Feature image of the Adelaide Chin Christian choir. Photo by MK Lim.
Previously in Refuge #38 Alcohol and deep-fried goat: After an alleged bombing in the city, many illegal Chin migrants in Aizawl are arrested. Indian employees bail out their workers, but Za Dim and others are left behind. On account of Za Dim’s diaries, she is accused of being a foreign spy, tortured and interrogated.
After three days, police escorted the remaining twenty-eight suspects to court. The judge acceded police request to be allowed to hold suspects for three more days of interrogation before transferring them to the central jail.
News coverage of the arrests had drawn a huge crown. After the hearing, prisoners were moved to a building beside the court. The police wanted to wait for the crowd to disperse before returning the prisoners to the police station. Two police officers stood guard at the door.
Lying on the floor, Za Dim saw prisoners, four at a time, being led out of the door and returned a few minutes later. When all the other prisoners had their brief foray outside, the police officer said to Za Dim, ‘An old man is looking for someone and he wants to see you.’
Za Dim refused. Her legs were broken and her back throbbed with pain.
‘Please. This old man is highly respected. Please come out to see him,’ he said.
Za Dim sat up and saw the old man through the open door. Although he was quite a distance away, he saw her and said, ‘I want to see that woman, please call her out.’
Two police officers carried Za Dim out.
‘Why were you arrested?’ the old man asked Za Dim. When Za Dim told him her story, he asked, ‘What did they do to you?’ and ‘What are they going to do next? Are you going to Central Jail?’
‘We are going to go back to the station for further interrogation,’ said Za Dim.
‘I will call them. I’ll make a call and they won’t beat you again,’ said the old man who had a walking stick.
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Za Dim. She saw the old man’s son, a lieutenant, standing beside him. She believed a lieutenant would not be able to do much to restrain officers who seemed to take perverse pleasure in torture.
On hearing this, the old man wept and said, ‘This morning at seven am, someone woke me up. When I woke up, I saw Jesus and Jesus said, “Go to the Magistrate’s Court and save someone.” That’s why I came here.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Za Dim.
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘You Mizo people are Christian. You people claim that you have been Christians for over one hundred years. When I got to the station on 28 December, that night, they had a lot of food and drink on the table. The police officers were drunk, and they beat me, and do you know what they told me? They told me “Ask your God and let him come. If we see Jesus, we will be born again.” How am I supposed to believe you?’
The lieutenant said, ‘My dad can’t walk and he hasn’t left the house for two years. He is very old and sick but this morning he insisted on coming out and that’s why I came along with him. He has to take his medication now so we have to go.’
The old man said, ‘In Jesus’ name, I promise you, from tonight, no one will beat you.’
For the next three days, none of the police approached the suspects in their cell. On the night before her transfer to Central Jail, Za Dim was ushered into a room where many police officers in full uniform were seated on chairs, all properly arranged.
‘We arrested three hundred people and we tortured you the hardest,’ said the deputy police chief to Za Dim. ‘Please forgive us for what we did. Some people were drunk and tortured you badly. Please forgive us. You are a good Christian and from tomorrow onward, you are going to Central Jail and we want to ask your forgiveness before you leave.’
‘Whether I forgive you or not, that won’t change anything. What has been done to me cannot be undone,’ said Za Dim. ‘If you are unsure if someone has committed a crime, don’t torture him or her to extract the information you want. Don’t drink in the police station. This is a police station, it is a correctional facility, and you have to do the right thing here. If you are going to interrogate people, do it at the right time, not at 11 p.m.
‘I know how the police work because my dad was a CID. You should do your work righteously; don’t do these things again. I can forgive you, but you don’t have to ask me to forgive you. You better ask God. And don’t mock God, don’t taunt people and ask them to call on their God.
‘Don’t be afraid, I won’t report you in an International Court anywhere, because if I report you, you will all be stripped of your rank, and what will your children’s lives be like then? Don’t worry but don’t do it again.’
At around 1 a.m. that night, a Burmese woman, a married woman with four children, was called out of the cell. No one knew why. She didn’t come back for a while. The women asked the duty officer, ‘Where is the woman?’ but he didn’t reply.
When the woman returned, she was shaking, her face ashen, her head bowed, refusing to meet the gaze of the other women. Only after much concerned questioning from the other women in the cell, she said, ‘They took me to a room and a police officer said, ‘Take off your clothes’ and I thought I was going to be hung upside down, so I did as he said. But he raped me instead. I screamed out to the other police officers and they brought me back here.’ Between her sobs, her face buried in her hands, she said, ‘How am I supposed to go back to my husband and children?’
On hearing this, the other women in the cell stood up, banging on the walls and doors, they shouted, ‘Who is this rapist? Get him out. We want to see him.’
