‘This is hell out here’: how Behrouz Boochani's diaries expose Australia’s refugee shame

The journalist fled Iran for Australia in 2013, and was sent to a detention centre on Manus Island, where he has been held ever since. His dispatches for the Guardian reveal the true horror of conditions at the Papua New Guinea camp

In 2013, the journalist Behrouz Boochani, an ethnic Kurd, fled Iran after several of his colleagues were arrested. The decisions he took then have defined his life and in turn led to him becoming the essential witness to Australia’s hardline refugee policy.

Boochani travelled through south-east Asia and then by boat to Christmas Island, an Australian territory closer to Indonesia. From there he was deported to Manus Island, a remote part of Papua New Guinea (PNG), where he has been held ever since.

Triggered by outcries over people smuggling, contentious arrivals and boat sinkings, Australia’s policy – developed by both rightwing Coalition and Labor governments – is that while it will admit refugees, it will not take any that come by sea. “It is not because they are bad people,” the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, told Donald Trump in a leaked phone call. “It is because, in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said, if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.”

The human cost is nearly 2,000 people detained on Manus and the tiny island nation of Nauru. Most have been formally recognised as refugees, but live either in processing centres or in the community, unable to leave the islands. The cruelty is largely tolerated, indeed embraced, by politicians in Canberra because it is seen as a deterrent. But detention is expensive – A$10bn (£5.6bn) since 2013 – and many experts believe the naval policing operation in the Pacific has had more of an impact. The UN, doctors, human rights groups and reporting by media including the Guardian have made detention a public relations problem.

Australian journalists have largely been barred from Manus and Nauru, and since he began contributing to the Guardian in 2016, Boochani has offered the most visible, trusted testimony. This year he was honoured with an Amnesty International award. The film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time was shot inside the Manus centre on a mobile phone by Boochani and shown at the London and Sydney film festivals. He is writing an autobiographical novel.

As the Australian and PNG authorities stepped up their plan to disperse the refugees from Manus into smaller, less secure accommodation by 31 October, Guardian Australia asked Boochani to keep a diary alongside his opinion articles; extracts from both are published here. Boochani’s English is good but his writing is translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian from the American University in Cairo/University of Sydney. Boochani has limited access to email and electricity. Sometimes he is simply too hungry to file.

“His courage over the four years of his internment in the face of the horror of Manus – a hell of repression, cruelty and violence – has been of the highest order,” the Booker-prize-winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan wrote last month. “Behrouz Boochani kept on smuggling out his messages of despair in the hope we would listen. It’s time we did.”
Will Woodward, deputy editor, Guardian Australia

27 October

Refugees sit under a battery-powered light.
Refugees sit under a battery-powered light. Photograph: Ben Doherty/The Guardian

The agony of extreme hunger wakes me up early in the morning. Whenever I’m able to find something to eat I feel a sense of calm. I go to Oscar, Delta and Fox camps a number of times until I find some Kurdish refugees who lend me some tobacco. In a prison such as Manus, being able to count on the kindness of those who share the same language as you is always something to be treasured.

Only a few days remain until the Australian government meets its self-imposed deadline and closes the prison that it created on Manus Island. On 31 October, the imprisoned refugees are supposed to be transferred from the regional processing centre (RPC) to Lorengau, a small town on the island. It is a place that reminds the refugees of violent attacks. They have memories of being confronted with knives, memories of theft, memories of threatening encounters. It is a place without safety.

The Australian government, in collaboration with the PNG government, has employed various strategies to force refugees out of the RPC. Over the past few months, large sections of the RPC camp have been demolished. They started with the telephone room – a bulldozer annihilated it. They destroyed a tent where refugees had been living. They cut the power and water, forced the refugees into Oscar and Delta camp and then bulldozed the place.

