It is almost seven in the morning when I start my interview with Behrouz Bouchani. His roommates are asleep, and reception on the island is not very good, so we have a hard time hearing one other. He apologizes several times during our interview, saying he will be back soon. “Some officers were nearby and I had to hide my mobile phone,” he texts after a few minutes. Right now his mobile phone is his whole life, his only means of communication. He bought it from locals on the island, secretly handing over money so they could get him an internet connection. He gives interviews over the phone, and sends human rights organizations photographs of the conditions in which refugees live. He is now well known among Australian human rights activists, and many have tried to help provide him with internet services.
Bouchani, a journalist from the Kurdish city of Ilam in western Iran, has been living in a refugee camp on Manus Island for the past 28 months, one of a group of Iranians who risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia. He calls it “Manus Prison” and the says the word “hell” best describes the place.
Before leaving Iran, Bouchani worked for a number of newspapers and magazines. Together with a few friends, he published the weekly Veria, a bilingual Kurdish-Persian magazine. When authorities began to pressure and harass him, he decided to emigrate. He boarded a boat traveling from Indonesia to Australia to seek asylum. But he could not possibly have imagined what he would have to go through.
Bouchani arrived at Christmas Island on July 23, 2013. Very soon, he learned that the situation had changed: Just four days before, Australia passed a new law. It entitled the government to deport refugees to Manus Island. Behrouz was one of the first asylum seekers to be sent there.
Since then, he has witnessed a lot, from hunger and disease to death. He has seen refugees arrive only to be badly and severely disappointed, and who decided to return back from where they came, despite the dangers that awaited them. He has reported the deaths of three Iranians: Reza Barati, who was killed when Manus island residents launched an attack on the camp in 2014, Hamid Khazaee, who died due to a serious untreated inflammation and lack of medical care, and Fazel Chegini, whose body was found on November 8 in a forest nearby the camp. His body was badly bruised.
Throughout the interview, Bouchani talks very little about himself and more about the conditions in the camp and the refugees who have to live there with the bare minimum of essentials. He says he has forgetten how old he is. “I am 32 — but time is lost in this prison,” he says. “Sometimes I say to myself: I was 28 when I left Iran and I have been in prison for two years. So how can I be 32?”
Bouchani is still hopeful that human rights organizations might be able to help, but when he talks, there is a very real sadness about him.
Can you describe what it’s like on Manus?
Manus is made of four detention centers, which are different in their structures, architecture and the number of people they hold. I live in Camp Delta, which is a very small cage, smaller than a football field, and very crowded. Close to 250 people live here, mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The rooms are very small and have no windows. If you closed the door you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it’s day or night. Each room has four beds, all crammed together.
Camp Oscar is a collection of a few large tents where people live communally. Most of the fights happen in this camp. Camp Mike is like Camp Delta. People live in small rooms and in a closed environment. Camp Fox is the biggest camp on Manus. It has a dirt compound in the middle, where you can even find a few coconut trees. The interesting thing about Fox is that it is the biggest camp, but has the fewest number of residents. Only 120 people live there. The rooms have no air conditioners and the refugees live under big, noisy ceiling fans.
How is decided where people will be housed? Is it purely by chance or there are rules?
There are very few Iranians in Camp Delta. I am roommates with three Iranian Kurds. The rooms are usually assigned according to nationality and ethnicity. Of course, this leads to a kind of ganging up together so sometimes these groups get into quarrels with each other. But usually people are resigned, because as time goes by a detainee realizes that whoever shares his pain is his brother — making them allies of sorts. Detainees realize their common enemy is the system that has put them in chains, not the refugees who share his pain.
What is the food like? And hygiene standards?
During the first six months they gave us a piece of moldy bread and butter that had passed its sell-by date. A few times they intentionally put human teeth in our food. We did not have fruit for weeks. Pastries and sweets were a dream. At nights there was nothing to eat. We truly experienced the meaning of hunger. And they would intentionally keep us in line for long hours under the hot tropical sun. We have to spend hours in line, even for the lavatory. Now it is less crowded and the lines are better. But in those early months, you could go mad. It is not easy to stand in line for 28 months for every single thing.
