THE STRUG­GLE FOR ETER­NAL FREE­DOM

▶ Behrouz Boochani tells Ash­leigh Ste­wart why he can­not reap the re­wards of his award-win­ning book

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - Con­tin­ued on page 24

Pur­ga­tory has many back­drops for Ira­nian-Kur­dish refugee Behrouz Boochani. At first it was the wa­ters off the coast of In­done­sia. Then it was the con­fines of the de­ten­tion cen­tre on Manus Is­land. Now, it’s ex­ile “locked in a room” in Port Moresby, the cap­i­tal of Pa­pua New Guinea. What­ever set­ting he has found him­self in over the past six years, the cir­cum­stances of each have al­ways been the same: wait­ing. Wait­ing for re­set­tle­ment; wait­ing for an­swers.

Af­ter flee­ing Iran and at­tempt­ing to seek refuge in Aus­tralia, the writer and jour­nal­ist spent six years in Aus­tralia’s off­shore pro­cess­ing and de­ten­tion sys­tem on Manus Is­land, Pa­pua New Guinea, un­til it was closed last month – fi­nally be­ing deemed il­le­gal af­ter years of ac­cu­sa­tions of hu­man rights abuses and poor treat­ment of asy­lum seek­ers. The de­ten­tion cen­tres on Manus, Nauru and Christ­mas is­lands have long been a blight on Aus­tralia’s con­science, a point of con­tention come elec­tion time, and the sub­ject of scru­tiny from in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights cam­paigns. But per­haps none of the hor­rors that went on in­side the cen­tres would have made the global im­pact they did if it weren’t for Boochani.

No Friend but the Moun­tains, Boochani’s much-lauded book, was com­posed via text mes­sage from Manus to his friend Omid Tofighian, who trans­lated the work into English from Farsi. The book re­counts Boochani’s jour­ney from In­done­sia to Aus­tralia by boat, and his en­su­ing im­pris­on­ment by the Aus­tralian

‘We are refugees … we are dam­aged men­tally and phys­i­cally and need pro­tec­tion’

gov­ern­ment, which con­tin­ues to refuse him en­try. In­cred­i­bly, it’s been a re­sound­ing suc­cess in the very coun­try it crit­i­cises over its 400-odd pages.

It picked up A$125,000 (Dh312,000) at the coun­try’s rich­est lit­er­ary prize, the Vic­to­rian Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards; it won Gen­eral Non-Fic­tion Book of the Year at the Aus­tralian Book In­dus­try awards; it scooped a A$10,000 prize at the New South Wales Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards and most re­cently, it was be­stowed the Na­tional Bi­og­ra­phy award, worth A$25,000.

For most peo­ple, such a wealth of earn­ings would be enough to dis­ap­pear into the sun­set and start anew. But for Boochani, it pro­vides lit­tle com­fort. “I could have left three years ago, but I didn’t want to use my priv­i­lege, I thought it was im­moral to use that and leave. I can help peo­ple here. But now it’s dif­fer­ent,” he tells

The Na­tional. “We are not in the news any­more.”

I first spoke to Boochani three months ago, dur­ing his fi­nal days on what many have dubbed “Aus­tralia’s Guan­tanamo”. The at­mos­phere on Manus was one of hope­ful an­tic­i­pa­tion; of cau­tious op­ti­mism that this could be the re­set­tle­ment they’d all left their home­lands for. In­stead, 322 men from Manus were trans­ferred to Port Moresby – 270 were re­set­tled in ac­com­mo­da­tion there, while 52 were sent to Bo­mana Im­mi­gra­tion Cen­tre, a fa­cil­ity an­nexed to the Bo­mana prison in the city. Boochani is one of the 270.

But his new-found free­dom isn’t ex­actly the lib­er­a­tion he has been hold­ing out for. “We are free, but the prob­lem is, in some ways we are not free. This city is very ex­pen­sive and not safe. We’re still locked up in our rooms,” he says. “Peo­ple are able to ap­ply for jobs here. But there are no so­cial ser­vices. It’s not safe enough, this coun­try is not ca­pa­ble of help­ing peo­ple start a new life. You can’t get cit­i­zen­ship here. This coun­try is a place of ex­ile.

“We are refugees, we are not nor­mal cit­i­zens. We are dam­aged men­tally and phys­i­cally and need pro­tec­tion.”

Boochani’s jour­ney from In­done­sia to Aus­tralia by boat is brought to life through prose and po­etry in No Friend but the

Moun­tains, out­lin­ing the hor­ror ex­pe­ri­enced by asy­lum seek­ers flee­ing their home­lands. He re­counts fum­bling around in a crevice be­tween the boat’s greasy en­gines for a peanut, “black­ened, grimy all over”, to save him from star­va­tion: “Sub­sist­ing on a sin­gle peanut – when all around me peo­ple had food in their pock­ets.”

He writes about the mo­ment his rot­ting boat fi­nally broke apart in the waves, just be­fore those aboard were res­cued by an­other ship, and one of his com­pan­ions drowned in the rough seas. He re­mem­bers be­ing re­duced to “a skele­ton cov­ered in lay­ers of sun­burnt skin”, in his words: “Wan­der­ing home­less / Star­va­tion / Bat­tling against the waves / Al­most drown­ing.”

Boochani’s boat fi­nally came ashore at Christ­mas Is­land, off the coast of Aus­tralia, on his birth­day, four days af­ter a new agree­ment was signed with Pa­pua New Guinea rul­ing that those found in Aus­tralian wa­ters would be taken to a de­ten­tion cen­tre on Manus Is­land for pro­cess­ing. It meant, de­spite the months of trav­el­ling, he would never be re­set­tled in Aus­tralia.

