English Translation By: Latha Ramakrishnan
A part of the world famous for THE New York City. The fifth floor of the building that once stood at a corner of Brooklyn. I don’t know how many floors there are. All that I know is that I am in the fifth floor of the structure. That’s all. And, to me this fifth floor is, as far as America is concerned, another world. Fashionable hair-dos and fragrant flowers”, but underneath it all lice, lice and more lice…
My American trip has also turned out to be just this. The world’s great grand democratic country, highly prosperous and affluent! Highly adventurous and possessing mighty power! Till I set foot on this soil America remained a magnificent land that respected human rights. But, my very first experience proved it all wrong. ‘Could it be that your American experience was a wrong one..?’ – so I used to muse at times. I would think of all other Americans belonging to my creed who lead a very successful life.
Thus, the American society is one, which provides numerous ways and means to make money. But, one should not forget that it was in this very same society that those experiences that confronted me did take place. The Statue of Liberty stands for Justice, Freedom and Equality. The Constitution of America also lays emphasis on man’s fundamental rights. The other side all green for the Cow on this side. So long as we remain on this side, everything looks ideal. Only till we set foot inside.
At this time of penning this, I am a young and upcoming writer. I am one who is struggling in right earnest, against all odds, with the wish to experiment and achieve a lot in the World of Literature. At the same time, I am a Tamil Canadian. Only when I review my American experiences in today’s situation, very many a truth surface. My three months experience in Brooklyn City (in the Detention Camp) and the one-year experience that I had in the New York City of America have helped me understand many things in a clearer and more comprehensive manner. They have enabled me to comprehend a lot of things in a better perspective. They have helped me understand more about the Truth about Life. Though the experiences were bitter, lessons drawn from those experiences are invaluable. I have dedicated these experiences to all those who are in the various detention Camps of America as prisoners, with unfulfilled yearnings and expectations, waiting for their day of freedom, their release.
Ah… I’ve even forgotten my name. Ilango! It is indeed my name. My father was an ardent lover of the epic Silapadhikaram. It was in the heat of that obsession he had given me this name. Maybe because of this literary significance of my name that the taste for creative writing has come to stay deep-rooted in me…
The plane is soaring high smoothly, as if in a dream. In four hours it would reach Boston. Things have taken place in a flash. With the news that thirteen army men were shot dead in Thinaiveli, the entire country came under the grip of chaotic violence and riots. Around fifty cars owned by the Government Department in which I was working as an engineer, were parked in the front lot. None of them came forward to help. In the end, somehow managing to escape along with another engineer of U.N.D.P.. who was working in another branch, when I reached Ramakrishna Hall in Wellavathai… hoodlums had surrounded that area as well. At that time, there were about fifty people in the hall. All of us ran to the terrace. Women and some of the men hid themselves in the space underneath the water tank . The rest of us hid ourselves behind the pillars that stood protruding on the terrace. We could see foreign tourists taking photographs of our hurried attempts to hide ourselves from the Brighton Hotel that stood opposite our building. People who had been driven out of their homes in Vellavathai area could be seen running with all their families in the direction of Thengivali along the railway track. From Vellavathai, thick smoke was rising high and spreading in all directions. Aged Tamil women could be seen running along the railway track, holding their saris knee high. It was definitely a pathetic sight to see, but there was nothing I could have done.
The hoodlums had set ablaze a Colombo bus that was standing on the lawns in front of the Ramakrishna Hall. They smashed all the glass-panels on the ground floor doors and windows. When they tried to set the hall on fire the police, who were till then happily watching it all, entered inside.
For a long time, we were staying inside that hall. We fed ourselves by cooking our own food with what little we could get there. That very night we left the place in lorries and reached Saraswathi Hall. When we helped them get into those vehicles, the women cried. None knew the destination. We remained in Saraswathi Hall as refugees for about three weeks till we could leave for Colombo in the vessel named Chidhambaram.
Even when we were sailing to Colombo in the vessel, never once did it cross my mind that I would be going abroad. My parents felt that in the prevailing situation where war and bloodshed had intensified, it would be better if I went somewhere else. At this point, the news that people could proceed to Canada as refugees reached my ears. My aunt’s money proved a great help for my trip across the seas. U.T.A. Before I had time to sit and evaluate the pros and cons of the situation, I had already left for Canada with the help of an agent. From Katunayake to Paris, then from there, heading towards Boston through T.W.A. From Boston to Montreal Delta Airlines had successfully overcome its first round of hurdles. In Paris, they raised objection saying that they would not allow us to go to Canada without a visa. When we explained to them that visa was not necessary for one from a Commonwealth Country they eventually agreed. The next blockade would be in Boston. If that would also be successfully dealt with, then, straight to Canada. Once we reach Montreal, then, no further hurdles. There was hope that Canada would not send back refugees.
“What Ilango? You seem to be deep in thought…right?” Arulraja asked. He was an accountant. He too was going to Canada as a refugee, like me. He had got married a little while ago, but the recent riots had unsettled him greatly. The adverse impacts of the riots had driven him out of his very own soil. He had the misfortune of being an eyewitness to the rape of his co-worker, a Tamil girl, at the hands of the heartless monsters.
He who was yet to recover from that trauma said, “I was just pondering over the sort of welcome that would be waiting for us where we go?”
“Seems like there won’t be much problems. But, it appears that in this flight at least five men of our soil are there.”
