Kurdish refugee from Iran lays bare Australian detention cruelties

Sleeping quarters on Manus Island
Sleeping quarters on Manus Island, November 2012. PHOTO: DIAC
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A hush falls over the thousands-strong crowd at 2019 Melbourne’s Walk for Justice for Refugees. Behrouz Boochani is giving the keynote speech by phone link from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where he’s been illegally imprisoned for six years. An award-winning Kurdish journalist who refuses to be muzzled, Boochani is now a household name in Australia. He draws large audiences wherever he speaks and his writing is widely published.

Faced with imprisonment in Iran for his journalism and advocacy of Kurdish rights, he fled for his life in 2012. Having made it to Indonesia, he boarded a boat to Australia where he hoped to start a new life. Although Boochani meets all the criteria for refugee status, according to the UN Convention on Refugees, Australia has locked him up indefinitely, with more than a thousand others, on Pacific island hell-holes.

No Friend But The Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is Boochani’s first book. He wrote it in defiance of the Australian government, which goes to great lengths to silence refugee voices — and fails. The impact of this powerful exposé is unstoppable. Boochani was awarded the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. His book is now a best seller in Australia and gaining international attention.

How this work was written is extraordinary — it was crafted as thousands of individual text messages! Boochani did not dare commit his ideas to paper lest they be seized in one of the regular prison searches. No Friend is an intense collaboration between the author and his translator, Omid Tofighian. The depth of their partnership is revealed in the translator’s introduction and afterword. Boochani wrote in Farsi, the language of his oppressors. Tofighian then translated the Farsi into English, the language of Boochani’s jailers and torturers.

Refugee reality. In the opening four chapters, Boochani narrates every detail of the dangerous journey from Indonesia. Each passenger, desperate for a new life, is acutely aware of boats that have sunk and he captures the fear on their faces. The journey is a mixture of anxiety, sheer terror, discomfort, hunger and exposure to the elements and rough seas.

After a brief detention on Christmas Island, Boochani and hundreds of others are exiled to Manus. And then begin the days, weeks, months and years waiting without news regarding their status which fuels periodic rumors throughout the prison. The despair, boredom, humiliation, hunger, thirst, pain, toothache, heat, humidity, filthy conditions, insomnia, and psychological pressure — all combine as tools of torture. But there’s also the larger-than-life personalities, the hope, resilience, the sharing of cultures, friendships and solidarity.

Boochani describes the jail’s pecking order. At the bottom are the incarcerated refugees; the Papuans who work in the center are only slightly higher than the prisoners. He calls them Papus. They wear different colored uniforms and must follow orders from Australian officials without question. The Papus are paid a mere fraction of what the Australians get. At any opportunity, says Boochani, they will display some kindness and empathy. He explains, “The reason I don’t really see the Papu as a real officer and consider him as just a kind of extra person is because Papus are basically stripped of any kind of autonomy of power in the prison. They are only there because the system is obliged to accept them as part of its agreement.”

The book’s characters are composites of Boochani’s fellow prisoners: Mani with the bowed leg, the irascible Iranian, the father of the months-old child, the young Rohingya boy, the comedian, the insomniac, the hero, the man with the thick moustache, and many others. Just a handful of refugees are named — those who have tragically died in custody. Their stories are woven throughout the text. Twelve have died, seven of them in Manus prison.

Reinforcing resistance. This unique book is a beautiful work of art combining narrative and poetry. Woven throughout the lyrical text is Boochani’s sharp political analysis. He characterizes Manus as a “kyriarchal system,” that is, one built on multiple types of discrimination (e.g. sexism, racism, ethno and caste superiority, colonialism etc.) based on domination, submission and oppression. He calls it Australia’s border industrial complex. The government pays corporate profiteers millions to run its offshore prisons. In essence, Boochani spotlights Australia’s punishing imperialist role in the Pacific.

The book reaches its climax during the two nights of prison riots in February 2014:

Violence expressed through the chanting of pithy slogans/

Violence, rechannelled in questions by prisoners gnashing their teeth in rage and indignation/

What is my crime?/

Why must I be in prison?/

And other questions more like demands/

The power was cut, the prison stormed, hundreds beaten, and Boochani’s best friend, Reza Berati, was murdered. No prison authorities involved have been called to account.

The voice of global refugees. Those marooned indefinitely in Manus are refugees escaping homeland persecution, resistance fighters through sheer survival. They are Rhohingya fleeing Myanmar government atrocities, Tamils persecuted in Sri Lanka, and peoples from all parts of the ravaged Middle East, many of them Kurds. Boochani reflects on the home he fled: “These were the days when war was part of our everyday lives and ran like blood through our identity … A war that devastated our families and sizzled and incinerated all of our vivid, green and bounteous homeland.”

His magnificent book symbolizes the broader Kurdish struggle and makes a stand for refugees in every hemisphere, up against the cruelties of collapsing capitalism.

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