Behrouz Boochani – Profiled by Arnold Zable

Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, is known by fellow asylum seekers as ‘The Reporter’. Detained on Manus Island since August 2013, he works up to eighteen hours a day, filing stories, photos, film-footage, social media posts. Sending out documents, information, responding to numerous media requests for comment. Bearing witness.

Boochani fought to be heard in his first years of incarceration. ‘I started to work against this prison system on the first day that they exiled me here,’ he says. ‘At that time, I had to send out my writing with very restricted access to the internet. We are in a remote prison, it's hard to work with the lack of technology and most of my writing is on a small mobile phone.’

Boochani has struggled to have his work acknowledged. ‘I feel I have been denied my identity as a journalist and a writer,’ he says. ‘There have been times when journalists have published a story based on information I have given them, and they have referred to me only as a refugee. I'm doing the same job as other journalists in Australia or elsewhere.’ Boochani sees this as part of a wider problem—the denial of refugees of their stories, their skills and aspirations, and reduced to their victimhood.

Boochani worked as a journalist in Iran, before he fled in fear of this safety. Born in Ilam city, in 1983, he graduated from Tarbiat Madares University in Tehran with a masters’ degree in geopolitics. He worked as a freelance journalist for several Iranian newspapers, publishing articles on Middle East politics, sport, and Kurdish culture, and co-founded the Kurdish magazine Werya, documenting Kurdish aspirations for cultural freedom.

On February 17, 2013, officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ransacked the Werya offices in Ilam and imprisoned six of his colleagues. Away in Teheran at the time, Boochani published the information on the website Iranian Reporters, and the report was widely circulated.

Boochani went into hiding. Having been interrogated previously about his work promoting Kurdish culture, he was in grave danger. He fled Iran on 23 May, 2013, and was one of 75 asylum seekers intercepted by the Australian Navy in July that year, en route to Australia. It was his second attempt at the crossing from Indonesia. On the first, the boat sank. He was rescued by Indonesian fishermen, and jailed on his return. He was detained on Christmas Island and transferred to the Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre in late August 2013.

‘On Christmas Island I asked for asylum in Australia. I told immigration I am a journalist, but I did not get a respectful response. I was wondering why it was not important for them. I said to immigration: Don't exile me. Don't send me to Manus, I am a writer. They did not care.’

Comparing the challenges of writing in Iran and Manus Island, Boochani says: ‘In Iran you don’t have the right to express any opinion that criticises the system. On Manus, you can write anything you like, but your voice gets lost in the face of Australian government propaganda.

‘In some ways, my situation is the same as it was in Iran. I have the same fears. I don’t feel safe in this prison. Four people died on this island and I always worry that I may come to harm in a suspicious way.’

‘It's hard to work in this situation,’ Boochani adds. ‘Many people are at the end of their suffering. Many are afraid of Immigration. I can’t work on their cases and have to write in generalities.’

Boochani’s work extends beyond journalism. He has collaborated with human rights agencies, reporting on human rights abuses occurring at the centre. ‘I work with lawyers, go to meetings with immigration officials as a representative, and work with refugees planning hunger strikes or protests.’

Boochani was deeply affected by the murder of fellow Kurdish-Iranian Reza Barati, in February, 2014. The two men met on Christmas Island, and became close. Both came from the same city, Ilam. Boochani reported extensively on his murder and the deaths, through medical neglect, of detainee Hamid Khazaie and Sudanese refugee Faysal Ishak Ahmed. Typically, his profiles of these men attempt to restore them to their full humanity, depicting diverse facets of their identities.

Despite the ongoing crises, the many demands upon his time, and the constant undertow of tension, Boochani’s output in a range of media has been prolific. In 2016 he shot a full-length documentary on his mobile phone. Despite the technical limitations, it is a poetic, hypnotic film, which conveys the soul destroying monotony of indefinite detention.

He is also working on a book that depicts his ill-fated boat journey from Indonesia, and his years of incarceration. Boochani writes with narrative flare, and an eye for the startling image. The book documents the endless grind, the daily indignities, the relentless heat, the whirring of fans, the humiliating queues for food and medicines—the Kafkaesque nightmare.  It is both a personal tale, and a tale of 900 men, in the prime of their lives, denied their liberty, watching the prime years of their lives slipping by. ‘It is torture’ Boochani says. ‘And the responsibility lies with the Australian government.’

He also writes of his retreats into nature, and the solace he finds in the sea, the tropical forests.  And of his growing appreciation of Manus island culture and its history of colonial exploitation.

In the early years, journalism doubled as a means of maintaining his sanity between descents into depression. He was buoyed by his daily contact with trauma worker, Janet Galbraith, who arranged for his writings to be translated from Farsi to English. Having to rely on translation has been an added source of frustration. ‘I really appreciate my translators, especially Moones Mansoubi, in Sydney, who has been with me for a long time. But I wish I could write as well in English as I do in Kurdish or Persian.’

Behrouz Boochani is driven by a sense of mission, and with an eye for the bigger picture: ‘We are in a moment in the history of the modern world in which the western countries are violating international conventions and laws,’ he says. ‘These are conventions that they themselves established. I think this is dangerous for the future of our humanity and society.

‘In a philosophical sense we have to acknowledge we are human and therefore we don't have any choice but to trust in humanity. When we are alone, where can go except to reach out to humanity? This is our only real shelter.’