The day that refugee Behrouz Boochani was told he would be incarcerated on Manus Island: an excerpt from his astonishing memoir.
I can do nothing else but accept the reality. And the reality on this day is that they have determined to exile me to Manus Island, exile me nice and peacefully, somewhere out in the middle of the ocean.
My mind has been moulded by the commentary of the Australian officials – they have spent quite some time forming an image of Manus Island in our minds, a savage image of the people, the culture, the history, the landscape. As a result, I think that Manus must be an island with a warm climate and full of insidious, strange insects. That instead of wearing clothes, the people of Manus cover their sexual organs and waists with broad banana leaves. A few days ago, we were directed to information on the internet about the first humans and it evoked these images in my mind. It is exciting – and sometimes scary – to imagine a life alongside people living that way.
I am dwelling in these childish imaginings when they finally open the cage. They allow us to go to the toilets….Eventually they move us to the adjacent cage. When each person’s number is called, they first have to strip to be body searched with a device. Finally, their hair is frisked lest there is something hidden inside. I am also stripped naked even though I am only wearing a pair of underwear. They examine my whole body, even my armpits; they feel right into the hollows.
A grim looking officer gives a set of clothes to anyone who passes through the strip and search stage, even though the clothes don’t match the size of the person in any way whatsoever. There is no choice. We have to wear whatever they issue.
I go to the adjoining cage. I have my clothes with me – they are twice my size. Yellow polyester T-shirts – they transform our bodies, they utterly degrade us. We sit on the white chairs there, and again we just gaze at the metal walls. A temperamental young guy is yapping away and laughing. This loud and obnoxious youth, with scabs on his bald head, pulls out a smoke and lights it using the lighter fixed to the wall. It is curious, how is it possible that he kept that cigarette intact through all those body searches? They even frisked his underwear and that piece of meat contained underneath. Someone asks him how he did such a thing. But he just laughs emphatically and says that he had been a prison warden in Iran. This statement earns him the esteem of the others. It is so reassuring to have a prison warden among us because it means that I can absorb one or two puffs of cigarette smoke into my dry lungs and intestines, and into my drained brain cells.
For another hour we sit there on those rigid chairs, sit there anticipating the next stage . . . it isn’t clear what that next stage entails.
Eventually a bunch of officers show up and read out our numbers one by one. When I enter the walkway I have to strip again. They body search me with that device. My body is distressed and exhausted from all these inspections. What could we possibly be taking on the plane with us that they are frisking us to such an extent? It is clear that we are the subjects of their securitised gaze. Maybe they are afraid that someone has a razor on them as they board the plane, for instance. Maybe they are afraid that person will put the razor to the pilot’s throat. Then the pilot will be forced to change course in the direction of Australia.
So what is the big deal about Manus? What kind of land can it possibly be? Why do they think anyone would want to do something dangerous? The securitised gaze of those officers on our bodies and all that surveillance under the watch of the CCTV cameras is making me worried. I feel that I am a criminal or a murderer who they are planning to transfer from one prison to another prison. Something I have only ever seen in films.
A third cage, where the monotony is broken. A few nurses holding brochures come in, accompanied by interpreters wearing green. They speak about the potential dangers on Manus Island that may threaten our health. They speak about the long legged, malaria-carrying mosquitoes. And they speak about other mosquitoes I have never seen before, mosquitoes that are completely unknown to me, mosquitoes that are pictured in the brochures. It is possible that one of these mosquitoes is waiting for me over there on Manus. And as soon as I arrive it will insert its sting right into my body. For these mosquitoes, we are alien creatures from alien lands. We foreigners, we are to become vulnerable prey for them, we are to become ideal bait.
One of the nurses, the prettiest of them all, explains the details. She says that we need to take care of ourselves over there: “At sunset you need to take anti-malaria tablets and apply the special lotion that you will receive while there.” She tells us about the symptoms of malaria and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff, stuff that doesn’t concern me at all. The words from that nurse are more like a threat than words of concern for our wellbeing. It is like she is warning us: ‘Manus is a dangerous island with tropical and murderous mosquitoes. If we were in your place, we would fill out the voluntary deportation forms and go back to our homelands.’
When the nurses have left, the guy who had been a prison warden performs a magic trick and produces another cigarette. He pulls it from the pocket of his polyester shorts. It is truly unbelievable. How could he have done that! That single cigarette – it distracts us from the warnings of the nurses and our preoccupation with the tropical mosquitoes. Everyone is amazed by that scabby-headed prison warden; they look on with esteem. And he is also delighted that years of working in Iran’s prisons has elevated him to an honourable status – his laughter stretches his mouth from ear to ear, across his face for everyone there to see.
One or two puffs of that cigarette in such unexpected circumstances induces so much pleasure. I really like that guy. I really like the way he is able to transport that single cigarette through all these barriers. He is the quintessential prison warden and he knows very well how to bury a few smokes within the hollows and cavities of the body. He knows very well how to put one over those ruthless officers, those brutes. He can deceive those bastards without a thought.
In these moments I don’t know what to do with myself. I stand up from my chair and wander around the tightly confined cage. I still don’t know why they pulled us out of the camp so early in the morning. I still have no idea why we had to spend hours doing the rounds of the soulless cages, still no clue why they kept body searching us. The only thing that comes to mind is that they wanted to torment us at any cost.
My roaming is gradually making my head spin. I also feel that the others aren’t impressed by me walking around. I have no choice but to sit back down on that rigid chair again and just stare at the walls. I have always despised waiting, always despised glancing at whatever is around me, staring for hours while I wait for something worthless. I have always despised measuring up people’s faces, people who I don’t recognise. I hate it. It agitates me. This day we are supposed to be exiled to Manus Island. I want them to place us on that unknown island as quickly as possible. I want the fate that awaits me. I want it to arrive immediately.
I am worn out from all this thinking. Being exiled to Manus is like a club that has been raised above my head for a whole month and is ready to bash down on me. Living with the dread of this looming club is like torture. I want them to put me on the plane as soon as possible. I want to descend onto that island a few hours later. I just want them to take me to that island, the island I have only ever heard the name of. At least I will know where my place is. I will know that I am situated there on that island. And if I have to go, if I have to suffer by virtue of being there, then I will at least feel that suffering for myself. Sometimes experiencing suffering and hardship up close is easier than being terrorised with impending torment. It isn’t as though I haven’t had to endure adversity in my life.
I have endured so much malice
I have endured so many uphill battles
So I am prepared
I am prepared to be thrown out onto that isolated island.
But sometimes one thinks what reason could there possibly be for a person to have to endure extreme suffering, what reason could there possibly be for a person to have to endure extreme affliction? Why did I have to be so unlucky? Why did I have to arrive in Australia exactly four days after they effected a merciless law? But one can never find a clear answer.
From No Friend but the Mountains (Picador, $24.99). The author will appear at a sold-out WORD Christchurch event chaired by John Campbell on Friday night, November 29.