“True, that is indeed a problem. Yet, it does appear to me that everything would be ok.” When we were conversing thus, our plane slowly descended for a safe landing in the Logan International Airport. In all, our people were five. And, we all were sailing in the same boat, to put it figuratively. As five of us had come in the same flight the Airport officials grew suspicious. After affixing the stamp of ‘transit visa’ on all our tickets, the Delta Airline officials refused to give them back. They kept the five of us in one part of the airport under the surveillance of the Police. We all grew apprehensive wondering what would happen next. Most of us had made the trip possible after mortgaging our houses and buying tickets and visas with the interest money. When such being the case, if we were to be sent back …Hours sped by. We arrived at the airport at 2 p.m, and five hours had elapsed. Hunger started gnawing at our stomachs. Fatigue had come to prevail on our countenances. All the five of us became familiar with each other. Rajasundaram was working as the manager of a Sri Lankan bank. Now, leaving his wife and children behind, he had set out in search of a new life at his advanced age. Another one of the five was Sivakumar. He must have been in his thirties, but he had already started to bald. He worked in Maharaja in Colombo. Unmarried. Ravindran seemed to be in his late teens, say, eighteen or nineteen. He was a student of Ratmalana Hindu College studying in A-Level. In the midst of our conversation, an immigration official had approached us. He reported that we would be sent back to Colombo by 10 pm by Swiss Air Flight and advised us to be ready. We became a little afraid. Would we be actually sent back?
Meanwhile, Rajasundaram said, “Looks like they are forcing us to go back. Whatever problem confronts us, we should protest!” Then, the same immigration officer who had brought the bad news earlier had re-appeared for some reason.
Hunger was eating us. Unable to control himself, before the official said anything; Sivakumar asked, “Sir, we are all hungry. Will you please allow us to buy something? We would be really grateful if you do.”
“You can have your breakfast in Colombo,” the official responded sarcastically to Sivakumar’s courteous words. Anger welled up in all of us, but then, it would be of no use.. The official had come with all the necessary ‘boarding pass’ for our return journey. He called out our names to issue the boarding passes. None of us stirred. We kept quiet. We silently watched his face growing dark in anger. Meanwhile, a female immigration officer came there. Seeing a female gave us hope. We explained to her our situation and that of our country. And, she proved very attentive.
Rajasundaram said, “Madam, we have left our place with great difficulty, and, after undergoing much travails we have set out for Canada. As far as Canada is concerned, we don’t need any visa. We are really at a loss to understand why Delta Airlines is not accepting our tickets.”
The female officer responded, “I too feel that legally it is wrong on their part to refuse entry to you, but we are helpless in this matter. The Government of Canada already has ordered them to pay fine for having alighted three Srilankan Tamils in Canada. Such is the state of affairs and we are not in a position to do anything in this issue.”
For this, Rajasundaram replied, “In this condition, we have no other alternative but to claim refugee status in America. So, we are all applying for that in America.” When Rajasundaram voiced this request for the ‘refugee-status’ the female officer’s face underwent a change of expression. We also noticed that the other immigrant officer’s countenance shed some of its scowl.
The female officer who went somewhere with our requisition in mind and came back without much delay. “As you have applied for refugee status they have decided not to send you back. You are all happy, no?” Nodding ‘yes’ we looked at Rajasundaram with gratitude.
The proverb “Even after the rain stops, the drizzle still continues” was fully applicable in our case. We were made to stay in the Hilton hotel for two days. In the Boston’s Globe, News relating to us was given prominence. They had published our photographs too. In ‘Voice of America’, ‘BBC’ and other Channels, the News about us was an important topic. It was when the Ethnic Violence of Sri Lanka was hot News in the International Mass Media that our journey had started. That was the reason why our story gained such coverage. After the initial enquiries were over, they sent us to New York City. Even then we had no idea that we were being sent to a detention Camp…
When were arrived at New York via a special bus, the happiness of staying in a world-famous hotel Hilton for two full days was still lingering in us. When we were in Sri Lanka itself we had heard a lot about this great grand city of New York and about its International significance The very thought of going to such an illustrious city (New York) filled us with happiness and various dreams and future plans. Not just that day but even today there is one question that keeps troubling my mind. Why did they send us who were caught in Boston, to New York? In Boston the Tami Forums and Organizations were quite influential. When that being the case,if they were to keep us there that could bring some headache to the American Government, politically, so the American government would have thought.. I find this alone as the possible reason for their move.
Our travel by bus from Boston to New York proved to be a pleasant one. For the first time in our lives we were journeying on the Expressway. We came across different kinds of trucks that made us view them with immense awe. Those trucks connected trailers together. Throughout the whole trip, the foremost thought in my mind was, “Thank God we have overcome the hurdles!” A great sense of relief came to us. We were all floating in a blissful state of mind.
I was full of nostalgic memories about my home. I should work hard to find solutions for all the problems of our household at the earliest. Should somehow bring brother also here and arrange for elder sister’s marriage with all pomp and show. Only after finishing all these chores should I slowly turn my attention towards Gowsalya’s condition. Memories of Gowsalya proved a soothing balm to my heart. I have explained everything to her umpteen number of times. I had talked to her at great length regarding my duties and responsibilities. But, she remains firm in her decision that she would marry me, and me alone and said that she was prepared to wait for me. What am I to do in a situation like this? If she is prepared to wait, I have no alternative but to accept her as my life-partner! Even when we arrived in New York, we had no clue as to what would befall us.
