Innocent, imprisoned, unbroken: Behrouz Boochani

BB2Last year Behrouz Boochani wrote in the Guardian about arriving in Manus Island:

“Twenty-eight months ago, with a shattered body which was ravenously hungry and deeply wounded, with bare feet and exhausted soul, I made the trip to the soil of free territory, to Australia. It was four days after the announcing the 19th of July law. Because of the law, I was exiled to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, in the heart of the Pacific Ocean; and according to this law, it has been 28 months that I am being under pressure and being tortured.”

He’s now been there nearly four years. Behrouz Boochani, 32, was Born in Ilam, Iran. He studied Political Geography and Geopolitics in Tehran and worked as a journalist, becoming a passionate advocate of human rights and in particular, Kurdish culture. For this, he was persecuted, along with other Kurdish activists. In 2013, after months in hiding, he left Iran, hoping to find refuge elsewhere. It was months still, before he would depart Indonesia for Australia with 90 others on a boat, only to be intercepted in the water by the Australian Navy, detained on Christmas Island, then transferred to Manus Island, where he has been ever since. He has continued to write about human rights abuses in Manus, witnessed and experienced by him and the other 900 men illegally detained there. His work is critical in fighting against the total media blackout and legal restrictions placed on those working on the island, imposed by Australia’s Border Force Act of 2015 with its strict disclosure provisions. He’s a regular contributor to The Guardian and reports and shares photos on Facebook regularly, though his work is severely restricted, not only by the Transfield crew whose job it is to maintain security in the facility. Though he was accorded refugee status by PNG in 2016, he refuses to seek asylum there, insisting on being processed in Australia. “The threat of being resettled on the island”, he reasons, “which is devoid of security, causes a severe and ongoing mental pressure in the camp.”
“He maintains his sanity between descents into depression with his continuing work as a writer and journalist” writes Arnold Zable, “and his lifeline via various channels with a few advocates in Australia, including Castlemaine resident and refugee advocate Janet Galbraith. She is in touch with him daily, and has arranged for his writings to be translated from Farsi to English. His accounts of his incarceration on Manus Island read like a Kafka nightmare.” When he’s writing and working he’s at his best, able to wrest himself from the abyss of depression. Some days he works over 16 hours, despite poor health and intolerable conditions.
Behrouz was a close friend of Hamid Kehazaei, also from Ilam, before Hamid’s untimely death in August, 2014. It has now been shown in court that Hamid’s death resulted from medical neglect, enabled by the secretive nature of Australia’s immigration practices. And yet, officials repeatedly insist that medical care in Australia’s offshore detention centres is ‘broadly comparable’  – to use the jargon – with Australia’s healthcare, despite consistent and nearly universal rejection of this claim, and the plethora of evidence to the contrary already made available.
In 2016, Behrouz lost another friend in Manus, Sudanese refugee Faysal Ishak Ahmad, who died after ongoing medical neglect of severe infection. Having officially been recognised as a refugee by Australian authorities, Faysal attempted to receive medical attention for months, to no avail. Eventually, Faysal collapsed, having endured so much in his short life, always thinking of his son and wife, displaced in Darfur. “He was a man whose life was full of pain; he spent more than half his life in refugee camps”, wrote Boochani.

Behrouz Boochani and Me
Behrouz Boochani and Mehdi Savari in Manus Island.

Boochani wrote about Mehdi Savari, another Manus prisoner, an Iranian actor and television presenter, who fled the country in 2013, undertook the difficult journey by boat from Indonesia to Christmas Island, only to be intercepted by Australian authorities. Mehdi is approximately one metre tall, writes Boochani, and his physicality has made his time in Manus particularly difficult, in part because he faces increased discrimination. Boochani quotes Mehdi for New Matilda:

“When I have to use the toilet I feel like I am confronting and battling a giant – sitting on the toilet seat is one of the most difficult things for me and I have fallen off on a number of occasions, resulting in filthy situations. I imagine that the most painful memory that I’ll take with me from this prison is my encounters with the toilet seat. They made me feel like a worthless human being.”

In addition to this and other daily difficulties, Mehdi suffers from a possibly hereditary, painful eye condition, but “Like many other sick people held in Manus Prison, Mehdi has had to endure his condition without treatment, adding to his sense of humiliation and suffering,” writes Boochani:

“During the times of our greatest suffering and misery, just hearing that this actor was in the same prison as me was a blessing, and just knowing that in this prison an artist was close-by gave me comfort. During the most difficult times, when the prisoners of Manus were under intense pressure from G4S officers and Salvation Army workers, he would stage satirical performances for the prisoners in Oscar compound. He staged plays he had acted in many times before for prisoners who had no other salvation other than their fellow inmates.”

As disturbed as we are to hear about violent attacks from locals, harassment and abuse from G4s and Transfield staff, medical neglect and physical discomfort, it is perhaps hardest to fathom the mental anguish experienced by these innocent refugees:  “The main policy here on Manus is to put asylum seekers in a time tunnel. In other words, none of the asylum seekers are aware of the stage of their own application and others’. They have no idea about the period of time they would be kept in the detention and what future is waiting for them. They do not even know which country or city they would live after getting released” (published here). Self-harm and suicide attempts are commonplace in this senseless torture chamber.

Watch and listen here.
Last year Boochani recorded himself singing a Kurdish song, and the anguish in his voice is palpable. Watch and listen here.

PEN International has issued a call for Behrouz’s release and for him to be granted asylum in Australia, immediately.
Last year Behrouz received the Social Justice Award. In presenting the award, event organiser, human rights activist and fellow refugee, Saba Vasefi, described Boochani as ‘a citizen of the world, whose reports from detention with a small mobile phone and restricted internet access remind us of the possibilities for resistance.’ In response, Boochani said: “I hope the award will encourage notable Australians to criticise their country’s system of offshore detention… Why are they silent? I know some of them are trying, but I think the pressure is not enough.” Behrouz and other refugee activists have also spoken about the unhelpful tendency to reduce asylum seekers to merely victims. Instead we must let them speak, and acknowledge the agency, courage and initiative they required to free themselves of their oppression and seek freedom.
This article was published in Just Voices 12 – The Refugee Issue. 


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