Over Manus Island, a black kite flies.A few youths, still with energy to bear the difficulties of this prison camp, made it.The black kite flies, a messenger of freedom for us, the forgotten prisoners.It circles higher and higher above the camp, above the beautiful coconuts.Our eyes follow its flight, it seems to want to tear its rope.It breaks free, dances towards the ocean, flies far and again farther until no one can see it.The youths stare into the empty sky after their impossible dream.
In detention Behrouz Bouchani writes.
Behind the high steel fences of the Manus Island detention centre, his health is often poor, his moods swing dramatically, from a wild, garrulous mania to black and shiftless depression. He says he can sense when his mental state is slipping from his control, but feels powerless.
But Bouchani recognises he is best when he works, when he is busy, when he has a purpose, a task to fill the limitless hours of his ongoing incarceration.
So he writes.
He writes poetry and prose, he writes news reports and short stories. He conducts interviews with fellow detainees. He pens open letters to the Australian people, missives to prime ministers and presidents. Sometimes, rarely, he gets a reply.
“I am a journalist,” he tells the Guardian. “I am still a journalist in this place. This is my work, my duty.”
Bouchani is an Iranian Kurd who fled his country after he faced arrest and imprisonment for his writing.
Since coming to Australia more than two years ago, he has been incarcerated anyway, first on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
But detention has not slowed Bouchani’s work. He is almost defiantly busy, working “16 hours some days”.
He is a regular correspondent with journalists in Australia, and collaborates with human rights agencies and advocates, providing information on conditions in the camp and the health of his fellow detainees. He files stories still for Kurdish publications at home in Iran, detailing his experiences.
He writes on.
Bouchani is 32, an ethnic Kurd from Ilam city in the west of Iran, bordering Iraq.
He was a freelance journalist in his homeland, and began his career writing for the student newspaper at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran where he studied geopolitics.
He wrote for several newspapers in Iran, including Kasbokar Weekly, Qhanoon, Etemad and the Iranian Sports Agency.
But it was his work as an editor of Werya (also spelled Varia), a Kurdish political and social magazine, that attracted the attention of authorities.
“Werya is so, so important,” Bouchani says in a series of interviews from detention.
“We started the Werya newspaper because Ilam city is a different city in Kurdistan. It has its own dialect and culture. [But] our people are losing their identity. The new generation are talking with their children in Farsi language and the Kurdish language and culture will be destroyed in the near future.”
Bouchani spent several years under surveillance because of Werya’s promotion of Kurdish language, culture and politics. His membership of the Kurdish Democratic party, outlawed in Iran, and the National Union of Kurdish Students brought him even closer attention.
In 2011, Bouchani was arrested and interrogated by Iran’s Sepah, known formally as the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the 125,000-strong paramilitary intelligence agency founded after the 1979 revolution. It is responsible for protecting the country’s Islamic system and quelling the uprisings of “deviant movements”.
“They threatened me if I continued my activities, I would be sentenced to long-term detention. My activities were entirely in relation to Kurdish language and culture,” he says.
Sepah’s officers told him he must quit writing and cease his promotion of Kurdish autonomy or it would be years before he knew freedom again.
Under duress Bouchani signed a statement promising he would stop.
But Werya continued and Bouchani’s work with it.
“I was in Tehran but I published Werya in Kurdish language in Ilam with my friends. We were working to publish our ideas about Kurdish history and culture and political space. I was working with Werya by email. My friends sent me their articles and I would edit them and send them back. I also wrote articles and made interviews with Kurdish elites in Tehran and sent them.”
On 17 February 2013, Sepah raided the Ilam offices of Werya and arrested 11 of his colleagues.
Bouchani was in Tehran the day of the raids and so escaped arrest. But he published news of his colleagues’ detention on a website called Iranian Reporters. The news spread globally and Bouchani, fearing he would be targeted next, went into hiding.
“After I published that news I did not go to work again. I went to a friend’s house in the south of Tehran. At that time it was Nowrouz. I went to [the province of] Ilam, [to] my mother’s house but I was scared all the time. I knew they were going to arrest me.”
Over weeks and months his colleagues were released from detention. A friend brought two of them to see him.
“They were excited and scared. They said ‘Behrouz, if you did not publish that news they would have killed us’. They said ‘Thank you’. They said ‘Please take care. They will arrest you. They asked us many questions about your ideas.’ I didn’t want them to arrest me.”
Bouchani chose to flee. He chose Australia.
“I did not sleep for two months, but then I left Iran. It was so dangerous for me. I thought if I can publish my ideas in a free country then I can help my people. I thought that Australia was free. I thought that in Australia I could write freely.”
On 23 May 2013, Bouchani left Iran, travelling through south-east Asia and then by boat to Christmas Island arriving in July. He was transferred to Manus on 27 August 2013.
