An invitation to Christchurch gave Behrouz Boochani an escape route from Australian detention.
“We lived in a very small room, from here to here, four of us. On Manus you didn’t have privacy or space. Finding the time and quiet to write was the hardest thing.”
But find time he did, to write poems and articles, film a documentary on a smartphone and tap out an entire book, furtively sent paragraph by paragraph via What’sApp text messages, chronicling the squalid conditions, medical neglect, mental anguish, suicide, even murder, experienced by asylum seekers held on Manus Island under Australia’s “stop the boats” policy.
It is six years since Boochani was pulled from a sinking boat just days out of Indonesia and taken to Australia’s “offshore processing centre” on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. It is just over a week since he left Port Moresby to fly to Auckland, taking a route that avoided Australia, to speak at Christchurch’s WORD book festival as a free man. “I got my freedom through literature,” he says.
Boochani knows the power of words. As a journalist in Iran in 2013, he reported on the arrest and detention of his colleagues on Kurdish-language magazine Werya in Ilam, north-west Iran. His fellow journalists were eventually released – they attributed their survival to Boochani’s article – but by then he was in danger. He fled, travelling through South-east Asia to Indonesia where, in July that year, he was among a group of 75 men, women and children who boarded an unseaworthy boat heading for Australia. The vessel’s bilge pump failed in rough seas. When rescued by the Royal Australian Navy, Boochani requested asylum under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a party. Instead, he and his fellow asylum seekers were incarcerated on Christmas Island before being transferred to the Manus Island detention centre as part of Australia’s “Pacific Solution II”.
Those who came before
On his first day, he found names, poems, even a child’s drawing pencilled on the walls of his room – evidence, he assumed, of an Iranian family held at the camp in its first iteration between 2001 and 2007 (it was closed in 2007 but reopened in 2012).
“But what do we know about that time before 2007? Nothing. How many people died on that island? We do not know.”
So he wrote, first under a pseudonym, then under his own name, describing the events (the deaths, the 2014 riot), the routines (the endless queues) and the daily fight for food, space, dignity.
“I look at myself as a political activist – all of these works we should understand through a political context. Even writing a love poem in that prison or creating a piece of music shows you are human in front of a system that reduces you.”
It was risky – even now, he is reluctant to give away some of the techniques he used to avoid the scrutiny of the guards so as not to put other detainees at risk. But every two to three weeks, before dawn, there’d be a knock on the door and up to 10 officers would search the room. His phones were confiscated (according to non-profit organisation Index on Censorship, he circumvented a ban on cellphones by trading personal items, including his shoes, with Manus Island residents). He feared he might die, from sickness or violence; but still he wrote. Part of the impetus was the hope that any sudden silence would be noted.
“I lived like a very silent person – people knew me as a person who did not talk, who would sit, smoke too much and walk too much. They accepted that and gave me space to think, but it still was hard.”
To write his book, he adopted a new routine, sleeping from 6pm until 11pm when everyone was too busy to note his absence. From 11pm, he would write under the blankets until 8am, then sleep until noon.
In 2016, after the PNG Supreme Court declared the indefinite detention of asylum seekers to be unlawful, phones were no longer prohibited. Each night, he would sit outside, smoking, writing, absorbing as much of the natural environment as he could from his side of the prison fence.
“For the prisoner who is alone, nature is so important,” he says. “Always, it is a place you can escape to – even the sky, they cannot take the sky away. But it is very harsh to look up at the many birds flying and knowing you cannot follow them.”
There was also the challenge of writing about a system and an experience so far beyond his readers’ understanding, a place that seems to lie beyond the words we use to describe our own day-to-day lives.
“If someone asked me to write this book again, of course I am able to write it, but I could not write it this way. When I describe starving, I was starving. When I describe the characters, those people were around me in prison. It is the same with the feelings. In that camp people rely on each other; there’s a culture of brotherhood because there is no space, but there’s also a kind of hatred because you are so tired of having so many other people around you. I have lost those feelings now, but in prison they were true feelings.”
Getting word out
Through articles sent to the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Refugees Action Collective and the United Nations, and the support of a global network of writers, translators, academics and activists, including Australia’s Janet Galbraith, founder of online project Writing Through Fences, Boochani refused to let the thousands of asylum seekers sent to Manus Island and Nauru fade from public gaze. In 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described Australia’s offshore processing centres as “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to human rights” (New Zealand’s offers under National first, then Labour, to settle at least 150 detainees were rejected by successive Australian prime ministers).