It was only when our bus was driving through a poverty-stricken area of New York that a nagging sensation came to prevail upon us. Though we couldn’t comprehend anything when our bus sped past an area where black children were playing around in dirty, unhealthy atmosphere, with old, time-worn buildings we couldn’t help feeling that somewhere, something had gone wrong. Finally, our bus came to a halt in front of an old structure. We were asked to get off with our luggage. Even then we were at a loss to assess the exact situation. It was only when we reached the fifth floor we began to get an inclination of what was to follow.the place where we arrived at, in the fifth floor was the reception hall. A man having the appearance of a prison-guard, who was intently looking into the files was sitting there. The Boston immigration officer left us in his custody’ and wishing him ‘good-luck’ went away. It was then that we became painfully aware of our fate. We could understand that we were brought to some sort of a a prison.
The eyes on the other side of the iron-bars belonging to men wearing prison uniforms who were watching us so eagerly dawned on us the much needed realization. Security guards were seen here and there. Our belongings were taken away from us. We were relieved of what little money we had in our possession. We were told that at the time of our leaving that place it would be returned to us.As in Logan Airport, here too The preliminary tests were conducted. Our fingerprints were collected. At last, when all the formalities were over, we were given prison-wear. “This is exactly what one can call a typical case of ‘from the frying pan into the fire,’” Rajasundaram observed. “Just like the elephants feet crushing the man fallen off the palm-tree” – Sivakumar groaned in fatigue and despair. “Leaving our problem-ridden soil to find some way out, alas, if only we had some idea as to what would befall us here, that we would be caught thus, we could have stayed back and suffer death in our homeland itself”, murmured Ravichandran. Arul Raja remained silent. “Let us see what happens”, said I.
Behind us the prison doors were closed. The black security officials looking like dreadful wrestlers were seen here and there. The corridor connecting the hall of the detention Camp on the fifth floor looked like a hall in its own way.There stood a recreation hall opposite each dorm. In that recreation-hall, there was a TV in one corner, a vending machine, a table to play table-tennis and a telephone were there. In the dorms bunk-beds were arranged one above the other in the manner of a ship or hostel. The corridors connecting the halls had strong iron doors with security personnel.
Along with the corridor that connected both the corridors bathrooms and lavatories were found. Apart from these, there was also a dining hall and a separate wing for doing physical exercises and Yoga. In times of need medical facilities were also offered. The doctor’s cabin was in the front portion of the detention Camp, before the reception. In our wing, all the screening prisoners were men. Women were in a different wing. While waiting for food, men would vie with each other for a chance to see the women on the other side. And, for this reason they would also vie with each other to do kitchen-duty. For doing work in the kitchen the person concerned would be given one dollar per day as salary.
In the detention Camp where we were kept, there were about two hundred men. Most of them belonged to Africa and South America. If we take the countries, those of Afghanistan outnumbered all the others. In the case of Sri Lanka ,we five were the only ones. There were only two from India and Bangladesh. There were also men from Middle American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, etc. There were prisoners of all sorts such as those caught at the airport for want of proper visas and related documents, those caught and asked for refugee status (like us) and some others who were indulging in illegal activities and so arrested, those dealing with drugs and were awaiting the day of their deportation. Prisoners of all sorts. Of them the condition of the Afgans proved highly pitiable.
Most of the prisoners there had been languishing there for more than two years. And, most of them were caught for want of proper visa and other documents and had asked to be treated as refugees. The way they were existing there, separated from their near and dear ones and with their hopes crushed and feelings assaulted, the way those people were languishing there revealed to me the other, dark side of this world’s Super Power which was all illumination outside, wearing the mask of a pleasant countenance. As far as the Americans, they are intelligent and hardworking. They have so much of grit and deternmination and are pioneers and role-models in so many fields. But, it is in this very same country that there are innumerable murderers, terrible psychopaths, the likes of whom you could not find anywhere else in the world.
With their basic rights denied, the refugees are languishing and rotting in the detention Camps. Such woeful and gruesome situations prevailing in a land that stand at the top of the world and advocate Freedom, Equality and Fraternity and whatnot deserves a thorough study indeed. As soon as we reached the hall that was our assigned space, those who were already there came to surround us. Of them, Abdhulla of Afghanistan, Daniel of El Salvador, and Der of Guatemala deserve special mention. Those three asked about us, the countries we came from and what made us land there with full of concern and brotherly feelings. As we had gone there at a time when the entire world was aware of the burning problem of Sri Lanka, the prisoners were already familiar with our country. They listened to our story and expressed sympathy in all sincerity and compassion.
“These Americans are always like this. Take any country and there will be Americans creating problems,”– so observed Daniel. Daniel seemed to be around eighteen. His face had not lost boyish features as yet. He continued, “It is these Americans that are behind all the problems of our land. Somehow managing to save our skin if we come here, they treat us so brutally, keeping us in cages as animals and torture us psychologically.”
“How long have you been here Daniel?” To this query of mine, not Daniel but on his behalf Abdhulla of Afghanistan answered. His answer upset not just me but the whole lot of us.
“Myself and some others from my land have been here for the last two years. Although, it must have been at least a year since Daniel arrived.”
“What are these Americans doing for two years?” Growing apprehensive, Rajasundaram turned a little impatient. “According to their laws, if someone is caught while trying to get into the land without proper documents, they must languish in jail until the cases are taken up and judgement is given! It would take years!” Thus, conversing with us for a while, being supportive they left to attend to their daily chores. We stayed back and talked this and that for some more time. Among all of us it was Raasundaram who looked terribly upset.
