For more than six years, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani was detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. After almost drowning while arriving by boat as a refugee, he was forcibly transported to the prison-like camp under Australia's Pacific Solution policy. Although he speaks of torture and the lack of basic human rights, the award-winning writer and film-maker can forgive the people – but not the politicians.
Interview by Anke Richter
Anke Richter: When you arrived in New Zealand a month ago, we saw you smile for the first time in a photo. What surprised you here, apart from the haka at the airport?
Behrouz Boochani: 1338 WhatsApp messages! I finally got out of one system but was swallowed by another one: the media. I was overwhelmed. A lot has changed after being in the jungle and in a prison for so long. I'm wearing normal shoes for the first time after seven years. It was also new being surrounded by women again. And to have seasons, cool air. Mountains.
Where are you going to live now?
For now, nothing is sure, so I am sorry, I cannot give you an answer to this.
You travelled on a UN passport and were held in transit for 19 hours in the Philippines because you could not fly via Australia. Which passport would you have preferred?
I like this quote by the Kurdish writer Bachtyar Ali: "A passport is the most dangerous human invention." I don't care which one I travel with. I have no country that I belong to. But it's symbolic for me that I came to Christchurch, of all places.
Because of the mosque shooting?
There is a deeper connection between the attack in Christchurch and the inhumane system on Manus. Australian politicians produced this violence, exported it to Manus and then it landed in a peaceful city. The terrorist was Australian and influenced by years of hate speech against refugees and migrants.
You had a hero's welcome in Christchurch. But when you arrived on Christmas Island almost seven years ago and gave "writer" as your profession, they laughed at you at Customs.
It was so important for me to be welcomed here as a writer. No one is just a refugee. We are all people with backgrounds, with families, with professions.
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"I survived" were your first words on arrival. Did you not expect to leave PNG alive?
No, I didn't. The difference between concentration camps and Manus is that the system wasn't designed to kill us but we felt death around us at every moment. Eight men died on Manus, five on Nauru. When I arrived here and suddenly realised that all that was over now, I became very emotional.
You witnessed self-harm and suicide. Did you ever get close to harming yourself?
I was able to write and was privileged because I had a voice and supporters all around the world. That saved me.
How did you find the support? You were unknown outside of Iran when you got to Manus.
I managed to smuggle a phone in and hide it in my mattress. Then I began secretly contacting media. It took a while until they believed me because a lot of my work in Farsi was cleaned off the internet by Iranian authorities. It all changed with poet Janet Galbraith from Writing Through Fences. The first poems we exchanged were about nature. She has helped me ever since and looks after me. Later I became friends with (Melbourne writer) Arnold Zable and Lloyd Jones. Over a thousand people signed a petition for me. But in the beginning, I couldn't even risk writing under my name.
Did you – and your reporting from the camp – prevent someone from killing himself?
Only freedom would have saved those men.
You tried to cross the ocean from Indonesia on a rickety boat twice, almost drowning the first time. The British Navy picked you up and took you to Christmas Island, from where you were sent to Manus. Were you the first refugees there in 2013?
Some groups had been detained there already in 2001 and 2007. Shortly before I arrived, families were there. Because the conditions were so bad, they were deported when we arrived. I saw some of the children's drawings on the walls. That is the sad history of Australia – a history of camps, of imprisonment.
Your book No Friend But the Mountains describes the inhumane living conditions in the offshore detention centres in detail. How were you personally affected by this?
When you're there, it's a nightmare that doesn't end. The biggest problem on Manus is paranoia. You never feel safe in this invisible system. I had to focus hard not to lose my mind, so I neglected my health. I knew I could look after my body another time but not my brain. I lost weight and was down to 58kg at one stage. Three teeth fell out because of lack of nutrition. There was no proper medical care, just painkillers. The smallest infection could have ended badly. This physical weakness affects you mentally. I imagined my brain with two legs, like in a war zone [moves his fingers like a walking figure]: "Keep running, running."
You wrote a chilling diary about The Siege for the Guardian. Can you summarise it?
We were transferred from prison to prison over many weeks and we resisted. So they cut the water off. We had to dig wells. Someone had a heart attack and didn't get help.
Were you a target because of your activism and writing?
There were death threats. That's why some of the men protected me from soldiers and police when we were attacked in 2016 with iron rods and taken on to buses. PEN International learned about me, that made me feel safer.
You even appeared as a character in the play, Manus, in the UK.
