No Country for Lost Men : Personal Accounts from the Refugee Crisis – Somjeet Dey

Jul 8, 2021 | Bookworm, Front And Center | 0 comments

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

Escape from torture, rape and murder takes fortitude, resolve, and generous measures of luck. The exodus in hackneyed boats, atop freight trains or even barefoot, across life-sapping deserts and unending oceans, is orchestrated by sly human traffickers whose sole objective is exploitation. The awakening comes upon reaching the promised land – there was never a promise or a land, only a sliver of hope. The gates to imagined freedom are shut and sentried. Admittance is allowed, only after years of further suffering and wait, after being “processed” by a faceless system represented by lawyers and officials operating under a regimental chain of command.

This is the perfunctorily pieced-together story of a refugee: her hunger, hurt and harrowing experience anonymized by unreliable statistics and evolving geopolitics. Her story surfaces in the public consciousness when we see caged children in Texas or find the lifeless body of a three-year old washed ashore in Turkey. Her desperation knocks on our conscience when we read about the systematic rape of the Uighurs in China. These stories flash, create a short-lived furor, and are then quickly and routinely drowned by other saleable and voluble news items. These stories are so tragic and yet too distant, so problematic and yet too irremediable.

The void in reflective and poignant personal accounts from refugees, in recent times, has been partially filled by two books— No Friend But the Mountains (Mountains) by Behrouz Boochani, and When Stars Are Scattered (Stars) by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson — published in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Mountains, written in fragments and transmitted via thousands of text messages using a cellphone from a detention center in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, is a part-journalistic, part-literary account that spares no gore, brutality, or abomination of life in a prison camp. Stars, on the other hand, is Mohamed’s autobiographical account adapted as a graphic novel in Jamieson’s signature velvety style that she has perfected for her preteen readers. Understandably, the book balances the despair and desolation of a refugee camp in Kenya with tenacity and virtuosity that restore belief in providence.

The Background

Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, co-founded and published the Kurdish magazine, Werya. Predictably, the magazine’s socio-political content and advocacy of Kurdish nationalistic aspirations scorned the Iranian authorities. Boochani fled Iran in 2013 to escape his near certain detention and persecution by the Islamic Republic. He reached Jakarta, Indonesia, and then the coastal town of Kendari in Southwest Sulawesi, an Indonesian island known as a hub for smuggling asylum-seekers across the Indian Ocean to the northern shores of Australia. Boochani’s account in Mountains begins with his attempted exodus from Kendari to Australia, along with sixty other asylum-seekers, in a summarily unseaworthy Indonesian fishing boat. The boat leaked in the high seas, got caught in a thunderstorm and subsequently capsized. Its crew and passengers were rescued by a British cargo ship, charting the same waters, which shortly thereafter delivered its accidentally acquired human cargo to an Australian warship. Boochani, along with the other asylum-seekers, was first detained on Christmas Island and then flown to the tropical island of Manus – home to an Australian refugee prison camp, where unindicted refugees were held as prisoners unlawfully. It was eventually declared illegal by the government of Papua New Guinea in 2016 and consequently closed in the following year. Mountains chronicles the inmates’ life, from the mundane to the macabre, in this heavily guarded prison on a foreign soil that the Australian authorities used menacingly to deter refugee resettlement in Australia.

In contrast, Stars is an autobiographical account set in the “open prison” of the UN-run camps in Kenya where the residents were thousands of Somali refugees who fled their homeland, ravaged by decades-long civil wars. The refugee camp, Dadaab, had the semblance of a village in the African backcountry, with its own market, school, festivals, and traditions that the inmates carried from their homeland. In Somalia, the warring militia shot Mohamed’s father dead before his eyes, and his mother did not return after she went to her husband’s aid. Mohamed, with his younger brother, Hassan, joined the throngs of fleeing villagers. They walked hundreds of miles across the African brushlands, following trails of other refugees, and arrived in Dadaab. Mohamed, then four years old, was registered as a refugee in a UN camp.