“Damn me for spending so much to suffer this fate – years of caged life! I’ve promised my wife and children that after coming to Canada, I’d call them soon after to join me here…”
“Brother, what is the use of losing heart? Let’s sit and think of how we can get away from here,” as Sivakumar uttered these words, Rajasundaram intervened.
“Are you suggesting jailbreak?”
“No, no. I don’t mean that. I just said that we should somehow leave this place.”
“If we can talk with the Boston Tamil Association, we can somehow find supporters,” I said.
“But how to get access of them?” asked Arulraja. Only then we became aware of the fact that we possessed neither their address nor their telephone number.
Ravindran said, “Brother, people whom I know are living in New York. We can get the information from them!”
After conversing thus for a while we retired for the day. . Arulraja and myself shared a bunk bed with he lying on the upper birth. A month had sped off since our arrival. In the mean while, life at the camp had become somewhat familiar to us.
Morning, afternoon, and evening. Three meals a day with the last one in the evening itself. We who were used to having food in the night would be feeling hungry throughout the night. Every time we paid a visit to the dining hall, women prisoners from the respective halls would come in first, have their food and then leave. Then our cages would be opened, and we’d be temporarily let loose.
As for the food, though we were not accustomed to it, they did give nutritious food and that too in sufficient quantity. In the mornings, we were provided with a cup of juice, a cup of coffee, a fruit, milk, cereal,apart from these, scrambled eggs or pancake with syrup. In the afternoon, rice a smaller-than-used-to portion of rice, spaghetti, meat balls, a juice, fruit, and coffee. Even though being provided with the snacks during mealtime, we were not allowed to save them to take back to our dorms. Security guards would jump at you if caught with these snacks and snatch them away. Hunger would be killing us. Somehow we would manage to stealthily take fruits with us. Another important thing. Often the guards would order us to stop moving from wherever we were and begin to count our heads. Sometimes, one or two heads would be missing. When that happens they would start all over again and again.
Initially, in the first two months were unbearable. Peeping through the windows and seeing those airplanes drawing lines in the space, flying so freely, seeing those poor, black children playing so happily, the thought of our imprisoned state of existence would weigh on us all too heavily and we would feel suffocated. As someone possessed by evil spirits we five would be lying in our respective cots.
Memories of motherland would flood us like a deadly deluge. Thoughts of Kausalya would begin to flutter their wings. Scenes of those horrible riots and violence would come again before my very eyes. So many dreams, plans and responsibilities we had. Who would have thought we would be caged in this dark side of America which is all illumination on the surface level? Why can’t they understand our traumas and predicaments? Why can’t they emphasize with us? How horribly the lives of these youngsters from Afganisthan, El Salvador etc., being wasted away thus! They keep in one and the same place those indulged in criminal acts and those who have run away from their homeland unable to bear the atrocities there. Treating them like murderers and anti-social elements. Bent on subjecting helpless refugees who come leaving behind their loved ones, belongings, and their identities thanks to the mindless riots occurring in their own soil, to further humiliation and suffering… As for us, we were still under the grip of the gruesome riot, psychologically.
But, before we had time to come out of it the events that had taken place in our lives all too quickly…I still remember vividly… I was thena fourth standard student. An essay competition was held and we were asked to write on the theme “The Country I Love.” I chose America and listed several reasons for my choice. I wrote that America was a great land of Democracy where even a mere wood-cutter who was Abraham Lincoln could rise to the topmost position of American Presidentship. America was a land where human rights were respected and revered. Their very statue upholding Freedom bore testimony to this… so I had written. But, if someone asked me today which country I’d choose, for sure I would not choose America. Never at all. For, let them not embrace with wide-opened hands, all those who come as refugees. Let them not shower on them love and compassion. But, they could at least refrain themselves from subjecting them to still worse psychological harassment, can’t they..?At the same time, America has a strange, unique law as regards those who illegally enter into the country. Laws are for preserving and upholding Justice. What this particular law upholds, god only knows… But it was only accidently that we came upon that law. That too, after spending three long months in the screening-camp. I wonder what would have befallen us if we had not by chance learnt the existence of such a legal provision.
It can also be said that life in the detention Camps helped us realize the essentially dependent nature of our Universe. Time which flew when we were out and free, struck work and stayed still all too stubbornly. The future looked bleak and uncertain. With no answer nor solution coming our way, we felt we were living in a no man’s land that hung in suspension. Every now and then, despair and helplessness would overpower us. Feeling spent-out, we’d be lying in our cots doing nothing. However, at the back of our mind it was clear to us that at no cost we should lose hope.
Life at the Detention Camp had caused in us several changes. Four-letter words were coming out of Sivakumar’s mouth much too often. When all the inmates went to sleep, Ravichandran would emit a shrill whistle. Daniel would do the same as a kind of response. All the others would follow suit. Eventually the security-guards would come there and put an end to it. Ravichadran’s knowledge of English was very poor.Taking all this into account, that day all of us discussed our situation threadbare. As a result of our discussion that day on how we could spend our time usefully and also on what could be our future plans we resolved to do the following:
We unanimously decided that as we had already applied for Refugee status and also as the Boston Tamil Association had already made its presence in our issue,` whatever we propose to do we should do it in consultation with them and also through them… and if at all there could be ways and means of escape we should leave it in their hands to pursue them. Furthermore, it was also decided that we should stop using vulgar language and should abstain from making noise in the night. We also decided that Rajasundram should teach English to Ravichandran. Event though we had our discussion in right earnest, we couldn’t help smiling at the thought of those resolutions. Our discussion that day, and the days that followed immediately, succeeded in instilling some rays of hope in us. The way we talked to each other, sharing our sorrows and hopes had somewhat lessened the burden that was weighing heavily on us.
