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All against all

Behrouz Boochani: Only the mountains are my friend
REFUGEES / Unity is pulverized, everyone just thinks of managing on their own, surviving, tearing up an extra bite of food, a place in the food queue or the telephone queue.


Iranian-Kurdish Behrouz Boochani's description of the years as refugee and interned by Australian authorities on the island of Manus north of Papua New Guinea probably gives a good picture of the lives of thousands of refugees all over the globe. The special thing about this case is that Australia, under the current Conservative government, will never let them into the country. The detainees can at best stay on Manus indefinitely or accept deportation back to the country they fled from.

Boochani fled Iran due to his activity as editor of a newspaper that promoted the cause of the Kurds. He was warned by friends that he risked arrest and a possible death sentence – and left. He ended up in Indonesia, decided to move on to Australia – and twice tried to get over there by boat. First boat crashes. In other attempts, the refugees are picked up by the Australian Navy, and from there the journey continues, until Boochani eventually ends up in the detention camp at Manus.

Deprived of all rights

One could, as Boochani describes it, rather call it a concentration camp. The detainees are deprived of virtually all rights, both legal and humanitarian. The opportunities for contact with the outside world are minimal. Own mobile phone is forbidden, and the several hundred refugees share five, six landlines that you have to stand in long queues to get to. The food is catastrophic, the rations are far too small, and the internees also have to stand in long queues in the dining room – under a scorching tropical sun.

Boochani often mentions the sun and the tropical heat, it is there all the time, they can never protect themselves from it. In the crowded dormitories, men lie in bunk beds and try to sleep in the intense heat. Large fans run continuously, but help little or nothing. In addition, it stinks of dozens of sweaty, unwashed bodies – many of them are also sick, which hardly makes the smell any better. The water they get in bottles is always hot, too hot, it burns in the stomach and gives them no cooling effect.

Manus Leir. Photo. Wikimedia
Manus Leir. Photo. Wikimedia

The sanitary conditions are terrible, the toilets and shower rooms are more like sewers, smell like sewers, the risk of infection is high. People also get sick, but the medical offer is minimal, almost symbolic. Only in acute cases is something similar provided by competent assistance provided by qualified professionals.

As Boochani writes, the black-clad always have Australian guards around them, all equipped with black sunglasses. There is virtually no contact between the detainees and the guards, and all complaints about the camp conditions are forwarded to an undefined, remote management who rejects and rejects them. In practice, you have no right to complain, and there is no point in complaining either.

The methods are almost the same as the SS used in the concentration camps, only the killings and slave labor are missing.

This is, of course, a deliberate camp regime, part of a well-thought-out and consistent strategy on the part of the Australian Government. The boat refugees should never set foot on Australian soil, therefore they are deprived of all human dignity – the internees are dehumanized, broken down both mentally and physically. The methods are almost the same as the SS used in the concentration camps, only the killings and slave labor are missing. The result is still the same.

Boochani records how everyone around him decays, how they gradually lose faith in and hope for a better life, a life of freedom. The solidarity between them disappears, the unity is pulverized, everyone just thinks about managing, surviving, tearing up an extra bite of food, a place in the food queue or the telephone queue. It is all against all, the so-called jungle state, devised by Heinrich Himmler's psychologists and carried out by all his willing camp commanders.

The only countermeasure is to doubt one's own consciousness. Primo Levi did it in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Boochani does the same in the camp at Manus. Both create literature from what they both observe and experience in body and soul. In their own way, they doubt their own humanity. Boochani does this by often shooting in poetic passages, poems that break up and facilitate the flow in the text's prosaic and often brutal parts. This is far more than just an attempt to create so-called contrasts, but resembles a necessary tone in his text.

Australia's largest literature prize

Everything he writes, which eventually became a book, was sent via a smuggled mobile phone to the translator Omid Tofighian in Australia. He put together all the messages into one coherent text, a book. It was published in English, and in 2019 Boochani received the Victoria Prize, Australia's largest literature prize – despite the fact that he never entered the country. The publisher and the literary community nevertheless define him as without.

Primo Levi managed it in AuschwitzBirkenau, and Boochani manages the same.

In the same way, many of the planet's refugees, who today number over 50 million, can call this without book, its documentation, since they, just like Boochani and the others on Manus, are locked up behind guarded fences indefinitely. In reality, they are prisoners, prisoners without a sentence, in practice without the most basic humanitarian rights.

For Boochani, the solution came: New Zealand gave him refugee status, and also a university job. Of course, this is just an exception to today's refugee policy and Boochani knows this far better than most. He escaped from the long arms of the Revolutionary Guards back home in Iran, nearly drowned in the Indian Ocean, was rescued, and then imprisoned on a small tropical island for six years before freedom finally came, and perhaps simply because he is a so-called resource man. Most of the more than 50 million refugees lack his resources, and he knows it – and therefore knows that he writes for them.

Kurt Sweeney
Kurt Sweeney
Literary critic.

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