Over these past two months, loabi, I repeatedly turned to your writings in an attempt to find meaning and maybe, a tiny bit of courage.
And so I found myself reading your words about Rilwan over and over again, despite the characters getting constantly blurred behind a curtain of tears.
I kept interrogating those words, trying to understand what gave you the strength to keep fighting for him so relentlessly. I had read those posts multiple times before. But only then did they take all their awful, atrocious meaning.
The more I read, the more I couldn’t help but replace his name by your. The more I read, the more I felt that overwhelming loss, so similar to mine today. Suddenly I could feel that lump in your throat. I could picture your fingers typing on the keyboard while your mind painfully stumbled on memories.
This is my attempt at mirroring your thoughts through the canvas of your own words. Maybe to feel a little closer to you. Maybe to leave another trace of what you mean to me and to the many, many persons who love you.
Yameen’s original post about Rilwan can be found here: The Rilwan Story.
I remember the exact moment when we met. I was in the Maldives and we had arranged to meet in Malé.
Following months of fascinating discussions over a seemingly endless list of shared interests, I had suggested that we went for a coffee the next time I was in Malé. Or that we go fly a kite, alluding to one of these xkcd comics which we both loved.
To which you answered “maybe we could do both”.
You came to pick me one afternoon at the Hulhumalé ferry terminal. Me, the “Maldives-obsessed-French-girl” who “made you look bad at how quickly I picked up with Dhivehi” (which wasn’t exactly entirely true).
We sat in a sea-side café and the hours just flew by. You discovered I liked tea. You suggested to move to a table inside to “protect me from mosquitoes”. Before we knew it, it was late night and I had to head back to Hulhumalé.
You insisted to buy me the ferry ticket. For some reason I kept holding it, staring at that purple piece of paper while sitting in one of these white plastic chairs, waiting for the doors to open. That night your disarming kindness and incredible courage in the face of the threats which you kept receiving overwhelmed me. That night, I had the rare and precious feeling of someone truly, deeply and genuinely caring about me.
We kept talking about how we instantly bonded in such an incredible way. Also, it was never clear to you how I could have kept the ticket beyond the gate. Months after, you still felt like “the ticket guy should have gotten the ticket”.
We met again over the next days, before my flight back to Europe. I remember it all. The free flowing conversations; your brilliant, unique, delightful sense of humour; your incredible, endless curiosity for such a wide range of subjects; your being so humble and protective. The books you recommended, which I ordered as soon as I came home; your insistence to keep me on the safe side of the road; your overwhelming, innocent and genuine way of caring for others, never putting yourself first.
Even before we met, right from some of our earliest conversations, you have been my guide to “Mordis”, decrypting the twitter codes whose meaning I couldn’t grab; giving me the background required to understand the puns in your blog posts. Yet, our talks were mostly about other things. About “the real life”, as you called it.
It is now 60 days since they took your life.
Before getting to know each other, I knew you as yaamyn — the pseudonym you adopted on the Internet since the time of your “embarrassing teenage posts”. As I was meticulously going through everything ever printed or published online about the Maldives, I inevitably ended up stumbling onto your blog, the Daily Panic.
I distinctly remember being immediately captivated by the Dhoonidhoo Diaries series. As the story unfolded, I was unable to stop reading, utterly fascinated by your incredible talent to turn ideas and feelings into words.
From there, I went through your previous blogs, back to the days when you were studying in Bangalore, struggling with heat, exams, can openers and fever.
I started following your tweets, with mixed feelings of admiration for such fearless and talented writing, and deep concerns for your security in a country where freedom of expression is severely curtailed.
Unlike others who also spoke their minds online, your words had a particular resonance, for the relevance and incisiveness of your observations and your incredible mastery of the language. Unlike others, you tweeted under your own name. Unlike others, you weren’t writing from a safe, foreign location.
Unlike others, you would cross Malé on your way to the office and back home every day.
Every day, until that night.
Just like Rilwan, you spoke out fervently against religious extremism and politicization of religion.
Just like Rilwan, it was clear very early on that you never got the memo about swimming together with the rest of the school.
Just like Rilwan, ignorant critics tried to paint you as anti-religious or “ladheenee”. Truth is, most of them never bothered to read, or failed to understand what you were saying or writing. Just like him, you have always been a highly nuanced commentator. You defended tolerance, faith and morality with the same vigour that you defended the rights of others to pursue their own paths. The driving force in your life was your eternal, selfless quest for morality and rights.
“Maldives no longer has a value system” was one of Rilwan’s most common complaints. But for him, and you, morality is non-negotiable. It is who you are. It is probably what gave you strength in your fight for restoring justice, democracy and freedoms in a country where you hardly felt at home. It is probably what helped you to keep Rilwan’s voice alive.
Relentlessly, tirelessly. Long after he went missing.