As for myself, I decided not to let unwanted thoughts assail my heart. I started spending more time watching TV in the mornings. I also played table tennis with Daniel and Richard and played chess with Sivakumar and Ravichandran. As far as the game of chess is concerned, I owe it to the Spanish security officers. These officers would play chess between themselves and when I asked the Spanish official to get me one he obliged readily and brought me a chess board and coins, without a scowl. Apart from this, I also started doing physical exercises whenever I got the time.
As for T.V programs I loved watching cartoons and the news in the morning hours. I soon discovered that most of my inmates had a special liking for viewing Cartoons. They mostly liked the cartoons Pink Panther and Tom and Jerry. We were also able to get edible items and hot and cool drinks from the ‘vending machine’ that was kept inside our camp. If we would request the respective officers in advance, giving five dollars or 10 dollars from our money they would give us coins equivalent to the amount given by us with the help of which we could get things from the vending machine.
Meanwhile, I had become close with Daniel, Abdhulla and Richard. Richard was a unique personality. He always had his Bible with him and he would always be praying. I never saw him lose his cool. His life was very simple and straight with no riddles and mysteries. He would leave everything in the hands of God. He never expressed any hate for the Americans. When I asked him if he ever possessed ill feelings towards the Americans, he wore a disarming smile and said, “Not at all. These people have given me food and shelter, and for this I am thankful. I also pray to God.” He was one who acknowledged God and none else. Sometimes I used to think that his too deep a faith in god was silly and superstitious. Except God, he would never believe anything , even the Modern Science. And, he would never believe that the Earth is round in shape. In a way I envied him. How nice it would be if I were to be like him, I used to long… ‘then there would be no problem at all!’
Daniel was the exact opposite of Richard. His god was Se Guevera. Whenever he had the time, he would be reading a book on guerrilla warfare. His entire family had become victims of the terrorist activities of Salvador State troops. His elder brother was a firm supporter of guerrilla. The state troops had shot him dead. Hence it was natural for Daniel to be angry and boiling.
The prison authorities who wanted to bring some happiness in this life of ours told us one day that once in a week, if we wanted, we could play inside the play ground which had thorny fence on all the four sides. The play ground was part of our Detention Camp building. Longing to have a glimpse of the outer world, we agreed to it wholeheartedly.
The very ritual of our being taken to that playground provided great amusement. They would handcuff us in pairs and with many guards in front and also at the back of us they would take us there. There, they would offer us a ball. When we would be happily playing, kicking the ball with our feet or throwing it at one another, catching it and clapping our hands in excitement the guards would suddenly intervene and handcuff us once again and lead us back to our place. The way they cherished and upheld the spirit of freedom and the rights of the individuals in so strange a fashion used to amuse us at times and it also angered us a lot.
The way they were treating us as some kind of “dreaded international terrorists” made us wonder whether they really feared us. Abdulla’s reply dispelled our suspicion to some extent. “Handcuffing us and keeping us in prison are for the sole purpose of weakening us psychologically. “Unable to bear this, some would voluntary come forward and request to be deported. Mohammed, who came from my country, did exactly that. But no one knows what his condition is today?”. At the same time, regarding Afghanistan, America is lending help to Mujahidheen Guerrilla Force opposing the Soviet-friendly Government.. But, it turns a blind eye to the plights of people like Abdulla who come here seeking solace, driven by the unbearable condition of that land.
Can it be because they suspect that in the name of refugees Afghan spies are gaining entry? Though we resolved to ourselves that we would treat each day as a new one and focus on the silver lining and forgetting our caged conditions, it was not easy to conduct ourselves so. For, how long one could go on sitting in front of the idiot-box (or the television as you may call it)? How long one could go on like this, playing table-tennis? Doing physical exercises? Prison is prison, with your freedom totally curbed..The burden of Life would weigh us down every now and then. During those moments, we’d be lying down in our beds feeling all too gloomy and extremely fatigued.
In the detention Camp, we had one great advantage which we could never hope to have in the world out there. Here, we were able to contact anybody in any nook and corner of the world. Of course, it was only through illegal means. The credit card numbers for the telephones of big companies, rich people etc., were somehow reaching the hands of those in the detention Camp on a regular basis. How they managed that, God alone knows. That there was the girl friend of a West-Indian working as a Telephone Operator and that they managed to get those numbers with the help of that girl – so they told. I don’t really know.
But, the instruments in some remote parts of the world bearing these numbers that would come to our hands would somehow become dead shortly afterwards. And, in their place new numbers would have come. True to the golden saying ‘ pazhaiyana kazhidhalum pudhiyana pugudhalum, losing the old numbers and getting some new numbers we would keep alive our telephonic conversations, hoping against hope. The unlawfulness of this act couldn’t hold good before the psychological pain and anguish of our prison-lives.
The concern and empathy with which the Tamil Association took up our matter initially, withered away a little, as days passed. Some of the associates had come to the city of Newyork but they never had the time to pay us even a brief visit. At the same time there were one or two good souls too.
