No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. This literary masterpiece incisively denounces what is going wrong in our world.

With a hidden mobile phone and an unstable internet connection, the Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani wrote the book 'No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison' about his experiences as a political refugee on the island of Manus - the Australian Gulag - in the Pacific Ocean. A political statement, a cutting condemnation, and a literary masterpiece.

Behrouz Boochani (1983) is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist. In 2013 he fled his country because he feared for his life. The Iranian Ayatollahs weren't a big fan of his critical articles. I'd say that's an understatement. His pleas for education in Kurdish and for Kurdish culture, in particular, were not well received at all.

Christmas Island, more than 3000 km from mainland Australia. Photo: screenshot Google Maps

He also wrote about the Middle East and about the rights of other minorities in Iran. In addition to his journalistic work, Boochani is also a poet. Both his writing experiences and talents, prose and poetry, would come in handy for him, as later would prove.

He didn't flee without a reason. Several journalists have already disappeared in Iran, are being held for years without trial, even without charges, or are being executed. After a raid in February 2013 in the editorial offices of the Kurdish magazine Werya by the Revolutionary Guard, 11 journalists were arrested. Boochani was out of the office that day and was able to flee the country illegally after three months.

"Hospitable" Australia

He chose to go to Australia, a hospitable country that consists entirely of migrants, with the exception of an indigenous population of 3.3 percent. At least, that's how he thought. He says nothing about the circumstances in which he fled Iran and first got to Indonesia. He does not want to jeopardize his contacts and friends. Nor does he say anything about the family he left behind.

Even further away in another foreign country, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Photo: screenshot Google Maps

His story begins on the southern shores of an island in the Indonesian archipelago. It is then already his second attempt to reach Australia with a rickety boat. The first four chapters deal with that risky journey.

Fear in all its forms

I have rarely read a story in which you can almost taste the chaos of fear. The fear of drowning in a leaking boat that must be pumped empty with a pump that constantly breaks down. The fear of dying of hunger. The fear of ending up again in Indonesia after days of drifting away, as happened to him before.

During the day there is the scorching sun and the suffocating heat on a crowded boat where not the least hygienic care is possible, and poetry:

Hours pass
Sitting there, on that scorching Sunday
We wait under that merciless sun
Waiting and rejoice
Waiting with the scent of freedom in the air

During his imprisonment in Manus, Boochani thinks a lot about himself, about human nature, about the meaning of life, which he alternates with descriptive parts about life in Manus.

Courage is deeply connected with foolishness
Without foolishness, it would be impossible to fight against the waves and continue this odyssey
This is what I know: courage is even more connected with despair
The more desperate a person, the more fanatic he looks up the danger, again and again.

A soldier in front of a minefield

I am like a soldier who has to cross a minefield, or else I'll end up as a prisoner of war. You have to choose. There's no turning back. I can't turn around anymore.

The rescue seems close by in the form of a ship from the Australian Navy. They have only covered 400 kilometers and are more than 3,000 kilometers away from their dream destination, Australia. The illusion was quickly shattered. After spending a month on Christmas Island in Australia, they end up in one of the Australian-built prisons on Manus, an island in Papua New Guinea.

That's where the disillusion and the drama begins. However, Boochani is not only talking about his own fortunes. He describes the people around him, with their bad sides and human flaws, but also with an indestructible will to survive.

In his book, Boochani uses pseudonyms or descriptions such as Father with Child, Boy with the Blue Eyes, Strongly Muscled Guy or Man with the Big Mustache for the stories about his fellow refugees. He only gives Reza Barati and Hamid Khazaei their real names. He describes the circumstances in which they died in Manus. Their tragic fate - Barati was murdered by a guard, Khazaei died because a vital operation was denied - was also reported in other media.

The camp is not just organized. Everything is arranged to humiliate, to discourage, and to suppress. This system serves a dual purpose: to prevent prisoners from organizing themselves or waiting patiently for the approval of their file in the short term, in the long term they want to get them to agree to "voluntary" repatriation to the country they have fled.

In that kind of system, Boochani recognizes colonialism in its new form. The white Australian guards of G4S stand above the brown local staff of Papua, which is poorly paid to do all the dangerous and dirty work. Those Papuans are scared of the prisoners. Over time, the prisoners learn why. The Australians have told them that they are all fanatic terrorists...