Twenty-seven months on, he remains in the Regional Processing Centre on Los Negros Island in Manus province with no prospect of release except for the looming threat of deportation.
Bouchani has refused to present his asylum claim to Papua New Guinean authorities: “I did not come to this country. I was brought here against my will. I do not accept that.”
He says he fears being released into Papua New Guinean society after the violence of his time in detention, particularly the riots of 2014 in which fellow Iranian Reza Barati was murdered. He has asked repeatedly to be handed over to the United Nations.
The threat of deportation is real, Bouchani says. Iran refuses to accept forcible deportations but at least two Iranian men have been flown back to Tehran, apparently after a last-minute acquiescence or a deal between the two countries.
Bouchani does not know what has happened to them.
“But I know what would happen to me, without any doubt, my life would be in grave danger if I am returned to Iran. If I did not leave Iran I would have definitely been arrested and been tortured. That is what would happen if they sent me back.”
Reporters without Borders wrote to the department of immigration warning dissent was not tolerated by Iran’s theocratic regime.
Journalists who refuse to conform to the state’s editorial policies are charged with “activities against state security” and are arrested and detained arbitrarily. Torture and mistreatment are common.
“We are convinced that Mr Bouchani’s freedom would be in great danger if he were forced to return to Iran,” Reporters without Borders’ Martial Tourneur wrote. “We therefore support his request for protection and hope that you will quickly approve his request and allow him to reside safely in Australia.”
Pen International has campaigned for the freedom of writers since 1921, including prominently on behalf of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses inspired a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini that he be executed.
Two writers previously held in Australian immigration detention, Iranian Ardeshir Gholipour and Ivorian Cheikh Kone, have since been released and are now Australian citizens.
Writer and past-President of Pen International’s Melbourne centre, Arnold Zable argues Australia holds responsibility for the fate and freedom of Bouchani.
“Instead of being imprisoned and harassed, he should be welcomed for his courageous stand for democracy and human rights. He should be granted asylum in Australia. It is a profound irony that he is now experiencing levels of surveillance and harassment that have some parallels with his treatment by Iranian authorities.”
Zable praised Bouchani for his courage to keep writing, describing his reportage as a “Kafka-esque account” of life in detention, the physical brutality and the emotional toll of months of incarceration.
“Behrouz is bearing witness for all the men in that detention centre. It’s incredibly important, the work that he does. He is a passionate man, and deeply affected when he sees the human rights abuses taking place around him. He feels the need to record what’s happening.”
Pen International Melbourne has made Bouchani an honorary member of the organisation, an honour, Bouchani says, feels like a gift “a kind of feeling which a child feels when he gets his birthday present”.
When he feels well enough, Bouchani says he fills his days with work, drafting open letters for asylum seekers and refugees to sign, interviewing fellow asylum seekers and assisting with translating the multitudes of correspondence each receives.
He has written to prime ministers and presidents, the Australian people and to each of the three immigration ministers who have held the post during his detention.
His English has a florid, almost lyrical, style. He wrote this week about the deaths of Reza Barati and Fazel Chegeni, both of whom died while in Australian detention. The dead men were from neighbouring cities in Kurdish western Iran, their homes separated by a tall mountain.
“Fazel and Reza were brave sons,” Bouchani wrote. “They fought for their lives with the Australian government and the dark ocean.
“When I was in Kurdistan, many times I climbed up that highest mountain. There are the oldest oak trees there. I hear the oak trees are crying too.”
Bouchani has become an unofficial leader for the men in his compound, Foxtrot, meeting with PNG immigration officials and representatives from International Health and Medical Services, the International Organisation of Migration, Transfield (now known as Broadspectrum), Amnesty and the UNHCR.
But that has brought attention too.
Bouchani has twice been moved to Chauka – the notorious solitary confinement block at Manus constructed of shipping containers and distant from the main detention centre – each time for three days.
He was also jailed during the hunger strike earlier in the year that was put down by force when PNG police rushed the intransigent compounds.
“I took many pictures and film and wrote stories … on the hunger strike. In Foxtrot we have the strongest protest because we were very united, determined and peaceful. The immigration were watching me so close because I was very active.”
He was held for eight days inside Lorengau prison before being released without charge.
“The only crime I committed in their view was reporting. This was the only reason I was given for my imprisonment when I came out of the prison. I was asked to stop my activities.”
Back in detention his physical health has worsened and his mental health is inconsistent. He has lost 10kg since he arrived on Manus and he sleeps poorly, troubled by a toothache and infection.
But he recognises he is best when he works. So he passes the long hours of his limitless detention writing. He is working on a book.
The manuscript begins in detention:
It was a high cage with metallic bars and electronic doors. All around, cameras stared at us.