Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali set himself alight on Nauru a year ago. His partner, held in isolation in Australia since that day, speaks about the split-second decision that ended his life and changed hers irrevocably
On Nauru, life lay in the small things.
In the face of their remote island detention, Omid and Pari had each other, and, each evening, they had the sunset.
“People often cried while watching the sun go down,” Pari says of her time on the island. “Every sunset was a symbol of another day lost.”
“But every evening Omid would sit with me and talk to me about all the things we had to look forward to … he would just smile and say, ‘We are young, we are together, anything is possible.’”
So, each evening, Pari had her dual comforts: her partner and the promise brought by the sunset of another day.
Now, she has neither.
One year ago next month, the life of Pari’s partner, Omid Masoumali, came to a brutal, premature end, when, to protest being forcibly held on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, he publicly doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire.
Denied painkillers and adequate medical treatment, his slow, agonised death brought the stark privation of Australia’s offshore detention regime to renewed international attention.
Every day since, Pari has been held in isolated detention in Australia: alone, traumatised, segregated and trapped in a Kafkaesque legal and political nightmare.
She has not seen a sunset since, and faces an indefinite incarceration, despite being formally recognised as a refugee who fled persecution and who is legally owed protection.
Mentally, she cannot escape her partner’s death – “the movie”, as she describes it, “that keeps playing in my head over and over again”.
Pari has maintained a stoic silence in the face of her grief and the ongoing uncertainty about her future. But now, she says, she can be quiet no longer. Today, she is speaking for the first time.
“There is an infinite scream inside of me, and I can’t hold it in any more.”
The intersection of the lives of Pari and Omid, and the path that would ultimately lead them to death and desolation on a tiny, remote island, began as a love story, at a traffic light.
Pari, then 22 and working as a graphic designer in a trendy suburb of the Iranian capital Tehran, was driving, stuck in the city’s notorious traffic, when a smiling young man pulled up beside her. His gaze lingered a little too long.
Pari was flattered, but embarrassed too, and the man’s forthrightness was a flagrant breach of the conservative social mores of old Iran.
“Hey, my friend,” she recalls telling him, “I think you should look somewhere else!”
The smiling man was undeterred. “I’m going to give you my phone number,” he said. “I hope you call. I think you will.”
She did, and a romance and lifelong love was born. On their first date, Pari and Omid, then 20, talked for more than 10 hours.
“I thought, ‘He is my perfect man’ – he was completing me like a puzzle,” Pari recalls of those early days.
They found consonance in a common worldview. Pari was raised in a progressive family in the Iranian capital. “I am the youngest of my siblings,” she tells the Guardian, “and my family was very focused on education, particularly for women. Most of my family are very involved and interested in the arts.”
Pari earned two degrees after graduating from high school and found work designing clothing prints in a fashion-conscious quarter of the city.
Omid, the son of a retired engineer, sought broader horizons than those offered by the political climate of his homeland. With a wide circles of friends, the couple saw movies, listened to music, went to restaurants.
“Omid was very social and outgoing,” Pari says. “He had a good sense of humour. He was always the person you wanted to talk to … the best company.”
Almost from their first meeting, Pari and Omid were inseparable. They progressed swiftly through the stages of their relationship: moving in together, planning marriage and discussing starting a family. “We wanted to have children when we were young,” Pari says.
They were young, educated, and middle class, part of the progressive Tehrani smart set emerging from under the yoke of their country’s oppressive theocratic regime. Their future together appeared bright: Omid and Pari could not have foreseen how brief, or how dark, that future would be.
When the Guardian meets Pari, at a high-security immigration detention centre in Melbourne’s west, she is escorted by an unsmiling guard who directs her to a small numbered table under the omniscient gaze of a bank of surveillance cameras.
The 25-year-old is slight, her hair dyed a brilliant blonde, wearing a denim skirt and black tights and top. In conversation – Pari speaks flawless English – she has a habit of pausing to consider questions, as she fixes her interlocutor with a deliberate stare.
