On 31 October 2017 the Australian Government officially closed down the Manus Island immigration detention centre in Lombrum and ordered PNG authorities to evict the incarcerated refugees. The detainees refused to move to another prison camp and demanded freedom. A 23-day siege began with water, food, electricity and other services discontinued or shut off. The following dialogue between Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian through Whatsapp voice/text messaging communicates the anticipation and various acts of resistance leading up to the closure and the articles written and translated with urgency during that period.
17 October 2017
Behrouz: They’re going to close this place after all. They’ve discontinued all the services, they’re only serving us food now. They’re definitely going to close this place. The plan is to remove us by force and take us to Lorengau. That’s it for now, there’s no other news. All we know is that they’re definitely going to close this place.
Omid: I hope they sort things out quickly and arrange to bring you here. My thoughts are with you through all this.
18 October 2017
Behrouz: Hi Omid, how are you? All good? I was just in Lorengau and on my way back now. Look, the Guardian got in touch, they’re saying they want to publish diary entries for the two weeks leading up to the closure of the prison. Each entry will only need to be about 300–400 words. I know you’re really busy, but is it possible to work on this together … do you have the time and energy?
Omid: How interesting! The project sounds fascinating! There’s a lot going on at the moment and I’m also worried about the writing and translation of the book. But I think about 300 words a day is doable.
Behrouz: Regarding the book, to be honest I can’t continue writing right now. Writing literature is really hard, I need to be in the right space. We’re encountering problems every day out here—at the moment all they’re doing is feeding us. There is so much pressure and stress. The situation is really bad. But I really need to write this diary to describe all the horrible things going on, if I don’t convey this I can’t work on the book. It’s like a battlefield out here. The refugees are essentially going to prepare themselves for their own funerals tomorrow. This is what it’s like here, I literally can’t work on the book … literature needs concentration. But journalism is easier for me. In less than five minutes my internet is going to cut out—I’m travelling and entering an area of dense jungle where there’s no connection.
Omid: There’s less than one chapter to go. I know your style and form, and the techniques you use. When it’s ready I know I can translate it fairly quickly.
Behrouz: You know what? I’m going to do my best to finish it. Then I’ll be done with it and work on the diary. My main worry is that I won’t be able to write something powerful. I’ll return to it tonight and try to complete it soon. There’s not much left—less than a chapter. I’ll try to get it done this week. It’s a lot of pressure on me but I want to do it.
Omid: Look Behrouz, I don’t want you to put yourself under too much pressure. I know it’s horrific out there. No-one can write under those conditions. Send me a rough draft and we can work on it step by step. You need to rest as well. You can’t remain under pressure all the time. Write a draft and I’ll give you feedback.
Behrouz: I promise you, I’ll have it done within a week. I agree, I’ll just write and send you what develops. I’ll do my best to write a polished draft—it’s fine, I can be hard on myself for another week. I just need to put up with the pressure for a short time. What could happen?
Omid: Don’t worry, I’ll do my best to translate it well. It’ll be a great piece of literature in English. Rest assured.
Behrouz: I have the narrative structure in my head—I just need to write, I can do it.
20 October 2017
Omid: Are you all right, Behrouz? I know the situation is getting really bad.
Behrouz: This whole thing is going to take about 20 days. It’s really hard to write. Do you think it’ll be fine to write the book once this is over? It’s getting really bad out here. They’re not even serving us food any more, the bastards. I went to have breakfast this morning and there was nothing to eat. And then there was no proper lunch. It’s really tough—I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry, I’m not sure I can write the book. It’s horrible. I’m going to go take some Panadol to reduce my stress. I didn’t sleep last night. Thanks … I don’t know how to explain it, the situation is extraordinary.
Omid: No worries about the book. Twenty days is fine. I’m going back to Egypt tomorrow and my time is really constrained. I can probably translate all the recent diary entries on the flight. Look after yourself, keep me updated.
Behrouz: I’m going to sleep for one to two hours. Thanks.
