Profile of Behrouz Boochani who Just Wanted to Be Free

August 5, 2020

The New York Times Magazine of 4 august features a long, substantial and richly illustrated story by Megan K. Stack – an author and a journalist- on Behrouz Boochani the Iranian refugee rescued from Australia’s off shore camps [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/01/behrouz-boochani-gives-interview-in-new-zealand-finally-out-of-manus-island/].

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/09/30/flight-from-manus-the-inside-story-of-an-exceptional-case/

Here follow some long excerpts that give you a flavour of a profile worth reading in full:

Behrouz Boochani’s book, “No Friend but the Mountains,” won the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature in 2019 while he was still detained on Manus Island.
Behrouz Boochani’s book, “No Friend but the Mountains,” won the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature in 2019 while he was still detained on Manus Island.Credit…Birgit Krippner for The New York Times

He fled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He exposed Australia’s offshore detention camps — from the inside. He survived, stateless, for seven years. What’s next?

..The cellphone was everything on Manus. Boochani and the other detainees hoarded their cigarettes for weeks to barter for phones with the detention center’s local employees. Once acquired, the phones had to be hidden from the guards, who conducted surprise dawn inspections to hunt for contraband. Boochani’s phone was confiscated twice; each time, there was no recourse but to start over again, one sacrificed smoke at a time.

The phones quickly became the only tool successful at breaking through the shroud of secrecy that Australia tried to throw over the migrants’ detention. Locked up in the disused rooms of the old naval base, the asylum seekers were called by serial numbers instead of names. Communications were tightly restricted. Under Australian law, workers who spoke publicly about what they saw or heard at the detention sites faced up to two years in prison. But official documents and accounts from survivors and whistle blowers gradually leaked out, along with accusations of sexual and physical abuse. Asylum seekers sought solace in self-harm as their mental and physical health crumbled under the strain of prolonged and uncertain detention.

Boochani wrote “No Friend but the Mountains” in Persian, sending texts of ideas and descriptive fragments to nonexistent WhatsApp numbers that he used to organize his thoughts. Once satisfied with a passage, he sent it to Moones Mansoubi, a translator in Sydney, who organized the material into chapters before sending it along to Omid Tofighian, an Iranian-Australian philosophy professor. Slowly, haltingly, Boochani and Tofighian texted back and forth about how best to translate and arrange the passages into a draft. Together they blended poetry and prose into a genre Tofighian calls “horrific surrealism.”

First-person narratives that paint historical events from the perspective of the persecuted have proven powerful and enduring. These stories are subversive; the images slip into a reader’s mind and create empathy where there was little before. They can permanently alter the way history is recorded and understood.

Boochani’s book challenges readers to acknowledge that we are living in the age of camps. The camps lie scattered throughout the Middle East, cluster on Greek islands and stretch like an ugly tattoo along the U.S.-Mexican border. Camps sprawl through Bangladesh, Chad and Colombia. People are suspended in a stateless and extralegal limbo on the tiny Pacific island nation Nauru, in Guantánamo and in the Syrian town of al-Hawl. At no time since humans first drew borders have there been more migrants and refugees than today. Countless individual lives weave into a collective panorama of displacement and statelessness and detention. These truncated journeys are a defining experience of our times.

As for Boochani, he refuses to cede the story of his hardships to third-party observers. He criticizes journalists who depict refugees as faceless victims. He bristles at perceived condescension from academics or activists who benefit from what he describes as an industry built around the plight of refugees. When Kristina Keneally, a prominent center-left senator in Australia, sent a tweet supporting Boochani, he tweeted in anger: “Such a rediclilius [sic] and unacceptable statement by Labor Party. You exiled me to Manus and you have supported this exile policy for years…

The miseries of offshore detention were meant to pressure migrants to abandon their asylum claims so they could legally be sent back whence they came and — more crucial — to create a spectacle so chilling that “boat people” would stop coming to Australia altogether. That was the first and last point of this byzantine enterprise.

…After six months of misery and unanswered questions, immigration officials appeared at the camp and warned asylum seekers that they would be stuck in Manus for a long time yet. Enraged detainees rioted that night, lunging at the guards and hurling chairs. Local police and Manus residents rushed into the compound to quell the unrest. Dozens of detainees were injured, some suffering broken bones and severe lacerations. One man lost an eye; another’s throat was slashed, reportedly by a guard. Barati, Boochani’s close friend, was viciously attacked by a group that included an employee of the Salvation Army, which had a $50 million contract from the Australian government to provide counseling to the asylum seekers. The assailants killed Barati by dropping a heavy rock onto his head. He was the first detainee to die on Manus.