Pari is open, sometimes uncomfortably so, as she lays bare the details of her life. But she remains guarded in discussing her reasons for fleeing Iran. She feels vulnerable still and has family and friends who remain in her homeland. The name Pari is a pseudonym to protect those who know her.
But the exhaustive process of seeking asylum recognised that she and Omid were not safe in Iran. Both were formally granted refugee status, a legal recognition by immigration authorities under the refugees convention that they had fled “a well-founded fear of persecution” in their homeland and that they were legally owed protection. It would be illegal for any host government – including Nauru or Australia – to forcibly return them to Iran.
A year after they met and with their situation in Iran growing increasingly perilous, Omid and Pari were forced to flee the comfortable lives they had built. They chose Australia.
“Leaving Iran, the place where we were both born and raised, was very hard for us,” Pair says. “But we had no choice. We hoped that in Australia, a country we knew was welcoming and with many different people, we would have the chance to build a life together.”
They pair arrived in Australia by boat on 13 September 2013 and, after nine days on Christmas Island, were sent to Nauru.
Initially they lived in a tent within the “held detention” of the island’s regional processing centre, a camp ringed by fences and built on the site of an old phosphate mine in the centre of the island.
“Conditions were awful,” Pari says. “Being imprisoned in a camp with big fences and guards was so humiliating. We lived in a tent, surrounded by other tents filled with sad and frustrated people.
“I wondered what Australian people must think of us to allow us to be treated this way. We were all innocent people who hoped for the same, simple thing – a chance to rebuild our lives.”
Life in the inchoate camp was a series of small but demeaning privations: there was no food to cook and no place to wash clothes. Regularly the water for toilets and showers ran out, and there was limited, closely monitored contact with the outside world.
In detention, they were stripped of any control over their lives, Pari says. “I felt as though the intention of those we came into contact with was to remove all of our confidence and self-esteem.”
The abuses, she says, began almost immediately. “It was a dangerous place for females and children. Females were raped and children were sexually assaulted.
“I was safer because I had a partner. Some refugees would swap favours with the guards such as walking around naked or sexual favours in order to be able to use the shower for an extra minute or two.”
It took more than a year, but Pari and Omid were granted refugee status in December 2014. It meant they could leave the confines of the centre (which has since become an “open” facility) to live in community housing.
They found a house, a demountable, in Nibok, in the east of the island. Liberation from the camp gave them more control over their lives. They could buy and cook their own food – when it was available and they could afford it. They were in control of where they went and when. Together, Omid and Pari tried to build a new life, working a series of jobs, as much to keep themselves occupied as for the income.
From a friend, Omid learned the art of motorcycle maintenance and established a small trade as a mechanic. Pari stayed with him. “Omid and I worked together so we were together 24 hours a day.”
Omid, Pari says, loved to talk. She and her partner spent the long and empty hours of their Nauru detention enraptured in their own world of conversation.
But above all, Omid was thoughtful, “loving”, Pari says. “He was the person who gave you food before you knew you were hungry.”
Omid and Pari’s experience of Nauru was better than many: they had each other, and they remained fixated on dreams of a future that could be better than the present.
“Omid was always determined to make the best of a bad situation,” Pari says. “He would look for things for us to do – games to play, things to talk about, places to walk – little things to pass the time and to try to forget where we were. Omid was the strongest, most positive person.”
But their lives remained precarious, Pari says, and their futures uncertain. How long would they be allowed to remain on Nauru? What life could they hope to build there?
“We were still prisoners on the same island in the middle of nowhere. Every second was still difficult. I couldn’t understand – we had been accepted as refugees, why were were still being left here waiting? What was the plan, to leave us stuck on this island forever?”
Wednesday, 26 April 2016: Pari now divides her life into the one she knew before that date, and the shadow of an existence she has lived since.
That was the day Omid – “my breath, my hope, my life, my base” – took his own life.
On the morning of 26 April, Pari and Omid had been about to leave Nibok when they saw officials from the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees arrive (UNHCR). UN officials had been to the island before. Pari went to speak to them, asking, “Have you come to see our miserable life?”