One day, the prison officials announced us that we had a visitor. The news made us wonder. Visitorsfor us? Who could that be? We were splitting our heads trying hard to find out the answer. A man of short stature with a soft, kind voice. It was “Father Abraham” hailing from Tamilnadu who is now working in a Church in New York. He had learnt about us through newspapers. He benevolently brought us some magazines and newspapers to read. In the detention Camp, only two of us were allowed to come simultaneously to see the visitor(s). There was a wire partition separating us from visitors. Rajasundharam and myself went to meet the visitor. At that point of time when we were feeling so distressed and greatly unsettled by the bitter taste of prison life, meeting him provided great solace to our battered souls. “Is there anything I can do? If there is, please let me know”, said Father Abraham. As for us, our foremost concern was to find a way to get out of that hideous place at the earliest.
Rajasundhran who was terribly shaken responded at once: “Father, I have left behind my wife and children in our motherland. These goddamned people give us the impression that we are going to live here forever! If you can get us out of this hell we would be extremely grateful.”
In the familiar voice that melts away all worries and brings in hope, Father Abraham said, “Don’t worry. I know a lawyer who is working in a Christian Society. I will inquire there. Please do give me a ring for anything you wish to talk to me about. I will do all that I can.” Truly, our meeting with Father Abraham revived our dead hopes. It was like finding something to hold on to, when one is drowning in the sea. When we came back to our cots after meeting Father Abraham Sivakumar and Arul Raja came to us and urged us to tell each and every syllable of our conversation with Father Abraham and put forth numerous questions to us.
“See Elango. Some unkown Father who doesn’t even belong to our nation but one born in India has read the papers and came here to console us. But, our people who have heard of our problems have not even cared to call us over the phone to find out how things are,” Sivakumar’s voice was full of anger and weariness.
“All these Tamil Association people have become established citizens of this land. But, we are unwanted guests of this country. So, they might have thought ‘ why invite trouble’ and preferred to stay away” – Arulraja observed. What he said sounded true to all of us. Seen in this context we could realize the significance of Father Abraham’s visit. As for him, he need not have paid attention to our affairs. But the fact that he did and came all the way to inquire after our well-being moved us a lot.
After that our attention was drawn to the magazines and papers that Father Abraham had brought us. The journals were from various countries and they had published news about us. Boston Globe, Ceylon Daily News, Asian Monitor, Gulf Times of the Middle East, etc. Of all the Dailies, the Gulf Times made us laugh. There was a news-item which reported that an Officer of the American Government expressed hope that a solution to our issue would be found in two week’s time.said that a solution would be arrived in two weeks time. In that an authority of Boston Immigration Department by name Thimothy Veelan had said that he had urged the Central Government to speeden up our case and that a solution would be arrived at in two weeks’ time. In ‘Daily News’ there was a report on our transfer from Boston to Brooklyn Detention Camp and that the Tamil Association people had employed a lawyer to fight our case in the American Court of Law. It still remains a mystery as to why the Tamil Association which entered the scene in such a big way, retreated later on.
Two days after Father Abraham’s visit two more unexpected visitors came to see us. They were Oliver and Ingrid of the Spartacist party. As for the Spartacist party-folks, they were Marxists who followed Trotsky. In their journal, an article was published on the plights of Tamils. In that it was emphasized that the Sinhalese labourers should join hands and fight against the Pro-American Government of J.R. Taking us to be some revolutionary warriors, they repeated time and again that the solution to all our problems lay in the united struggle of the Sinhalese-Tamil labourers. They expressed discontent and worried over the treatment meted out to us at the hands of the American Government. Rajasundharam and Sivakumar didn’t approve of them. “They are all C.I.A men. They come here to ‘feel our pulse.’ – When Rajasundhram commented thus, there was a note of caution in his voice.
Thus, our Detention Camp life continued with visits from the unexpected and no-visits from the expected. During the same time, there were several globally important affairs were also taking place. A Corean passenger plane that had gone beyond the Soviet border was gunned down by the Russian Force. This act had created a great uproar all over the world. This incident helped to a great extent the spread of ill-feeling against Russia in many countries. At this same time, in our home land, the incident where a Colombo-bound passenger bus was attacked and two Tamil youths were shot dead by the military men in Jaffna took place.
Our spirits and state of affairs that had turned a little better, thanks to those unexpected visits had once again returned to its usual gloom and despair, under the effect of prison life. We became dead once again, so to say. However, our association with Father Abraham and his words had helped us grow mentally stronger. Every now and then we would talk to him over the phone, taking turns and he would also talk to us irrespective of what time it was and whether he was busy or not, and he would always console us, instil hope in us and prove a great pillar of support. Having a few words with Father healed us a lot. Especially to Rajasundhram. Poor man. At this age, having to leave his beloved family behind, in search of a new job and ending up in prison. .. Life at the Detention Camp had unsettled him to a great extent, we could see..
Time went on, with new entrants coming in and some old ones going out. Some were deported. Some were released on bail, but the way things were, it appeared to us that we could not hope to leave the cell till the case was over.
Meanwhile, there was a bloom in Daniel’s life. He would also work in the kitchen every now and then. While he was doing his chores in the kitchen he had fallen in love with a female prisoner of his soil. His boyishness was slowly bidding him goodbye. Apart from this, another important incident took place. A Nigerian youth waiting for his day of extradition, suddenly started blabbering, as if in delirium, one night. Spending huge sum and landing in America with real great expectations, he had suffered a breakdown as a result of all his dreams going to the docks and to top it all he was to be deported.Some said that he was possessed by some evil spirit. One of the Africans in our detention Camp was said to be an expert hand in driving away these evil spirits and he knew all the rituals required for this task, said the men at the camp.
