Sameer Mehrab

A letter to cousin Behrouz Bochani in Manus Island

Hey Behrouz Bochani,

I will take the liberty of calling you Cousin. But don’t be taken aback or take me as a pusher. Let me explain.

I am a Baloch from the Pakistani occupied Balochistan. My people, for some reason, believe that the Kurds are their cousins and somehow we got separated in the distant past. You are a Kurd from the Iranian occupied Kurdistan; so by our people’s notion, we are cousins.

I am not sure how true this is historically but who cares? People believe what they believe. Maybe the Baloch got lonely in a world where no one ever stood for them or called them their own. They took the liberty of making your people their cousins unilaterally, of course.

So please let me call you Cousin.

I am sure you are doing well in the Manus Island prison, enjoying your stay in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, waking up every morning with the sound of blue waves and Chauka The Timekeeper.

Even though the Commonwealth of Australia insists that you and others in Manus Island are not prisoners, and these detention centers are ‘processing centers’ for refugees where they are free to leave anytime, to anywhere they wish, just not Australia.

It is not certain what processing tools and methods they use that took an entire country to process a man for more than half a decade to decide whether his life is worth saving or not, whether his worth as a human is as important as compared to someone who was born to a certain race, continent or within a political entity other than those in Manus Island prisons.

Cousin, let me share parts of my story and similarities between our stories. I was raised in a sleepy town called Tump, not far from the eastern Iranian border. The border drawn on our ancestral lands that has divided farms, homes, ancestral graves, friends and families and in some cases, cousins too.

Tehran and Islamabad consider us Baloch as uncivilized savages, and believe there is some need to tame and ‘civilize’ us through brute force. How ironic this is that we are prisoners in our own homes, towns and cities. We have to prove our identity and legitimacy to live where our forefathers lived for thousands of years and buried many generations beneath the land.

The sheer injustice and treatment in the hands of the Pakistani and Iranian security forces make you swallow whatever dignity remains in you. The border crossings for the native Baloch people are always spectacles of insults by border guards on both sides.

In our own land, as you put it cousin, our only friends are the mountains. In instances of rebellion, Baloch people head to the mountains to take refuge from the armies of Iran and Pakistan. They head to the mountains to hide from fire spitting gunship helicopters. We call the mountains our friends and they acknowledge this by their eternal silence. Every rebellion ends with more brutality by the state. Torture and disappearances of loved ones for years, some turn up dead and others simply remain missing. I am sure at any given time you could find one or more protest camps in front of press clubs in Balochistan by friends and family of missing persons, disappeared by the Pakistani state forces.

It has been so for more than 7 decades now.

When I was growing up, it was relatively peaceful. I remember my paternal and maternal parents lived in towns separated by a river and from the north horizon to the south, you could see the ever-present mountain ranges. Let me tell you, the skies in Balochistan are blue, a blue you will never see anywhere else. And in wintery-nights, you could see the entire milky-way with your naked eyes. This spectacle thrown by the universe made me think that perhaps only the universe does not hold any prejudice or grudge against us.

Growing up, the only places we could go were the rivers and lakes to fish and bath, the palm tree farms to lay traps for birds. Or hunting with my cousin’s airgun, the only possession we all cousins felt proud in a collective sense of ownership. But it is the mountains that gave you a true sense of being who you are and how little you were in the scheme of things.

The old mountains of Balochistan are not only the keepers of our story as a people, but are also constantly generating myths and history of rebellion in blood and against whomever that dares to question their sanctity. They stand tall with us, morn with us and dance in commotion with us and the universe when we collectively rejoice the place in the moment. They exist, therefore, we exist.

People often ask why call a certain place home. My answer is simple: home is the place where your story is shaped. Told and retold till it is turned into a myth and becomes part of your collective psyche. Who can tell my story better than those old mountains who have seen eons of love, war and struggle of a people. The mountains are the best narrator of our story, to make sure we are not forgotten.

When I tell people that I am from Balochistan, most don’t know where it is. Those who know ask me which Balochistan: Iranian or Pakistani? I don’t know how to explain to them that I am not from Irani or Pakistani Balochistan, I am from where my grandmother and her grandmother shared their lives with those barren mountains, sun scourged plains, palm trees oasis and never-ending blue oceans and skies.

Balochistan is where rivers and mountain peaks recognize us as part of them and them a part of us, part of our story before any patriarchal god or prophet, before a map which divides. How can a map divide peoples’ memory and their sense of a shared story. A story shared by the people who live in different sides of borders.

States, they like borders, they like lines on maps as a form of distinction from one another. They like to divide everything especially people and land into all shapes and forms, boxes and triangles and colors that make it easier for them to rule. That is why they build walls, processing centers and divide you and me, cousins, into citizens, refugees, into the documented and the undocumented.

When I tell people how I also want to have a country of our own, how I want to be a citizen of a country like them, and what if we also get to build walls and let some in and keep some out, issue papers which gauge and define one’s human worth, they object. They think I am being narrow minded. They tell me how I should wait for better times when borders will be irrelevant and we all share this planet equally. They tell me the day is coming when all children of humankind will sing in unison the songs of love and dance and rejoice with the new dawn of love and peaceful coexistence.

That’s all good, I am for it. But what about today? What to do about the fact that my grandmother can’t get her dying wish to be buried by her grandsons and son.