23 October 2017
Behrouz: Did you read the news today? There’s a lot published about Manus. They mentioned that refugees won’t leave the prison camp and something serious is going to happen. We need to update the article a bit and add new information since the media have already covered quite a bit. We need to convey the terror and anxiety here—the lived experience. We had a meeting last night and everybody agreed not to leave the camp.
24 October 2017
Behrouz: I’ve done about 500 interviews since yesterday. The European media is right onto this. It’s become a media frenzy. It’s really attracted the world’s attention. Al Jazeera, BBC World, the Financial Times, CNN, newspapers from Spain and the Netherlands, Radio NZ. All foreign press. There’s a lot of pressure on Australia. It’s really on the international stage now. Let’s see what they do under the pressure.
But unfortunately one of the Kurdish guys lost his father. It’s especially hard under these conditions. We held a vigil for him tonight. It’s really tough.
Omid: Yes, I’ve been following the media. And I’m sorry about the loss. I feel that your resistance is going to be successful. Something is going to change. Australia can’t let it go on like this. I think it’s coming to an end. The world is watching and their international reputation is ruined. Something needs to change or there will be serious consequences for what they are doing.
Behrouz: I honestly haven’t experienced this level of interest by the media before. We need to work really hard during this time, I’m going to focus all my energy on writing this week. I mainly work with foreign media organisations so that there’s serious attention on this place. I hope the media write decent reports.
Omid: And I’m sure your film has made a huge impact. With the success of Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (2017) I’m sure many more people are watching Manus now and taking the issue a lot more seriously. I don’t think anyone anticipated the popularity of the film. Just think of the impact future projects will have on the Australian Government. What I mean is the book or the other film you’re planning to make … in general your cultural and intellectual projects. You’ll have them in a chokehold.
Behrouz: About the article. The one I wrote is not good enough because something new occurs every day. Could you let me know when it’s ready so I can add some sections to it? There’s something happening all the time.
I agree, the film has made an impact. It gave the situation here a new international dimension. It’s really great. I certainly hope the same happens for the book. The book is so much richer than the film—it’s really something else. I love the book more than anything else I’ve produced from Manus. The collaboration was fantastic—I enjoyed it immensely. A deep learning experience … a sweet victory.
Omid: I’ll try and get the article done tonight. I was held back a bit by some internet problems and all the travelling. But I can focus now.
Yeah, the book is really important to me, too. In my opinion, it’s the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’s had a profound impact on me and I’ve learned a lot from you. I’ve been developing ideas that I really wouldn’t have come up with if it weren’t for the book project. It has such remarkable literary, philosophical and cultural dimensions to it … and it’s not done yet. I’m positive that this book is going to be acknowledged in some very special places. Some distinguished people are going to respond to it—it’s going to be a literary and cultural phenomenon.
Behrouz: I hear what you’re saying. So if I put the final touches on the article before noon tomorrow will you be able to send it to me that evening? You see, there’s always something serious going on here with the closure and the piece needs to be up to date. I’m afraid it’s going to lose its validity and we’ll have to start over again.
And I really hope some experts show interest in the book. It’s extremely important to me that literary specialists give it their attention. That’s the greatest achievement I can hope for. I hope that’ll be the case.
But we’re stuck trying to finish the last chapter. We need to get it done.
25 October 2017
Behrouz: I’m happy with the translation. I hope they accept it since there have been a few new developments since I wrote it. But I have a good feeling about this one … I have a new sense of enthusiasm.
Omid: I’d be surprised if they don’t. It’s great. Let me know what they say … and find out if they’ll publish Mahmoud Salameh’s cartoon with one of your pieces.
Behrouz: It’s really interesting … The Guardian has asked for the diary entries again. I’ve gone and integrated the diary entries so they make up a complete article. But they want short daily reports about every-day things. Can we do that together? I really don’t want to take up your time. Moones Mansoubi can help as well. It’s just for a few days.
I’ll send you the first diary entry tonight. It’ll be short. But it’s hard to express what happens here during a whole day in a succinct article.
26 October 2017
Behrouz: The Guardian loved the first entry, they really want to know what life is like for the refugees inside the prison camp. Based on this response imagine the reaction to the book.
