On Manus, a republic of resistance for all refugees

SMH NEWS: Manus Demonstration – Protestors clasp arms in the air in peaceful protest, to demonstrate solidarity, resilience and strength, like the men on Manus.?? SOS Manus demonstration hosted by Refugee Action Coalition Sydney and GetUp! in First Fleet Park, Circular Quay on November 26, 2017 in Sydney, Photo by Anna KuceraI have known Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani since 2014. He fled Iran in fear for his safety as an advocate for Kurdish rights and culture. He has been detained on Manus Island since August 2013.

Over the years we have often discussed his predicament, and how it has changed the way he views the world. Behrouz combines political insight with philosophical reflection, but at heart he is an artist: a writer and poet with an eye for both the brutal and the beautiful.

As 2018 approaches the men, women and children on Nauru and Manus Island are enduring their fifth year of incarceration. Globally, there are an estimated 65 million displaced people, many of whom are stateless. Behrouz Boochani’s case is both unique and emblematic.

Part of this dialogue took place in June and was first published in the NGV Triennial by the National Gallery of Victoria. It is presented here in edited form and followed by a conversation which took place this week.

Arnold Zable: Behrouz, you were forced to flee your country in search of freedom. How does it feel to approach and move across unknown borders?

Behrouz Boochani: First I would say that I was born on a border and this concept of a border is part of my identity. Kurdistan was divided between four countries after the First World War, and most of the Kurdish population are living across borders.

When I was in the plane over the Iranian sky, I was thinking I was leaving a country where I did not belong. I did not think I was leaving my homeland.

At that time I thought I was crossing a border between two civilisations – Eastern civilisation and Western civilisation. For me that meant I was going to embrace freedom ??? I thought that Western culture was for anybody who could understand it, and that it was for all humans, not only for Western people ??? When I arrived in they exiled me to Manus Island, and I discovered that my understanding about Western culture was superficial.

I have experienced a lot of borders here that I did not expect. Borders between human beings ??? and even a kind of illusory political border that exists on a map, but is ignored by political power – where a government like the n one can make decisions for countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru. I expected to find what I thought were Western ideals of freedom, but instead found myself in a land where I don’t have any rights.

You remain in exile, but since the PNG Supreme Court decision declaring the centre illegal, you’ve moved about the island a bit more freely. How have you experienced the movement between you and the indigenous people? Have you broken through this border?

I was thinking about Manusian culture for a long time ??? After the PNG Supreme Court decision, I was able to access their community, and I have learnt a lot about their culture, music, religion. Another interesting thing for me was to discover elements of colonialism in their culture, and how colonialism has had an impact on their culture for a long time ??? The Manusians are similar in some ways to Kurdish people, for example, in the way colonialism has had an impact on them.

You say that four years after leaving Iran you feel yourself to be a stateless person, and you belong to no country. Where do you belong now? How do you sense the world around you?

I always imagine the world map. I always imagine a tiny island and a prison in the tiny island. It’s where I am at this moment. Three years ago, when the local people attacked our prison and killed a person and injured 100 people, the guards took us to a soccer ground outside the prison. That was the first time we had been out. They gathered 900 men on the soccer ground for a night. On that dark night I was looking at the sky, and I felt that there was no place in the world for me – they even took away my prison. I felt that I don’t even belong to the Earth and I was looking at the sky and imagining another planet.

Three years since that night I’m still imagining the world map, I’m still imagining a tiny island and a prison in that tiny island. But I’m still alive and I have changed my mind and I feel deeply that I belong to the Earth. I belong to nature and I believe in solid ground. I think we are human and don’t have any shelter but humanity.

I have had people from around the world and sending messages to me, sharing their kindness with me, and I think that I belong to this world and I belong to the humans beyond the political borders ??? I am a free man.

This is a profound paradox Behrouz. Out of your suffering, has emerged a humanistic vision, and a way of being in the world, that has taken root despite your statelessness and the restrictions on your movements. How much of this comes from being a writer, a thinker, an observer, and a person who is constantly bearing witness?

It is a paradoxical vision and a paradoxical situation. I agree. But I do not think it’s important where you are in order to feel freedom and humanity, because feeling freedom and humanity relies on your inner world. … Of course, writing helps me to write down the suffering, and to extract beauty through it.

Another point is that I struggle in writing, and I feel alive while I’m struggling … I have learnt in this prison that I have to make the harsh situation, and the suffering, softer through poetry. At the same time, I have to be strong to survive … It looks like a paradox that you can be soft and strong, but this is how I understand the meaning of life ??? This prison has helped me discover the femininity in my soul. I feel that part of me is a man and part of me is a woman ??? I don’t say that this is an absolutely correct understanding, but it has helped me to survive in this prison.

