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Words that shatter the silence

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (Picador)

Kurdish-Iranian Behrouz Boochani spent four years imprisoned in one of Australia’s offshore detention facilities, the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea. The centre has been closed and Boochani is no longer locked up but, without travel papers, he remains confined to the island.

He cannot leave even to receive literary and human rights awards — some of them, ironically, bestowed by the Australian government.

Boochani’s chronicle of his years in Manus prison, No Friend But the Mountains, was transmitted to the wider world using WhatsApp messages and voice notes. It is a harrowing read: from his boat ride from Jakarta to the deprivation, brutality and torture of life on Manus.

The island is a prison, operating under the logic of the Australian border-industrial complex. As Boochani phrases it, this system is about “returning the refugee prisoners to the land from which they came”. This is both a description of the system’s intended deterrent effect — prisoners can choose to be deported to their country of origin, although few do so, for fear of persecution — and an embodiment of life on Manus, where harsh discipline works to turn prisoners against each other and make life unbearable.

The reduction of people to numbers — Boochani became MEG45 — as they enter the prison system; the violence of the guards as they beat up a prisoner who wants permission to call home to speak to his dying father; the pettiness of the same guards as they destroy a makeshift backgammon board — these are all part of a system designed to deny the refugees humanity. Many turn to self-harm: the humiliation of standing in a queue to receive a razor is released together with the blood that flows from their arms and wrists.

Few of the characters Boochani describes or the events he recounts are real in a strict journalistic sense. Instead, the book is a “truthful firsthand experience of what it has been like to be detained within that system”. Identities were manufactured and composite characters created, so as not to make the prisoners more vulnerable.

Translator Omid Rofighian aptly refers to Boochani’s writing as “horrific surrealism”.

His memoir stands apart from many contemporary refugee narratives that follow a redemptive arc of an individual overcoming adversity. This is not only because of his poetic sensibility, but a reflection of his grander project: to describe and interrogate the politics of border policies and refugee internment, as well as to acknowledge the importance and agency of refugees collaborating to dismantle this system.

There’s a line in the book, when Boochani and his fellow refugees are travelling to the shore in Indonesia to embark on their journey. They must be quiet, so as not to attract the attention of the police. “Everything depends on silence,” he writes.

This silence is instrumental in securing a refugee’s safe passage to a new land. But, when they arrive at their destination they are faced with new silences. There is the silence that is caused by being on an island, by being in a prison; the silence of little contact with the outside world.

But there is also the silence that emanates from that outside world: the cruel bureaucracy that works overtime to enforce silence about the hellish conditions it has created; the people who have heard the stories of life on Manus and other refugee prisons and choose to block this knowledge out, to silence the truths that are too terrible to be acknowledged.

Everything — including the systems of refugee incarceration around the world — depends on silence; on our perverse, wilful decision not to know. Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains is a vital, first-person work that pierces this silence with excruciating precision.

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