Omid: You see, I translated the diary entries in the same way I translated the book—it has a special literary quality to it. It’s like a narrative, it’s gripping in that way, I use literary techniques to translate the account … I think that’s why they liked it. It’s like the article about Duck Man. This is the story about ‘The last days in Manus prison’.
27 October 2017
Behrouz: Do you remember the idea about a book consisting of love letters from Manus? We can use the same approach, but I think it’ll be so much more beautiful. You see, with these daily reports I’m limited because I need to give basic information and facts, but with the letter-writing project I’m free. I can’t wait to work on that project. When I’m released I won’t need to write journalism and I’ll be free to write literature. Letter writing is a beautiful genre. It flows better and it’s more powerful.
It seems they’re going to publish five diary entries in total.
On 19 October the Australian immigration department distributed threatening documents throughout the camp. Two points were emphasised: 1) after 31 October water, power and food will be completely cut and the fences surrounding the prison will be taken down; and 2) the PNG navy will enter the prison and occupy the space.
These are threats in no uncertain terms. Clearly, they are telling the refugees to get out of the camp. The refugees are even more worried about the presence of the navy than about the termination of food and water. They are extremely frightened, and they have every right to be if one remembers events involving the navy in the past. In February 2014 local people attacked the camp and killed one of the refugees, injuring 77. Also, on the evening of Good Friday last year the navy attacked the camp, firing bullets in the direction of the refugees, with most of the shots hitting their rooms and tents.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘Days before the forced closure of Manus, we have no safe place to go’, Guardian, trans. Omid Tofighian, posted 27 October.
Behrouz: This is a wonderful project … daily reports as literature.
28 October 2017
Behrouz: I have a fear of writing. There’s a high possibility that someone could die. I’m tired of writing about death. I keep having to write about death. I fear writing. I’m tired of writing.
29 October 2017
Behrouz: Senator Nick McKim visited here and brought me a few copies of Island magazine with my chapter published in it. They love the way we’ve incorporated poetry into the prose.
30 October 2017
As soon as I awake I have to grapple with the images from last night’s nightmares, then immediately I approach the dining area to have breakfast. A few local guards are there, but the breakfast trays are empty. Furious, I just stare at the guards. They respond by saying they are sorry and that there is nothing left here to eat. These days, with the impending closure of the camp, there is never enough food to eat for breakfast or any other meal.
A tree with a large and robust trunk has fallen down onto the prison, damaging the fences.
This isn’t the first time that the overpowering tropical ecosystem of Manus forces its way into Manus prison, reclaiming its space. Reflecting on the incident, I entitle it ‘The Victory of Nature up against Steel’… a smile emerges on my face. I have a theory based on the idea that had the ecology of Manus not been so pristine, if it had not been so pure, perhaps all of us incarcerated here would have succumbed to the torture by now … we would have broken under the regime of torture and died. During all these years Australian immigration has been destroying the nature on the island; the desecration of the natural environment has been relentless. Australia has violated the sanctity of nature by disrespecting the habitat and constructing a prison. Today is another instance of nature’s struggle against the prison.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘Diary of disaster: The last days inside Manus Island Detention Centre’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 30 October.
Behrouz: Hi Omid, how’s it going? Thanks for your work on this one. It’s awesome. I’m so pleased with this publication, we created a new discourse in journalism. It’s a mix of journalism and literature. It’s excellent.
I’m getting such extraordinary feedback about this article. I’m getting messages from a whole range of new people … from those who never wrote to me in the past or who I would never expect. It’s fascinating. I have a new-found hope in writing. I’m receiving feedback from many senior people working in different fields. It was completely unexpected.
Omid: Wait until they read the book. They’re going to be awestruck.
Behrouz: The diary was powerful because we presented readers with something they haven’t encountered before in relation to Manus.
They’ve just put up a notice about evicting us from the prison. This place has transformed into a warzone: ‘Anyone choosing to remain here will be liable for removal from an active PNG military base.’
The refugees are staying. They’re saying they won’t accept eviction.
Tweet: ‘1 am: most refugees are awake. The notice from immigration creates fear. They are threatening refugees using the navy. Don’t forget Good Friday incident.’
