By many accounts, Australia has done its best to silence the voices of these migrants and refugees. Housing them on the remote Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru has not only geographically isolated them from the Australian mainland, but also kept them at arm’s length from the country’s journalists and human rights activists.
I first came across Mr. Boochani’s story on his Facebook page, which was already being followed by thousands of journalists. His descriptions of daily life on Manus offered a glimpse at this shrouded world. As a journalist in his home country of Iran, he was well-versed in bearing witness to oppression, and he made it his mission from the very beginning of his detention to do just that on Manus.
His detailed notes proved vital to many journalists, like myself, trying to understand the reality of life on these islands. He shared updates of detainees with health concerns, wrote about the mental anguish of indefinite detention, and shared photos and videos of Manus.
Soon after, I got his phone number and reached out on the WhatsApp messenger.
Through these text and audio memos, I learned his back story. Mr. Boochani had worked as a freelance journalist for several Iranian publications before founding a weekly magazine, Werya, that focused on preserving Kurdish culture.
When his offices in Ilam, Iran, were raided and several colleagues were arrested, Mr. Boochani felt he had to leave or risk imprisonment himself. But making his way to Australia, where he had planned to seek asylum, was not as easy as he had hoped.
He traveled first to Indonesia, where he paid smugglers to take him by boat to Australia. The first attempt nearly cost him his life when the boat sank. He was detained by Indonesian police, but weeks later made his second attempt to reach Australia.
This time, his boat became lost at sea for a week before being intercepted by the Australian Navy. He came into Australian territory on July 23, 2013, his birthday. The date was significant for another reason: It was just four days after Australia signed a new agreement with Papua New Guinea: Those who were found in Australian waters would be taken to a detention center on Manus Island for processing. This strict new policy, stated to be a deterrent for the thousands attempting to enter Australia by boat every year, meant Mr. Boochani and others like him would never be resettled in Australia.
“They don’t care that I didn’t know anything about the 19 July law before I left Indonesia,” Mr. Boochani wrote in one of the earliest messages we exchanged. “Not knowing is a big torture, and really we still don’t know how many more years we will be imprisoned here.”
Our conversations continued, and I knew I had to tell his story. Then, in November, it looked like that opportunity was finally presenting itself. Just days after the presidential election, the Obama administration announced a deal between the United States and Australia to resettle hundreds of refugees languishing on Manus and Nauru islands. Mr. Boochani would be one of them.
My colleague in the video department, Yara Bishara, and I got to work planning an interactive piece on the diverging fates of the people held at these offshore detention sites. That is when Mr. Boochani first started sending me video diaries detailing the process as he waited to see what would come. Every few days I would send him a series of questions over WhatsApp, and he would respond. We had intended for these to be part of a larger narrative, but realized that Mr. Boochani’s account spoke for itself.
Limited internet connectivity in the detention center often meant that he would record a handful of videos at one time, then travel to the nearby town of Lorengau to connect to the internet and send them.
But he is a journalist, even in this detention, and he was determined to tell the story of those on the island. He made it work.
He sent over clips of swallows flying over the fence of the Manus detention center, scenes of the cramped living quarters and detailed accounts of his experience waiting for news about resettlement in the U.S.
As the weeks went on and America geared up for the inauguration of President Trump, Mr. Boochani’s video diaries took on a more uncertain tone. He knew this president had very different priorities, and the stress of waiting for answers about his future was visible on his face. Mr. Trump’s inauguration came and went, and still no news.
Then late on Jan. 27, President Trump signed an executive order that blocked refugees from entering the United States for months and banned travelers from seven nations, including Iran. To complicate matters, a few days later Mr. Trump questioned the previously negotiated agreement that called for the United States to accept and resettle 1,250 refugees from Manus and Nauru islands.. After reportedly hanging up on Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, during a diplomatic phone call in which they discussed the agreement, Mr. Trump slammed the idea on Twitter, calling it a “dumb deal.” President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, later walked back those remarks, saying that the United States would honor the commitment, though the refugees would be subject to “extreme vetting.”
I knew this was the right time to tell Mr. Boochani’s story, and to offer a look at one of the hundreds of people living in limbo who would be affected by a possible policy change. I reached out to him again on WhatsApp. His reply was swift.
“Manus prison did not expect the new president to accept this deal,” Mr. Boochani wrote, clearly distraught at the prospect that he could remain on the island. “The Australian government continues to play multiple political games with refugees that have caused suffering for our souls and minds again and again during the past four years.”
He also sent a video from the detention center in which he described the uncertainty he felt that night.
“We are so worried,” he said as he looked straight into the camera, his tired eyes speaking volumes.
Yara and I scrambled to pull together the video diaries we had been collecting since November. We decided, with guidance from colleagues on the International desk, that Mr. Boochani’s story was strong enough to stand on its own, in the larger context of the Trump administration’s plans.
Yara got to work editing the diaries into a cohesive package, intercutting scenes that Mr. Boochani had shot for us inside the detention center.
At the same time, we had to stay up to speed on the Trump administration’s ever-evolving statements on the agreement. By the time his tweet referencing the “dumb deal” was posted on Wednesday morning, we were nearly done with our piece, and had to swiftly re-edit.
By that afternoon, we had the video ready for the Times home page, offering our readers a side of the story they were not able to see anywhere else.
Mr. Boochani’s story does not end here. He is still in detention, still stuck in limbo on this remote island like so many others. But he will continue to document how the situation unfolds, and we will continue to tell the story of these detainees.