being intact. No amount of thanks can repay the kindness you have shown me while I was locked up.

I promise that my new-found freedom will not signal the end of my support for the other refugees who I hold dear. This is just the beginning. I did not leave the prison so I could enjoy freedom and just think about my own well-being.

I left the prison so I can fight for the freedom of others.

To my good friends, the refugees who are still incarcerated, I promise that you will be free one day soon.

Have no fear.

The dark nights will transform to glorious mornings. The future is bright, freedom is near.

After my release, I found I have a little more freedom in community housing, but am still bound by unnecessary curfews.  We have to be present in accommodation exactly at 6pm. Refugees are strongly prohibited by the Immigration Authority to stay outside overnight. If anyone is caught outside overnight, they will be returned to detention center again.

A road in Batam Island, near the community housing Erfan has been released into. (Image:  Facebook)

Despite all the problems we face, I have decided to arrange more classes for my refugee friends to  to learn English.  I will set up new Bahasa classes with the help of my refugee friends, for those of us who can't communicate in Bahasa and English. I meditate and exercise in the mornings to forget my past traumas in prison.

I hope I can get settled in a country someday soon, where I can continue my studies and have the right to work and practice my basic rights as a human being, before I lose years of my life in this transit country without having the right to do something freely.

My name is Erfan, I'm 21 years old. I'm a Hazara refugee, originally from Afghanistan. I felt threatened and obliged to flee my motherland due to ongoing war and everyday fighting. I left Afghanistan in late 2014 and arrived in Indonesia in the beginning of 2015, aged 17. Since then, I have been incarcerated and in a state of constant uncertainty in an Indonesian detention centre. After many years of imprisonment, I was eventually released on June 27, 2018. I now live in community housing in Batam Island.

I wrote this article in in the hope of raising awareness about refugees who are detained in Indonesian prison camps. 

Translation: Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo/University of Sydney

Feature Image: Afghan Refugees hold a demonstration in Kebon Sirih Jakarta, 6 February 2017. (Image: Dasril Roszandi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)