Previously in Refuge #37 Rescuing young Chin girls: Speaking through her son Ling Ling as an interpreter, Za Dim told me how she had been helping Chin girls who had been mistreated or raped by their employers. Za Dim also kept a diary, noting the names and circumstances of each case. On 27 December 1995, police officers said that there had been bombs and shooting in the city and arrested Za Dim.
Mid-way through our third interview, I have to move my car from its two-hour parking space. Za Dim instructs Ling Ling to show me where to park by their backyard. He leads me through the kitchen and a narrow corridor. A sewing machine occupies a nook by the back door. Towers of folded cloth lean against the wall.
We emerge into a back garden that is brimming with life and trees and plants, an unexpected oasis. I feel embarrassed about the piddling little red chillies I had brought as a gift from my garden. Just outside the garden, knee length weeds sprout from cracks in the concrete.
Returning from reparking my car, we talk about sewing and in halting English, she tells me that she sewed her brown jacket, the well-cut one that I had silently admired when we first met.
‘Wow!’ I say. ‘That’s very good. Who taught you how to sew?’
‘She went to Rangoon,’ says Ling Ling.
‘Oh, you went to Rangoon to study? So over here, do you sew for business?’
‘She’s been ill so she cannot.’
And with that Za Dim continues her story.
At the head office in Dawrpur, police officers addressed the three hundred men and women they had arrested, ‘You guys make problems for our country, our cities. Whether you are legal people, or foreigners, you came here to make trouble.’
In a separate room, the Police Chief asked Za Dim, ‘Who planted all those bombs? Who is responsible?’
‘I don’t know anything about the bombing. I don’t even know where it happened, or when,’ she replied.
‘You’re disrespecting our boss,’ shouted one of the Crime Investigation Department (CID) officers. He slapped Za Dim. She fell to the floor and passed out. When she awoke, she was in a locked cell with other women. She watched Indian employees bailing out most of the women throughout the day; the women were needed to continue weaving at the loom factories.
Meanwhile, many stories and theories circulated. It was said that one month earlier, the Burmese government had promised the Indian government road works contracts in exchange for the repatriation of Burmese nationals involved in the 1988 uprising. The bombing was merely a ruse to round up illegal migrants.
At eleven o’clock on the second night, police officers hauled Za Dim into an interrogation room. The room stank of alcohol and deep-fried meats: chicken, fish, goat.
‘You’re a spy,’ they said – they had found her diaries. ‘We’re going to punish you. Call on your God and let your God help you. You might hate us because we drink and you are against drinking. You might be a fellowship elder but tonight you are our enemy and we are going to punish you. Apart from tailoring, what do you do? We heard you are a spy, where is your equipment? What are you spying on? Tell us.’
At this stage in our interview, late afternoon light filters in, casting the room in a muted copper tone. Za Dim sits on her usual chair, her left elbow resting on her knee, her right hand pulling back her left middle finger so that the flesh on her left palm is drained of colour. Using a right hand finger, she taps her left palm repeatedly. She clicks her tongue, mimicking the sound of wood against human flesh. Ling Ling continues interpreting, ‘And they flip her hand and beat her hand with a stick … maybe one and half feet long…and they get her to count … she count up to 62.’
The police officers kept firing questions at her. She counted out loud the number of times they hit her hand with a stick. She felt someone pulled her to her feet and drag her out of the room.
‘What are you doing? We haven’t finished our interrogation,’ said the police officers.
‘She is a woman,’ said the CID officer, who had been watching from the back of the room. ‘Why are you doing what you are doing? She is innocent. She told you what she knows so I’m going to put her back to her cell.’
In her cell, Za Dim bent her elbow and rested her swollen hand on her shoulder. It had turned black.
The next night, at eleven o’clock at night, police officers interrogated her again: Why did the Burmese government send you to spy on us? Who is the bomber? Were you involved in the bombing?
‘We’re going to show you something,’ they said and marched her upstairs.
They showed her people hung upside down by their legs, the severity of the torture adjustable according to the proportion of the victim’s body allowed to touch the floor. They pressed a long wooden rod into her hands and forced her to hit a girl from her church fellowship who was strung up, her hips touched the floor.
‘It’s very painful,’ said the girl. ‘Please don’t hit me.’
‘You don’t know how to hit well,’ said the police officers, ‘so we are going to teach you. We are going to hit you thirty-seven times.’ They hit Za Dim’s legs with a rod till she could no longer walk. They reported to their superior that she must be a spy because Indian men collapsed after eight strokes, but she had stood her ground. They showed her another girl hanging upside down, unconscious, her shoulders touching the floor. Red blood flowed from her ears. An officer raised an electric wire above his head to beat the girl. Za Dim reached out and grabbed the electric wire. She fell. He fell. He was incensed.
‘Why are you still trying to save people? We have beaten you enough. We will beat you as well.’ They removed her long winter coat, stripped her to her underwear and strung her upside down. No part of her body touching the ground. Blood rushed to her head. She felt she was about to pass out. ‘We can’t beat Indian girls. It’s against the law. But you are a foreigner so we can beat you. Even if we kill you, it won’t be a problem. There won’t be any case against us.’
She was barely conscious when she was transferred to another room. There were three heaters in the room. She refused to take the paracetamol tablets given to her because she was very angry and very sad.
After she had warmed up a little, they strung her up again in front of a window. They beat her back and her legs. Then they opened the window. A blast of cold air hit her and she passed out. When she regained consciousness, she was sitting in front of three heaters. Someone had put all her clothes back on. There was a blanket on her. Two Indian female police offers were massaging her hands with some oil. When she started to move, they said happily, ‘Oh, she is still alive. Otherwise we will be in big trouble.’
She was returned to her cell at four o’clock in the morning.
‘Have some tea,’ Za Dim says to me. Grateful for a break in this unfolding tale of horror, I sip the sweet thick tea that Ah Len had served us earlier.
‘There’s something missing,’ says Ling Ling. ‘She got arrested on 27 December 1995 and on 28, the police took my mum, two police officers and five intelligence officers and they went to my mum’s place and checked the house. They found her diary. There were many cases and stories and they were very angry about that. There were pictures of some victims and friends having lunch and dinner together. Photos and camera and two diaries were taken.’
‘Was anybody at your home at that time?’ I ask.
‘No one. I was with my grandma. My dad was working in the jungle.’
‘She wasn’t born yet. She’s a month in my mum. My mum was pregnant but she didn’t know that she was pregnant.’
To be continued next week. This is part of the serial online release of my book Refuge. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.