The awe-inspiring story of the only person to successfully escape Australia's notorious offshore detention centre--and his long search for freedom.
In 2013 Jaivet Ealom fled Myanmar's brutal regime, where Rohingya like him were being persecuted and killed, and boarded a boat of asylum seekers bound for Australia. Instead of finding refuge, he was transported to Australia's infamous Manus Regional Processing Centre.
Blistering hot days spent in shipping containers on the island melted into weeks, then years . . . until, finally, facing either jail in Papua New Guinea or being returned to almost certain death in Myanmar, he took matters into his own hands. Drawing inspiration from the hit show Prison Break, Jaivet meticulously planned his escape. He made it out alive but was stateless, with no ID or passport. While the nightmare of Manus was behind him, his true escape to freedom had only just begun.
How Jaivet made it to sanctuary in Canada in a six-month-long odyssey by foot, boat, car, and plane, with nothing but his instinct for survival, is miraculous. His story will astonish, anger and inspire you. It will make you reassess what it means to give refuge and redefine what can be achieved by one man determined to beat the odds.
About the author
JAIVET EALOM was born in Myanmar and now resides in Toronto, where he has become a prominent spokesperson for the Rohingya community. He is studying at the University of Toronto and works for a company that provides software to non-profit organizations.
Excerpt: Escape from Manus Prison: One Man's Daring Quest for Freedom (by (author) Jaivet Ealom)
I’m going to die tonight. I’m going to die tonight.
’I was sad to realise I’d never feel the sun again. Most likely none of us would. It was past midnight and I’d had time to think things through. I accepted the finality. I was at peace.
Crouched around me in the darkness were a hundred men, women and children. The wind howled, and the air grew louder with the cries of desperate souls. Like me, they could see the world ending. Young families prayed together, united in their terror and grief. A mother clutched a baby close to her chest, looking at her child for perhaps the last time. A silent farewell.
Next to her, a group of men – fathers, sons, survivors – tried to project strength and calm. Others wept loud and long. They had made it this far, only to die on the relentless waves. Lost to history, soon to be forgotten. Their stories would never be written.
For all the desperation and pleas for help from God, it had fallen strangely quiet inside my head. I’d somehow managed to turn down the noise and switched off the lights, so I could have a final, frank conversation with my soul.
‘Have I been a good person? What is the measure of goodness?’Staring straight at death made me look at my life. Twenty-one years on earth, and what had I done with them? Were my days just a waste of effort, or had I been a contributing member of the human race? Did I use my time here wisely? Had I made any difference at all?
I lifted my eyes to search for comfort in the permanence of the stars, but heavy clouds had muted the sky. The only light came from the wavering glow of a kerosene lamp and the glare of a couple of flashlights from the depths of the boat, where people took turns bailing out the rising water. They were fighting a losing battle. We were far from land on an angry sea and our broken vessel was sinking fast.
It had been three days since we’d all scrambled aboard the old fishing hulk off a far- flung beach near Kendari, Indonesia. The crew was supposed to sail us to Darwin, Australia where, according to a rumour that everyone had heard at one time or another, Australians opened their hearts and their country to people like us – those on the run from torture, persecution and death.We thought they were good and caring people, so different from the ones we were fleeing from.
The final maritime push in our gruelling odyssey toward salvation had been an almost comical study in human error. The agents we’d put our trust in turned out to be sneaky and unreliable. Alarmingly, they appeared to be incompetent as well.
The rickety boat they surprised us with – so unprepared for a long sea voyage – had bled oil and breathed smoke from the moment it departed. There was precious little food or water onboard, no navi-gational equipment beyond a compass, no radio and no life jackets. Now, seventy- two hours later, the hull had ruptured and we were sliding into the watery abyss.
That so many people – all of us strangers from different lands – would wager their lives on such a hopeless journey testified to our shared desperation. Each of us was fleeing conditions we considered harder to bear, on balance, than the possibility of death by drowning. When the only choice is between a murderous homeland and the cruel sea, it’s not much of a choice at all.
Panic had swept across the deck earlier that afternoon when the bilge pump failed and the engine sputtered and drowned. An army of green waves pushed the boat sideways to the wind, and rocked it savagely. When word spread that its belly was filling with water, our belongings were dragged from the hold below and hurled into the sea.
Everything we owned, all the possessions we hoped to carry into our new life, was tossed out on the faint hope that we might survive the ordeal. My backpack was out there somewhere, bobbing along in the sad slick of our last worldly possessions. Not that mine amounted to much: some spare clothes, a few toiletries, and documents from Burma, the only place I’d ever known. Once my homeland, now the stage of a bloody genocide. It was with mixed feelings that I was leaving that life behind.