But writing also helped Boochani retain his dignity. “All this work is a struggle to keep your identity,” he says, “because they humiliate you, they reduce you to a number, they reduce you to nothing. The guards treat you in a way that you are less than a human, that you are something between animal and human. Living as a writer gave me this power that I am bigger than this, that I could escape this prison through my imagination and through my words.”
Published in 2018, No Friend But the Mountains (the title is drawn from a Kurdish proverb) describes his journey to Christmas Island and his subsequent incarceration. It is a blunt but lyrical account of imprisonment that was translated by Australian academic Omid Tofighian. Part reportage, part poetry, part philosophy, part allegory (fellow detainees have names like the Smiling Youth, the Penguin, the Blue-Eyed Boy), it describes the heat, the hunger, the smells, the boredom, the tantalising promise of mangoes falling on the tin roof, the strangeness of a cat meowing, the power play of the guards – the thousands of daily cuts that erode the body and spirit through physical brutality, oppression, privilege and exclusion.
But as Australian novelist Richard Flanagan writes in his introduction to his book, “The one thing that his jailers could not destroy in Behrouz Boochani was his belief in words: their beauty, their necessity, their possibility, their liberating power.”
Despite its author not being allowed to set foot on Australian soil, the book received global media attention and a number of awards, including Australia’s richest literary prize, the $125,000 Victorian Premier’s Award for literature.
As Boochani says, others have written about Australia’s offshore detention centres, “but this is history from below up. It is not part of the official history of Australia, but it is important because it is a history that Australia does not want to recognise. The award shows civil society in Australia does not wait for their Government to tell them what to do.”
Plea for release
But within the camp the book also drew attention to Boochani himself. This year, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union for Australia’s creative professionals, sent an open letter to the Government of Scott Morrison urging Boochani’s release. Signed by prominent journalists and writers, including Tom Keneally Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas, Kate Grenville and Nobel laureate JM Coetzee, it said, “We are deeply concerned for Behrouz Boochani’s welfare and safety. The success of his book and his status as a journalist have made him a target of the Manus authorities; a danger that has only increased with his rising profile.”
In June, WORD Christchurch programme director Rachael King invited Boochani to speak at a special festival event. Especially after the city’s March 15 mosque shootings, she explained, “it felt important to share the stories of refugees”.
With help from author Lloyd Jones, whose recent book The Cage is itself a dark parable about the human capacity for inhumanity, she was able to email her invitation directly to Boochani. Boochani was receptive to the idea. By then he was one of more than 300 people moved from Manus Island to Port Moresby. He was hoping to be part of Australia’s “refugee swap” deal with the US (he was later accepted for this programme), but he wanted to wait until the Manus Island camp was finally closed.
“It would have been immoral for me to leave those people in Manus, to create a platform and have this privilege and this recognition, because it is about all our resistance – it was not only for me.”
In October, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, told Parliament “we’ve completely closed” the Manus Island facility. By then, only three asylum seekers were left on the island. The remaining detainees still in Papua New Guinea were in Port Moresby, including a reported 46 held in Bomana Prison.
With King’s invitation, Boochani was able to get a visitor visa to appear in Christchurch. United Nations refugee agency UNHCR supplied the required travel documents and Amnesty International, which had already been working on Boochani’s behalf, served as sponsor.
“So a lot of people worked to make this happen,” says King. “But the invitation was the door. And that is incredibly symbolic. It sounds such a cliché but the power of literature to change lives – that is what we always say we are trying to do as a book festival.”
At 36, Boochani is thin but animated, and over the jet lag of his 35-hour journey from Port Moresby via the Philippines. He has been back up to Auckland, and to Wellington, and is now enjoying the simple pleasure of stopping for a cup of coffee in Christchurch. Since being in New Zealand, he has travelled with Nick McKim, Greens senator for Tasmania, to Arthur’s Pass. “So many rivers, so many mountains – it was great, it is so similar to Kurdistan. It takes a few days to feel free but over the past few days I feel that.”
Where he will be after his month-long visa expires, he cannot say, but he will still write, he says, this time a novel.
“Because literature has the power to give us freedom. Because through literature we can challenge the power structure.”
Listen to Behrouz Boochani in conversation at WORD Christchurch with broadcaster John Campbell.
Behrouz Boochani will be in discussion with Janet Galbraith, founder of Writing Through Fences, writer Arnold Zable and Behrouz’s literary agent Jane Novak, followed by a screening of his documentary about Manus Island, Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, Saturday, November 30.
This article was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.