The duty officers didn’t tell them to be quiet; they didn’t respond to the women at all.
At 6 a.m., they took Za Dim to the Deputy Chief’s office before she was sent to the Central Jail. Za Dim said to him, ‘Last night you asked for forgiveness and last night one of the Burmese girls was called out and raped. One of your officers raped her. You ask for forgivingness and you rape a woman on the same night. She has four children and a husband. If you are raping in a police station, how can things ever be right? Find that officer and take legal action.’
‘Who is it? Tell me his name,’ said the Deputy Chief.
‘I don’t know. Bring out all the people who were on duty last night and ask who was on cell duty. There was an old man, an old officer on cell duty. He knows who came and called her out. So you can find out who it is,’ said Za Dim.
Za Dim was transferred to Central Jail and remained there for one month before being released. She learnt that the old man with a walking stick had been the first Chief Intelligence Officer of Mizoram state.
When Za Dim and Ling Ling finish relating this story to me, we are silent for a while.
It is as if I have been a shown an evil so black it doesn’t make any difference if my eyes are open or shut. There is no light at all. What my brain registers is the same regardless of whether my eyes are open or shut. There is only one colour: black. Evil is complete. Sight is not possible in the total and complete absence of light.
Finally, I say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all you went through.’
‘It had nothing to do with you. Every time I relate this story, I will feel nauseous and dizzy for a few days. Anyway, the worst part of the story is over.’
We agree to meet two days later but an hour before the interview, Ling Ling calls me on my mobile, ‘My mother is not well. We have to postpone the interview.’
After all I’ve heard, I’m not surprised. I feel guilty that it was on my request that she relived her torture to such exacting detail. She had told me that she still endures pain from the torture and has medical appointments pending while Centrelink urges her to resume work.
My subsequent phone calls go unanswered. I almost give up hope of seeing them again, wondering if the interview had caused Za Dim so much pain that she has decided to discontinue the retelling, wondering if she is still happy for me to publish her story.
She never told me much about a white flag with a red cross that hung in her lounge room, apart from the fact that she had sewn it while she was in Delhi. What I know is that she fled to Aizawl in 1989, moved to Saiha in 1996, Delhi in 2003 and arrived in Australia in 2011. I hadn’t heard about how her family eventually came to Australia, but I had heard enough to challenge my premise that powerful people affect powerless people, and that it is enough for me, neither powerful nor powerless, to simply bear witness by writing a book.
After my interview with Mr Fraser, after hearing how he opposed apartheid, I had mused that people like him write history and people like me read history. But Za Dim demolishes my convenient rationale. She shows me that a true religious fast is to loose the chains of injustice, to share food with the hungry, to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, to clothe the naked. As her light breaks forth, I see myself standing in the arena. There are no spectator seats and my actions or lack thereof rise to vindicate or to condemn.
About half a year later, to my great relief, I manage to contact Za Dim. Her family has moved from their inner city home to the northern suburbs. She invites me to visit and I go to her house bearing a big pumpkin from my garden as a gift.
Warming ourselves before an antiquated wood burner, Za Dim and I exchange pleasantries. I hand her a copy of her story. She accepts it and invites me to her church. Before I leave, she shows me her garden. Styrofoam boxes under the porch house seedlings. There are squares of vegetable beds with all sorts of plants. We stop by a bush that bears small berries, like aubergines that have been shrunk twenty times, and she invites me to taste it. Ling Ling laughs that it is too bitter for him. I bite into one. Its bitterness reminds me of the bitter gourd my father likes to eat, fried with chicken in black bean sauce.
As a young child, I could not understand how someone would choose to subject his palate to bitterness when there are so many lovelier flavours in the world. But I now add a teaspoon of decaffeinated coffee into hot chocolate. A bit of bitterness gives depth. To drink only sweetness at the expense of all the other nuances is unrealistic, off-putting and simply bad for health.
Za Dim casts her eye over her garden, looking for something she can give me. It is winter and not a particularly fruitful time. She bends down and pulls a creeper from the soil. Clinging to thin maroon stems are small round edible leaves, like lily pads, that plant so venerated by Buddhists for its ability to produce flowers of startling beauty and purity from torpid brown mud. Not only that, almost every part of the plant is useful: roots for soup, stems for stir-fries, leaves for wrapping rice dumplings.
When I get home, I tuck one end of the creeper into my vegetable patch, which sits on a terrace raised to eye level with my kitchen window. In the months that follow, the creeper takes root and spreads. Two years later, it has flourished to the point of hanging over the edge of the crazy stonewall, dots of green against the brown and yellow stone.
This is the end of Chapter 7 Myanmar. Next Friday we start on Chapter 8 Iran. This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories about refugee resettlement in Australia since the Vietnam War. Subscribe for free to receive instalments to new episodes in your inbox.