‘Refugees adamant they won’t leave detention. They are afraid but refuse to leave detention.’
31 October 2017
Behrouz: Hi Omid, you well? … mate, the crisis here has reached its peak. They’re preparing to attack us any minute now. Any-thing is possible … it’s a horrible situation.
Omid: Behrouz, look after yourself, can anyone do anything? I don’t know … is there anything that can be done from here that might help at this point?
Behrouz: The whole thing is critical. The authorities have gone and left us alone here. We’re stuck here in the prison camp and no-one is around.
Hey Omid, the Guardian has got in touch … they’re asking me to keep writing. Do you have time to translate something short?
Omid: For sure, send it.
You know the locals well, especially the ones in Lorengau whom I met when I was there. Is it possible to get in touch with them and ask them to help by sending people to support you? They can talk to other people around there to make sure something horrible doesn’t happen. You know people there who have some influence.
Behrouz: The situation is complex … really complex. The problem is that in addition to groups of locals waiting to plunder the camp, there’s a good chance the soldiers will attack us. I think I need to write something and send it to you to translate immediately … is that possible?
Omid: Send it!
Behrouz: Half an hour! We’re not safe in here. But locals are also protesting in East Lorengau and saying they won’t let the authorities transfer the refugees to the new prison camps. They’re furious.
It’s like a war zone here. Type Manus Island into Google and see everything that comes up now.
Omid: Terrible … I really don’t know what to say.
Right now, the atmosphere in the camp is particularly unstable—an attack by the police and navy is imminent. The refugees are drawing on all their resources, their ingenuity and their sense of brotherhood to protect themselves from danger. Everyone realises that they have been abandoned and that this system, and this system alone, will dictate their fate. Constant anxiety, constant terror, constant aggression, constant affliction, unrelenting affliction. There is nowhere to go and various threats encircle the incarcerated refugees—we sense the malignance of the navy, the fury of the police, we sense the unpredictability and volatility of the locals.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘The refugees are in a state of terror on Manus’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 31 October.
Behrouz: Thank you so much, I’m really grateful. I’ll never forget this.
Omid: Don’t even mention it … we’re a team. It’s got to be done. Just look after yourself. Send my words of support to everyone … I’m thinking of them. Be careful.
Behrouz: I might get in touch tonight or tomorrow. They might ask me to write again.
Omid: Send whatever!
Behrouz: Omid, the article we published yesterday has been so successful that you can’t imagine. It’s been extremely popular. The response has been huge. I think it was probably the most-read article in Australia yesterday. It’s been great, thanks again.
Omid: Thanks, I’m so glad to hear it. It deserves that kind of response. It was an excellent article. You wrote a great account of the experience … it was beautiful. You employed an extraordinary style, I think that when the book comes out it’s going to have a massive impact.
I’ll ask Mahmoud Salameh to create another cartoon. He’s been following the events and I’m sure he can produce something appropriate in the next couple of days. Something that reflects the way things have developed.
Behrouz: Yes, please ask him to send something.
1 November 2017
Behrouz: Hi Omid, how are you? Okay? I’ve sent something for Moones Mansoubi and waiting for it to come back soon. It’s like the previous article … it’s such an unbelievable set of circumstances here. Could you translate something for tomorrow?
Omid: Send it!
Behrouz: There’s a rumour going around that the navy is being called in and will attack us. It’s like living under ‘the Sword of Damocles’. It’s really tough living like this. I haven’t eaten or slept since the closure. I’m really weak, I’m worried about my health. They’re degrading us here.
Omid: I can send it to you in 30 minutes.
I have emailed it.
Behrouz: Can you send it by Whatsapp, the internet is really slow here. Emails don’t open.
Thanks, I really appreciate it. The email opened after some time.
Omid: Another great piece … it allows for a more literary translation. What do you think?
Behrouz: The first article was fantastic. It had such a great response. Richard Flanagan got in touch with me to express his support. It’s significant that the article was shared continuously on Twitter. You know what that means? A lot of people are reading about what is going on here. It’s pretty extraordinary. Even when a president posts on Twitter it usually doesn’t get this many retweets. There are a lot of readers. The Guardian loved it as well… So much interest and outrage over the atrocities happening here.