The machinations of Australia’s department of immigration have come down to these tactics. The services within the prison have been reduced to a bare minimum. The gym area has been disbanded and English language classes have been cancelled. Cigarettes, tea, sugar, coffee and fruit have not been available for a long time. The quality of the food served to refugees has been so poor that it is practically inedible, and what food is provided is never enough; many refugees end up going without.

Refugees have been receiving threatening messages from people in recent days: “If you come to Lorengau we will be forced to attack you.” On Fridays, Lorengau is a really dangerous place. Most of the attacks on refugees occur on this day.

Last night the refugees held a large and decisive meeting, and everyone agreed that no one should leave the camp.

We have discussed the court case involving the Australian deputy prime minister, which led to him being disqualified from office [Barnaby Joyce was found to hold New Zealand citizenship by descent]. When something occurs in Australian politics, everyone thinks that it might somehow lead to our freedom, but I explain to a few people that we shouldn’t forget the political climate in Australia and the fact that both major parties loathe us. We have encountered three prime ministers and three immigration ministers, and so far nothing has happened.

These days, a lot of European news reporters are getting in touch. I feel that this place has become a battlefield, and I’ve become a war reporter.

28 October

Refugees sleeping in bunkbeds at the camp.
Refugees sleeping in bunkbeds. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Again, I awake from nightmares. The sun isn’t up yet. It is the worst time to wake up because on the one hand, I am starving and I don’t want to miss out on breakfast, and on the other hand, I am extremely sleepy. Just a short distance away from my bed an Iraqi refugee is highly distressed and suffering. For years he has had pain in his eyes. It is harrowing to witness this middle-aged man lamenting in pain; he has been utterly degraded.

The bed over on the other side is occupied by a Sudanese refugee. With enthusiasm, he calls me over – like he always does – to show me a picture of his daughters. A feeling of joy comes over him for a moment – he laughs, recites their names, recounts that the eldest daughter is eight years old and the youngest is six – then drifts into sorrow. Three years ago, his wife was killed. He has shown me their picture dozens of times by now; sharing his memories makes him smile and helps address the anguish. Then he asks me: “When will we be free?”

29 October

I was pacing along the fences for the whole night, along with most of the other refugees. Today the refugees received pre-packaged food; now the long queues for food that existed throughout the history of the prison have disappeared. The PNG police force and navy are walking around outside the camp – it seems their numbers have increased. A lot of Australian guards have left Manus. We are expecting an attack at any moment.

There is nothing more agonising than witnessing the agony of others. I am weary from writing. I am weary from writing about people who have died. I am horrified at the thought of writing.

31 October

The department of immigration posted a document on the fences in the prison warning us that we only have until 5pm to exit the camp. If we remain, we will be confronted with soldiers.

At 5am, all the local and Australian guards abandoned the camp. For the whole day, there has not been a single person to protect the refugees. We are receiving news from outside that the soldiers and police have armed themselves. However, no one knows for sure if the police and navy want to attack the refugees, or if they want to set upon the locals who have stolen everything from around the rim of the camp. Many of the locals have entered the camp and are taking away whatever they can.

1 November

Police and detainees at the camp.
Police and detainees. Photograph: Abdul, refugee on Manus/EPA

Last night the refugees were in a state of absolute exhaustion, starvation and thirst. At 7am, the generators were suddenly shut off. The heat is unbearable. This is hell out here. Hunger makes everyone angry, the atmosphere is full of tension, and there is struggle and tumult. In these circumstances, a refugee has cut his wrist and his chest. Shouts come up and tension rises.

Rooms and tents are crammed with people. It is a tropical ecosystem out here, oppressively hot. Insects chew into the skin.

When the power is cut off, the water in the toilets is also automatically cut off. This means the toilets have become even filthier. They stink to high heaven. It is so humiliating. I have witnessed with my own eyes how a human being can degrade another human being, using toilets as a technology of torture.

I have become very weak over this past week. I have not slept. I am now undergoing a surreal experience where the horrifying reality of my waking state has taken on the characteristics of the most harrowing nightmare, and this nightmare is more horrendous than I can ever imagine.