When the brothers arrived in Dadaab, they were so sick and wasted that they were confined to the camp’s hospital for the first few months of their stay there. Mohamed himself, after having walked hundreds of miles, needed to learn to walk again. After their release from the hospital, the brothers were assigned to their foster parent, Fatuma, who had lost her children to the Somali civil wars. Hassan, who was diagnosed as an epileptic child with severe learning disabilities, needed constant support and nurturing, and the reassurance from his elder brother that he would never be left alone. Mohamed, cognizant of his brother’s vulnerability, grew up as a protective guardian, who sacrificed his own needs, wants and aspirations to rear Hassan. The brothers’ “temporary” stay in the refugee camp lasted for fifteen years before they were resettled in the United States. In all these years, the brothers never ceased to search for their lost mother in the incoming groups of Somali refugees who arrived regularly in Dadaab.

Wait and Despair

Reassuringly, and as a relief to the readers of Stars, Mohamed’s search for his mother yielded results, and the brothers were reunited with their mother after their resettlement in America. The brothers are indeed an exception in this respect. In refugee camps, the wait for loved ones or for resettlement starts with hopeful anticipation and routinely ends in despair. The prospect of resettlement is the life force that helps a refugee persevere through the drudgery and depravity of camp life. It is a complex and incomprehensible game played by case officers, lawyers, and sundry gatekeepers. Mohamed’s aspirations to resettle in the United States materializes, albeit after six years of wait since his first interview with an equally persistent caseworker. During such long waits, most refugees lose faith in the process and resign to fate. In Stars, Mohamed describes such resignation resulting in refugees wasting themselves by chewing khat, an intoxicating and addictive leaf. Addiction provided relief from their chronic hopelessness. Or, as in one case, suicide provided closure to unending despair.

In Mountains, Boochani recounts how the Australian authorities used opacity and delay in the resettlement process, strategically and purposefully, to drive the refugees to despair. In addition to an inmate’s perennial wait for his resettlement case to move favorably forward, there were inordinately long waits in every aspect of the prison life: for meals, for access to abominably filthy bathrooms, for using telephones, or for the strictly rationed cigarettes. Perceptibly, the only purpose and destination in Manus was the torturous waiting. It was a well-designed machinery to degrade and destroy the prisoners psychologically. Consequently, suicide — the only certain end to the unending uncertainty — was a frequent occurrence in Manus, as well.

Hunger and Starvation

Hunger and starvation were pervasive conditions that inflicted the camp inmates in Dadaab and Manus alike. Their power is crushing, destroying one from inside out. Mohamed and Hassan, who fed on portions of meat and grains that grew on their family farm in Somalia, sustained themselves on inadequate rations of flour, sugar and palm oil in Dadaab. Sugar in tea and candies during Eid were novelties. Eid, incidentally, was the only day of the year when the brothers had enough to eat. Families routinely ran out of their inadequate rations, and on those days, hunger ruthlessly gnawed at the children from inside as they struggled to go through a schoolday.

While starvation in Dadaab was more a consequence of the scarcity of resources or crippling inefficiencies in distribution systems, hunger was a weapon of choice to exert control on the inmates in Manus. With only one dining hall inside a prison camp housing hundreds, the queues during mealtimes were excruciatingly long and languid, with no guarantee of enough food to quell hunger. Camp authorities sometimes would deliberately tantalize the inmates by serving delicacies such as orange juice or cakes, that would, by design, be exhausted after serving the inmates at the head of the line. Deprivation was purposeful. Systemic hunger created warring factions among the inmates, and starvation drained the inmates of their willpower to rise against the hierarchical powers that controlled them.

The Vanquished and the Victor

Violated with  structural power and devices to suppress violence, the refugees’ defiance and rebellion are often silent, and invariably personal. In Boochani’s case, his words are his rebellion. By chronicling the events inside the prison, Boochani exposes a sinister border-industrial complex that is conceived to wage a physiological and psychological warfare on its inmates, to break their resolve to resettle in Australia. The futility of this warfare is exposed when a three-day long riot breaks out in the prison camps. The rioters, of course, are met with lethal force, and the unequal fight results in the bloodshed of scores of inmates and the death of twenty-three year old Reza Barati, Boochani’s first acquaintance and friend in Manus. Child mortality is not uncommon in Dadaab either, and Mohamed, too, could have perished or wasted away in Dadaab. He is fortuitously noticed by a community leader in the camp, who convinces Mohamed to attend school and work towards building a future for himself. Mohamed finds solace in his schoolwork alongside rearing his younger brother, Hassan. Mohamed’s education prepares him to segue into his new life when, after fifteen years of stay in Dadaab, he is selected for resettlement in the United States. Perhaps his lack of knowledge of the world outside the refugee camp saved Mohamed from wasting away in hopelessness, and encouraged him to employ all the humble resources to his advantage. He had become a registered refugee in Dadaab when he was too young to even understand what was happening to him, but he left the place of his own accord and as a beacon of hope for other young refugees.

