‘It was like the scene of a horror movie’: how Jaivet Ealom escaped from Manus Island

After fleeing persecution in Myanmar, Ealom was detained in a ‘torture camp’. Using tricks learned from Prison Break, he snuck his way out

In 2013, when Jaivet Ealom sat squeezed in a boat with other asylum seekers, he prayed, not for the first time, for an easy death. They were far from shore off the coast of Indonesia, the vessel was sinking, and Ealom could not swim.

Fishermen from a nearby island came to the rescue, hauling each passenger from the half-submerged vessel. Ealom was saved. But during the chaos, a small baby fell into the ocean. “It never resurfaced,” remembers Ealom. “[The mother] just screamed from the bottom of her lungs. It was traumatising.”

Jaivet Ealom, around a year old in Myannmar
Jaivet Ealom, around a year old in Myannmar Photograph: Supplied

The event was just one of the horrors that Ealom faced in his long route to freedom: from persecution as a Rohingya Muslim in his homeland Myanmar, to three and a half years internment in Manus Island, to his time living in a homeless shelter in Toronto, where he eventually settled.

Now Ealom’s book, Escape from Manus, tells the story of his journey. In particular, his six-month odyssey to flee the offshore detention centre using tricks he had learned from the TV series Prison Break, which involved, among other things, studying his guards’ movements and faking his identity.

Escape from Manus begins, though, in Myanmar, where Ealom was born a decade after the ruling military junta spearheaded increasingly barbaric controls over the country’s stateless Muslim minority.

“They were burning down whole entire villages, whole entire neighbourhoods,” recalls the 28-year-old University of Toronto student when we speak on the phone. “That was when we collectively decided in the family that those who could leave, should.”

Ealom fled to Jakarta before deciding he would try to make it to Australia. But, as he was at sea, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd declared that any asylum seekers arriving by boat without a visa would never be settled in the country. Ealom was detained first on Christmas Island, then on Manus.

A still from a video filmed on board the converted fishing boat that took Ealom from Indonesia to Christmas Island in 2013
A still from a video filmed on board the converted fishing boat that took Ealom from Indonesia to Christmas Island in 2013. Ealom, who couldn’t swim, was terrified of drowning Photograph: Supplied

The conditions on Manus were as bad as Myanmar. Ealom lived in a cramped modified shipping container, which roasted in the oppressive heat. His rancid food was filled with debris, including stones and human teeth. Locals attacked the compound, thinking that the asylum seekers were terrorists; they shot at his accommodation, leaving bullet holes in the walls, and forcing inmates to shelter behind their mattresses.

As he writes: “The prison looked and felt like the scene of a horror movie about a perverse site for human experimentation; a floodlit laboratory in the middle of nowhere.”

Sheds and modified shipping containers on Manus Island
The sheds and modified shipping containers where asylum seekers were kept suffered under what Ealom describes as ‘oppressive heat’ Photograph: Supplied
Inside Ealom's 'cell'
‘This was my cell,’ Ealom writes in his book, ‘a dark, hot, depressing steel box that was home for more than three years’ Photograph: Supplied

Worse than the physical discomfort, Ealom says, was the emotional strain: “In Burma the torture was physical: you only feel it when you are being tortured, you only suffer when you are being chased. But in Manus it was psychological, the torture is with you 24/7.”

The stress of indefinite detention, with no end in sight, led to a rash of asylum seekers trying to take their own lives, including Ealom. “There wasn’t even a private place to commit suicide,” he says, bitterly.

In 2017, Ealom decided, once again, he must flee. He had been served paperwork stating that he would either be returned to Myanmar – and, he feared, death or incarceration – or sent to prison in Papua New Guinea.

The news was a wake-up call. He escaped Manus in May, in part by using tricks from Prison Break, including tracking his guards’ schedules. Then, slipping away at an opportune moment, he boarded a plane to Port Moresby.

Helping him were people working within the system. “There were good people among the guards,” he says. “Some didn’t realise it was this torture camp that they were signing up for.”

The Manus Island detention centre was found to be illegal by the PNG supreme court in 2016 and forcibly shut in violent confrontation a year later. The detained men were moved to other centres in Manus province or to Port Moresby. In 2021, about 130 men remain held in the PNG capital.

Manus detention centre.
‘The prison looked and felt like the scene of a horror movie about a perverse site for human experimentation,’ writes Ealom Photograph: Supplied

From Port Moresby, Ealom made his way to the Solomon Islands. There, in order to get a Solomon Islands passport, he spent months perfecting how to pass as a local, from learning Pijin, the local language, to chewing betel nuts, which stained his teeth a deep crimson.

Travel document in hand, using the last of his money, he bought a ticket to Toronto.

Ealom arrived on Christmas Eve 2018, with only a light jacket for warmth. He sought asylum and, after a stint sleeping on a homeless shelter floor, was finally granted refugee status.

Jaivet Ealom
Jaivet Ealom took this selfie at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport. An hour later, he was on his way to Canada Photograph: Supplied

“I didn’t know a single person here,” he says. “I didn’t have any idea two days prior where Canada was. It was the only place I could buy with the money and the only place with relatively easy visa requirements. I just took a leap of faith.”

It worked.

Proficient in English, Ealom is now finishing his degree and works at NeedsList, which matches the needs of victims of humanitarian crises with help using special software.

The aid sector “is always top to bottom”, he says. “It needs to be bottom up: we [should] identify what is needed on the ground so there is less waste.”

As for returning home to Myanmar, “given the Rohingya situation ... is not going to get any better soon, I don’t see any opportunity,” he says. Plus, after all the years of waiting and frustration, of pain and plotting his escape, “I am satisfied with the life I am building in Canada.”

• Escape from Manus by Jaivet Ealom is out now through Penguin

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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