2 November

Starvation, thirst and terror slowly but surely dominate the prison. Gradually these factors impose their power over the incarcerated refugees. Bodies are weak, muscles are fatigued, spirits are weary. It has been nearly five years full of anguish, anguish that has ground everyone down. During this last week, no one has slept properly. Everyone is weary out here, but the one mantra continues to reverberate:

We will never retreat and leave this hell of a prison. We will never move to another prison. We will never settle for anything less than freedom. Only freedom.

This is the scene here in Manus prison. These words are the soul of Manus prison.

13 November

Toilets inside the camp.
Toilets inside the camp. Photograph: Ben Doherty/The Guardian

For more than 10 days, hundreds of refugees have been refusing to leave the prison camp and, as a result, the situation has morphed into a large-scale humanitarian crisis. If things deteriorate further, we will witness a disaster beyond imagination.

We did not come to Australia to live in a prison. The peaceful protest by refugees is not because we want to remain in this prison. We are resisting because we want freedom in a safe environment.

23 November

I woke up as a thunderous sound echoed through my head. It was the sound of terrified refugees rushing through Corridor M inside Fox camp.

“They’re attacking!”

“Run, they’re attacking!”

These warnings are well-known to the refugees. The cries of caution have rung out repeatedly for nearly five years. The entire prison space was full of refugees running away and dozens of police officers moving in like a swarm of bees.

With rage, the police chief announced over a loudspeaker: “Move! Move!” He repeated over and over again that we had only one hour to move out.

A group of prisoners went on to the roof, and hundreds gathered in the corner of Fox camp and linked arms. The immigration officers eventually sprang into action and destroyed the belongings kept inside the accommodation. They threw everything out of the rooms. They even tore apart the sweaty beds with their knives. A group of them smashed the empty water tanks. In the space of half an hour, the area between the corridors looked like a town hit by an earthquake or a flood.

The refugees simply looked on. A feeling of absurdity gripped everyone. It was an uncanny feeling that comes with experiencing explicit violence. The feeling that you have no one, that you have no solace, that you have no sanctuary.

They eventually found me. Seven or eight officers grabbed me by the arms and carried me outside in plain view of all the refugees. Like a scene where a dangerous criminal is taken away. Along the way, one officer behaved just like a child and pulled my hair. Deep down inside I was laughing. They struck me over the back, they hit me on the back of the neck, it was not damaging, but they still beat me. Each and every one of them beat me. One of them crushed my sunglasses under his boot.

I was put in jail. In the distance I could hear moaning and yelling. They brought a camera and recorded me. They repeated their accusations: “You’re guilty, you’ve damaged our reputation.”

I could see the gate to Mike camp. They forcibly transferred a group of refugees to the buses. In front of the gate, they laid one more kick into them. We were like a small country that had been invaded. That place was really a war zone. Once again, I remembered Iran, how my mother was always frightened that the government officers would kill me. The shouting continued: “Move! Move!”

[Boochani was released without charge later the same day.]

30 November

Police entering the camp.
Police entering the prison. Photograph: AP

After more than 20 days of resilience, having no food, water and medication, refugees in Manus prison were forced to a new camp. Metal poles in hand, the officers entered the camp and called out the names of some of the refugees, supposedly “the leaders”, telling them to identify themselves.

Once again there was our silence and their violence; they attacked the men who were gathered in Delta compound, beating the men with hands, feet, wooden sticks and whatever was available to them, and in minutes forced the men to get into the buses.

Men still traumatised by this violence were transferred to the East Lorengau camp. This camp has a capacity of 280 people, but by the end of the day they had relocated almost 400 men there. About 60 people remained homeless for two days. Eventually, police relocated 25 of these 60 men to a classroom, which the men have had to fit out themselves as best they can in order to sleep there.