Impact and Relevance

The works of Behrouz Boochani, Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson open a window into the refugee crisis that is developing in our times. Their pathos is real and authenticity undeniable. Boochani infuses his journalistic instincts into his literary style in writing Mountains. He is an actor, a subject, and a witness in his narrative, and the seamless weaving of his multiple perspectives elevates this book from being  an autobiography. He is keenly perceptive as well as deeply reflective, evoking the barbarity of prison life by analyzing the purposeful physiological inflictions and psychological affliction that the inmates were constantly subjected to. Boochani’s poetry— meditative, alleviating as well as distracting— that intersperses his narration throughout Mountains, is his own philosophical quest of and musings on freedom. While the hostile adversaries in Mountains evoke anger and rage, Jamieson craftily paints a backdrop of arid brushlands and starry night skies for Mohamed to tell his story. Mohamed and her account of his life-story meanders through hope and hopelessness, the mundane and the profound, and the obvious and the surreal. Powerful, simple, and first-person sentences make the book an intensely personal and reflective experience. Its most heart-wringing part is where Mohamed wears clothes that belonged to a child who died of untreated diabetes in the camp. Mohamed did not know how to emote. His feelings are unclassified and unnamed. This intense moment get documented as another fact of Mohamed’s refugee life.

The ongoing refugee crisis is riddled with facts and counter-facts. The year 2021 began with the Guatemalan security forces intercepting seven thousand Honduran refugees, fleeing from violence, poverty, and devastation from recent hurricanes. Every year groups of thousands of Central American refugees, commonly referred to as human “caravans”, walk across the length of Mexico to reach the southern borders of the United States to seek asylum. This year was no different. In light of the unprecedented brutality inflicted on Central American refugees, especially children, by the United States administration in recent years, it will not be an exaggeration to assume that the future does not promise to be much different either. Similarly, on the other side of the world, over 600,000 Rohingyas, facing ethnic cleansing, have crossed the Burma-Bangladesh border over the last three years to seek refuge in the Cox Bazar region of southern Bangladesh. Despite all the international attention it garnered during the last few years, the massacre of the Rohingya population in Burma continues unabated. Ironically, none of these humanitarian crises occur in a warzone. They result from peoples exercising their rights to life, security, and dignity.Throughout our recorded history, armed conflicts have certainly been the biggest driver of forced displacement of peoples. Fragility of nation states and ethnic cleansing, as in the case of Honduras and Burma respectively, are equally potent as causes.

Stars and Mountains humanize the crisis that embroils Manus, Dadaab, Burma and Central America. By telling a story of “us”, not “others”, they make the reader a first-hand witness to the day-to-day life of a displaced person, whose present stagnates between an unforgettable past and an unattainable future. As politicians, policymakers and humanitarian agencies engage in numerous discussions and meetings, and the impersonal diplomatic processes, even with the best intentions, draw out indefinitely, these books humanely chronicle how unbearably painful each day in the life of a refugee is. They succeed in revealing faces and raising voices that have      been lost or suppressed as identification numbers in case files, but deserve to be heard over the cacophony of ephemeral news cycles. Free of convoluted rhetoric, both books constitute a real and hard-hitting discourse of personal, familial, national, and global significance.

Somjeet Dey was born in India, and, as a business professional, has lived in Albania, Egypt, The Netherlands, and the United States. Somjeet has written travelogues, literary reviews, features and short stories for various publications, including The Statesman and Deccan Herald.  He avoids the kerfuffle of social media, and prefers to freewheel his mind while exerting himself on ski slopes and running trails. Somjeet lives in Skillman, NJ, and he holds an MBA from The Ohio State University.



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