Just like Rilwan, your morality wasn’t the sort of lazy ‘donate-to-Gaza-then-go-back-to-watch-football’ brand of concern that Maldivians have gotten accustomed to. You actively, passionately invoked and practiced your values in everything you did. You have been true to your principles at all times. Your empathy for the downtrodden and underprivileged is universal. Your love for simplicity, your scorn for unfairness, your angst at injustice pretty much define you.
Only complete idiots think your demand for religious tolerance in the Maldives is led by some kind of aversion towards Islam. Quite the opposite.
When literalism collided with principles, you discarded the former in favour of the latter. Like Rilwan, you found literalism hollow and devoid of any depth, spirituality or beauty.
For speaking out, for defending these and other moral principles, you kept receiving threats for years. You repeatedly documented and formally reported them to the police. To no avail.
Lately, you were being followed by the same known local, religiously radicalized criminals who tailed Rilwan. For some time, you stopped walking to work, as you enjoyed to, out of concerns for your safety. You took cabs from home and back, asking someone to ensure that the way was clear before stepping out and in. Sitting in a café with the shoulders to the door wasn’t an option.
For years, you lived under a constant deadly menace. For years, the scenarios of getting murdered at knife point were a constant thought in the back of your mind. For years, whenever you were in Malé, anxiety would be part of your daily life, “because, you know, Rilwan happened”. For years you had to worry about “threat levels” and “security measures”.
For years you restricted basic freedoms on yourself, so that you could continue to defend the freedoms of others.
At 02:29 hrs on 23th April 2017, after having spent the evening working in the office, you walked out of the building and started heading home. It wasn’t uncommon that there weren’t cabs around at that hour, so I guess you just decided to walk instead.
We had been texting all day and all evening, just like every day since you came back to the Maldives in March. We were checking on each other at all times.
That evening, you had been listening to our song in a loop for hours as you often did, because it “relaxed you a lot”. That evening, we once more went into all the tiniest details of that much awaited morning, when you would finally hold me again at the airport.
That evening, you spoke about “a holiday with the family next year”. “And Sofia. And you”.
As usual, you were worried that I was staying up late for you.
We kept texting on your way back. I was waiting for you to reach home, to call you.
Suddenly, you stopped answering and I couldn’t help but feel very uneasy.
I knew it wouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes to reach home and it was unlikely that you had met someone on the way at that time of the night. I also knew you would never, never leave me without an answer for more than a few minutes, especially as you knew all too well how worried I was when you were walking home at night.
You would always confirm when you hit home. Always.
I refused to yield to the panic right away and waited ten more minutes, constantly checking whether you had read my last messages.
I started to call you and my heart began racing as your phone kept ringing, but you did not answer.
You would always answer my calls. Always.
A dozen explanations started to spring up to try ease my mind that this was all probably harmless.
Surely, it was going to be okay.
It was entirely possible that your phone had shut down unexpectedly, as it had already happened a few times in the previous weeks, and that it took you more time than usual to plug it in. It was entirely possible that you had lost it, or someone had it stolen from you. In that case, you would switch on your laptop as soon as you would reach home, and reassure me.
It was going to be okay. Surely.
As journalists and social media activists had been increasingly targeted in the previous weeks and months, it was also entirely possible that the police had arrested you, and that your phone had been confiscated.
I kept calling you, checking again and again whether you had read my messages. Watching out for that so precious green checkmark to eventually appear. Praying, praying that you would soon be replying or picking up my call. And that everything would be back to normal.
But the green checkmarks never showed up. As I write tonight, those messages are still unread.
Because anxiety started rising, I reached out to a few of your friends who tried to keep my spirits up as we kept calling you throughout the night.
I was still desperately clinging to the hope that you had just been arrested and kept in custody for the night.
Nothing bad could happen to you.
It just could not be allowed to happen. Not to you, of all people.
I kept checking twitter for an account of your arrest, or a tweet of you saying that you were safe.
But the news which suddenly showed up in my feed was of another kind.
It was 4:38 am. 7:38 in Malé.
I screamed in despair, barely able to catch my breath.
My mind blacked out, as an unbearably heavy, freezing veil of darkness fell on me.
Throughout that atrocious sleepless night, I had the cruel certainty that something had gone terribly wrong. But this wasn’t anything remotely close to the worst I had envisaged.
I reached out to the person who retweeted the news and asked him to call me back. Less than one minute later, I got the phone call. He asked me which island you were from, before confirming it was you.
Of course it was you. You had abruptly stopped answering. You hadn’t read my next messages. You didn’t pick up the phone all night. It was so painfully obvious it was you.
Everything suddenly turned into hell.
60 days of nightmares
I repeatedly saw you in a dream. I had found you. You were back. Smiling at me, like nothing had happened. But as you held me tight and I passed my hand around your neck, I suddenly realised I was covered in blood. My shirt was covered in blood. My hands were covered in blood.