Omid: I’m so pleased to hear it.
Behrouz: Hi Omid, I wanted to share some good news with you … you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve won the Amnesty International award for journalism. Two articles were sent through with my nomination: the one we published about Faysal Ishak Ahmed and the one that Moones Mansoubi translated about the island I used to visit off Manus. I wanted to let you know, thanks for everything.
Omid: Congratulations, Behrouz! I’m so happy to hear this. It’s wonderful news. You should be given awards from everywhere. You’re doing such important work. And it’s really special that the Faysal article was acknowledged together with Moones’ piece. We’re a good team … we’re always with you. It’s fantastic news. There’s more to come.
Behrouz: I’ll write something tonight for publication tomorrow. It’ll just be like this for a few days. I just want to say that what we’re doing is like a new style of literature. These are the beginnings of some important literary projects that we need to work on in the future. It’s not simply journalism … it’s part of our bigger project.
Omid: You’re absolutely right. These articles are now part of a legacy. They’re part of history … they’ll be here forever. For years people will be referring to these articles.
Behrouz: I’ll send you another article in three to four hours.
Omid: Okay, great, I’ll get it done tonight. Look after yourself, and tell everyone I’m thinking of them.
Behrouz: Just look at the reaction so many people are focusing Manus. Readers just continue to share! It’s a lot for an opinion piece.
Omid: Great! I just hope it affects the situation and makes change.
Behrouz: It will. It’s all over Twitter, it’s all over the internet. Washington Post, New York Times, Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN … all of them.
Omid: And so they should … it’s curious why they haven’t shown this much interest until now.
Behrouz: We need to keep resisting so that the government backs off. We have no other choice.
What do you think about writing something that’s purely literary? I mean, write in a way that does not really reflect journalism. It’ll be harder to translate, I know. What do you think? This way, a lot more people will anticipate the book. If we publish this and it turns out really well then many people will begin to see me in a new light.
Omid: Manus is a landscape of horrific surrealism.
Behrouz: It’s not up to me any more—this is an epic voice coming through. I’m writing as though I were writing an epic.
2 November 2017
Behrouz: The nights are horrible here. The mosquitoes are torturing us. It’s not just starvation and thirst. We’re fighting off the mosquitoes all the time.
Thanks for the translation, I’m going to put the title as you suggested: ‘Manus is a landscape of horrific surrealism’.
You know … people on the outside don’t know. It’s really horrific in here. It’s really tough. We need to talk about it later … I just woke up and received some bizarre messages.
The Guardian wants to publish something every day this week.
Omid: Send them! I’m here.
Behrouz: I’ll send another one to you tonight.
The corridor where I am staying has now developed into a kind of family environment and a feeling of brotherhood has taken over.
Starvation. Thirst. Terror.
Starvation, thirst and terror slowly but surely dominate the prison. Gradually these factors impose their power over the incarcerated refugees. Bodies are weak, muscles are fatigued, spirits are weary. It has been nearly five years full of anguish—anguish that has ground everyone down. During this last week in particular, no-one has slept properly. Everyone is weary out here, but the one mantra continues to reverberate:
We will never retreat and leave this hell of a prison. We will never move to another prison. We will never settle for anything less than freedom. Only freedom.
This is the scene here in Manus prison. These words are the soul of Manus prison. To you people who are looking on from outside the prison and think you understand exactly what is happening here, this landscape, which is replete with affliction, is totally incomprehensible. But I can only write about the environment here in prison. The words I write are starving, the words are thirsty … just like me. The pain of dozens of human beings all around me, with their clothes stripped off in this oppressive tropical heat, human beings with their bodies crushed, ravaged by mosquitoes—there is no end to the barbarity of the merciless mosquitoes … all this affliction is channelled through me in these words. Only those who have had to endure tropical condition will have some idea. The heat is a relentless attack, the mosquitoes conduct relentless attacks, the terror is amplified by the agonising heat and the tortuous mosquitoes. The trauma of Manus prison. Never forget that this place is Manus prison.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘Manus is a landscape of surreal horror’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 2 November.
Behrouz: I just got hold of a sleeping tablet. It’s 6.20 pm, I’ll sleep for about seven to eight hours. I haven’t slept for a week. I can’t talk now. I just took the sleeping tablet.
The Guardian got in touch and says that three of the top five shared articles today are mine.
Omid: A journalist from AJ+ got in touch and wants to contact you in order to create a video.
Behrouz: Hi Omid, are you all right? It’s 5 am here. I just sent you the article. I swear I’m so tired. I hope you can translate it quickly.
I wrote it using a literary voice … something like the book.
3 November 2017
Behrouz: Thanks again, this is really important work. We are creating a legacy.
Omid: Are you feeling all right?
Behrouz: Just tired. I slept for two hours. I really needed it. I’ll send you another article in two hours.
Omid: You’re doing such great things.
The refugees wake me up early in the morning. When this happens, it’s like suddenly entering a nightmare. The last time I experienced this was two months ago when they woke me up to news of the death of Hamed Shamshiripour. Hamed’s dead body was found hanging with a noose around his neck one rainy morning in the East Lorengau camp.
No-one has died today. However, the news is that death is on its way to take someone else from us. It’s a Rohingya refugee who is known to have been suffering from an illness. For years this middle-aged man has been battling against epilepsy.
I hurry over to Oscar camp. The refugees have laid him out on the floor. The rim of his mouth is covered in foam and it seems his eyes have doubled in size. What could one possibly do in this situation? There is no medicine here. Everyone is perplexed and in a state of panic. One person pours water over his face. Everyone wants to do something, even though we all know too well that our efforts are in vain. He’s lying there for an hour before he finally starts to feel better. Everyone is frightened. Manus prison can no longer tolerate the death of another individual. There is a mood of death, climate of death. And for a moment the presence of death has completely disrupted the equilibrium in prison.
Death is always ever so present.
The breath of death.
The scent of death.
The reign of death over Manus prison. This is the reality of living out here.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘The breath of death on Manus Island: Starvation and sickness’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 3 November.
4 November 2017
Behrouz: Hi Omid, are you okay? I’ve decide to take a break today. I’m too tired, I can’t think straight. I’ve hardly slept this past week. We can resume tomorrow—it’s too hard publishing every day. I slept four hours last night. I need more sleep.
Omid: Maybe we can publish three days of reports in one piece. We can continue to give them a more literary feel. But I noticed that readership dropped slightly with the last one and it might be better if we don’t put out an article every day. It’ll develop more interest.
Behrouz: I think you’re right. Maybe every other day, since there’s something new going on here all the time.
I’m working more than 17 hours a day. I’m always in touch with the media. I can hardly do anything else. I’ve smoked more cigarettes than ever before.
There’s darkness everywhere. We’re caught up with this right now.
7 November 2017
Behrouz: I notified the Guardian and told them I haven’t eaten a thing and I’m starving, so I simply can’t write today.
The Huffington Post is going to publish the last article.
Omid: Look after yourself.
Behrouz: Two of my friends from GetUp! were here last night and we spoke a lot about the book. I really want them to support the book since they have a lot of reach. Senator Nick McKim brought some copies of Island magazine—the one with my chapter published in it—so I gave them a copy and asked them to read it on their way back to Australia. It’s important to get feedback. It’s important to think about other perspectives leading up to the release of the book. People need to read about what’s been taking place here all these years. Different people have been coming here to take photos and film footage. I hope these events will build more interest and action, I hope different audiences read the book … then people will really start to understand. I’ll send you an article by tomorrow noon. It’s not a diary entry. I want to write about the history of this prison, more of a journalism piece. I detail what we’re asking for, why we’re resisting, what our demands are.
Omid: I agree, we need to reach as many people as possible with the book—people need to understand and act. The horror of the lived experience needs to be front and centre. It’s great if large organisations get involved in this. It’s really going to shake things up internationally. I’m positive that the book is going to be an important contribution and set new standards for literature. I’m interested to know how people respond. And send me the new article.
Behrouz: The situation here is critical, I can’t find time to work on the book. I think they’ll free us at any moment since the situation is so bad. The fact that we refuse to leave might lead to something good. We should probably get the last part of the final chapter to the publisher in December.
The sound of the jungle echoes. From a distance it feels as though the prison is terrified.
A bunch of anxious men.
A tropical jungle reverberating with harrowing sounds.
And a road winding through the jungle.
This was the entirety of the whole scene.
No sign of any car after 30 minutes.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘The night we tried to save a life among hundreds of starving men’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Huffington Post, posted 8 November.
11 November 2017
Behrouz: Do you think you could translate the latest article by today? What I want to convey is that the central issue here is freedom … nothing else … just freedom. Everyone is talking about irrelevant things, whereas we only want freedom. We haven’t remained here because the other camp isn’t safe or anything else. Freedom, only freedom.
Omid: Are you okay, Behrouz? You don’t sound well, I’m worried about you.
Behrouz: I’m okay, thanks. There are a couple of journalists here now. They’re taking pictures, they’ve set up strong lighting.
If this continues it’ll become … no … it is a humanitarian disaster, something beyond anyone’s imagination.
Omid: It’s a great article, I haven’t read anything like this before. It’s really strong with many crucial points.
Behrouz: Thanks, Omid, I hope it gets published. I should’ve finished it two to three days ago but I had no energy left.
12 November 2017
Omid: Hi Behrouz, everything okay? I read that the police and navy have entered the prison camp.
13 November 2017
It is enough for people to imagine themselves, only for a moment, in the place of a refugee imprisoned in Manus; enough for people to imagine themselves as someone whose human dignity has been debased over these years; enough to imagine the torture this refugee has had to endure. Imagine there is nothing positive to look forward to in the future for this refugee; possibly his partner has left him; or his children have been left alone; his dreams have been shattered. He has become a mere subject for the media, a mere subject for reporters, a mere subject for photographers, a mere subject for politicians, a mere subject for human rights activists, a mere subject for intellectuals and researchers. Over these past years they have all been reinforcing a huge industry that is built on the indefinite imprisonment of this refugee. And after four and a half years they now decide to transfer him to another prison and, according to Peter Dutton’s promise, provide him with three meals a day.
The issue is plain and simple. We did not come to Australia to live in a prison. The peaceful protest by refugees is not because we want to remain in this prison. We are resisting because we want freedom in a safe environment. The core concern is freedom … only freedom. The rest of what you hear are just peripheral issues.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘All we want is freedom—not another prison camp’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 13 November.
Behrouz: I’m getting insulted all over Twitter. They’re saying that someone else is writing these articles for me and I’m publishing them under my name. They hate the fact that I’m publishing so much. So it’s giving me motivation to write more. The idea they have in their heads of a ‘refugee’ is something totally different to what they are seeing. The kind of character I represent has created a crisis for them. It’s so interesting. So I want to write more analytical articles.
An enormous shift has taken place. Imagine, I had a relatively small number of followers on Twitter last week, and now I have three times the number of followers. Many of them are journalists and politicians—they’re all following the events via my Twitter account now. Most of them didn’t really know who I was until recently, but after they read my articles in the Guardian they started to see me differently, they started to acknowledge me as a journalist. A whole bunch of media organisations that never paid any attention to this place and never really wrote about it are writing about us regularly now. Some good … some bad. Even people from the Daily Telegraph are quoting my Twitter posts. This also means that anti-refugee individuals are getting to know me and starting to attack me—their comments are so terrible that my supporters are getting really upset.
Omid: How interesting … that’s so interesting. You could write an analytical article about the responsibility of the media and researchers in this situation. What is their moral duty and how should we reflect on their role after this is over? What are the consequences of their actions, or lack of action? How will we look back on the response and interpret it from an ethical perspective. We can outline some observations and expectations for those who support refugees—and even for those who don’t or are anti-refugee—and discuss their responsibility. This is a historically pivotal moment and the ethics of activism need to be re-evaluated. You can ask readers to rethink the situation based on your interpretation of activism.
Behrouz: That’s a good idea. But it’s such a wreck here. Last night I had to take two tablets so I could sleep. It’s a difficult topic, but it’s doable. I just need to be in the right frame of mind. But we need to get this book out. In light of everything that’s going on nothing is more important.
Omid: I was working all day so I’m going to check the news now and I’ll read the comments you’re talking about. It’s definitely getting worse and it seems people online are planning to attack even more.
Behrouz: I don’t even answer them on Twitter. They’re not important.
21 November 2017
Behrouz: Meanjin has contacted me about an article. I told them it’s really hard … I’m basically starving here at the moment and working 19 hours a day. Everyone’s suffering here and getting weaker. But this essay is important. I mentioned that I’d contact you and maybe we can write something together. But we also need to get the book done any way we can.
Omid: Sounds great, put me in touch. We need to finish the book but we can work on this soon after. I have an idea about publishing excerpts from articles written during this siege period and inserting the conversations we’ve had using Whatsapp voice and text messaging. It’ll give people some context to the pressure and danger you face while writing. It’s an important period in the history of this prison, it’ll be a special article because most people have no idea what you go through to write these pieces. What do you think?
22 November 2017
Behrouz: Do you hear that, Omid? Do you hear the sound of dogs barking and howling? It’s pitch black here. Completely dark.
I’ve been thinking, we need to write an article about why the academic community have been pretty much silent on this issue. They don’t seem to realise how extraordinary and critical the situation is here on Manus … it’s not just about a group of refugees. Can’t the universities see what this all means? How can a liberal democracy create a set of circumstances like this one? This is so very important. It’s an extremely critical question. I really want to write about this. So many universities, so many disciplines, so many academics. Not one has got in touch, after all this work I’ve been doing with photographers, journalists, human rights activists, etc. But no academics looking to do research with me? It’s so strange. There’s a serious problem here, a serious intellectual issue, a serious epistemic barrier.
Omid: Do the dogs bark and howl like that every night? It’s haunting … the violence is everywhere …
23 November 2017
Behrouz was arrested by PNG police but released soon after. He was then transferred to another prison camp in East Lorengau, where he is currently being detained.
Everyone was furious and they kept shouting at me: ‘You’re responsible, you’re guilty, you’ve damaged our reputation, you’re guilty!’ The police chief was pointing to me, making accusations: ‘You’ve always been antagonistic towards us, you’ve damaged our reputation!’ I wanted to respond, but he shouted me into silence: ‘Shut up!’
They tied my hands behind me with rope. I remember how two years ago Australian guards tied some refugees—they tied them up so tight that for one whole week blood had clotted around the rope marks, leaving serious bruising. But I know the Manusians well. Even when their anger reaches its peak, they still cannot hide their kindness. This time he tied me up in a way that was tight but did not hurt me.
—Behrouz Boochani, ‘Manus police pulled my hair and beat me. “You’ve damaged our reputation,” they said’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 24 November.
Articles published after the siege:
Behrouz Boochani, ‘“This is hell out here”. How Behrouz Boochani’s diaries expose Australia’s refugee shame’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Guardian, posted 4 December.
Behrouz Boochani, ‘I write from Manus as a duty to history’, trans. Omid Tofighian, posted 6 December, Guardian. Translation and transcription by Omid Tofighian.
Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador) was release on 31 July 2018. Boochani’s feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time (2017), co-directed with Arash Kamali Sarvestani, is available to watch on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/chauka.
Behrouz Boochani’s poetic manifesto:
Behrouz Boochani, ‘A letter from Manus’, trans. Omid Tofighian, Saturday Paper, posted 9 December. •
Behrouz Boochani graduated from Tarbiat Moallem University and Tarbiat Modares University, both in Tehran; he holds a Master’s degree in political science, political geography and geopolitics. He is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate and filmmaker and non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre (SAPMiC), University of Sydney. He is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time and author of No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 2018).
Omid Tofighian is an assistant professor of philosophy, American University in Cairo, and Honorary Research Associate for the Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney. He is author of Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 2018).