She spent about half an hour speaking with a doctor accompanying the UN delegation, who asked her a series of questions about her mental health. Omid was not a part of the conversation.
But Pari became increasingly frustrated over the course of the discussion, feeling she was being told that “because we had cars, we were working … our living conditions were OK. I recalled arguing … saying that our lives were not OK”.
“I called over to Omid, who by now was standing with a group of approximately 20 people, and told him I wanted to leave. Omid asked me, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Nothing much, these people are fucked.’ I briefly told Omid about the questions and what was said. Omid knew I was very upset.”
The couple walked the short distance back to their home but, Pari says, “I could see Omid was in shock. He was upset and distressed.
“Omid was a very excitable person. He experienced his emotions in extremes.”
Omid, angry and frustrated, wanted to go out, and Pari, initially, let him leave alone. But after a few minutes, sensing something deeply wrong with her partner, Pari followed him back to the clearing. “I decided to go and find Omid because I loved him and I wanted to see what he was doing.”
A series of video clips shot on mobile phones that day are testament to Omid’s brutal act and subsequent anguished hours.
Guardian Australia has not published the videos, and Pari, who has watched them only once, urges others not to seek them out.
Those images are but brief slivers at the end of a life, and, Pari argues, paint a distorted picture of her partner – of a desperate, despondent man with no place left to turn.
“People have seen a lot of pictures of Omid in his last moments,” Pari says. “Those images are very painful for me. I want people to know who Omid really was. He was ambitious, intelligent, invincible. But after three years, even Omid was broken.”
The first video clip shows what happened. The footage is unsteady but the image is clear enough.
It shows a man, drenched in liquid, standing alone in a clearing, pleading. No one, it seems, wants to stand near him. In the background, the white shirts and blue caps of UNHCR staff are apparent.
“This is how tired we are,” the man yells, seemingly at no one in particular. “This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it any more.”
The man makes a swift, small movement with his right arm and, suddenly, his body is alight.
The video picks up his screams as he flails and runs, then falls and is covered with a blanket by onlookers. Afterwards, he lies still but conscious, while others around cry and yell for an ambulance.
The man makes no noise.
Pari did not hear her partner’s pre-emptive threat, nor did she see him set himself alight.
“When I arrived, Omid was already on fire and running,” Pari says. “I immediately went to him to try to help extinguish the flames.”
Omid’s clothes had been burned off by the flames and he lay on the gravel of the clearing, burnt and almost naked.
“Omid had thrown himself to the ground. Someone had brought a white blanket and this was used to extinguish the flames. I remember yelling at Omid, ‘You are silly, why did you do this?’ He just screamed, ‘I’m burning.’
“Someone brought a blue van that belonged to another refugee. This took about a minute. Omid stood up and climbed into the van. He sat on the white blanket. I sat next to Omid. We were driven to the Nauru hospital.
“I remember being in shock and looking at Omid’s body. Omid was watching his arms and legs and screaming.
“It took about three to four minutes to drive to the Nauru hospital. When we arrived Omid climbed out of the van and walked inside.”
A second video clip shows Omid at the hospital. His is almost naked, wearing the rags that remain of his burnt clothes. He is pacing up and down and screaming – with peeling skin hanging from his body and severe burns apparent to his arms, legs, chest and back. Distressed friends – and Pari – can be seen and heard pleading for him to be given assistance.
A third clip shows doctors and nurses searching for, and struggling to administer, painkillers, as Omid, still standing, continues to scream. People watching nearby are vomiting.
Pari says she had no warning Omid would self-immolate. He had neither discussed nor committed self-harm in all of their time on the island, despite it being a near-daily occurrence inside the detention centre.
She believes Omid’s was a split-second decision, one fuelled by the furious emotion of that day and the grinding despair of three years living in exile.
Pari agonises over her partner’s decision every day.
“It was not a political act,” she says. “Omid was friends with a father who was charged by Nauru [police] for attempting suicide. He was so upset about this, he lost hope.
