Q&A: “With patience, until I die” – Rilwan’s mother vows to continue the search

Aminath Easa, 67, is the mother of missing Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan. She has led the search for her son, appearing on the frontline of marches and efforts to lobby the government and politicians. Rilwan is the youngest of her nine children.

Zaheena Rasheed: Tell me of the last time you saw Rilwan.

Aminath Easa: He came home, and ate with me before he went to Hulhumalé. He does not answer his phone during the weekend. He always tells us he wants to sleep, do chores, do his laundry. We don’t call him during the weekend. People say we took too much time to report him as missing. But we started looking for him as soon as we could not reach him. Of course, we did not call him during the weekend. But at the start of the week, we called his friends. We were concerned, we went to his apartment.

From that day on, for the past five months, we’ve been looking for him without rest. God willing, I will do everything in my power to find him, with patience, until I die. I will not stop, no matter what anyone says.

My son was not lost at sea. My son was abducted. It was an organised and planned abduction. He did not run away. My heart tells me he is alive. To this day I believe he is alive.  This is truly the biggest pain a family has to bear. I am old, but I have never had to bear such pain.

ZR: What do you think of the government’s response?

AE: I am not at all happy with the government’s response. I know the police are capable, they have solved cases they work on. They caught the two dangerous convicts who escaped from jail, without firing a single shot. They work when their leaders tell them to. But the government hasn’t told them to find my son. The police will look for him and find him if their superiors order them to do so. I believe government officials are complicit in this case. I said so to [Home Minister] Umar Naseer.

Why has President Abdulla Yameen refused our request for a meeting? We are his citizens. It is his citizen who has been abducted. We would receive some satisfaction if they would just meet us. But the two Presidents [President Abdulla Yameen and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom] refused to meet us. Yameen’s wife refused as well. This is how poor, how helpless we are. I have always struggled in my life, but I have never had to face such fear, such sadness. But we will continue to lobby them. I will continue to request them to find my son.

People tell me, you are so brave, if it were me I wouldn’t be able to get up, I tell them, how can I lie down? Should I give up hope, wait til I die, saying he is gone, that he will not come back? That will not do. I must work with my family, as a mother, I must give my children courage. If I lie down, they will have to look after me as they look for him. There is no one else. We are calling on the public to help us. The government does not help us.

ZR: How has the long search affected your family?

AE: My children are looking for him 24/7. His brother was recently very sick, he collapsed in December and had to get tests done abroad. Doctors told him he was under too much stress, to stop thinking. But how can he? I too worry. But I do not cry infront of my children. I do not let them know. I do not cry in front of my friends. But when I am alone in my room, I cannot help but cry.

I pray to Allah to grant me patience. Allah will grant me patience. I have never borne such a pain. I have looked after nine children by myself. I do not have family, just a half brother. He is quite old now. I do not have anyone but my children and God. My children are very good to me.

ZR: Tell me about your daily routine? How has it changed since Rilwan disappeared?

AE: I was never one to stay at home. In this day and age, people no longer visit their neighbors, but I do. I wake up at dawn, do my prayers, go for a walk around Malé, and go to yoga. Then I cook, and after lunch I visit my friends till Asr prayers. After performing Asr prayers, I visit my neighbors again until dusk.

But I no longer want to visit the houses I used to. They speak about Rilwan. They ask me, what happened to him? They tell me he must have been killed. This is what most people say. So I do not want to see people any more. I have changed a lot. I spend a lot of time alone, at home, with my children and praying to Allah to bring my son back to me.

ZR: Your family has consulted clairvoyants? What are their predictions?

AE: We have consulted astrologists. But there is no certainty in their predictions. They tell us he is alive, but that he will not come back to us anytime soon. We tell them, we know that. He can only come back when those who are holding him let him go.

Umar Naseer told the media once that we will know what happened to Rilwan when he comes back, whether he was abducted, whether it was a voluntary disappearance. I went and met [Naseer] afterwards and I questioned him, why are you saying this? Yes, when he comes back we too will ask him, where have you been? Who took you? Why must the government ministers speak like this? The government is not working on this at all. At all. And so we must continue lobbying, pressuring the government. This is our work, this is what we must do.

ZR: Are you hopeful? From whom do you draw your strength?

AE: I have hope. I have never given up hope. As long as I live, until I die, until we find him, I will continue. I will continue. Even if its just me and a handful of family members and his friends, I will come out and march on the streets. I will go even if no one goes. Some people have said the turnout was low during the second march. I say, I do not mind, we will continue. But we will invite everyone to join us, for the sake of humanity.

I draw strength from my children and my friends. I am very happy by the efforts of the media and Rilwan’s friends. His friends, I love them as if they were my children. I do not feel alone now, because of their efforts. When I feel sad, I ask for patience, Allah gives patience to all humans.

ZR: What does Rilwan’s disappearance say about peace and security in the Maldives?

AE: There is no peace and security for anyone. When I go for my daily walk, I am scared. But Allah has ordered us to keep in good health. That is why I go, even though I am quite old now. I go alone, I walk all around Malé. Sometimes I look back in fear. Before this, I was never afraid. I am afraid now.

I feel as if I am being followed, because I am looking for my son. For a time, I did not go for my walk, but then I thought to myself, I must not stay at home. If I must die, I will die. It is not wise to hide, to stop my work for fear of death.

ZR: There have been over 33 deaths in the past seven years. Many families have lost their sons and daughters. What is your message to them?

AE: To families who have suffered injustice, I want to say, why do you remain silent when your children have been murdered? Who are you afraid of? Your government? Allah? Do not fear. Allah has ordered us to keep trying, to continue in the face of hardship.

My son has been disappeared, and I will do all I can, without rest, to find him. Your sons have been killed. If you remain silent, another’s son will be killed. And this cycle will go on. If families had demanded justice with the first killing, we would not be where we are today. Every day, there are more knifings, more death. These families who have suffered, they are afraid to stand up, they fear our leaders.

We were not allowed to speak our minds before, and I am afraid the same day has returned. My heart does not say my son is dead. But everyone else believes he is dead. He can only come back when those who have him release him.

Friends and family of Rilwan will gather outside of the Hulhumalé ferry terminal, in Malé, this afternoon at 4:30 to celebrate his 29th birthday. All are invited to come and write a message for Rilwan on the 163rd day since his disappearance.

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US awards Aneesa Ahmed ‘International Woman of Courage’ award

Former Minister of Gender and Family Aneesa Ahmed has become the second Maldivian woman to win the prestigious ‘International Women of Courage Award’ presented by the US Secretary of State to honor the courage of extraordinary women worldwide who have played transformative roles in their societies.

Since the establishment of the award in 2007 by the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 46 women from 34 different countries – including Former ruling Maldivian Democratic Party MDP Chairperson and MP Mariya Ahmed Didi – have been honored for the exceptional courage and leadership shown in advocating for women’s rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.

According to the state department’s website entry on the 2012 winners, Aneesa is recognised for being a ‘staunch advocate for ending gender-based violence (GBV) in the Maldives’.

The statement on Aneesa read; “While serving as Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs, she raised the issue of domestic violence at a time when the subject was taboo. After leaving the government, she founded the NGO Hope for Women and began conducting sessions on GBV with students, Maldives Police Services, and other front line workers”.

The department had further noted her courage for speaking out against female genital mutilation after some religious scholars identified it as a practice supported by Islam on national radio last year. The statement added; “By openly discussing issues like these and promoting awareness through her NGO, Ms. Ahmed plays a key role in bringing these issues into public discourse and pressing the government to take action.”

Minivan News could not reach Aneesa at the time of press as she is currently in the US to attend the Awarding ceremony due to take place on Thursday night, 9:00pm local time.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will host ceremony with special guest First Lady Michelle Obama while other dignitaries include the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, both 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.

2007 award recipient Mariya Ahmed Didi said she was “thrilled that a Maldivian woman has been awarded the US Secretary of State International Woman of Courage for the second time.”

“As a nurse and midwife [Aneesa] was known to be committed and kind to her patients. As a Deputy Minister and subsequently the Minister for Gender she was committed to furthering the rights of women. As a parliamentarian and as the leader of the DRP’s Parliamentary Group she had foresight and understanding that kept the group together. As a person committed to [former President Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom, there is none second to Aneesa.”

International Women’s Day comes in the Maldives following a week in which water cannon was used to disperse a women’s sit down protest outside the President’s Office, and in which Amnesty International condemned abrutal security forces crackdown on a group of 20 female MDP supporters in Addu Atoll. One woman who was beaten repeatedly on the breast by an MNDF officer told Amnesty that they were repeatedly shouting they would see to it that she “would never breast feed again.”

Mariya observed that “the way Maldivian women had come out to protest against the brutality of the Waheed regime has shown that all Maldivian women are ‘women of courage’. They are resilient and determined to not allow their sons and daughters to die in Maldivian jails, as was seen in the 30 year rule of the Gayoom dictatorship. The 30 days of Vice President Waheed’s rule has shown Maldivians that authoritarian rule is here and very much to stay.”

Woman face ongoing challenges

As the International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 with the UN theme for 2012 “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty – the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) has highlighted the under-representation of women in the remote islands of the Maldives.

In a statement released on Thursday the commission expressed its concern over the “alarming level” of discrimination rural women face worldwide ” and added that it is “upsetting that the situation in Maldives is similar”

“The upsetting thing is that several counties still does not recognize the importance of women’s participation in the decision making process.” The statement further reads, “On the Maldivian islands significant work has been done by women, yet it is seen as an obligation and thus does not receive the appreciation and the recognition they deserve. However, because of their society benefits so much,” HRCM statement said.

Meanwhile, Maldives is yet to achieve gender quality goal of the Millenium Development Goals.

“Gender disparity exists in secondary and tertiary education as well as in labour force participation and the national parliament,” according to the UN Maldives fact sheet on MDG’s.

Currently, five out of the 77 MP’s are women while the representation in the elected councils are significantly low.

In an earlier interview with Minivan News, following Aneesa’s decision to retire from her political career and parliament in 2009, she observed the challenges for women in entering politics in Maldives.

“There are many restrictions on women candidates. For instance financial support, especially these days when there is so much of money politicking. Women don’t have that the wealth so they need to be supported, financially supported and also their families will have to give them support. Unless they have an understanding and supportive husband, it’s going to be difficult,” Aneesa explained.

“And then again the whole attitude, the mindset of people will need to be changed. We still have the majority of the people with the mindset that women cant perform in public in the same way as men and women dont have the intelligence or the capacity to be members of parliament or public figures,” she further added.

Meanwhile, the importance of working forward in eliminating the gender based violence has also been recognised by the stakeholders who identify it as one the biggest challenges the Maldivian women today face.

According to the Gender Department’s statistics, one in three women between the age 15-49 in the Maldives have suffered from abuse – mostly from partners or within the family.

Both women rights NGOs and the UN have stressed on several occassions to pass the Anti-Domestic Violence Bill, which has been stalled in the parliament for over a year now.