They also used a video of the "mad poet" protest I had done, where I climbed up the highest palm tree in the prison and was up there for 12 hours. People were afraid I would jump down and kill myself. I screamed and demanded an MP3 player with Beethoven and Mozart on it. I came down only after I was guaranteed a shower and a smoke. I challenged the system in every possible way.
Chauka is the title of the documentary you secretly filmed on your phone. It's also the name of the national bird of Manus – and of the torture cell where you were held.
We went on a hunger strike in 2014. Then we were arrested and brought to Chauka. Everything there is white, the architecture is disorientating. You are watched by cameras around the clock. The guards are very aggressive and humiliate you. There are so many rules that don't make sense and can always change. Even when I had a shower someone was sitting behind me. Every time in Chauka and in the isolation tent, Charlie, I had to sign that I will be a good prisoner now and obey the rules.
What makes people break in the end?
The humiliation, the arbitrariness – anything can change any time and you have no say in it. You don't feel like a human being anymore. It starts with the clothes they made us wear. Like children. Like a zoo. If you lock up so many people together who cannot get away from each other, it leads to aggression. Basic survival. There was no privacy for anyone. Everything sexual happened in the toilet blocks that were flooded with faeces and garbage.
Did you ever think about escaping?
Everyone in prison thinks about it - but where would I have escaped to? I was on an island in the middle of the Pacific without money or a visa.
If you had known about Manus before fleeing Iran via Indonesia, would you have still wanted to come to Australia?
Most likely not. It happened because I had no real choice. I had to leave in a hurry because my life was at threat after my colleagues (at the Kurdish monthly, Weyra) were arrested. The people smuggler could only take me to Indonesia. I heard that they had sent people back from Australia, which would have been very dangerous for me. But it's not like you can just book a boat trip to arrive at your favourite destination. It took months before I had a second chance to leave Indonesia. I was starving at that time.
You were accepted for the United States in an exchange of refugees with Australia but choose not to leave PNG yet.
It seemed morally wrong then to leave the others behind. Two years ago, Manus prison, where I was held for four years, was closed. Then we lived in a more open camp but we still couldn't leave the island. Three months ago, the remaining 250 men were brought to Port Moresby. Forty-six of them are in prison because they don't have refugee status. It's very dangerous in the city, especially when you don't have money and are on foot. You basically cannot leave the hotel. It was the first time that I had a room to myself again but it's not a free life.
How do the refugees and the Manusians get on? In 2014, the detainees were attacked with machetes by local people who broke the fence down after a peaceful protest inside.
Before we were deported from Christmas Island to Manus, the Australian officials created this image of the island people as dangerous savages and cannibals. And they told the locals that we were criminals and not to come close to us. They deliberately created fear on both sides. The attack on us was the result of this. The Manusians were afraid we would get out. They thought we were terrorists.
Did you make friends among the local people?
We became part of the community, but it took a long time. Don't forget that we were also good for the local economy. Some refugees found partners there. There are about 30 or 40 children from those relationships.
Your documentary also has a strong message against colonisation.
The locals on Manus suffer under the same politics. I have always defended them and shown them in a different light through my writing. As a Kurd, I'm indigenous myself and can relate to them. The most important scene for me in my film is at the end: I sing a Kurdish song and this little boy dances to it on the beach behind the fence where I sit.
You mention "kyriarchy" in your book to describe Manus. What does it mean?
It's a feminist term for an intersectional bureaucratic system of oppression. It is based on the mechanical destruction of identity and individualism, of community – so people think only about themselves. I turned into a person who could only think about finding an orange for some vitamins, but not sharing it. It's a struggle for identity because the kyriarchal system reduces them to a number.
Yours was MEG045.
I hope I will just forget this number one day. Even in Port Moresby, outside the camp, I still had to use it as an ID all the time.
How did you spend your last weeks there?
Playing snooker. There was this young guy there, Omar, he could never make up his mind about which ball to hit. I told him: "Omar, never forget for the rest of your life that you survived the ocean. It's only a snooker ball, don't stress about it!"
Did Omar and your friends know that you were about to leave them?
I could not say goodbye because I had to keep my departure secret. Something could have gone wrong last minute; I didn't trust the authorities. But I felt more compassion for everyone. Some of my friends are damaged mentally. Even if they leave, they will have to battle this for the rest of their lives, like concentration camp survivors.
Organisations such as MSF (Doctors Without Borders) have described the devastating catatonic state of some Nauru and Manus refugees as "resignation syndrome". Is that ever heard of in regular prisons?
