Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I am voting for Anni

I am voting for Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), not because he is dubbed as the 'Mandela of Maldives' but because he is the candidate from the largest political party in the Maldives, which has won the hearts and minds of thousands of Maldivians. I am voting for Anni because I can see a logic in the five pledges made by MDP -- the five pledges that are symbolically embodied in the five petals of the campaign logo temple flower -- and see that there is immense public support for the promises made by MDP.

I am voting for Anni because I have travelled to different atolls in the Maldives and have seen the suffering of the people as they dwell in 'locked islands' having to pay their savings for a boat trip to the nearest hospital. I am voting for Anni because I have sensed long before this campaign started that we need a sound transportation network to connect the islands. I have visited rural areas of several South Asian countries, and seen how easy and affordable it is to travel using a public transportation system. We boast of having the highest per capita income in the region but we lack even a basic public transportation system.

I am voting for Anni because I believe poor people with low incomes should not have to beg to raise money to undergo a basic operation. I am voting for Anni because I believe our young people should not be school dropouts and end up as heroin addicts on streets. I am voting for Anni because I believe we should have a better and decent life than living in the congested and crowded Male' with sky high prices, or living in poverty-stricken islands with only paracetamol tablets in the pharmacy, or some islands without a pharmacy at all.

All candidates are promising us to take us to new heights. However, I don't believe they are sincere promises. I have some faith in MDP. I don't agree with all their policies or all the strategies they have used in the past three years. However, I believe MDP is better than the rest, and with the grassroots support, they can transform this nation if they are willing to do it.

I will always remain a critic. If we see dictatorial tendencies under an MDP government I will be among the first dissidents to oppose it. If we see an MDP government fooling the people like the current regime did for the past 30 years, I will be among the first to start the work to topple it. But at the moment I am giving MDP my vote. Just like the thousands of people who gathered at Artificial Beach Monday night, hoping for a better tomorrow and hoping for a country where justice prevails and poverty is reduced, I will be voting for Anni.

I admire Anni, not just because he spent 18 months in solitary confinement in a small cell in the 90s. I admire him because after being imprisoned several times, he had the courage to face the regime again and again and work for democracy in the Maldives. I admire him because he did not accept a high government post afterwards, or start a business offering shares to a cabinet member. I admire him because he could have had a luxurious life but sacrificed the prime of his youth for us. I admire him as a fearless journalist who brought the cabinet ministers down to ground through his sharp interviews. I admire him because he is a writer like me, a dissident like me, and a critic like me.

But on Wednesday, when I cast my vote, it will not be because Anni is the 'Mandela of Maldives', but because the common conscience of the country is calling for change, and destiny has placed Anni as the leader to take us to The Other Maldives.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Black Friday: flashback to a crackdown

Four years ago on this day I was standing on the Republican Square, among thousands of people gathered, to demand democracy, freedom and justice. We have come a long road since then, we have achieved much, but the amended constitution in itself will not provide us with freedom. We have more work to do to save our country from greed, violence, intolerance and injustice. On 13 August 2004, I left the Republican Square around 2.00 pm, having spent a large part of the previous night and Friday morning there. I left because I wanted to write an article to update concerned people abroad on the events unfolding in Male'. News of the crackdown came just as I was finishing the article. Had I been there on the square at that time, I may have been arrested, beaten and tortured by the brutal National Security Service. I was lucky. I was also fortunate enough to send the article to Maldives Culture, minutes before the internet service was shut down in a desperate attempt to salvage the regime of Gayoom. My article, published anonymously in Maldives Culture, provides a detailed eyewitness account of what happened on Black Friday in 2004.

What started as a vigil at the Republican Square in Male' at dusk on Thursday turned into a mass gathering of people demanding for democratic reform, release of detained political prisoners, resignation of cabinet ministers and resignation of President Gayyoom himself. However, in a nasty twist in this tale, NSS used tear gas to quel the protest, the riot police beat the gathered protestors and arrested a number of reformists.

A group of pro-reform activists gathered at the Republican Square in protest against the detaining of five reform activists. They were mainly maintaining a vigil for Mr Mohamed Yoosuf (Fulhu) who was detained inside Shaheed Hussain Adam Building, where Police Headquarters is located. The building faces the Republican Square.

Fulhu was released on Thursday evening but the people demanded the release of four other activists who were detained in Dhoonidhoo detention centre near Male'. Ahmed Adam and Abdul Rasheed were arrested after the police raided their photocopy shop on 9th August. Firshan Ahmed Zahir and Hussain Rasheed were arrested on 10th August, reportedly after they responded to an intimidation by a police officer by saying police had no right to act like that.