In recent times, there has been a major shift in the situation on Manus island. The men have taken a brave stand for their freedom, with a vigil that began months ago and culminated in a three-week resistance inside the detention centre. You were a central figure in that resistance, and you have published a manifesto about the experience. How has the resistance influenced your thinking about freedom and statelessness?

Actually, we have been resisting for years, and I have learnt from my experiences that resisting means fighting against tyranny. I believe that our democratic way and peaceful resistance deeply affected the refugees who created it.

Even people in and PNG ??? were deeply affected. It affected a part of n society. We felt that many people were resisting with us. I think my understanding of freedom and peace changed because I deeply understand now that these concepts have power. I found that resisting and living in peace, and on a foundation of love, has the power to create change.

Perhaps it can be said that you created a republic of refugees, or a republic of the stateless, governed by a disciplined, peaceful act of civil disobedience. How would you describe this republic? And now that the literal fences of the centre have been torn down, do its outlines still exist?

I think a republic is a political concept but yes, in some ways our resistance was a declaration of a republic and a political act. But in our hearts, we only wanted to declare that we exist. And our language was our half-naked bodies and our peaceful resistance.

We did not set out to play a political role, but we did create challenges and we did attain some power. During that time, the n prime minister and the PNG prime minister threatened us directly, and said that they wanted to arrest the refugees’ leaders. This shows how effective our resistance became.

But I think we should not reduce our protest to a political perspective only. Our resistance was a republic of love, peace and humanity, and it was a republic on behalf of all stateless refugees in the world. We wanted to declare that we are human and we have a right to live. That’s why in my manifesto I wrote: “This republic breaks all of the borders between human beings.”

Our resistance was built on dignity and genuine respect for difference. We were made up of many different individuals, ethnicities and beliefs, all resisting together.

You express this poetically in your manifesto, when you write that “our resistance is the spirit that haunts “. You have also said that “all the conversations are driven by one thing, and one thing only, and that is freedom”. During those dramatic weeks of resistance, it seemed that despite the great danger you faced – the threat of illness, exhaustion, food shortages, and even death – you took charge of your own fate, your own destiny, and achieved a kind of desperate state of freedom. Is this how the men felt during that time?

It’s a great question, which creates a space for deeply understanding the resistance, and the true nature of the Manus prison. We were living under so many rules for years ??? We were living through a dehumanising system for years, and a system that humiliated us and ignored our human identity for years.

What did the resistance give us? We achieved a great feeling for the first time. The hierarchy completely disappeared for the first time and the rules disappeared for the first time. For the first time, we were out of the system. The place was the same, and we were even close to death, but we were free, we had control over our lives for the first time.

We created new rules for our community based on love, respect and peace. We created a society that was completely different from a system that was torturing us for years. We created a society based on concepts that were the opposite of the system that had robbed us of our humanity. We were close to death but we were living in freedom.

Yes, it was an extraordinary time, and it was reported worldwide. It is several weeks since you were all forced from the camp. How do the men feel now? Does the spirit of the resistance live on? Especially since you are all well into the fifth year of your limbo.

Manus prison camp has a long history, and to understand this prison we should look at the major incidents over the past five years: the 2014 riots; the murder of Reza Barati; the other refugees who have died; the hunger strike in 2015; the PNG Supreme Court decision; the Good Friday incident; and finally, our peaceful resistance.

I think our period of resistance was a turning point in our long journey, because it was the result of many years’ suffering. The event is over now, but the men learnt a lot, and they changed a lot. It was like living in a war zone … we cannot have the same feeling as we had during that period, but the men are still definitely affected by the values and the spirit of resistance that we created … as in many things, people are affected differently depending on their personalities and backgrounds.

There are 65 million refugees in the world today, and no one chooses to be a refugee. People forget so easily that their own ancestors were probably refugees. Perhaps the most difficult question concerns the role of luck in determining our fate. What have you learnt about this, and how do the men feel about this?

It’s a very hard question and many refugees think they are very unlucky to have ended up on this remote island. I have heard many say: “I’m very unlucky I left Indonesia on this or that date.”

I often think about it too, and tell myself “if my boat would not be lost, we could have arrived before July 19, 2013, when the decision was made to reopen Manus Island prison”. But I think it’s not fate or luck, it’s a part of life. Life is full of such fates. I think the best way is to accept this, and that we should be ready to accept that anything can happen in our life.

Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer. This is the fourth piece in the Philoxenia series.