No Friend but the Mountains – Behrouz Boochani

In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island…This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.

This week is Refugee Week. It has been celebrated as a national event in Australia since 1988 and aims to raise awareness about the issues that impact the lives of refugees in Australia, as well as celebrate the rich and diverse contribution they have made to our society. We have a long history of welcoming migrants and refugees to our shores. Since the end of World War Two over 7.5 million people have settled in Australia and while the numbers have fluctuated over that time, it is interesting to note the rapid increase in skilled migrants over the last decade. In contrast, the number accepted under the humanitarian program over the last 70 or so years has remained relatively stable. (Australia Parliament House) Officially Australia claims that migrants and refugees are welcome, yet the reality of their experience in Australia often tells a different story. Discrimination and racism have been an all too common theme.

Immigration, refugees and asylum-seekers are hot topics in Australia and usually for not the right reasons. It is very easy to spout off inflammatory and derogatory comments about refugees and asylum seekers without considering the reasons they have been forced to flee their homelands. It is especially easy to do this in a country where our homes are not being bombed, our children are not dying from starvation, and we are not being persecuted, imprisoned or murdered for our beliefs, culture or way of life.

There are currently around 80 million displaced people in the world and more than 26 million refugees. The most common reasons are war, disaster and persecution. I don’t claim to have any political solutions, but in a country that boasts of wide open spaces, a high standard of living, and a devout belief in mateship and a fair go, we should be aiming to treat people humanely. To our great shame, this is not the case.

While Australia’s resettlement program is world-class, Australia’s treatment of refugees who come to Australia seeking protection is now leading the world in the opposite direction – to the most punitive policies aimed to deter vulnerable people from seeking safety. There is no ‘queue’ for people to join. Instead, the ‘normal’ way for refugees to find protection across the world is to cross a border and claim protection as a refugee. This is commonly called ‘seeking asylum’.

Refugee Week FAQs

I knew that No Friend but the Mountains would be a tough read but it is a book that every Australian should read. The Foreward is written by Australian writer, Richard Flanagan, who says…

Everything has been done by our government to dehumanise asylum seekers. Their names and stories are kept from us. On Nauru and Manus Island, they live in a zoo of cruelty…These prisoners were all people who had been imprisoned without charge, without conviction, and without sentence…
the Australian government… went to extreme lengths to prevent refugees’ stories from being told, constantly seeking to deny journalists access… (and even threatening to jail) doctors or social workers who bore public witness to children beaten or sexually abused…Reading this book is difficult for any Australian. We pride ourselves on decency, kindness, generosity and a fair go. None of these qualities are evident in Boochani’s account of hunger, squalor, beatings, suicide and murder.

Flanagan is right. It was a difficult read and I struggle to find the words to adequately express my anger and shame. So for the most part, I will let Boochani speak for himself.

Where have I come from?

From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains…
In the past, we were weary from the war. The war elephants from the neighbouring lands had decided to wage battle for many years inside our vibrant and luscious plantation…every place was crushed underneath them. That war wasn’t our war. That violence wasn’t our violence. The theatre of war wasn’t our production. War was uninvited…a time we called the flee and fight years…a time when people would run to the mountains from fear of the warplanes…They found asylum within chestnut oak forests.

Do the Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?

Whoever couldn’t reach the mountains had to die. These were the rules…Dreams…hopes…fertility…smiles…beauty…all decimated. These were the rules of war.

Animosities reached climax and teeth gnashed from extreme hate. Old wounds were opened and blades of battle tapped into the cesspool of history, the history of hate…On one side, Iraqi Ba’athists would empty their rounds. On the other side, Iranian zealots would open fire. In the middle were our homes – our homes left desolate. Two grand war elephants – administering nothing but hurt.

“It was a war with no end, like all the other wars of history. A war with roots in earlier wars. And those wars had roots in other wars. A chain of wars born out of the nether regions of history.

Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian. There is actually no official country called Kurdistan. It is a mountainous region that covers parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and is home to about 30 million people known as the Kurds. Over the centuries they have experienced many invaders and conquerors, including the Ancient Persians, Alexander the Great, Muslim Arabs, the Mongols…and much oppression and discrimination that continues to this day. Their cities have been attacked by ISIS. In Turkey, their language has been officially prohibited with the threat of arrest and imprisonment. In Iran, activists, writers and teachers have been arrested and sentenced to death without legal representation or a fair trial.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) states…

Everyone has the right to a nationality.

Article 15, UNDHR

And…

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 19, UNDHR

What causes people to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and undertake a risky journey across the sea in a rotten boat? Absolute Desperation.

This I know: courage has an even more profound connection with hopelessness/
The more hopeless a human being, the more zealous the human is to pursue increasingly dangerous exploits.

I am a piece of meat thrown into an unknown land; a prison of filth and heat. I dwell among a sea of people with faces stained and shaped by anger, faces scarred with hostility. Every week, one or two planes land in the island’s wreck of an airport and throngs of people disembark. Hours later, they are tossed into the prison among the deafening ruckus of displaced people, like sheep to a slaughterhouse.”

We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge.”

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Article 14, UNDHR

Apparently, not in Australia.

Australia is stopping people seeking asylum from coming (by boat or plane). If any do come by boat, they are sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea to be ‘processed’ for years, and are being left to languish there with little prospect of living safely and supporting themselves. Those who enter Australia without prior notice are, by law, required to be detained. There is no time limit to their detention and no independent review of whether they should be detained. People are held despite committing no crime. Those now in administrative detention have been there on average for more than a year, with some detained now for nine years.

Refugee Week FAQs

Detained for years. Without charge. Without a conviction. What must that do to a person’s soul?

The system fragments and disorients the prisoner to such an extent that he is alienated from his sense of self.”

One night Boochani witnesses…

Twenty-six individuals. Rhinos up against a leopard. Yes. That’s right, twenty-six Rhinos and one lone leopard….Each and every one of the Rhinos is wearing black gloves. These gloves are full of little metal spikes around the hand-wraps…the Rhinos rush him…they run over in his direction…They aim to trap the prisoner and completely trample him…

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 5, UNDHR

When the Minister for Immigration visits the island, he never looks, he never listens. He doesn’t want to know.

The Minister points his finger like a dictator…he speaks in haste. He delivers his words with intentional force. He says, “you have no chance at all, either you go back to your countries or you will remain on Manus Island forever.” He leaves in a hurry.

Forever?

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 9, UNDHR

The dilemma is this: submit a case for refugee status and settle on the island forever, or fill out a voluntary deportation form.

Having to return to the point from which I started would be a death sentence.

In 2016 the government of Papua New Guinea declared the Manus Island prison illegal and it was closed in 2017. In 2020 Boochani was granted refugee status in New Zealand.

No Friend but the Mountains is not an easy read, in more ways than one. It is a shocking revelation of violence and the deliberate humiliation and dehumanisation of vulnerable people. At the same time, it is a beautiful piece of writing that testifies to the strength of the human spirit to transcend all manner of attempts to rob an individual of their human dignity and break their heart, soul, mind and body. Translator Omid Tofighian describes it as “a mix of literary language and journalism” that depicts “the strategic use of starvation, thirst, insomnia, disease and emotional and psychological pressure as tools of torture.”

Human Rights…

are not a reward for good behaviour. They are not country-specific, or particular to a certain era or social group. They are the inalienable entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places — people of every colour, from every race and ethnic group; whether or not they are disabled; citizens or migrants; no matter their sex, their class, their caste, their creed, their age or sexual orientation.

Preamble, UNDHR

References and Further Reading

Boochani, Behrouz. No Friend but the Mountains. Picador, 2018.

Refugee Week website

Refugee Council of Australia

Australia Parliament House

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