Behrouz Boochani: Australia is introducing a ‘new kind of fascism’

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Behrouz Boochani: Australia is introducing a ‘new kind of fascism’

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer. He has been in prison on Manus Island since 2013. Manus Island is one of Australia’s detention centres for asylum seekers. But he has written an award-winning book. Husna Rizvi used WhatsApp to interview Behrouz Boochani.


Credit: Hoda Afshar

Immigration detention centres are prisons for people who have committed no crime. They are very secret. They are away from the media and governments say they are necessary to protect the country. Behrouz Boochani is 35 and a Kurdish-Iranian refugee. He is in prison on Manus Island, an island in Papua New Guinea (PNG), used as a prison for asylum-seekers going to Australia.

Boochani is in his sixth year in prison without a charge. At first he was in Manus Island Detention Centre. But it closed in 2017 after a decision that it was against Papua New Guinea’s constitution. So he and 600 other asylum-seekers are left on the island.

During this time Boochani wrote a book. He used WhatsApp and a secret phone. This year 2019, his book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writings from Manus Island Prison won the $70,000 Victorian Prize for Literature.

‘I can’t celebrate because there are so many people here who are suffering,’ Boochani tells me on WhatsApp. ‘I did not write this book to win an award. I wanted the people in Australia and around the world to understand how this system has tortured innocent people on Manus and another island, Nauru, for almost six years.’

A new kind of fascism

In 2013, Boochani ran away from Iran to escape prison for his dissident journalism. He arrived in Manus days after a new policy to put in prison all asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat. He doesn’t know when he’ll be free. Twelve asylum-seekers have died on the island already, many probably through suicide.

There were threats of solitary confinement and punishment but Boochani used his secret phone to write for The Guardian newspaper and he made a film from the inside. He follows politics in Australia, where there are elections in May 2019.

‘The situation is getting worse day by day. Unfortunately, there are only two months before the election in Australia and the position of refugees is now the most important political subject in the election, which is very sad. The government has started more propaganda against us in the media, when we are innocent people.’

Boochani has written about the actions against human rights on Manus. This includes almost no medical care and reports of deaths and torture on the island. When they shut the centre in 2017, they turned off the water and electricity. The 500 refugees were afraid they would leave them on the island and barricaded themselves in for 22 days. Boochani was one of many who had to dig wells in the earth to find water.

‘Parliament passed a law a few weeks ago to move ill refugees to Australia for medical treatment. Right now we are waiting for the government to follow this new law. There are many people who need medical treatment and if the government does not follow the new law, it will be a big risk for the ill people. We shouldn’t forget that so far 12 refugees have died.’

Boochani does not have a copy yet of No Friend but the Mountains. It is about his journey on an old boat in Indonesia to Manus Island.

He writes: ‘If the boat broke in half by a wave, we would die. It is wrong to think of our deaths as different from the millions of other humans, different from the deaths of others who have died up until now, from the deaths that will take place.’

‘First, I understand this book as a piece of art, then as a piece of Australia’s dark history,’ he writes to me. ‘What the Australian government introduced to the world is only a new kind of fascism and barbarism.’

Boochani’s translator

Boochani’s translator, Omid Tofighian helped him write the book.

After reading one of Boochani’s articles in 2015, Tofighian contacted the Kurdish-Iranian writer and began translating his articles from Farsi to English. At that time, Boochani had been in detention for just over two years. Tofighian realized that reporting facts and statistics about the brutality on Manus was not enough.

‘The book is important because it actually brings us into the prison,’ he says. ‘Kurdish people have been colonized for a very long time, even before Western powers dominated the Middle East. In many ways I see Behrouz’s fight against this neocolonial oppression as part of his tradition.’

Tofighian tells me that it was difficult to get Boochani’s voice heard. Tofighian says, ‘When I started translating the book in Australia, it was difficult to find support. Things really started to change after the book came out and we won the award.’

The book and the award have had a big effect. ‘After winning, things started to change. Politicians suddenly realized that their international reputations were at risk.

‘You could say that this book and the award mean that all of the movements that were working alone have all come together now because there’s a new story.’

Boochani also tells me about the connections between refugees and Australians. ‘The law to take ill refugees to Australia was our first political victory after almost six years. It’s not because of this award or my book. It’s because of years of fighting against this policy that all the refugees and Australian people have done.’ These are groups that include the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens’ Alliance (WACA). WACA has been campaigning for the right to refugee healthcare and an end to the prisons.

Boochani is clear about his plans after he leaves Manus Island. ‘I’m a novelist and journalist, of course,’ he says. ‘I will continue to work as a writer when I get free.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)