By Kim Shaddick
Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish Iranian journalist and award winning autho, discussed his recently published memoir No Friend But the Mountain: Writing From Manus Prison at the Wentworth Falls School of Performing Arts last Saturday. Mr. Boochani fled from Iran to seek refuge in Australia but was instead sent to offshore detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Mr. Boochani is a vocal advocate for Kurdish people and all refugees and asylum seekers. Mr. Boochani Skyped in from East Lorengu, the refugee accommodation on Manus Island where he currently resides, and received a standing ovation from audience members, before talking about his memoir and his time in detention.
No Friend But The Mountain was originally written in Farsi one text message at a time from Mr. Boochani’s phone and offers a first hand account of the five years he was illegally detained in Manus detention centre.
Mr. Boochani wrote his book during an extremely trying time saying ‘it was a long and hard process’.
‘The book was written in a very bad situation’ he said, ‘when I was starving, sick and a prisoner.’
No Friend But the Mountain has been endorsed as both a voice of witness and an act of survival. The book describes Mr. Boochani’s epic journey travelling by boat from Indonesia to seek refuge in Australia, and his eventual confinement on Manus Island. Mr. Boochani interweaves stories, recollections and anecdotes with unique and poignant poetry to offer a vivid portrait of his time on Manus Island.
‘The reason I wrote this book was to tell the story of Manus Island for the people in Australia’ he said. ‘I believe this book has the potential to create change.’
Despite a faltering Skype connection, Mr. Boochani captivated audience members with his description of life in detention and conveyed a message to all Australians ‘please do not abandon us.’
The refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island feel forgotten’ said Mr. Boochani, ‘my brothers are suffering’.
‘Each refugee, each person on Manus Island and Nauru has a story and each is a personal tragedy’.
Gabe Kavanagh, social justice advocate, and President of Amnesty International Australia and Father Frank Brennan SJ AO, human rights lawyer spoke at the event.
Father Brennan said that in listening to Mr. Boochani ‘we are reminded that for five years these human beings have been cast out of sight and out of mind.’
‘We need to be attentive to these voices, like the voices of Behrouz.’
Father Brennan called for all men on Manus to be resettled in America, New Zealand or Australia after six years of lack of liberty.
He also noted the need to see offshore processing as a separate issue from attempts to stop asylum seeker boats.
Father Brennan criticised successive Australian governments for ‘hermitically sealing our borders no matter the human cost’.
Ms. Kavanagh praised Mr. Boochani for being generous and courageous enough to share stories that have the power to move people, and echoed Mr. Boochani’s concern that the men of Manus will be forgotten after children and families are removed from Nauru.
‘Public opinion is shifting, but I worry about the men on Manus,’ she said.
Mr. Boochani is only one of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers sent to offshore processing camps on Manus Island or the Pacific Island of Nauru. On 23 November 2017 all men incarcerated on Manus were moved from the Manus Island Detention Centre to transition centres. There are around 400 men still living on Manus Island, most of them are genuine refugees and many of them are from Iran.
Ms. Kavanagh highlighted the mental toll forced incarceration has had on the men on Manus Island, revealing the daily humiliations that refugees were exposed to when in detention. Refugees and asylum seekers were not called by name but instead referred by their identification number, showers were limited to two minutes at a time and the men were forced to join long queues for food and basic necessities.
‘This was an intentional campaign for people to lose their identity and their spirit,’ she said.
Ms. Kavanagh also decried the lack of safety in the Manus Island community for victims of trauma saying that ‘the social dislocation caused by placing a group of very traumatised people in a community that can’t support them is an invitation to dangerous behaviours’.
Doctor Nilanthi Kanapathipillai, Senior Emergency Medicine Registrar from Gippsland Health in Victoria also attended the event. Dr. Kanapathipillai recently returned from a self-funded trip to Manus Island to assess the health of the men living in the transition centres, and disagrees with Tony Abbott’s recent take on healthcare on Manus Island as ‘pleasant; and better than many Australian towns.
‘The healthcare on Manus is poor to non-existent’ she said describing it as ‘no better than third world’.
For Dr. Kanapathipillai the biggest concern was also the mental deterioration in the men between the ages of 22-55 including ‘major reactive depression, PTSD and outright psychosis’.
There were also ‘terrible orthopaedic injuries such as untreated fracture dislocations which occurred after the 2014 assaults from the prison guards.’
‘The medical and psychiatric morbidity is huge with literally no accessible medical care and lengthy inefficient triage systems which are inept at dealing with emergency care,’ she said.
Father Brennan paid tribute to the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group (BMRSG) who organised the event for their ‘sustained advocacy and compassion for refugees.’
Joy Connor from BMRSG concluded by quoting Mr. Boochani, ‘we’d rather die standing but never die kneeling down,’ she said.
She continued, ‘that’s the message from people whose bravery and courage is an inspiration to all of us as we work for a more decent place that is our own Australia.’
During the two-hour event, actor and Blue Mountains local Shane Porteous read selected excerpts from Boochani’s book. His recital was interspersed with local musician Paddy Connor’s evocative music played on the uilleann pipes.
The event was also organised by Kathie Herbert, vice Chair BMRSG and Megalong Books in Leura.