“I don’t know why he did what he did. All I know is that he went through so much pain. Every cell in his body must have been hurting.”
Until that day last April, Pari says Omid was a “pillar of strength”: the kind of man who always saw the glass half full and made the best of any situation.
“He was someone I could lean on, someone who supported me. He was kind and patient – I felt like he was always carrying me on his shoulders. He was like an umbrella, a shield through the hardship.”
There are serious concerns about the medical care Omid received after his self-immolation at the Nauru hospital, where he remained for more than 24 hours before being airlifted to Brisbane.
It was more than two hours, medical sources familiar with his care state, before he was given painkilling medication, and staff were hampered by a lack of equipment, sufficient medicines and expertise in dealing with serious burns.
“I would estimate that it was two to three hours from when Omid arrived at Nauru hospital before he was unconscious,” Pari says. “Throughout that entire time he was in pain and screaming.”
“Omid … wanted to survive. He did not want to die. I stood beside Omid and talked to him while the Nauruan staff gave him some medicine to make him unconscious. Omid never woke up again.”
Sedated, Omid’s condition continued to deteriorate. His body swelled and doctors cut his skin to relieve the growing pressure. At 1pm on Thursday, 27 April, more than 24 hours after he was driven to hospital, Omid was finally taken to Nauru’s airport and put on a waiting air ambulance to Australia.
Pari left on a separate flight about half an hour later.
In Brisbane, Pari says, she was told by doctors that if Omid were to have even a chance of surviving, he would need organ transplants and possibly the amputation of some of his limbs.
“I said that if Omid survives, he could sit on my shoulder. I didn’t care what happened to Omid’s body, I just wanted him to survive.”
Hours later, doctors told her the damage to Omid’s body was so severe he had gone into multi-organ failure. “The doctor … told me there was no chance of survival. I was told that I should not have any hope and that I could go and sit with Omid.
“The doctor said Omid was only alive because of the machines … he said I could say goodbye because he had been instructed to disconnect and take away the machines.”
In the wake of Omid’s death – and amid widespread public distress that a refugee who had sought protection in Australia had felt driven to such a desperate act – the Republic of Nauru’s government described his self-immolation as “a political protest” and said “there is no value in such behaviour”. Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, sent condolences but took the opportunity to stress that refugees sent offshore would “never settle in Australia”.
The long months since Omid’s death have been the loneliest Pari has known. Her grief, she says, has cut her off from the rest of humanity. “People cannot understand what it is to watch my love die in front of my eyes, to burn himself to death in front of me.”
She says her partner’s death – the split-second decision that ended his life and irrevocably changed the course of hers – is a constant, intrusive memory. “I don’t know what was going through his head on that day, why he did that. I ask myself that question over and over again.
“It is the movie that keeps playing in my head over and over again. I cannot turn it off. I try to distract myself, but I cannot, it is always there. I see that same film over and over and over again. I can see it, I can hear it, I can smell it. Always, it is there.
“When I close my eyes, his picture is painted on my eyelids.”
Since Omid’s death, Pari has been under the guard of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Queensland, and now Victoria.
Speaking with the Guardian, sitting in the visitors’ area of the Maribyrnong immigration detention centre, she nods towards the ever-present guard standing watch.
“They tell me I am a high-risk detainee,” she says, laughing at the absurdity of her 157cm (5’2”) person posing a threat. But the categorisation – assigned to her because it is alleged she once damaged a computer in detention – has had serious ramifications.
She has been shunted through three detention centres since her partner’s death, moved with neither warning nor explanation.
In Brisbane she was shaken awake at 2am and dragged from her room, put in handcuffs and taken to Melbourne. She was not allowed to say goodbye to her roommate, nor pack her belongings, which were sent to her later.
When she asked the Australian Border Force why she had been transferred, Pari was told it was for “operational reasons” and that she had no right to know.
When an infection in her mouth required hospital treatment, Pari was walked through wards clapped in handcuffs and manacled to guards, “as though I am a criminal, as though I am a dangerous person”.