Yet you looked fine, as if only I could see the blood and the wounds. You seemed to be safe and I could see you, feel you, hold you. And it was all that mattered.
And then, cruelly, painfully, every morning, the mists of broken sleep would lift — and a harrowing, unbearable reality would sink in.
You were still absent from this world. These checkmarks still hadn’t turned green. I would check my phone for the love messages and heart emojis you would make sure to leave me for the time when I wake up, but those wouldn’t be there.
I wasn’t able to call you anymore. I wasn’t able to hear your voice anymore.
All our dreams, our hopes, our promises were gone.
There was no going back. There was no undoing this. And still today, there are no words to describe the magnitude of the pain.
Over the past 60 days, articles were written. A website, weareyaamyn.com, was set up. Hashtags were chosen. Balloons were released. Poems and tributes were collected. Gatherings were organised at the artificial beach.
More than 800 letters calling for a credible and transparent investigation were collected — and rejected by the police. Press conferences were held. 454 letters were filed to the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, calling for an in-depth and impartial investigation.
A petition was opened for signatures and a special motion was presented to the Majlis — which was subsequently rejected. A case was filed at the Civil Court against the police for their negligence in investigating the threats which you reported. For failing to protect you. For clearing the way for those who attacked you.
A peaceful march was organised on 23 May. Banners and t-shirts were printed.
An appeal to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was filed. Funds were raised for international advocacy.
International media — from the New York Times, Al Jazeera, to the Guardian, the Times — picked up on the story. Journalists associations worldwide released statements. International organisations, diplomats and foreign embassies expressed concern and supported our calls for an independent and impartial investigation into what happened.
And despite everything, it feels like we have done too little.
How could we have possibly done enough if justice hasn’t been granted yet?
If the perpetrators, but most importantly, those who sponsored this atrocious crime are still free? If other murders can be committed with the same revolting impunity?
Two months later, it all feels way too familiar. Such a terrible, horrifying impression de déjà-vu.
I still can’t read anything starting with the word “remembering”. I still have trouble writing your name and the word “murder” in the same sentence.
I still can’t look at the banners with your and Rilwan’s smiles side to side.
There are words I can’t say anymore and which make me shiver whenever I come across them.
I can only speak for myself, but it is hard to overstate the toll a tragedy of this magnitude takes on the persons who deeply love you.
The general public only sees the measured statements from family members and lawyers in press conferences. But only the closest ones know how such torments really feel. I have seen remarkable strength and resilience in your family and friends, loabi. My heart breaks for them too.
That is what Maldives has reduced to. A country without hope. A country drowning in “religion”, but where the merest hint of justice withers and dies in the face of unrelenting evil.
Ultimately, a country with no soul.
Dreams and Interludes
In the few hours of tortured sleep that I can cobble together, I continue to dream that same dream.
Despite the wounds, despite the blood, despite the bandages covering your head, I see you smiling and being your usual loving self. Every single time, the immeasurable joy and relief of having you back overwhelms me, and then gets cruelly snatched away as the mists of sleep clear away and I wake up to a cold, harsh reality.
Whenever I am awake, everything brings me back to the times when we would excitedly count down the days. When we would share our childish joy just to have found each other. When we would make long-term plans, knowingly “getting a little bit ahead of ourselves”. Because it feels so right. Because we are so right for each other.
Whenever I am awake, you are everywhere, loabi.
In the embrace of the couple who don’t know their luck to be both alive. In the smile of that baby girl dearly, safely held in her father’s arms. In the clouds. In the rainy skies, which you cherish so much. In the thunderstorms.
In the empty suitcase which I am supposed to pack for our so much expected holiday together, which we so meticulously planned.
In the books that you so eagerly wanted to share with me. In those verses of Urdu poetry that deeply resonated with you, and that you kept sending me.
In every little detail. Every second. Every minute of every day.
Throughout this nightmare, I have been blessed with the love and overwhelming kindness of friends, family, of your own friends and family. While I was picking up the pieces, unable to contribute, many of them have worked tirelessly, selflessly, to try to achieve justice.
I have been treasuring these many touching gestures of compassion. My heart goes to those friends of yours, who have been my lifeline and continue to keep me alive still today. To the complete strangers who send me the most unexpected and heartbreaking messages, letters, hugs.
Thanks to them, I have come to understand even more what makes you such a rare human being.
Just like Rilwan, you knew a better way. Just like him, you inspired and gave people hope. Somehow, you made them believe that making this country and this world a better place was not only necessary, but also possible.
But unlike Rilwan, I know there’s no hope to find you.
Not in this world.
And I can’t help but recall these words from Ghalib, the Urdu-Persian master of tortured love, which you sent me one day:
“For devoted lovers, living and dying are the same,
My life finds sustenance by looking at her, but it also takes my life away”
I love you, loabi.
I always will.
To stay up to date about the call for justice for Yameen, please visit www.weareyaamyn.com