Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian journalist, writer and refugee. He arrived in Australian waters by boat seeking refuge after a near fatal journey from Indonesia. He never made it to the mainland. Kevin Rudd had shut down access to Australia. Tony Abbott had opened out the desolate encampments on Manus Island and Nauru. Boochani was rescued at sea, transferred to Christmas Island and then flown to Manus. He’s been incarcerated there for more than five years. Thanks to the High Court’s morally indefensible decision in the case of Al-Kateb, he’s slated to remain on the island, isolated and alone, indefinitely.
Boochani has now written a book about his imprisonment. It is terrible, and beautiful. He has brought to it the sharp eye of a journalist and the cadences of a poet. Deprived of almost every necessary material from which to construct a liveable life, he’s tapped out the work’s 350 pages on his old mobile phone. Somehow, the manuscript made its way piece by piece, by text, to Australia. The result is that we can read a heart-rending prison narrative of almost incomprehensible pain and power. It shames the nation.
The book begins with a harrowing description of Boochani’s ill-fated journey by sea. It all started promisingly enough, although the small boat was too crowded. The trip may have succeeded if the weather was fair and the engine was good. But neither condition prevailed. The engine stuttered and stopped. The weather threw up colossal waves. The vessel was battered and set adrift. The frantic passengers could do nothing but wait and hope. Already half submerged, the craft was spotted. The Australian navy had come from nowhere. The passengers’ shocking ordeal was over. But that was just the beginning.
One of Boochani’s great qualities is his capacity to reflect on and learn from even the direst of circumstances. So, he wrote:
Understanding the concept of courage requires a form of courage in the very act of thinking. I have never before had the opportunity to delve into the concept of courage with any real intensity because it had never been demanded of me to such an all-encompassing extent…For the very first time in my life, that ocean had tested me; it tested my courage in the most intimate way possible; I have been tested within the labyrinths of death.
The next shock arrived when Boochani arrived on Manus to discover the appalling conditions in which he had been condemned to live. The searing heat. The tiny fibro room in which four men slept in two bunks, face to face. Filthy, dirt floors. Sand that stuck to the feet. Useless fans. Shit filled latrines only half functional. The stink of rotting excrement. The stench of sludge. The mosquitos. And everywhere, the wire.
We are four hundred people/
Four hundred lost souls in a tightly confined space/
Four hundred prisoners/
Anticipating the nights/
…so we can leave/
…and enter our nightmares.
The prison authorities have created exquisite cruelties. They manipulate scarcity. There is not enough food. The prisoners live on the edge of starvation. At every meal, queues form. They are not orderly. The strongest, most intimidating prisoners grab the front spots. The weakest occupy the rear. Fights break out.
One day the juice is warm, the next it is cold. One day there is a quarter cup of milk, the next there is a half. Intermittently, the cup is full. The cook is precise. Not a drop more, not a drop less. Sometimes, seemingly deliberately, there is almost nothing to eat. Prisoners are presented with empty trays. Asked for an explanation, a cook replies ‘Unfortunately breakfast has run out’.
Starvation has two objectives: to implement a variety of control mechanisms on the minds of prisoners, and to make prisoners enmeshed and complicit in the system. The prisoner’s stomach leads him to know the system. And after reacting with resistance, and going through draining, drawn out phases of action in solidarity with others…nothing.
It is the same with the telephones. Every prisoner is desperate to speak to the world outside the prison. Pandemonium reigns near the telephone booths. The phone queues are the longest. Sometimes the queue starts at nine. Next day it is eight. Next, it’s ten. One never knows. Every day some phones are busted. If prisoners arrive at a broken phone, they have to push their way into another queue. Inmates attack the phones, they attack each other. The rules and regulations governing phone use change every week. In some weeks, prisoners are not permitted to make calls at all.
It isn’t as though it is impossible to believe/
It’s just extremely hard to believe/
It is painful to be in a situation where it is difficult to believe so many things/
When an individual is in a situation in which it is difficult to believe
that so many things are a certain way/
…that situation becomes a source of suffering.
Boochani gets a toothache. He’s told to take a Panadol. It gets worse. He approaches the clinic and asks to see a dentist. He knows very well that there isn’t a dentist. A week later he presents again in front of the clinic gate, respectfully. This is so as to advance through the bureaucratic process necessary to obtain more specialised treatment. ‘In other words, the system would cordially invite me inside itself’. Hundreds of people have been registered before him. In time, his number (no names) advances from Schedule C to Schedule B. No one gets to Schedule A. Each sickness has its own schedule.
No dentist ever arrives. He asks two local guards whether they can help. One inserts a red-hot wire into the hole in his tooth. It is agony. Afterwards, the pain subsides.
This I know all too well – if I had confronted the IHMS (Health) system my soul would have been engulfed in thousands of IHMS letters, reports and forms…and then annihilated.
The guards – Australian Guards. Boochani sees them as watch dogs or attack dogs. Each one has a walkie-talkie on his belt. They watch and write copious notes in their notebooks, to no end. Their approach to work, he says, is based on being a bastard. ‘You need to be a bastard to work in a place where you detest everyone’.
Some have come from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others have been recruited from Australian and PNG prisons. They appear to be heartless machines. Like robots they enforce every prison rule, rules from the most trivial to the most pivotal. PNG guards follow orders from Australians without thought or question. Guards’ purpose is to frighten and brutalise.
Fear is an extraordinary force for motivating people; it pushes people to hurry up and determines their direction. Fear: a mountain of ice that has almost completely disappeared under water – the mother of all tortures.
An astonishing event occurs. The Australian Minister for Immigration visits the island. The atmosphere detonates. Hopes rise exponentially. Half a dozen bedraggled and emaciated prisoners are chosen to meet with him. His message is brutal. ‘You have no chance at all, either you go back to your countries or you will remain on Manus Island forever.’ No conversation ensues. He’s gone.
Behrouz Boochani has written a prison narrative of striking power. It bears comparison with those of Mandela, Havel, Breytenbach and Primo Levi. It is that good. It’s horrible and it’s poetic. Why on earth is this brilliant, courageous and compassionate man still locked up and tormented – by us?
Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University. He is a former President of Liberty Victoria.
*Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, Picador 2018.