Throughout the night the exorcist went on trying his might to save the felllow nigerian from the grip of some devil. All of us were wide awake till dawn. The scene looked like as if it was taken from one of those English movies that show the African life. Just like those exorcists whom we find in such movies this man was also uttering some words in African language and chasing away the evil spirit and we observed everything with wonder and awe! The Camp guards too behaved in a magnanimous manner in this issue, not at all interfering.
But, the very next day the young man had regained his normalcy. There is an other important thing which needs to be told. During the nights, when those at the camp would retire for the day there would be a headcount. An officer slightly above the rank of the security officers would conduct it. He was a black and his appearance resembled those stiff and strict German military officers of the English War Movies. Wearing spectacles and a cap, he would come with a harsh look, with his hands folded at the back. The mere sight of him would make the prisoners smile and laugh.. Confronted with so many conflicting thoughts and memories, fighting against them when atlast we we would come to lie on our beds our hearts would have turned light. We would be itching to indulge in some mischief. Placing the pillow on his bed and covering it with the bed sheet, Ravichandhran would be chatting with us. Daniel would also do the same thing. The officer would conduct a headcount and count both of them, each twice. As soon as he left our room, we’d burst into laughter. Hearing that he would come back immediately and scowl at us. But they would announce that the headcount was wrong. Once again the officer would pay a visit to our hall. In the meantime, Ravichandran would have gone to his cot and would be lying there as the very personification of innocence.
Thus, our detention Camp life was not without interesting moments and incidents. Life went on. Father Abraham would often say, “Don’t worry over anything.” Whenever we gave him a call he would always say that. Father was a kind soul. He had a heart of pure gold, but we could see that even his hope was waning. And, the reality of the situation that we were in, had dawned on us too. Still, deprived of freedom and living the life of caged-birds we longed for Father’s soothing words. Moreover, we didn’t want to lose hope. After all, our very existence relies on hope, isn’t it? And, Vijayabaskaran’s visit changed our destiny.
I have never seen a moment when his face was not wearing a smile. He had learnt to overcome any kind of hurdle. He was the only son of Vinaasithambi who was one of the renowned merchants of Jaffna. Just like us, he too was caught on his way to Canada. I felt sad when I saw him. Two and a half months had passed since our arrival there. Henceforth, he would also be one among us. We didn’t want to cause confusion and apprehension in his heart by telling him our thoughts. Many of his relatives were actually in New York itself Contacting them soon he wasted no time in employing a lawyer for himself. Let him do what he can, we thought. The place is an iron-prison. Escaping from it would never be an easy task. Time would make him realize all this and more. Already we had tried and became sick and tired of it all. So we knew, that he too would realize it all in due course.
Meanwhile, as he had arrived straight from Sri Lanka, we asked him about the prevailing conditions and the state of affairs of our soil. When he described in detail the State sponsored atrocities heaped on hapless Tamils his voice grew intense with hatred and anger. Vijayabaskaran said, “School Children from each locality are joining various Movements..hereafter, things will not be the same.” Hearing the struggles and travails of our people, we felt guilty. Haven’t we fled our country in sheer cowardice…? Sivakumar’s words expressed exactly this: “Once we go outside we should strive to turn the people of foreign lands against the atrocities of the Sri Lankan government.”
The tone of his voice implied that we should at least do something that would be possible for us. One week sped by. It was then that the miracle took place. That day Vijayabaskaran’s face had an extra-special glow and his smile spread from ear-to-ear. We all became curious to find out what had caused this change in disposition. He excitedly said, “My lawyer said I can get out on bail for two thousand dollars. My uncle is taking me tomorrow. Tomorrow or the day after I can go, it seems.” We felt happy for him but also sad for our own selves. We too yearned to go. And, along with it a new hope came to be. ‘If Vijayabaskaran can get bail why can’t we?’ From the moment the news reached Rajasundhram, he began to feel restive.
“Something has gone wrong in our case. For what it is worth, let’s speak to his lawyer through Baskaran and try to find out ” . We all agreed to this. Maybe there could be some difference, from the legal point of view, between our situation and that of Vijayabaskaran’s. So, there would be some provision with the help of which we could also get bail. If that be the cae, then it would be better to have Vijayabaskaran’s lawyer to fight our case too. We decided to approach him through vijayabaskaran. Vijayabaskaran spoke of us to his lawyer through his uncle. He also told him of our decision to have him as our lawyer. We gave him the number of our Boston lawyer. That night itself a solution was found.
Vijayabaskaran’s uncle told everything to Father Abraham. Father Abraham contacted us over the phone. It was only through the call from the New York lawyer that our Boston lawyer could come to know of what went wrong in our case. Immediately afterwards, the Boston lawyer contacted the Immigration Authorities. As a result of these initiatives, it would be possible to get us bail in a week’s time. This was the essence of Father Abraham’s call. We can never describe in words the joy that the call gave us all. We all felt as though we were flying up above, higher and higher! It was all because of Vijayabaskaran. If it weren’t for his arrival, we could never have come to know of this error in our case. From the information that reached us through Vijayabaskaran’s lawyer and Father Abraham, we learnt of the rules and regulations of America regarding illegal immigrants.
If a person who came to this country through legal means were to stay on beyond the expiry date of his or her visa, he or she then becomes an illegal immigrant. If one enters illegally, then that person too is obviously an illegal immigrant. A person can be allowed to enter the country through legal means. Or, through illegal means too. Those mentioned above would come under the category of ‘ Allowed to enter the country illegally’.