By early morning of Friday, a large crowd had gathered near the Republican Square demanding the four detainees to be transferred to Male' and released.

The government tried to negotiate with the people, by talking to some pro-reform MPs. The government then gave in to the demands of the people and brought the four prisoners to Male' and released them.

When a government spokesman announced this, the crowd reminded that there were more political prisoners detained. They called for the release of Naushad Waheed, and the people detained regarding Sandhaanu; Ahmed Didi, Mohamed Zaki and Fathimath Nisreen.

The government spokespeople then tried to calm the crowd by addressing them through loudspeakers. When Ilyas Ibrahim, Minister of Transport, tried to calm the crowd, they called him a thief. They reminded him that he had taken millions of dollars from Fisheries Projects Implementation Department (FPID).

Brigadier Moosa Jaleel was also among the people who tried to calm the crowd in vain. People's Special Majlis member Gasim Ibrahim also tried to calm the crowd but the people were getting restless and his voice was not heard above the voice of the reformers.

People's Special Majlis member for Male', Ibrahim Ismail (Ibra) then told the crowd that the government was considering the demands of the people. He called for patience. Ibra, who was standing in front of the NSS Headquarters, then proceeded to the flag-mast in Republican Square, where a large flag is hoisted. To calm the crowd, NSS allowed their loudspeaker system to be taken there.

Ibra once again called for non-violence, peace and patience. He asked the crowd what their demands were, and they responded by calling for the release of Naushad Waheed and the Sandhaanu prisoners, and the resignation of a number of cabinet ministers. Ibra assured the crowd that the people's demands were conveyed to the government and that he will try to mediate and achieve a solution.

Brigadier Moosa Jaleel from NSS also assured the people that their demands were being sent to the government and the people will be told about the decisions of the government.

A number of pro-reform activists then started addressing the crowd through the loudspeaker system. They included Ismail Asif, Zuhaira and Fulhu. The crowd continued voicing their demands including the resignation of State Minister for Defence Anbaree Abdul Sattar, Commissioner of Police Adam Zahir and Gayyoom himself.

The crowd were determined not to resort to violence but their peaceful protest was continuously disrupted by mob groups hired by Trade Minister Abdullah Yameen, who is a brother of Gayyoom. Those were the same groups that tried to disrupt the peaceful gatherings at Lonuziyaaraiykolhu at Male'.

At one time, a group came towards the flag-mast and the platform there, and tried to pull down the flag. The protesting crowd shouted their firm opinion that the Maldivian flag in the Republican Square should not be pulled down. After a brief verbal fight, the mob backed off.

The GSM mobile phone service was also stopped during the protest but was resumed after the crowd called for the service to be resumed.

Contrary to some reports, Naushad Waheed and Sandhaanu prisoners have not been released. The government had announced that they were considering the demands of the public to release them. However, Naushad Waheed, who is detained in Male' at the time, joined the crowd and detailed the torture he and fellow prisoners went through in jail.

Sandhaanu prisoner Ahmed Didi also joined the crowd and started addressing them. Didi said he heard about the unrest in Male' and came to Police Headquarters and asked them what he should do and that he was willing to stay in a cell. He said they told him to join the crowd. He explained the torture he and fellow prisoners went through and the reasons for the publishing of the Internet newsletter Sandhaanu.

Didi addressed the crowd several times. As dawn arrived, the crowd stayed in the Republican Square, firm in their resolve to bring democracy to Maldives.

Fathimath Nisreen, the girl who was imprisoned for her alleged participation in publishing Sandhaanu, also addressed the gathered people. She denied that she had any involvement in publishing Sandhaanu and said the reason for her jail sentence is calling Gayyoom 'a Pharaoh'. Nisreen also highlighted that the constitution of the Maldives gives arrested people the right to get legal assistance from lawyers but that she and other Sandhaanu prisoners were denied their right for legal consultation. She also challenged police investigator Abdulla Riyaz to come into the crowd and give a single evidence for her alleged participation in Sandhaanu. Nisreen's jail sentence of ten years was halved recently and she was banished to an island in Faafu Atoll, but she was in Male' when this protest started.

While Nisreen was speaking, NSS tried to disrupt the gathering by using a dirty trick. A group of uniformed NSS servicemen climbed the platform and the crowd shouted at them to go back. They stayed and the some of the gathered people started to run towards them. Using this commotion as a distraction, the Yameen-sponsored mob climbed the platform and hijacked it.

They could not stay there long and backed off once again. The mob went running around in another part of the Republican Square chanting their support for Gayyoom.

Another trick on the part of NSS was played by Chief of Staff Major General Mohamed Zahir, who tried to grab the loudspeaker system after pretending to address the crowd. However, he could not succeed and had to flee the scene from an increasingly restless crowd.

When the time for Friday prayers came, the crowd tried to perform the prayer in the Republican Square so that the crowd will not be dispersed. Sheikh Fareed was to lead the prayers.

The NSS kept reminding the people to go away from the scene. NSS Headquarters is also situated next the Republican Square. A cabinet meeting was supposedly going on inside the NSS Headquarters to discuss the demands of the public. The reform activists urged the crowd to stand their ground, and stay firm in their protest.

The mob once again came to assist the crumbling regime of Gayyoom. This time they started threatening Sheikh Fareed so that he and some supporters had to leave the area. The prayers could not be performed in the Republican Square. As the men went for prayers in the nearby Islamic Centre, the women guarded the microphones and loudspeakers. Even though the reformist crowd outnumbered the mob, they were committed to continue their protest without resolving to violence.

The mob consists of groups that usually represent sports teams in the country such as BG and Maziya. The members of 'Galolhu Kanmathi' are also part of this mob. Yameen and his buddies have supposedly paid huge sums for the mob. Madih and Shah Ismail, two people who control the BG group, were seen in the area during noon and after instructing the mob to threaten Sheikh Fareed, 'the bosses' were seen leaving the area.

Also leading the mob activities is Ali Suzeyn, coach of Victory Sports Club football team. Suzeyn is also a member of 'Galolhu Kanmathi' and joined the Gayyoom's BBC-bashing in 2003 after BBC aired reports of Gayyoom's totalitarian rule in Maldives.

After the prayers, Ahmed Didi once again started addressing the crowd. Calls for the resignation of Gayyoom is increasing. The government still refused to announce anything concerning the demands of the people.

Even though the NSS had assured the protesters that they will not shoot at the crowd and nobody will be arrested concerning the event, it was a completely different tale at the 2.00 p.m. news on TVM. The government said only a small crowd had gathered and caused disharmony at the Republican Square, the people who caused this had been noted and that action will be taken against them.

The helpless situation prompted the regime to use a very dirty trick in its sleeve. It encouraged a very young group of people to come and throw bottles and such stuff towards the Police Headquarters. The protesters tried to calm this group but they could not. It is believed that this group is part of the mob paid by Yameen. Using this commotion as an excuse, the riot police pounced on the protesters, beat them brutally with truncheons and arrested a number of protesters. Most of the protesters who were taken in were those who tried to calm down the young group.

Women were also beaten with truncheons and they sustained severe injuries. Ambulances are rushing to the hospital with casualties.

Tear gas was used at about 3.00 p.m. Now the sounds of sirens fill the capital city and the people are once again faced with uncertainty and fear from the brutal regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom.

Monday, February 25, 2008


There she was, standing among the thousands gathered. She was one out of thousands, but I could clearly see her, the crimson rays of the morning sun casting a glow on her face, dark straight hair half-concealed by a scarf.

It has been almost a year since I last saw her. She must be back for a holiday. She does not recognize me now; my physical appearance has changed considerably over the years. Apart from that I have grown so thin and my friends always notice this and some of them are bold enough to ask if I am into drugs. Day by day I am shrinking; the years of frustration and suppression have shrunk my mind.

I had this urge to go and speak to Hana. But I refrained, restrained myself, and mingled with the crowd. I felt hungry but despite the hunger pangs I stayed. It was like an intoxication, staying there within the crowd, listening to the speakers, discussing with friends and sometimes shouting.

The previous night the crowd looked like a sea, each person in the gathering like a ripple moving across the water. We joined the shouts of others calling to free Sandhaanu writers. It was the first time that I felt the overwhelming power of the gathering. We felt we were in charge, demanding justice, calling for the freedom of fellow citizens. We were standing in front of the NSS Headquarters, the sinister and gory building, the epitome of torture, and we were shouting without fear, without any hesitation, for the release of political prisoners such as Naushad. I felt energy flow right through me, adrenaline increasing.

What was the crime of the Sandhaanu writers? They were just expressing their thoughts, writing what they felt, just like I am doing right now. What they did was for the benefit of us all, for a better and just society, and did they deserve to be locked up and jailed?

Dawn at Republican Square that day had a surreal feel. Many of us had not slept and were deeply thinking about how things would unfold. Many people were coming and joining us, alerted by the news. When the first rays of the morning fell on the square there were more than 5,000 people gathered there. Most of them expecting something good to happen that day.

