A Kurdish-Iranian refugee who penned a book on a mobile phone while held in an Australian detention camp said today he was celebrating life “as a free man” in New Zealand.
Award-winning author Behrouz Boochani is in Christchurch to attend a literary festival and discuss his work “No Friend but the Mountains” which was painstakingly tapped out on WhatsApp and sent to publishers.
Boochani, 35, spent more than six years in the notorious Australian detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island after being caught in 2013 in Australian waters on a boat packed with asylum seekers.
The book, which has won numerous awards including the Victorian Prize for Literature — Australia’s richest literary honour — chronicles his perilous voyage from Indonesia towards Australia and his subsequent incarceration, describing in detail the lives, deaths and hardships endured by the refugees.
“It is the first time that I feel that I am happy because I survived,” he told the Guardian newspaper after landing in New Zealand on a passport organised by the UNHCR refugee agency with a New Zealand visitor’s visa sponsored by Amnesty International.
Boochani said he appreciated being in Christchurch which he knew as a city that had “educated the world” with the kindness and humanity in its response to the deadly attack on two mosques this year.
He told Radio New Zealand that seeking asylum in the country was not an immediate issue while he focused on sharing his story, but it could be addressed later.
“It’s the first time I can walk as a free man, that’s why I prefer not to talk about this anymore,” he said.
“I think it will take time that I understand freedom and completely understand that I am a free man now.
“Just for a while, I want to be here and later we will look at that (asylum) possibility, because I’m already accepted by America so for now I prefer to focus on this story and share it with people.”
He said he was “tired but happy” after his long journey from Port Moresby to New Zealand, and was enjoying the seasonal spring freshness after being in the tropics for six years.
Boochani said he would like to see New Zealand do more to help the around 250 asylum-seekers who remain in Papua New Guinea, although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s offer to take 150 of them has been rejected by Canberra.
Only a handful of asylum-seekers remain on Manus after the Australian-managed camp was officially closed two years ago, with others having been moved to the capital, Port Moresby.
Boochani fled Iran for Indonesia in 2013 when the Kurdish magazine he wrote for was raided by the military for publishing anti-government articles.
He then paid a people-smuggler to take him to Australia where his boat was intercepted and he was placed in the Manus Island centre for asylum seekers.