In the same way, if someone with fake visas and documents is apprehended by the immigration officers at the airport or along the line of control such people couldn’t be allowed entry even illegally. But, those who come sailing in the sea, if they are apprehended before they could set foot on the land then they too are categorized as those not to be allowed inside the country even illegally. But, in case they who come through the sea are apprehended after entering the land then they fall under the category of immigrants allowed entry illegally.they too come under the category of illegal immigrants.As for those who have admitted into the country though illegally in case they are apprehended by the Immigration authorities they have the right to be released on bail. And, for those who are caught thus, documents for getting release on bail should be given to them within a stipulated period of time. But, in the case of those who were not allowed entry even illegally such persons cannot go on bail and they have to languish in prison till the case is over.
If the case were to be dismissed, then the person would be deported straight from the Detention Camp. As for as we are concerned, we have been initially admitted into the country legally. In our tickets, “transit” visas were stamped in Boston. While we were thus in America through legal means, we were forced to appeal for refugee status because Delta Airlines’ refused us entry. After the expiry time of our transit visa we moved to the category of those ‘admitted illegally’. It is here that the American immigration authorities have erred – they said. They explained that they took us to be of that category of immigrants who are denied entry into the country even illegally. This is were we nurture strong suspicion. Did they really err? Or, did they knowingly wronged us? That is why they brought us to the detention Camp with the prospect of bail denied .
We were given Charge-Sheets in which it was stated that as we had stayed in the country even after the expiry date of our transit visas we had committed offenses under sections 241(a), 101(a), 15 of the Immigration act which warrant extradition. For the offense that took place on the 23rd of August charge sheets were being given to us on the 23rd of November. Even now, many things were left untold; conveniently hidden. Firstly, we were admitted into the country through proper legal means. Proper transit visas were awarded to us. Due to Delta Airlines’ refusal to fly us even when we were staying there legally, we had applied for refugee status.
In truth, legally there is no difference at all between a person who entered here with a two-year visa and applying for refugee status after one year of his arrival and our case. Will a person of the first case be arrested after two years because he has violate the law? That doesn’t seem to happen. Then, it was said that even after our transit visas expired, not seeking and acquiring permission from the Immigration authorities we continued to stay in the country. But, didn’t we apply for refugee status within the stipulated time? And, we continued to stay only with their permission, or rather under their power and in their custody. When this is the case, how can they say that we stayed here without their permission and in violation of the law?
To top it all of, another incident occurred. From August 28th 1983 to November 13th of the same year, a basic right guaranteed in the Constitution of America had been denied to us. They were giving us the charge sheet alleging us to be offenders of law after a gap of over two months. Who is responsible for that period of time we lost forever? Who is responsible for all the psychological traumas that we had to endure then? All this happened in a land where the Statue of Liberty stands in all glory and splendor. In the very city of New York we were deprived of our basic human rights. What a shameful irony! At last, our detention Camp life came to an end. For about three months, we lost our rights. These experiences would haunt our memories forever. Though, the opportunity of knowing and befriending people from various parts of the world was definitely enriching. The very thought of leaving such good souls like Daniel, Richard, Romeo, and Abdhulla made us feel terribly sad. We knew that they felt glad to know we’d be released, but we knew that they were also feeling sad, feeling apprehensive about their future. As for them, they were in the category of those who had been admitted illegally. Till the end of their case, they would be in a ‘hanging suspended in mid-sky’ state. In case the verdict would go in their favour, they’d be admitted into the country with rights. If not, they might be expelled from the country. Till that fateful day, they would remain in this prison known as the Detention Camp on the fifth floor, mechanically roaming around with hearts heavy with dreams and aspirations. What else they can do?
Following the July riots of 1983 when I left for Canada, there were about 19 other Tamilians travelling along with me in the same plane. It was planned that we were to board on Delta Airlines in Boston. At the time of our journey, we belonged to another Common Wealth Country, so we didn’t require a visa. However, Delta Airlines refused to take us to Montreal and here the problem began. The nineteen of us were forced to seek political asylum in America. After this, the American government transfered us to the Brooklyn detention Camp. For over two months, we were made to remain there in an imprisoned state. This novella which has taken shape as a result of our experiences there is in fact a mixture of 95% real incidents and a mere 5% of imaginary things which of course do not distort nor intend to distort the real incidents or their impact in any way. The experiences of the nineteen of us have been converted into the experiences of five here. For this purpose, fictitious names have been given. Apart from this, all that is narrated and described here as the rules, routines and incidents of the Detention Camp are 100% true. What positive changes have come to be in the Laws of America as regards the refugees, if at all there is any, is not known exactly. Lots of Tamil people keep coming over, through America. At the same time, according to a news item that appeared in TamilOsai dated 7/1/93, one Sivagurunathan Sivasenthilnathan hailing from Alavetti was detained in America for more than six months and then extradited on 31/12/92 and was arrested in Kattunayake. Even now, there are lots of people from various parts of the world detained and languishing in the numerous detention Camps of America. Their condition is miserable. This is why I dedicate this short novel of mine to all those suffering brethren.
My daughter’s comments:
I like your story! It’s really amazing to read your story and the way you write is awesome! I like the concept of the story and the way you have turned your experience into an intriguing story. This story has really opened my eyes about how these things were treated and I’m sure it opened others’ eyes as well. I’m proud to call you my father!