Australia calls it an "offshore processing centre". I call it a prison – but that's not the correct term either. Because in a Western prison, you have rights. You know your release date. We did not have that either, besides not being criminals in the first place but asylum-seekers. We were punished by a legal system that we could not access. You have nowhere to complain. Waiting and waiting is a form of torture. It wears people out, so they finally agree to go back to the country they fled from even if a war or a death sentence awaits them.
In other words, you would have had it better if you had committed a crime in Australia and gone to prison for it?
Yes, then I could have had visitors. Or at least a visiting dentist. The lack of medical care on Manus is deliberate. We weren't treated but became addicted to painkillers. For me, the criminal part of that system is the multinational corporation that ran it, IHMS. They should be in an international court.
In New Zealand and Australia, it would be unlawful to treat animals in that way.
You are not a human and not an animal in there. Something in-between. It's modern slavery. We weren't exploited as cheap labour but for politics.
Why did it take so long for protests to arise against the offshore detention camps?
Australia is a complicated society. Unlike in Germany for instance, there is not much understanding about their historical wrongdoing. What happened to Aborigines in the past and is still happening is similar in many ways to what's been happening on Nauru and Manus. Kevin Rudd apologised for the "stolen generation". That was a big day in Parliament. But the same Kevin Rudd introduced the detention policy just a few weeks before my arrival on Christmas Island and sent innocent people to Manus. He has also separated families, like with the stolen generation. We need to recognise these parallels.
You are an associate professor at the University of New South Wales and held lectures via Skype around the world. Can you change this narrative?
Many Australians say that they are ashamed. But shame doesn't lead to change. I want them to see what is wrong, and to understand why. I'm a reporter and an author and have written over 100 articles, but further research of the Manus Prison Theory has to come from academics now.
How ironic is it that you were awarded the Victorian Prize for Literature - the highest accolade for an Australian writer - without ever being able to set foot in Australia?
My face is now in every bookshop in Australia. My book is read in schools. The literary community and the citizens have pushed back against the politicians. What I wrote mattered because I was there at the time, standing in the queues, subjected to the prison system, sending out WhatsApp messages that others assembled into a book over four years. I did not create a platform to be famous but simply wanted change and justice. I will probably never receive an award again for the rest of my life.
Which novel are you planning to write next?
A love story. (laughs)
Did you have a romantic relationship in these last six years?
Yes, via phone. I have a girlfriend in Australia. She visited me on Manus when I was allowed to leave the camp for a day or so.
Are you worried that more countries, for instance in Europe, will copy the "Pacific Solution", with all the cruelty it entails?
I hope that Australia doesn't become a model. Even Donald Trump told Malcolm Turnbull back then: "You are worse than me." The real danger that I see is how this is affecting Australia itself, the political culture. If you damage refugees, you damage yourself. Australians think they are safe by banning us. But what their government is doing to us is what they will be doing to other minorities, to everyone. They practised a dictatorship on Manus. It will spread further if we don't stand up against it.
The official line about Manus and Nauru is that the centres saved lives because less refugees are coming across the ocean and drowning.
It's one of the biggest lies in the history of Australia. Offshore detention centres were not built because of the boats but as a warning to the people, including the Australian people. We were used in the election for a political agenda. Many Australians are happy that we suffered on Manus.
The camps have been pulled down since but you returned to have a look?
That's part of fascism culture: You clean up the traces so that no one knows what happened there. But we have the material. The prison is on a former Navy base and it was dangerous to be there, so I just stayed for a few minutes with a journalist. While he was filming, I sat on the beach and looked at the prison that is slowly turning into a jungle.
Should the former guards be held accountable?
Definitively the politicians and the management. The employees there are only people. My priority is a Royal Commission and for this information to go public, because it has been kept secret for too long. I also want to know what happened to the $9 billion that all this has cost. Into which pockets did all that money go while my teeth fell out?
Amnesty International has supported your trip to New Zealand. Are you getting trauma counselling now?
I'm not sure I can trust therapists since Manus. For me, the psychologists and doctors and nurses who worked in the prison camps are the biggest part of this torture. Many people who got out actually get flashback from them. I work through things by writing. Now I need to learn how to cook.
Anke Richter, originally from Germany, is a freelance foreign correspondent. In 2015, together with writer Donna Miles, she organised the event See Me, I'm a Refugee, in Christchurch. It was held along the fence outside the Botanical Garden – in the same place where thousands of flowers, candles and cards were placed after the March 15 attack.