Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who fled Iran and sought refuge in Australia. He feared for his life in his home country, risked death on the ocean, in a boat that was not sea worthy, a boat packed with other asylum seekers, only to be treated with disdain by Australia. He, and hundreds of others, are detained in conditions that are abhorrent at every level. No Friend But The Mountains is Behrouz Boochani’s account of his detention by the Australian Government on Manus Island.
I’ve been wondering for two weeks now, what to say about this book. You see, there were many times when I thought I would have to put it down. Partly because of the horrors Behrouz Boochani describes. Partly because of the desperation of his and the other detainees situation. And partly because of my own utter disappointment in our Australian neighbours. That the Australian government perpetuates such horrendous abuses is simultaneously unbelievable and all too readily believable. Tragically, this capacity for cruelty is in all of us. But we don’t have to perpetuate it.
Reading Boochani’s first hand account of his treatment, is like reading an account of life in a concentration camp.
No, forget the simile. The detention centre Boochani describes so vividly is a concentration camp. Every effort is made by the authorities to strip the detainees of their very humanity.
During this period on the prison there is nothing to occupy our time. We are just thrown into a cage and made to wear ridiculous loose-fitting clothes. It is even prohibited to play cards. In Corridor L, a few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. They began to play using the lids from water bottles a counters. Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered Corridor L and crossed out the game. They wrote over it in bold letters: ‘Games Prohibited’. It seemed that was their only duty for the entire day: to shit over the sanity of the prisoners, who were left just staring at each other in distress.
Imagine a community of four hundred people, neglected in a boiling hot and filhy cage, still traumatised by the terrifying sound of waves ringing in their ears and the sight of a rotting boat fixed before their eyes. For how long can they simply talk to each other? How many times can they walk up and down the same hundred metre distance? P 126
It was hope, the very tenacity of hope against all odds that lead Boochani and others to risk their lives, trying to escape regimes where they were persecuted, where their lives were in danger. It was hope that kept them alive during their terrifying ordeal on the ocean. Imagine their relief when they believe they have reached asylum.
The tugboat arrives at the pier. The waves along the shore are tame. A little blonde girl is bathing there, playing in the water; she isn’t paying the slightest attention to us. She takes no notice of the weary and worn-out people, no notice of those standing on the pier. The image of that little girl playing is still fresh in my memory. She is laughing, she has drifted into the kindness of the inviting waves. In the world view of that child there is no place for affliction. In her world, there is no space for the hardship that comes from injustice.
She is free /
She is innocent /
She is like the cool gentle breeze on this sunny day /
My first real impression of Australia. (P79)
Imagine the devastation when they realise they have exchanged one form of persecution for another, this time with no chance of escape. Ultimately, to me, it is the systematic destruction of hope which is the worst of it.
The rationale for this treatment is apparently one of deterrence. The idea being that people must be treated this cruelly, this abhorrently to stop others from attempting to get to Australia in the same way. This, to me, defies belief. No-one gets in a non-seaworthy boat, often with their children, on a whim. Only people with nothing left to lose take such a drastic step.
The New Zealand government has offered to take 150 of the detainees, every year. The Australian Government has refused even this.
Behrouz Boochani tells his story using poetry and analogy, drawing from ancient Iranian and Kurdish traditions and literature. Boochani tells his story using an astute socio-political analysis of power, of how it is used by and over people, which he describes as the Kyriarchal system. He shows his reader how power is used to pit one group against another, to breed distrust between the different groups who guard the prisoners, to breed hate between guards and prisoners. And power is used to pit prisoner against prisoner, isolating them from each other. Behrouz Boochani, through telling it how it is, shows us how the system is used to dehumanise everyone involved.
He tells his story with tenacity. And with determination. He tells it unflinchingly. And Behrouz Boochani told his story in Farsi, one WhatsApp message at a time. We are all fortunate he got his story out.
This isn’t a story that will simply disappear. The ramifications will continue for generations.
Here is what the UNHCR had to say back in October 2018
And now, this week, the Australian election returned a government intent on perpetuating these injustices. Yesterday, Behrouz Boochani tweeted this from Manus Island:
The refugees in Manus have been dumped in a high depression. I have never seen people like this before. At least six people attempted suicide and three people are in hospital now that are critical. Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani)
And from him today:
The situation in Manus is out of control, today two more people attempted suicide. One last night, raising the total to nine now. No one is able to help anyone
Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani)
In the face of this, it’s easy to feel powerless. I don’t know what to do. Except urge you to read this book. And if you can’t, and I can understand how you might find it difficult, at least get informed. Read what the UNHCR has to say.
I wrote those words: I don’t know what to do and then I tweeted our Prime Minister and the Labour Party asking simply What’s the Plan? I’ll do that again.
International pressure, one tweet, criticism, one share, one question to our respective governments at a time, maybe that can help. Each of us can add our voices to that, if we so choose.
Here is the most recent news article from Radio New Zealand which details the alarming spike in suicide attempts on Manus Island since the weekend, as well as outlining the political situation in Australia which has lead to this travesty.
No Friend But The Mountains; Writing from Manus Prison. (2019) Bherouz Boochani. Translated by Omid Tofighian. Picador
Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature 2018
Categories: On Books