The task of the media

Boochani is a journalist, which does not prevent him from being very critical of his colleagues and of the mainstream media in general. It starts with the transfer to the airport on Christmas Island to a destination they don't know. "They deliberately parked the buses very far from the plane - their goal: total humiliation ... the journalists do everything to capture the entire scene. I know they enjoy this, the shattering of the dignity of a person."

And upon their arrival at Manus: "the press is circling like vultures: they wait for the sad, miserable exodus from the bus; they hope that we will come out as soon as possible, that they will catch a glimpse of the pathetic and hopeless people, and then they throw themselves on us. They are completely captivated by the dirty politics of their government and they're playing along. The idea is that we are going to serve as a warning to discourage those who seek protection in Australia."


This is the ironic twist of fate of a journalist who fled his country because of his journalistic work. The permanent humiliation goes very far. When a few prisoners unsuspectingly draw a backgammon board on a plastic table and start playing with plastic bottle caps, a group of guards immediately intervenes very roughly. Board games are prohibited in the camp.

Photo: PrintScreen from the film 'Please Tell Us the Time' by Behrouz Boochani

The white Australian staff of G4S, the largest private security company in the world, earns five times as much as Papua's local colleagues. Before their work in Manus, they have worked in Australian private prisons. Moreover: "many of those guards are former soldiers who have fought for years in Afghanistan and Iraq: they have waged war on the other side of the world. They have killed people." Again, the bitter irony of surveillance by former soldiers who fought in the wars that caused these refugee flows.

The most tragic and deeply moving story is that of the Father with the Little Child. Read the book to know why. Riots, fights, murders, deaths, suicides, assaults with tear gas, a rebellion that lasts 23 days, twice in the "Chauka", the isolation cell. It alternates with the everyday routine, the smell of sweat and urine that you never get used to, the heat and the endless waiting in rows.

Rows for shaving soap, other rows for razor blades, rows for smelly, dirty toilets, rows for telephones and rows for food. And the importance of the number five ... Every time also unexpected changes. One day no breakfast but cake for lunch, the other time lots of food for the first in line and nothing left for the rest. Acceptable hot food one day, the other day watery broth without taste. Why? Lack of organization? None of it. The intention is to disorient. To discourage.

Tons of respect how Boochani managed to keep writing about it for five years, without knowing whether it would lead to anything.

Literary masterpiece

Boochani loses his mobile phone three times, once because he was caught. Yet he was never worried about it. After all, he knew for sure that everything he had already sent would never be lost. "Imagine that I had written everything down on paper and that everything had been taken away from me." Again the irony, the Australians don't think about turning off the mobile phone network for their own comfort. Mobile phones are forbidden, but small and easy to hide. A little corruption also helps.

Photo: PrintScreen from the film 'Please Tell Us the Time' by Behrouz Boochani

Political charges published in book form are appealing because of the message, but are rarely fine literature. However, this book is a literary masterpiece. Boochani is a talented writer and poet.

Finally free

About two weeks ago the news appeared that Behrouz Boochani was released, after 2,269 days (almost six years) in Australian prisons in Manus and at the end in Port Moresby. The government there has declared the prison of Manus illegal, partly due to the revelations in this book. After years of hesitation, the Australian government finally agreed to have him leave for New Zealand.

Photo: PrintScreen from the film 'Please Tell Us the Time' by Behrouz Boochani

Australia had already received an offer from its neighboring country for some time to take refugees from Manus and other camps. However, the Melbourne government refused because, according to them, New Zealand "too easily" grants nationality, after which they could travel to Australia without any restrictions.

Indictment of cowardice

This book is also an indictment of cowardice. The cowardice of the government of a country that consists almost entirely of migrants, but does not allow other migrants. This is about the cowardice of Australian politicians and political parties. Those who have ended up there live in terrible conditions, to which the authorities choose to turn a blind eye.

This is about the cowardice of the media who fail to report not even a little bit balanced about the issue.

However, it would be too easy to only blame Australia. I would say this book is an indictment of the cowardice of the entire "free" West, of the cowardice of politicians who say that the "Australian" approach is the best without batting an eye, like it's nothing...

#books #story #poetry #writing #news #world #australia 

  • Mountain photo by Benjamin Grant on Unsplash
  • Note: I do not have an English version of the book, so the quotes are a loose translation and therefore differ from the original translation.

More info about Behrouz Boochani: