PAUL BONGIORNO. No Friend But The Mountains

Oct 2, 2018

When John Minns asked me to help launch No Friend But The Mountains in Canberra I was honoured, because I was aware of Behrouz Boochani’s journalistic work in The Saturday Paper. Now that I have read the book I am humiliated.

This work is a searing judgement on the nation of Australia.It strips away our self- righteous claims to humanity and exposes our pretensions and hypocrisy.

I am particularly humiliated by his description of  the  pack of journalists at Christmas Island.

“The journalists are staking out the situation like vultures: waiting until the wretched and miserable exit the vehicle; eager for us to come out as quickly as possible, to catch sight of the poor and helpless and launch on us –


Waiting to take their photos.

Click click,

And dispatch the images to the whole world. They are completely mesmerized by the government’s dirty politics and just follow along. The deal is we have to be a warning, a lesson for people who want to seek protection in Australia.”

A gut wrenching insight into the way I as a journalist was captured by the context of the situation. My own news organization at the time went to extraordinary lengths to get vision out of Christmas Island – to show the world as Boochani says these wretched people.

We became witting or unwitting accomplices in the heinous public policy of “Deterrence Through Cruelty.” I would have read it another way: we were showing the world the extreme lengths of inhumane policy to which Australia had sank. But that is a salve to my conscience.

The late Malcolm Fraser once said that Australia could never adopt a successful policy of  deterrence through cruelty because the Australian people would never tolerate the fact that for such a policy to work it would have to be more cruel than the situations that led the refugees to flee their homelands in the first place.

How wrong he was.

What is now clear the policy of treating boat people asylum seekers as a threat to our national security begun by a desperate John Howard fearing an election loss has descended to  even lower depths by the Rudd   government’s version  of the  Pacific Solution even more horrible than the original iteration.

In 2013 Kevin Rudd as  Prime Minister, in a bid every bit as desperate as John Howard’s  twelve years before to win an election,  announced in July, “from now on any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee.”

Last year, perhaps after attending Sunday Eucharist at  his nearest Episcopalian Church in New York,  he contradicted that message, given multiple times in the election campaign, saying the agreement was  only for one year and that by now those refugees should have been brought to Australia or resettled in a third country.

Behrouz Boochani was a victim of the Rudd timeline his boat being intercepted only days after the cut off. He is also the victim of a change of government.

Tony Abbott, took Rudd at his word but went further by refusing to take up New Zealand’s offer to resettle a hundred or so refugees a year from Manus and Nauru. Abbott claimed it was a back door to Australia.

We can be somewhat grateful that Malcolm Turnbull was more open to accept President Barack Obama’s offer to take a thousand or so of these refugees. A deal Turnbull argued successfully with Donald Trump for the US to honour.

Trump, it must be said was mystified how Australia could argue these refugees would be no threat to America but would be if they were allowed  into Australia. His logic is unchallengeable.

But Turnbull was not prepared to cross either Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton in taking up New Zealand’s still extant offer. These men insist that to be seen to weaken one element of their Operation Sovereign Borders would be to see the whole edifice collapse. The boats would come flooding back.

The argument is specious. No one told that to the boatload of Vietnamese asylum seekers who tempted fate by landing near the Daintree in Queensland last month. It’s in the same category as the other argument that our asylum seeker policy is humane because it stops potential drownings at sea. We have to torment real men and women and children to protect potential ones.When will we stop  crucifying innocent people who as Bouchani says are a “bunch of ordinary humans locked up for simply seeking refuge?”

Has no Australian leader the wit nor the humanity to seek a better solution? We should stop demonizing asylum seekers for starters. The protocols in Christmas Island and Manus described in the book: cctv cameras over urinals, continuous  naked body searches,clothes deliberately oversize to be demeaning,  starvation rations and recreational bans are surely cruelly unnecessary? Murderers are treated better in our domestic jails.

So far Bouchani, a brilliant Kurdish intellectual, journalist and poet has not been interviewed by Australian or American authorities.His fate as outlined by Peter Dutton on a vist to Manus is either go back to the place of persecution or rot on Manus indefinitely. We can only speculate why, but whatever the reason you can be sure it is far from honourable.

Behrouz Bouchani told the Guardian a couple of months ago that he concluded after filing journalistic articles on the situation at Manus prison that  the language of journalism doesn’t have the capacity to describe the life and the suffering and how the system is working.

So he has employed the devices of a novel and the lyricism of poetry. In both he and his translator Omid Tofighian excel. This work  is awesome in its majesty and powerful in its ability to stir the emotions to anger and sorrow and shame.

Robert Manne wrote in the Fairfax papers that this book is magnificently written: “intense, lyrical and psychologically perceptive prose poetry – a masterpiece.”

Bouchani’s description of the young Sri Lankan couple with their small child as they clung to each other in the face of death on the horrifying boat journey is more than  descriptive it is metaphysical, going to the very depths of the reality that bound them  and defined their being.

I believe it is worthy of a Nobel prize for literature. It is certainly up there with other  letters from prison, it has been suggested it ranks with Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham jail. I would go further, it ranks with Primo Levy’s “Survival in Auschwitz.”

And if  you think that is an exaggeration, read the book. It was written in Farsi the language of his persecutors in Iran and translated into English the language of his torturers in Australia.

I was gobsmacked when I read about the ban on any games to help while away the time in the Manus jail and occupy the minds of the inmates:

“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 as 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 that was their only duty for the entire day: to shit all over the sanity of the prisoners, who were left just staring at each other in distress.

The book goes on to talk about the explosion that was the revolt, it chronicles suicides and murder in the jail.

As Bouchani concludes “Manus is Australia:” like Nauru, concrete manifestations of what we are. Our governments purposefully kept them out of sight and out of mind lest we are faced with our own criminal complicity and the reality of our meaness. Lest we can no longer ignore the manipulation of our own fears and prejudices.This is the only explanation for Australia’s failure to insist that its client state Nauru  allow the ABC to cover the recent South Pacific Forum on the island.

One of the most heart wrenching sections of the book is the description of an Iranian family holed up in Jakarta with Bouchani before they made the trip to the boat. Parnya, a seven year old child of the family brought him a glass of water and asked politely, “Uncle, when will we be going to Australia?” I can still hear her voice. She was so innocent so little.”

In the crossing to Australia the decrepit ship tossed by gigantic waves began taking water, terrfified the father of Panya and his other two children looked over them and said, “My children are going to die.” He just cried.

They are now on Nauru, Bouchani asks;

“Why does the Australian government have to incarcerate them?

Where in the world do they take children captive and throw them inside a cage?

What crime are those children guilty of ?

And thousands more questions that have no answers.”

Three weeks ago Scott Morrison  refused demands from the Australian Medical Association to bring sick children and their families from Nauru to this country for treatment. Again,it is ludicrously argued  one sick child will only embolden other desperate people to risk death to find freedom from persecution in Australia.

But I can tell you on the Thursday of the last sitting week some Liberal moderates gave Morrison an ultimatum, “Get the children off Nauru before the next sitting week – that in two weeks’ time or else.  The Prime Minister asked what they meant, would they refuse to keep supporting the government on the floor of the parliament and thus bring it down? I understand he was not given an unequivocal answer.

But I do believe veteran Liberal MP Russell Broadbent’s view   expressed on the ABC earlier this month that public sentiment is moving and the government would be wise to heed it.

We shall see.

In the meantime in humility and begging forgiveness I launch Behrouz Boochani’s masterpiece in this our national capital of shame.

Paul Bongiorno AM, Contributing Editor,Network Ten



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