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The tragedy of Eaten Fish, the award-winning cartoonist on Manus Island

Refugee artist Eaten Fish has attracted international attention for his powerful cartoons of life on Manus Island. © Eaten Fish/Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites

The tragedy of Eaten Fish, the award-winning cartoonist on Manus Island

His cartoons will some day be recognised as important, world-class chronicles of the worst human behaviour since the World War II concentration camps.

Thus spoke Robert Russell, executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International, after awarding the 2016 international award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.

The cartoons Russell is referring to are the work of a 25-year-old Iranian man detained on Manus Island. They chronicle everyday life in the detention camp. The artist’s pen name, Eaten Fish, evokes the lives that are being relentlessly consumed, expended, chewed up and spat out in the service of Australia’s calculatedly cruel policy of “deterrence”.

Click to enlarge. © Eaten Fish via Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites

Eaten Fish’s drawings, meticulously inked on pages torn from a notepad, document the myriad ways in which the inmates of Manus Island are rendered targets, driven to the edges of endurance in hellish surroundings. They render in minute detail a teeming, nightmare world, charged with menace.

In a drawing of a health centre, doctors and nurses are shown revelling and feasting while the injured and ill call desperately for help. A doorway leads directly to the graveyard, and a coffin lies on the floor. Inside a walled-in enclosure marked Mental Health, a hapless inmate can be glimpsed, to whom staff appear completely indifferent.

Click to enlarge. © Eaten Fish via Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites

These depictions are especially poignant in the context of the multiple illnesses suffered by Eaten Fish. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a host of other ailments, compounded by the ill treatment and sexual harassment he says he has experienced during his three years in the camp.

In his works, Eaten Fish draws attention to a world cordoned off from the rule of law. In this world, sexual assault and breaches of duty of care and trust are the norms.

The recurring images of CCTV cameras that populate Eaten Fish’s drawings expose a brutal irony: in his drawings the cameras are recording video evidence of criminal acts – to no effect. In the amoral landscape of his artwork, surveillance technologies become just one more instrument of voyeurism and abuse. Who is watching? Who is being protected?

Click to enlarge. © Eaten Fish via Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites

It was a statement Eaten Fish made to us that set in train his campaign to seek help through the medium of his artworks. He wrote to us:

Tell them I have got serious problem.
Tell them Mr Fish locked himself away because no-one understands him.
Tell them Mr Fish doesn’t want to fight.
Tell them Mr Fish is not sick, these people made him sick.
Tell them Mr Fish does not want to be assaulted.
Tell them I just want the normal life.
I want my right to be a healthy person.

– Statement by Mr Eaten Fish to RAPBS

In support of Mr Fish’s right to be a healthy person, Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites, the group we co-founded, launched a campaign to bring the nightmare world he has documented into public view.

Judy Horacek’s contribution to the Eaten Fish campaign. Click to enlarge. Supplied

First Dog on the Moon, the award-winning Guardian cartoonist who had been in communication with Eaten Fish for many months, furthered the campaign by setting up a website to which some of Australia’s best-known cartoonists, including Matt Golding, Judy Horacek, John Kudelka, David Rowe, Cathy Wilcox and many more, contributed, riffing on the motifs and themes of Mr Fish’s own works.

Chris Kelly’s powerful contribution juxtaposed the nightmare world of the cartoonist on Manus Island with a cartoonist in Australia living his dream. The cartoon campaign gained international attention via an impassioned article by Cartoonists Rights journalist Daniel Murphy. The article led to Eaten Fish’s successful nomination for the CRNI award.

The Australian government and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have so far made no comment on the award to an inmate of its Manus Island camp. Yet the award and the international attention it is bringing are surely an opportunity for the government to demonstrate its good faith and much-avowed commitment to acting in a spirit of humanity.

A ruling of the Papua New Guinea High Court in August required the closure of the Manus Island centre, with both Dutton and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declaring that inmates are no longer forced to remain there. But the inmates are still living there in limbo as they have nowhere else to go. PNG Prime Minister O’Neil, meanwhile, declared “the well-being of asylum seekers and refugees” a primary concern.

This award is an opportunity for the governments of Australia and PNG to work in conjunction with the United Nations – in the same spirit in which refugees participated in the Rio Olympics on refugee passports.

Jason Chatfield for the Eaten Fish campaign. Click to enlarge. Supplied

We call on the prime minister and his immigration minister to demonstrate their commitment to free speech and transparency by allowing Eaten Fish to travel to the US to accept his own award. It will be [handed out on September 24](Sept. 24 by Australian poet and human rights worker Janet Galbraith (founder of Writing Through Fences).

To ensure Eaten Fish is fit to travel in good health, he could first be brought to Australia for medical attention, as recommended by his medical advocate, Dr Helen Driscoll.

Eaten Fish’s response to the honour he has received is one of both awe and trepidation. He has reached out to the world from the confines of a prison island, but remains caught in it.

The ground-breaking significance of Eaten Fish’s work is brought into sharp focus by Cartoonists Rights’ awarding statement:

CRNI believes that his body of work will be recognised as some of the most important in documenting and communicating the human rights abuses and excruciating agony of daily life in this notorious and illegal prison camp. His work pushes through the veil of secrecy and silence and layers of fences in a way that only a talented artist speaking from the inside can.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has strongly denied “the claims made by Cartoonist Rights Network International that transferees are subject to ‘beatings, deprivation of food and, even worse, degrading treatment by the guards’. The department takes allegations of inappropriate conduct very seriously … [and] currently has no evidence that any of these allegations are true.”

But speaking and drawing from the black site of Manus, Eaten Fish has rent the veil of secrecy to portray the violence and abuse that have been consistently denied and dismissed by the Australian government and its operatives.

Having placed the plight of Australia’s refugees on the international stage and accordingly having been awarded this prestigious honour, Eaten Fish should be enabled to stand on this same international stage and accept his award in person.

Postscript: Since this article was published, Mr Fish has told the authors that he has been subjected to further violence. We reiterate our fears for his health and safety. He should be brought to Australia for protection and treatment as soon as possible. Mr Fish has also asked us to add this statement to the article: “Every story I said in my drawings is nothing but the truth. I drew whatever happened to me.”

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