Whatever wasn’t nailed down eventually joined the sinking trail of luggage. Even the remaining diesel was drained from the fuel tanks and tipped overboard. The men took turns descending in small groups to bail sea water out of the hold using plastic containers. During my first shift, the water sloshed up to my knees. The next time I went down, at dusk, it lapped at my hips.
When night fell, our fears grew. It seemed the habit of the ocean to grow more combative once the sun had turned its back. Our timber hulk twisted in the peaks and valleys of unseen waves, each new swell promising to throw us overboard once and for all. We clung to the bucking, waterlogged boat with cold and aching fingers.
It was the end of our second day without food or water, and those of us who’d been scooping up buckets of the oily sea were worn out, as weak as kittens. It was around 11 pm when I last went below to help. Now the water was chest high. While I tried to stay strong, eventually my body gave out. As I dragged myself back to my place on the roof of the doomed boat, I knew what would happen next. ‘I’m going to die tonight.’
As someone who had always been a good believer, I was surprised the fear of God didn’t stir in me as I sat among the others and waited for the end. My shipmates were a mystery to me, and their hopes and the dreams they’d had would remain unknown.
For myself, I was fairly certain that death would come swiftly. Although I’d grown up near the coast I’d never learned to swim. I might have made peace with dying but I dreaded the thought of water pouring into my lungs. My only prayer was to ask God for a gentle end.
My thoughts turned homeward to Burma, where my younger brother Shahed would be waiting for an update on my journey to Australia. My cell phone hadn’t been in range of a signal for days, but I typed a message anyway: ‘Dear brother, tell Mom and Dad that I love them, and forgive me if I was not a good son. The boat is sinking. I didn’t make it. I’m sorry. Goodbye.
’I saved the message and pushed the phone into the pocket of my jeans. I hoped if my body washed up on the shore that maybe someone would find it, and somehow retrieve my dying words. Hungry, exhausted and balanced on the precipice of my remaining moments, I felt a wisp of sleep wrap around me like a blanket. As my eyes closed, I reminded God of my final wish.
‘Please let me die in my sleep.’
It wasn’t to be the last time I recited that prayer. On many a night in the years that followed – after I had finally made it to safety, and started an unexpected new chapter in my life – I begged God over and over again, ‘Please, kill me before I wake up.’
Eventually, the prayers would stop.
“Stunning. This book should be on every reading list in the country. Stateless, without papers and too often without a drop of water to drink, Jaivet Ealom escapes Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide that continues to destroy his people. From Jakarta to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in sinking boats and cargo planes, he lives by his wit. In this world, babies drop to the bottom of the ocean and men are caged, beaten, numbered. A chance reading of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning restores his soul enough to get him, still undocumented, to Toronto. Ealom writes, ‘The choice of how I responded, or who I wished to be, was still my own to make.’ We share Ealom’s world, and this choice is ours too. Read this book. Know who you wish to be.” —Kim Echlin, award-winning author of Speak, Silence
“An inspiring, eye-opening, harrowing, heartbreaking and triumphant journey that is testament to the resilience of the human spirit. The raw and vulnerable storytelling will touch you to your core and keep you spellbound till the last page. This book will restore your faith in the power of humanity that makes Canada the True North Strong and Free!” —Samra Zafar, bestselling author of A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose
“This incredible, heart-stopping escape story is about shameful truths and spiritual authenticity; it’s about government sanctioned torture and it’s about redemption. Thank God Jaivet Ealom recorded his saga. From the merciless tactics of a government to the lyrical writing of a man who finds goodness in the face of evil, this book astonishes because it exposes the secret deals countries make to deny justice, and it takes you into the heart of a decent man. I couldn’t put it down and was almost breathless when I read the last page. My only unanswered question: Who will play Jaivet in the movie?” —Sally Armstrong, bestselling author of Power Shift: The Longest Revolution
“Jaivet's memoir has all the taut propulsion of a thriller, yet devastatingly, this is a story all too real. Escape From Manus Prison offers a first-hand account of the brutal treatment of refugees at every turn, from exploitative smugglers to the xenophobic policies of foreign governments.” —Camilla Gibb, bestselling author of Sweetness in the Belly and The Relatives
“Art, culture and writing: these are gifts and they are weapons. I'm proud of Jaivet for speaking out—for history, and for all of those whom history would silence.” —Behrouz Boochani, award-winning author of No Friend But the Mountains