It was just like a dream; things were moving as if in slow motion, as if it was a movie. The past few weeks could have been scenes from a movie. The debates, the gatherings at Lonuziyaaraikolhu and the protests. The night the Defence Ministry banned the gatherings at Lonuziyaaraikolhu there were more people there. People were in a defiant mood and freedom was in the air.

We listened to Sandhaanu writer Ahmed Didi speaking. He was very weak from his days of captivity but he had an inner strength, a defiance, which was carried in his voice. He was an inspiration to us all, a symbol of human patience and sacrifice enduring torture and suppression.

Across the Republican Square another group, armed with microphones and loudspeakers, were chanting their support for the regime. This was quite understandable; a tyranny built over years will not collapse without a fight. That mob had tried to fuel violence previously, once trying to bring down the large flag in the square. They came and harassed us now and then, but we were committed to our non-violent protest.

I thought about Hana and the 1990s. In 1994 Aminiyya School organised a carnival to mark its Golden Jubilee anniversary. Each night there was music. We mingled with the crowd there, quite carefree, watching the girls and listening to the music. During those days there were things to expect, and most of the time I was looking for Hana.

I thought about the early 1990s and how life was so different back then. Drugs were not as widespread as now. It had not enslaved the young generation back then. Zero Degree Atoll had released their Dhoni album. More tourists were coming to Maldives. More dollars were flowing in. The economy was in a boom. Thinking of those days I believe that Gayoom could have avoided the mess he is in now.

Intellectually we were suppressed even then. The freedom movement of 1990 was crushed. Sangu, Hukuru and Manthiri, popular magazines of dissent, were prematurely aborted. If Gayoom had opened up the society more, distributed the wealth more equally, curbed corruption and allowed more freedom, he would not have faced the dissent that is squeezing him today.

Almost before noon I saw a group of girls arrive. Among them was Ana. It had been a long time since I last saw her. She is from the new generation. The lost generation. Like many girls of her generation she smokes. For some of them it stands for the empowerment of girls. For some it is merely an escape. I am not sure if she is into drugs or not. I rarely see her on the streets these days. I think her parents are locking her up.

All parents with adolescent boys and girls are full of stress. They are at a loss as to how to keep their children away from all the vice that is slowly leading to a social breakdown. Sex is so free. Drugs are abundant. The jails are full of drug addicts. There is no room in the rehabilitation centre to accommodate more addicts. Heroin. It's the new religion.

It is not love that I feel for Ana. There is a physical attraction. Ana was very beautiful standing there in the Republican Square, in an olive green t-shirt, black jeans, hair tinted. There is something delicate about her and I don't want her to turn into a heroin addict.

Do I love Hana? Yes. After all those years, even now. I wonder if Hana is married now, whether she has settled down after all those turbulent years. On second thought marriage does not become a salvation here. The country is already in world record book for having the highest divorce rate.

I wonder what went wrong between me and Hana in the 1990s. And I wonder what went wrong with the whole country in the 1990s. I remember the Zero Degree Atoll's Dhoni show, so many of us inside the social center, listening to Nashid sing and Mohoj on guitar.

"Othakas maa kandu hithakah libifaa,

Atha, viha, nora, dhosha nakathun nubalaa

thariyaa burujaa ragalhah nufilaa

Aruvaa jahamun dhathurah nufuraa"

After the show some of my friends were rolling some joints. They have outgrown their addiction now and I am very happy for them. Back then it was relatively easy; they did it very openly. But now the society is more aware of drugs, and this awareness is leading us nowhere.

By noon the warnings from NSS became harsher. An NSS man was stabbed in the morning. I suspected something foul in the air. The mob was coming again and again to try to disrupt the gathering. I felt hungry, sleepy and my legs felt weak. But my mind was alert as if it had woken up from a century's sleep. After the Friday prayers more people gathered. Then the crowd became thin. Maybe they were leaving, hours of fatigue and hunger overcoming their resolve. Or maybe they would join again after a short break.

A young mob hurling stones at NSS buildings. Young people who became prey to drugs, mentally programmed, ready to dance to the tunes of the regime. Green uniforms. Tear gas. Sticks and batons. Maniacs. Men and women screaming. Running. Scared. Running for their lives.

I have not seen Hana or Ana since the Black Friday. Many women were taken, beaten, tortured and sexually abused. Several children were brutally beaten.

Hana is studying nursing. In one or two years she will return. Maybe by then things will be different. Maybe by then we will need people like Hana to dress our wounds, to put the bandages and to care for the injured. The whole nation is wounded; the scars will remain forever.

Note: This is an attempt at short story writing. This fictional story was based on real life experience at Republican Square on 12-13 August 2004. The story was published in www.sandhaanu.com more than a year ago. Photos by unknown photographers.