In 2019, most of the asylum seekers were moved to motels in Port Moresby because, it seemed, nobody knew what else to do with them.

The first time I saw Boochani, he was still being detained on Manus Island. It was a chilly, wind-scraped morning in 2019. Boochani was discussing his book via video link at the annual writers festival in Byron Bay, Australia. When his face flickered onto the screen, the overflowing crowd that jammed the seaside auditorium gasped and burst into applause. Boochani looked haggard and detached; dangling hair framed his craggy features. “Oh, God,” said a woman near me. “He looks so alone.”…

Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs minister, frequently says the asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea include men “of bad character” — “Labour’s mess” that he has been forced to “clean up.” Pauline Hanson, a right-wing populist senator, called the men “rapists” on the floor of Parliament this past winter. “These people are thugs,” she said. “They don’t belong here in Australia.”..

All told, Australia has locked up thousands of desperate people, including children, in de facto prisons on Manus and Nauru. The detentions have been harsh but effective, officials say: The flow of boats slowed and eventually stopped. Asylum seekers are still stuck on Nauru; until last year, they included children. The Australian government recently spent about $130 million to reopen the detention center on Christmas Island — despite the lack of new arrivals to lock up. In other words, the policy is still unapologetically intact, ready and waiting for any boats that make it to Australian waters.

It was a brilliant January day in Christchurch, New Zealand. Screeching gulls wheeled in off the Pacific; swollen roses bobbed in the breeze. In the hydrangea-fringed garden of a spare, tidy house, Boochani sat smoking. He couldn’t smoke inside because the house wasn’t exactly his; it was on loan from the University of Canterbury. Boochani’s neighborhood looked as if Beatrix Potter had painted it in watercolors: prim, ivy-laced cottages and tidy beds of hollyhocks and lavender. It was nice, Boochani conceded. Too nice, sometimes. “It’s too much, you know?” he said. “It’s too much peace and too much beauty. It’s hard to deal with this. It’s like you go from a very cold place to a very hot place.”

During these early and disorienting weeks, Boochani got word that it was finally time to begin the final steps to resettle in the United States. He’d been awaiting this news for months, but when his chance came, he backed out. Reports of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, immigration crackdowns and political tumult had eroded his eagerness. “I don’t feel safe in America now,” he said simply. “I don’t mean that someone would kill me. But I don’t trust the American system. It’s like chaos there now.”

Instead, Boochani took a bold gamble: He applied for asylum in New Zealand. He accepted a fellowship with the university’s Ngai Tahu Research Center, which specializes in Maori and Indigenous studies — a nod to his Kurdish identity — although the post would remain a secret while his application to stay in New Zealand was pending. Neither his whereabouts nor his plans were public knowledge. Conservative politicians in both New Zealand and Australia were calling for Boochani to be turned out. What would he do then, where would he go? He shrugged; he didn’t answer; instead, he began to roll another cigarette. ..

..This is the complication and the delicacy of Boochani: His most famous work was derived from the considerable suffering he endured at the hands of the state. He is proud, even cocky at times. And yet this pride must wrestle with the dehumanization he has endured. His existence was controlled by a hostile bureaucracy for years; now his days were arranged by benevolent well-wishers.

Then, on July 23, Boochani’s birthday, he finally got word from his lawyer: His application had been accepted. Boochani could stay in New Zealand. He was free. On the phone, he let out a wild and incredulous laugh. Of course! When else? It had been his birthday, too, the day he was lifted from the sea and taken into Australian custody. Hearing him laugh like that, I remembered one of his stories: When he was born, his parents asked a visiting cousin who knew how to read to choose a name for the baby. The cousin opened a book and poked his finger onto the page at random, striking the word “Behrouz” — Farsi for “fortunate.” Literally, “good day.”

Boochani rode his bike from his house to the sea. He looked at the expanse of ocean, these waters that had almost killed him, the sea he suspected of absconding with years of his life, the waves that crashed now on the mineral grains of this new land he called home. He looked at the ocean, at all of that past and all of that future, the churn of time and destiny, and he smoked a cigarette. Just one cigarette. One cigarette and the sea in his eyes. And then he rode home again.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/magazine/behrouz-boochani-australia.html?referringSource=articleShare

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