I saw a large number of relocated men with bruises and wounds on their bodies, clearly caused by their recent beatings with metal poles. I visited a man, semi-naked and with bare feet, sitting in the dirt. His face was bloody. I spoke with him, but he was completely silent. Others told me that police had beaten him, he had lost his belongings, and they killed his dog.

The Australian and PNG governments eventually succeeded in shutting the camp by force. Really, they have only succeeded in transferring this problem 24km away.

1 December

For two days I have not eaten a thing and gone without sleep. I have been smoking dozens of cigarettes every day. I hope I find something to eat today.

Over the last few days, I have been involved in dozens of interviews. These days are historically poignant moments. Years of persevering have finally lifted us up on to the platform of the international media. This is a great achievement for us; it is an enormous accomplishment for this group of forgotten men.

This issue must be understood as the annihilation of human beings, the incarceration of human beings within the history of modern Australia. This writing that comes out of Manus is the unofficial history of Australia, a history that will never be authorised by the government. It is the suppressed history, the marginalised history of Australia.

This is history from down below.

Translated by Omid Tofighian and Moones Mansoubi. Read the diaries in full at theguardian.com/behrouz-boochani


Behrouz Boochani

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A long flight to freedom: how refugee Behrouz Boochani finally left his island jail behind
The Kurdish Iranian refugee, kept in a limbo on Manus Island by Australia’s hardline immigration regime, made a final 34-hour journey to liberty

Ben Doherty

14, Nov, 2019 @10:14 AM

Article image
Refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani released after arrest on Manus
Boochani held by PNG’s paramilitary Mobile Squad and says he was pushed, had his belongings broken and was accused of ‘reporting against us’

Helen Davidson and Ben Doherty

23, Nov, 2017 @6:26 AM

Article image
It’s hard for me to leave Manus Island without justice: Behrouz Boochani on the US refugee deal
I’m so glad that people will go to a safe place eventually, but on the other side I’m so angry and sad

Behrouz Boochani

13, Nov, 2016 @2:10 AM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern says she was kept in the dark over arrival of Manus refugee Behrouz Boochani
New Zealand PM says she’s disappointed her immigration minister was aware of the arrival but had not passed information on

Angela Cuming in Dunedin

18, Nov, 2019 @9:21 AM

Article image
Manus refugee Behrouz Boochani asks for UK visa to attend screening of his film
Boochani used his mobile phone on Manus Island to make documentary about Australia’s detention camp, soon to be shown at London film festival

Ben Doherty

05, Sep, 2017 @3:12 AM

Article image
Behrouz Boochani, voice of Manus Island refugees, is free in New Zealand
Kurdish Iranian refugee and journalist – a multiple award-winner for documenting life in Australia’s offshore detention system – has left Papua New Guinea
•The story behind Behrouz Boochani’s flight to freedom

Ben Doherty

14, Nov, 2019 @8:59 AM

Article image
Behrouz Boochani wins National Biography award – and accepts via WhatsApp from Manus
Judges call Kurdish Iranian writer and refugee’s memoir an ‘astonishing act of witness’

Guardian staff

12, Aug, 2019 @12:39 AM

Article image
Behrouz Boochani, the refugee reporter who exposed the cruelty of Australia’s island jail | Ten years of Guardian Australia
One inmate became the voice of the men locked up on Manus. Behrouz Boochani and Ben Doherty look back at the risks he took to get this story to the world

Caitlin Cassidy and Marni Cordell

21, May, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Malcolm Turnbull, why didn't you answer my question on Q&A about Manus Island? | Behrouz Boochani
Conditions on Manus Island have become more militarised and difficult in the two months since the supreme court ruled the detention centre illegal. I now ask the Australian people to say no to cruelty – to choose love over inhumanity

Behrouz Boochani

21, Jun, 2016 @1:53 AM

Article image
Days before the forced closure of Manus, we have no safe place to go | Behrouz Boochani
As refugees we are faced with the threat of either the navy occupying the detention centre if we stay or angry locals if we leave

Behrouz Boochani

27, Oct, 2017 @4:51 AM