Sometimes I miss the river dividing my paternal and maternal grandparents homes. I am also tired of being the undocumented, the alien, the refugee, the one who is to be processed in Manus Islands, built to keep me out from everything that resemble life and its joys. I am tired of seeing washed-up refugee kids on the beaches. I am tired of people telling me that I am here to take their jobs.

And where I am originally from?

Believe me, I am for a world without borders. But when I see you, who wins Australia’s highest literary award and still cannot go there because you have to prove your status as a someone who deserves to be let into that border, that wall, that line on the map. This fact convinced me that I can only claim my worth as a human when I possess a piece of land, an address in this world, a free homeland where no one asks me questions about my origins and no one asks me to prove my humanity, my worth as a person.

The beginning of another rebellion

My paternal grandmother considered herself a wise and strong woman who could stand any personal sorrow, and was capable of holding back her tears and pretending to feel nothing. For Baloch, showing grace in times of loss is the ultimate virtue one can practice.

I remember my sister told her when her son was killed by security forces. She never shed a tear and told her daughters and grandchildren that her son died an honorable death. There is nothing to mourn about.

It was a different story altogether when it came to my maternal grandmother when her son went missing like thousands of other Baloch picked up by Pakistani state forces. She refused to eat and drink till she died too. I wonder will she find a place in heaven or not because the Mullahs say that those who commit suicide do not have a place in their God’s heaven. But I am curious what about those who live their lives in subjugation and subhuman conditions and wait for death to come and free them. Will they have a place in Mullah’s heaven?

My paternal grandmother had lots of grandsons and granddaughters. She always used to tell us she prayed to God that when she died, she should be buried by her sons and grandsons and those who are next of kin. That is the only wish she expressed repeatedly during her lifetime in front of us when we were kids and later teenagers. It was like she knew this simple wish would not come true somehow. When she died of old age, of course there wasn’t a single immediate male family member. Some were killed and some self exiled. I heard some people from the other side of the river came to bury her. In times of grief, we Baloch like all other human beings, stay close and cooperative. I guess it is human nature.

In 1999, the Baloch started the fifth rebellion against Pakistani rule in Balochistan and it gained momentum when a female doctor, Shazia Khalid was raped by a Pakistan Army captain, Hammad, in the gas rich town of Balochistan’s Dera Bugti. Pakistani army refused to investigate or prosecute Hammad, one of their own. Instead of comprehending the culprit, the army started a military operation against the people of Dera Bugti, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women and children, by air strikes using gunships and fighter jets.

When I first saw the images of young dead babies cuddled by their dead mothers in their collective final act of humanity, defiance in the face of ultimate cruelty, it reminded me of the images of Halabja. The mothers and their infants in Balochistan and Kurdistan were in unison to defend the last outpost of humanity in their collective deaths. And that moment made me believe we were cousins. Maybe not blood cousins but we share the same heritage. Our legacy as a people is to defy inhumane conditions that question our humanity, we bonded to each other in this eternal struggle to not submit. Even in our deaths our infants and mothers stand their grounds. Uphold their humanity. Will I believe in this idea like I believe we are cousins to Kurds and all other human-beings who unwaveringly cherish a dream to be free from all forms of oppression and live as equal human beings and share this beautiful planet with others.

Tell me about Manus Island.

Actually, I wanted to ask you about the weather, food and the facilities in Manus Island. Do you ever get homesick? There are so many questions I want to ask you but not sure where to start. The idea of living in an Island in the middle of nowhere is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It is not clear which part is stronger, the fascinating or terrifying.

By the way, I am sorry for your dog and I hope, like the Chilean poet — even I do not believe in a human’s heaven — there were a paradise or heaven and afterlife for dogs. Because they are everything we ever wanted to be. They are the embodiment of our humanity or something we want to be or aspire to be but fall short to achieve.

They love us unconditionally, us the vile creatures. You ever see a dog asking your nationality, tribe or race before it showers you with love and affection? I believe we don’t deserve to be companions of such noble creatures.

I wanted to ask you about the official status of the dogs in Manus Island. Are they stateless and refugees too? Will one day they be processed and get to live in Australia too? I wonder how different it will be for them. Will they like it there more than they like to live in Manus Island. I guess we will never find the answers.

A nation of cutthroats and picketers

Cousin, have you ever wondered the best prisons in the world were built by the people who were prisoners in one way or another? I heard the forefathers of people of Australia were banished and sent as prisoners and unwanted people. But, look, what they have achieved. They have prisons of their own and they have filled them with all sort and variety of prisoners. In Manus, they are recreating the historic drama, trying to build their own miniature Australia.

But how can I blame them? For, this is what they inherited. What else can we expect from a nation of prisoners if not prisons? Those who were banished from their ancestral lands and sent to a strange continent are trapped in the eternal struggle of recreating the act of banishment, and imprisoning those who do not fall under a certain category or do fall under a certain category. Those who try to reach Australia in the hope of getting protection are fair game because they remind them of their forefathers, exiled from their lands unwillingly, stranded in rough seas going to a strange land. The only language they have is the hope of finding some resemblance of normalcy, security and dignity.



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Sameer Mehrab is a writer and co-founder of Balochistan Times. He often depicts Balochistan's socio-political dilemmas in his fiction and poetry. He is based in Canada.

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