Life on Manus was, in some re­spects, Boochani says, worse than life could ever have been if he had stayed in Iran. “Of course not,” he says, when asked if he would have boarded the boat in In­done­sia if he knew this was the fate that awaited him. “No one would.” In the book, he de­scribes his es­cape as choos­ing be­tween “cross­ing a mine­field or be­ing a pris­oner of war”.

Through­out No Friend but the Moun­tains, Boochani calls into ques­tion the run­ning of the “prison”, re­count­ing the sui­cide at­tempts in the toi­lets; the ail­ments that were to al­ways be cured by doc­tors “ar­riv­ing next month”; the way food was dis­trib­uted to the most bel­liger­ent and greedy first; the pris­oner des­per­ate to talk to his dy­ing fa­ther, who is beaten and thrown in soli­tary con­fine­ment, in­stead. Per­haps one line sums it up best: “We are a bunch of or­di­nary hu­mans locked up sim­ply for seek­ing refuge.”

But it isn’t just the anec­dotes that paint a hor­rific pic­ture; it’s the care­ful use of lan­guage, too. Boochani re­fuses to re­fer to Manus as any­thing other than a prison, and its man­age­ment as “The Kyr­i­ar­chal Sys­tem”, a term bor­rowed from fem­i­nist the­ory. “The prin­ci­ple of The Kyr­i­ar­chal Sys­tem gov­ern­ing the prison is to turn the pris­on­ers against each other and to in­grain even deeper ha­tred be­tween peo­ple,” he writes. “The queues have agency and they es­tab­lish some­thing: any per­son in the prison who be­haves in a more de­spi­ca­ble and brutish man­ner has a more com­fort­able life­style.”

At the time of the book’s pub­li­ca­tion in late 2018, 12 peo­ple had died in the de­ten­tion cen­tres – seven on Manus, four on Nauru and one on Christ­mas Is­land. Sev­eral ri­ots have bro­ken out across them over the years, in­clud­ing the “war” of 2014 be­tween pris­on­ers and guards, in which one pris­oner was killed and dozens were in­jured. The felled in­mate was fondly dubbed “The Gen­tle Gi­ant”, by Boochani in his book, and his death con­cludes the book.

The years be­tween then and now, on Manus Is­land at least, have seen lit­tle change. In 2016, af­ter the cen­tre was or­dered to be closed, the men in­side re­fused to leave over fears of hos­tile lo­cals. Later that year, the men were moved to al­ter­na­tive ac­com­mo­da­tion on the is­land by force. In 2019, they were moved to Port Moresby. Boochani draws a deep breath when con­sid­er­ing this lib­er­a­tion.

Refugees now spend their days “locked in our rooms” due to con­cerns over safety out­side. They are given 100 kina (Dh106) per week to sur­vive – though food and ac­com­mo­da­tion are pro­vided – which he says is barely enough for two taxi rides if they wanted to go some­where.

About 70 refugees have been ac­cepted by Amer­ica; fol­low­ing on from a re­set­tle­ment deal first bro­kered by then US pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2016 – though that was jeop­ar­dised with Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion to of­fice, with Trump later la­belling it a “dumb deal”.

Boochani does not know the fu­ture that awaits him. Au­thor­i­ties “have this plan to keep peo­ple here for a long time,” he says, and refugees will re­port­edly be forced to leave their cur­rent ac­com­mo­da­tion in Novem­ber.

He has just had an in­ter­view with Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties him­self, and hopes to even­tu­ally re­set­tle there. But for now, Boochani spends his time “trav­el­ling all over the world”. At least, in the­ory that is what he’s do­ing, ap­pear­ing at in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, talks and awards cer­e­monies over Skype or What­sApp to dis­cuss his book.

Last week, on Wed­nes­day, Oc­to­ber 9, Pa­pua New Guinea’s new Prime Min­is­ter James Marape an­nounced that the de­serted de­ten­tion cen­tre would be turned into a tech­ni­cal col­lege, de­spite its rep­u­ta­tion be­ing ir­re­vo­ca­bly tied to hu­man suf­fer­ing. But so too is Boochani’s name seem­ingly for­ever in­trin­si­cally linked with Manus (its Wikipedia page men­tions his name no less than 27 times). How­ever, he is res­o­lute that his fu­ture will not in­volve “re­duc­ing my­self to only this is­sue”.

“I will work as an aca­demic and as a nov­el­ist. I think it’s very im­por­tant that I share this ex­pe­ri­ence and story with peo­ple around the world. I wanted to cre­ate a plat­form, not only for my­self but for ev­ery­one else. I am a refugee I will de­fend hu­man rights for­ever, it is a duty and it’s im­por­tant I do that.”

These part­ing com­ments to me seem, fit­tingly, closely rem­i­nis­cent of his book’s clos­ing re­marks. “We need to con­tinue re­sist­ing, we need re­spect to be­come stronger and fiercer. This will take time, but I’ll con­tinue chal­leng­ing the sys­tem and I will win in the end. It’s a long road, but I’ll do it.”

Getty

Behrouz Boochani, a Kur­dish asy­lum seeker, whistle­blower and award­win­ning au­thor

Pho­tos Getty; Anansi In­ter­na­tional; AFP

Clock­wise from top left: Behrouz Boochani on Manus Is­land, Pa­pua New Guinea, where he was de­tained for three years; his award-win­ning book; in­side the pro­cess­ing camp on Manus Is­land, dubbed ‘Aus­tralia’s Guan­tanamo’; Christ­mas Is­land De­ten­tion Cen­tre, where refugees found in Aus­tralian wa­ters are held

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