An Asylum-Seeker Wrote A Book By Phone Texts From Manus Island Detention

Aug 6, 2018
Originally published on August 6, 2018 5:27 am

For years, Australia has employed a controversial policy for migrants coming by sea without proper documents for entry: It sends them to offshore holding facilities.

The law was passed in 2013, during a time when many refugees and migrants were attempting to cross the ocean from Indonesia to reach Australia. Many died or went missing en route. Those caught by Australian authorities were transferred to centers on Australia's Christmas Island, the island nation of Nauru and Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.

Proponents of the law said smugglers were profiting, migrants were drowning and the boats had to be stopped. Many opponents see the law as xenophobic and cruel, because once the boats are intercepted by the Australian navy, migrants are held in offshore detention centers for an undetermined amount of time. And as previously reported by NPR, detainees have alleged these centers are rife with abuse.

This policy has left hundreds of people in legal limbo, including Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani. In May 2013, he fled Iran fearing for his safety after his pro-Kurdish magazine, Werya, was raided by the Iranian military.

When he tried to cross from Indonesia to Australia, where he wanted to seek political asylum, his boat was apprehended by the Australian navy. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Boochani was among 75 asylum-seekers intercepted that day. After being detained on Christmas Island for a time, Boochani was eventually transferred to Manus Island, a part of Papua New Guinea.

"The Australian government calls this place a camp or an offshore processing center," Boochani tells NPR Morning Edition's Noel King. "But for us it's a prison."

Boochani has waited for five years at the Manus Immigration Detention Center. He lives in a small room with five other people, he says, and he cannot return home, nor move forward.

Over the years, Boochani has documented his time on Manus Island through various articles and a documentary film, Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time, released last year. All these projects have been written and filmed using a phone he smuggled into the center.

Now he's out with a book titled No Friend But The Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, which he wrote on his cellphone using WhatsApp. He sent passages to a translator in Australia, who translated them from Farsi to English and then arranged them into chapters.

"It was a very long process, a very hard process," Boochani says by phone.

A mix of poetry and prose, the book also includes political commentary, psychological analysis, myth and folklore. A review by The Guardian says, "Boochani has created a book that resists classification."

"I would like to ask the people, if they want to read it ... they read it as a piece of art," says Boochani.

Even though Manus Island's detention camp was ordered shut down in 2016 after it was ruled "unconstitutional and illegal" by Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court, there is still no timeline for moving the detainees off the island. Although the United States has accepted some of the refugees who were held there, Boochani is not sure when he will be let off the island.

The following highlights from the interview are edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview Highlights

On writing his book on WhatsApp

I was scared from the authorities, anytime they could come and take my paper. So that's why I didn't write it on the paper. I wrote this book on the phone and sent it out bit by bit. I wrote all the book on WhatsApp. WhatsApp was like my notebook. For example, some nights I could write two pages or one page, and send it out to my translator. And when I finish my chapter, I [tell] him that it is chapter 5, or it is chapter 6, or it is chapter 7. My translator put them together in PDF and sent it back to me, and I read it and say, "Yeah, it's OK, it's exactly what I want." So it was a long process, a very hard process.

On the prospect of making money from sales

My perspective is very different with people who are in America or other places, people who are free. [The] important thing for me is to write a book to make a challenge against this system, to tell the truth to people, do my work, my duty as a novelist, as a journalist. I don't think about money or getting money. So if I have money, of course I don't know how to use it. It's not important for us. Maybe in [the] future, but right now, important thing for me is [for] people to understand where we have been living and how Australian government kept us in this prison for a long time.

On the beauty of Manus Island

I was able to survive in this harsh prison because of nature. Manus Island is very beautiful island. I came from Kurdistan. Kurdistan is very beautiful land. I grew up on nature, so nature is very important for me. I think I could survive because of nature. So that's why I describe many beautiful things in this book. Nature is everything for me.

On what awaits him

I cannot go back [to Iran], because I had a strong reason to leave. If [I] didn't have strong reasons, I wouldn't stay here for five years now, living in the prison like this. The American government made a deal with Australia so they could accept some of the refugees from here. About 100 people left Manus and they went to America, so they are living in America. We all hope that finally, after five years, we get freedom in a place like America or other countries.

This story contains some extra content that did not air in the broadcast version.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani fled Iran fearing for his safety. He wrote for a pro-Kurdish magazine that was raided by the Iranian military. So he went to Indonesia, and from there, he got on a boat to Australia. He wanted to seek political asylum. But the Australian Navy intercepted the boat, and he and others were detained. Boochani was sent to remote Manus Island, which is a part of Papua New Guinea. That's where we reached him by phone.

BEHROUZ BOOCHANI: The Australian government calls this place a camp or offshore processing center, but for us it's a prison.

KING: Australia's controversial policy of picking up refugees at sea and sending them to remote islands has left hundreds of people like Boochani detained indefinitely. He's documented his five years on Manus Island through articles and even a documentary released last year using only his phone. Now he's written a book, titled, "No Friend But The Mountains." He wrote the whole book using the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp.

BOOCHANI: Because I was scared from the authorities. Any time, they could come and take my paper. So that's why I wrote this book on the phone and sent it out bit by bit.

KING: Your book is 400 pages. Were you texting a page at a time, a paragraph at a time?

BOOCHANI: So WhatsApp was like my notebook. Some nights, I could write two pages or one page and send it out to my translator. So my translator put them together in PDF and sent it back to me. So it was a long process, and a very hard process.

KING: So I understand that you don't have your book there in front of you so I'm going to read a bit of your book, an English language version. You write about Manus Island after it rains. You write about the flowers that look like chamomile, (reading) dancing incessantly, breathing heavily, gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breeze. I love those flowers. A zeal for resistance. A tremendous will for life bursting out from the coils and curves of the stems.

Behrouz, you make Manus Island sound beautiful. And, I'm wondering, in a book that is about being trapped on this island, what went into the thinking to make it sound so lovely?

BOOCHANI: I was able to survive in this harsh prison because of nature. Manus Island is a very beautiful island. And you know, I came from Kurdistan. Kurdistan land is very beautiful land. And I grew up on nature, and I think I could survive because of nature.

KING: Boochani doesn't know who will read his book, and he says he doesn't care how much money it makes. He has no use for a lot of money on the island. And so he is stuck, unable to move forward, unable to go home.

BOOCHANI: If I didn't have a strong reason, I wouldn't stay here for five years.

KING: No. Has there been any movement in your case to get off of Manus Island? Do you have any hope that you will soon leave?

BOOCHANI: Yeah. Actually, in the past few months, American government made a deal with Australia so they could accept some of the refugees from here. About one hundred people left Manus and they went to America. We all hope that finally after five years we get freedom in a place like America or other countries.

KING: He is effectively pinning his hopes on the United States. Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist. He's been detained on Manus Island and is the author of "No Friend But The Mountains." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.