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Ajinder Kaur

"I had nightmares for one year after I returned home," said Golam Mawla, sorrow in his eyes. "I could not forget the beatings and the torture."

Six years later, and after two weeks of detailed testimony in the trial of Tenaganita director and KeADILan supreme council member Irene Fernandez, the 37-year-old Bangladeshi still finds it hard to talk about what happened to him in two Malaysian detention camps.

Indeed, Golam broke down three times and threw up once when he had to describe the toilets in the camp during his testimony in the Fernandez trial, considered the country's longest-running trial. Fernandez is charged with publishing "false news" about the ill-treatment of detainees in camps for migrant workers. According to Fernandez, Golam was very fearful when he arrived in the country last month to be the first former camp detainee to testify on the conditions of the camps.

This is his story. Middlemen and false passports Unemployed, Golam left Bangladesh in January 1995 to seek employment in Malaysia where had a friend and relative working. "They informed me I would get a job here," Golam said, speaking through an interpreter. To do so, he had to sell almost everything he owned - a piece of land for RM1,750, five handlooms (RM1,750), a mango tree (RM350) and his wife's gold jewellery (RM350) - to raise RM4,200 (60,000 taka). But little did Golam know that when he bade farewell to his wife, a then 12-year-old son and two daughters, aged three and seven, he would return less than a year later, empty handed and fighting for his dear life.

In that fateful year, he was arrested and tortured by authorities in two detention camps after being duped by middlemen both in Bangladesh and Malaysia. Golam handed all his money to a middleman named Kadir in Bangladesh who promised to arrange everything for his trip to Malaysia. Upon arriving in Dhaka, Golam was handed a used passport which had been tampered.

"The passport was not mine. It did not have my name or my father's name but my photo was there," he recalled. "When I asked Kadir about it, he just said >>You don't have to worry. I have all the contacts.'" Golam says it was too late to turn back. He and 11 fellow villagers had endured a rough four-hour journey, including crossing "a very big river" to get to Dhaka, and they were already in the Immigration department at the airport. His eyes were searching Tenaganita's conference room as he spoke, and his thin body and wrinkled face were a reflection of pain and sadness. The dark circles under his eyes showed that he had not slept well on his second trip here.

They had no problems leaving Dhaka. In Thailand, where they landed before heading for Malaysia, Kadir gave each of them US to clear Thai Immigration. "We hid the money in between the pages of our passports. The officer stamped the passport and spontaneously dropped the money on his lap." The 12 Bangladeshis were then taken to a hotel in Thailand by some of Kadir's "people" where they spent two days. There they found another 15 to 17 Bangladeshis waiting to leave for Malaysia. "They had been in the hotel for 15 days. They were people of other middlemen," Golam said.

Golam and the 11 others, were then driven to the Haadyai border through a jungle. They spent a night in a shed here before a Malaysian boatman arrived at night. "The boatman took our passports in Haadyai and guided us to another shed on the other side of the river at Golok. We crossed the river by boat."

Welcome to MalaysiaThey then got into a car for Kuala Lumpur but were stopped along the way by police. Unable to produce their passports, they were arrested and taken to a police station at noon. There, they were not questioned but instead fed bread and orange juice. A few hours later the 12 were driven to the Tanah Merah detention camp in Kelantan where they spent an agonising 25 days. "It was bad like anything," Golam recalled, pausing for a moment.

"The police tortured us, we faced problems with toilets, and food was not enough. We were given a handful of rice, sometimes one egg, or dried fish, or some meat for lunch and dinner. For breakfast we were given two thin slices of bread and tea without sugar or milk." Golam and the 11 new arrivals were housed in a room approximately 30ft by 50ft along with over 300 other inmates. It was crammed and there were no beds. "We slept on a wooden floor filled with bed bugs. There were many mosquitoes and there was no fan."

They sweated a lot in the zinc-roofed room. Worse still, they were only given a pair of trousers and one shirt for 25 days. Their own clothes were kept in a separate room. Golam says he will never forget the repeated beatings they suffered in the camp. "The police always beat us with a police stick. They beat us on our heads, bodies and legs for no reason. Sometimes they just came and beat up everybody - it was an everyday routine. They would beat us if they found us talking, not sleeping at night or for any reason at all." The detainees lived in constant fear, their hearts always tense. "We became unconscious after the beatings. There was no bleeding but we were in serious pain all the time. No police came to help us, but we helped each other. I never found a doctor in the camp."

Golam vividly recalls one day when an inmate attempted suicide. "He couldn't tolerate the torture. He got some cigarettes and I followed him out for a smoke. But instead I found him trying to hang himself in the toilet." Golam eventually managed to convince him not to.Five days later Golam and his group were released. He remembers that their numbers were suddenly called out during lunch and they were told that they were going to be taken to the Thai border.

An Immigration officer and two policemen drove them to the river bank. "The Immigration officer made a phone call on his handphone and told us to wait there. They left us and five minutes later a boatman came and took us across the river."

They arrived in the same shed again in Haadyai. This time a man named Osman was waiting for them. They stayed in the shed for three hours before Osman told them to move on. They were then made to cross the river back into Malaysia and taken to another shed where most of the group were met by friends and relatives. Having no one to greet him, Golam went with Osman to a house in Balakong, Selangor. There he met a few Bangladeshis from his village who then took him to Subang where his brother-in-law worked in a restaurant. He later found out that his brother-in-law gave Osman RM1,100 to secure his release from the camp. Golam then got a job at Nanking Restaurant in Subang for RM650 a month, thinking that things were better. His hopes were short-lived. Two months later he was arrested by police and bundled into a police van with 42 other immigrants rounded up from three restaurants. His brother-in-law escaped by virtue of having the day off. After a day in a police cell, Golam and the others were sent to the Semenyih detention camp in Selangor. Here, he said, was hell. "I spent three months in this camp ..." his voice trailing off.

Semenyih hell holeAt Semenyih, they were stripped naked in front of all the old detainees. "I was shocked because I thought Malaysia was a Muslim country," Golam said. Some, including the old detainees, cried because they too were shocked. (Women were detained in a separate block.) Naked, they were told to walk 10 rounds inside the block.

"They even checked our anuses by putting their fingers inside to see if we hid anything. They checked all 43 of us, one by one, before sending us to our block."The three-storey building housed 60 to 70 Indonesians, a dozen Pakistanis, six or so Indians and one Saudi Arabian. The Bangladeshis, including Golam, occupied the ground floor and they had to sneak around to meet the other inmates. "The police would beat us if they found us meeting the others on the first floor," Golam said. They were allowed to say their prayers but not allowed to go to a mosque. "There was no prayer room in the camp. So we would just wipe the floor with our hands and say our prayers. One of us volunteered to do azan."

Semenyih was similar to Tanah Merah - "there were no beds and we had to sleep on a wooden floor filled with bed bugs" - but the experience was worse. This was where Golam had earlier lost his uncle-in-law. "He died in this camp before I came to Malaysia. He was about 40-years-old and was healthy when he came here. His name was Lal Miah," he recalled.

At Semenyih he also witnessed two deaths. "One morning we found that one of our inmates was convulsing. We went to see him and suddenly he became very calm. We realised then he was dead. We were very scared. We cried and thought that we would also die because he was one of us. We were also very weak, but when someone died, it really broke our strength."

Soon after another Bangladeshi died. Golam was also told that three others had died before he arrived. "We do not know what happened after the deaths. The police just came and took the bodies away when we notified them," he said. "We couldn't sleep. We saw the tortures in our dreams. We were always fearful and panicky." "I suffered a lot in Semenyih," Golam would say throughout his interview. "They didn't give us enough food and they beat us up all the time. There was no water for toilets or to bathe. We were only allowed a maximum of two minutes to bathe, once or twice a week. We were very weak in the camp. Sometimes, our plates would fall off our hands and the police would beat us up." "Other times, we had to come out of the block to do >>pumping' (push-ups). We were also asked to come out, queue up, hold our ears and stare directly at the sun for 10 to 20 minutes."

There were two toilets, one on each end of the block. There was, however, no water in the toilets or to bathe. They were only allowed a maximum of two minutes to bathe, once or twice a week. Golam carefully described the stench and condition of the toilets: "It was full of shit. For three months, there was no place to put our toes in the toilet without having to step on the shit. We had no water to wash ourselves. We had to use our fingers to clean up after doing our business and then wipe our fingers on the wall. There was shit on the wall too. The place in the block was also very dirty. We were sweating all the time and had to go to the toilet barefooted. There was shit on the floor in the block because of our dirty feet." Not surprisingly, most of the detainees suffered from skin disease. "I had sores and rashes all over my body, especially in my genital area. It was really bad and painful. I suffered to pass urine because it burned a lot. I also suffered from constipation and the sores were bleeding at the time."

There were some doctors in the camp but there was a >>waiting list'. "When I went to see them they told me to put my name on a waiting list and wait a few days for my turn. I never got any medicine," he recalled. FreedomGolam's release from the camp was simple enough. "One day some Immigration officers came to our camp and showed us a form. They told us that anyone who signed it would be sent back within three days. I don't know what the form was about because the officer read its contents out in Malay. I also did not know how to sign my name so an inmate signed it for me."

Three days later, the Immigration officers came and picked up 76 Bangladeshis. They were sent to the airport where they boarded a flight to Dhaka the same evening. They were given 200 taka each by airport officials in Dhaka for the trip back to their villages. At the airport Golam found that people from his village had come to receive someone else. They helped him back to his village where his family were shocked to see his condition. "I was so weak. My whole body was covered with sores and other diseases. They were so afraid that I was going to die," he recalled. He was immediately admitted to hospital for five days and remained on medication for two weeks after that.

Today Golam and his family are still coming to terms with the whole episode, though he knows that he will never be able to forget the experience. His brother-in-law returned to Bangladesh shortly later after his five-year tenure in Malaysia expired. Somewhat surprisingly, Golam says he wouldn't mind coming back to seek employment in Malaysia again. He would like to bring his son too. "But this time, it must be legal."

(Source : Malaysiakini, WEEKEND EDITION - March 11, 2000)

Posted on 2004-01-09
Asian Human Rights Commission
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