For Pari, a year of indefinite detention has reduced her life to a series of numb, changeless rituals: of being told when to eat and bathe and sleep; of waiting for secured doors to be opened; of being closely escorted down the labyrinthine corridors of the detention centre that, for all the future she can foresee, is her entire world.
Behind the high metal fences, Pari’s is a lonely existence. Friendships are deliberately shallow, a protective mechanism. Having lost the one she loved most, Pari sees danger in becoming attached to anyone.
“Tomorrow,” she says, “I might be gone.”
The combined traumas of her flight for safety, of her experiences on Nauru and of watching her partner burn himself to death, combined with the ongoing caprice of indefinite detention, have left Pari acutely unwell, suffering “significant traumatic grief”, according to one psychiatric assessment.
A succession of mental health professionals have pleaded with the department of immigration’s chief medical officer, Dr John Brayley, for Pari to be released into the Australian community where she can begin to rebuild her life.
“Her ability to connect with others and form … trusting and stable relationships is essential to her wellbeing and recovery, however, this has been extremely limited by her ongoing detention,” one recommendation to the department reads. “Held detention is an extremely unsuitable living environment for [Pari].”
There is no indication she is being considered for release. Her detention is indefinite.
Dr Helen Driscoll, a clinical psychiatrist with expertise in trauma, has been visiting Pari over the months of her detention in Australia. In her professional capacity, Driscoll has written to Brayley outlining her concerns at what she describes as Pari’s “cruel [and] secret detention”.
“No explanation for this ongoing detention and secrecy has been given,” she wrote.
“[Pari’s] traumatic suffering and consequent complex post-traumatic stress disorder with depression and associated panic attacks is immense.”
Questions put to the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, on Pari’s ongoing detention were not answered. Dr Brayley was “not available for interviews”, the Guardian was told.
However, a spokesman for his Department of Immigration and Border Protection said Pari was being detained under section 189 of the Migration Act: “beyond this, it would not be appropriate for the department to comment on an individual’s personal circumstances”.
In response to questions regarding Pari’s security rating and healthcare, the spokesman said: “assessment of a detainee’s risk rating is dependent on many factors. Detainees can be assessed as high risk for a number of reasons including … behavioural issues, incident history, risk of harm to themselves and to others, risk of escape and overall lack of compliance”.
“Individuals held in onshore immigration detention centres have access to a range of medical and healthcare services, including significant mental health support including specialist trauma counselling services.”
Pari remains terrified at the prospect of being sent back to Nauru. Not only would this mean living with constant reminders of the trauma of her partner’s death but doing so in an environment where self-harm and acute mental distress are commonplace.
A psychiatric report presented to the department of immigration states: “Returning [Pari] to Nauru is predicted to have a highly detrimental impact upon her mental state, and her risk of suicide would become very high.”
Pari says simply: “I cannot go back to that island.”
So Pari, then, exists in the shadowlands of a limitless detention, a life in limbo with no recourse to appeal.
Natasha Blucher, detention advocacy manager with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, regularly visits Pari in detention. Formerly, Blucher worked on Nauru for Save the Children.
“[Pari] has already endured more than anyone should ever have to,” Blucher says. “She’s been forced to live in an abusive camp environment on Nauru, endured years in limbo, and watched the man she loves die in front of her in the most horrific of circumstances. And now she is being forced to grieve alone, locked up in a detention centre.”
Blucher said every day of Pari’s indefinite detention was causing her further harm, and urged the government to “put all of the politics aside” in the interests of her welfare.
“Immigration minister Peter Dutton has the clear personal legal power to release her tomorrow … he basically just needs to tick a box on a form – it’s that simple.”
The Persian name Omid means “hope”. Pari, now alone and despairing, has lost hers.
“I will forever miss Omid,” she says. “I will miss how he made me feel safe and looking forward to a better future. I wish I could feel that way again. [Now] every second of my life feels like a year. I don’t have any hope or any vision.
“I would give everything to have him back, even for a moment.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Hotlines in other countries can be found here
Source : Guardian