When it comes to hygiene, the lavatories are cleaned by local workers, but we clean the rooms ourselves.
Do refugees receive any money from the Australian government?
We don’t receive any money. Every week, we each receive 25 “points,” which we can use to buy cigarettes, food and sundries.
According to reports, Hamid Khazaee died because lack of medical care. What is medical care for refugees like now?
The principal policy of the Australian government during this entire time has been to return refugees to their countries by any means possible. One of the ways they do this is to deny medical care to refugees and to use sickness as a lever. I dare say that for close to two years not even one person has received any serious medical care — although the conditions have improved in recent months. They set up dentistry facilties in the detention center six months ago, but there are no specialist doctors around. Until three or four months ago, there was no MRI lab in the whole of New Guinea. Every day, as the island sinks into its depressing dusk, a long line forms so people can receive the so-called “blue pills.” More than 200 people regularly take these pills. The daily scene outside the clinic is truly horrifying. If an observer from outside were to witnesses this, he would have difficulty believing that these young men take pills for their nerves every day.
Are there any psychologists or counselors available to talk to refugees?
Yes, but the behavior of the psychologists who work here has always had an element of torture to it. In a remote corner of the camp there is a solitary detention center called Chooka were offenders have been kept. Now it has been replaced with another solitary detention center called the Green Zone. The psychologists mostly spend their time there and subject inmates to meticulous and agonizing question-and-answer sessions that resemble interrogations. They ask them all kinds of questions about their mental health and their dreams. They really upset people, and many refugees who have been questioned by the psychologists say that when they talk to them they feel like they are being tortured. I have had the same experience. I am really scared of them.
Can you give us an example of a question that bothers the refugees so much?
They ask: “Do you think you can live on this island for the rest of your life?” The policy that the governments of New Guinea and Australia are implementing will keep refugees on the island for life. They tell them: “You are never going to go to Australia.”
You talked about solitary confinement. Who is sent into solitary confinement?
If somebody argues with the officers or gets into a fight he is taken to solitary. He is returned to the main camp after a few days. Many people here mutilate themselves. I have witnessed it over and over again — many people cut themselves with razor blades. They are kept in solitary until they return to normal. One of them was a young Iranian, who was eventually transferred to a hospital in Australia.
What is the situation for those who decide to go back?
Previously, it was easy to go back. It was enough for the refugee to fill out a form and for his family to get a code from the Foreign Ministry’s office. You could go back in less than a month. Many did return. In the beginning, 1,400 refugees came to the island, and 500 of them have returned. Early on, 50 percent of the refugees were Iranians, but now there are only 300 Iranians here. Two months ago, the Iranian government decided that those Iranian refugees who want to return should talk to the Foreign Ministry via Skype. But the Australian government has not gone along with this decision, and since then nobody has gone back.
Have you ever thought of trying to escape?
This place is surrounded by two layers of steel fences that are 3.5 meters high and protected by security systems. Practically, there is no way to escape. I thought about it for a few months and if there was a way, I would have not hesitated for a moment. But if we escape, where could we go? The island is surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of water and the closest land belongs to Australia, the same country that deported us here. The thought of escape is on many people’s minds, not only mine. I have not been able to solve the question even in my mind — meaning that I cannot escape even in my own mind.
What has bothered you most about being here all this time?
I can never be alone. Imagine what it’s like to live in a place where there is always someone around you. Only a prisoner can really understand this. It seems simple but it is really devastating. Being alone is the biggest thing that I wish for. I would love to experience it again.
You give interviews and information to human rights groups. Hasn’t this got you into trouble?
I only started using my real name a short while ago. So far I have not had any problems. I feel more secure because a campaign to support me has taken shape.