Thursday, May 22, 2008

Praying in Jail

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to visit Mymensingh Jail. Each week brother Guillaume visits about 10 prisoners in the jail. He has been making these visits for the last 15 years. Now you may ask why he is involved with such criminals, and the answer is, because they are only partially guilty.

Many years ago, in the Modhupur Forest area, a group of indigenous, tribal Mandi people lived and had their land. Today, some still live there, but their land is constantly being taken away despite promises that they have special rights within Bangladesh. These men are in jail because once again, the system was failing them. Their native lands, their traditional land of history and lore, was being stolen. It is said that a group of Bengali farmers came one day to plow Mandi land. By plowing that land communally they were stealing the land, for whoever plows land, has the rights to that land. The problem was that this had happened before to the Mandis, and the government had awarded the stolen land to the Bengalis. The group of Mandi men decided that they could not trust the government to protect their land or their rights, and if their people were to survive, they had to stop these Bengalis. In the ensuing melee two Bengalis were wounded and eventually died. Nobody knows who actually killed them, and if it was the Mandis then they deserve punishment for their crime, noone denies this. But here in Bangladesh life is not that simple. The Mandi men were arrested and their appointed lawyer, whose job it was to defend them, was given thousands of Taka by the group of Bengalis, he instead condemned them and provided them no defence whatsoever. In this situation, like in many others, money equalled justice. They were condemned and sent to jail indefinitely. A few years ago a group managed to convince a higher court to reopen the case and provide a proper trial. Thousands of Taka were collected by the Mandi community to pay for legal council, and they were represented well. There were two judges on the bench, a young aspiring judge and an elderly devout Muslim. The devout Muslim part plays a key role in the story because this group of Mandis are Christian, and the two people who died were Muslim. The younger judge, according to court records, apparently favoured the release of the Mandi as they were able to cast enough doubt on the convictions that they did not deserve to remain imprisoned. But sometimes religious and ethnic realities overshadow facts, and the young judge, with a career to fulfill, decided that the smartest career choice was to agree with the elder judge as he probably would have lost that battle in the end anyway. And so they remain. A group of Mandi men, in Mymensingh Jail indefinitely. With very few visitors except brother Guillaume.

The second group of tribals we talked with in Mymensingh Jail are a few men who are there for adding too much sugar to honey. What a charge! According to brother Guillaume, they are in a tough position because the police approached them one day and asked for "ghush" or a bribe. The men refused to pay the police officer, and a few days later this charge appeared against them. Obviously a very serious crime, I wouldn't want too much sweet honey!

So there I found myself, standing in front of large bars, peering through at about 12 men some in prison issued pants and shirts, others in their own clothes(those not yet convicted). And they asked me the normal questions, where I was from, what I was doing in Bangladesh, what I thought of Bangladesh, how long I was staying. Then, as time was limited, they began their list. Soap (10), white lunghi (1), gamchas (2), oral saline, 6 liters of clean water, lemons, toothbrushes (3), toothpaste (6), medicine with names all somehow ending in -ine. For in jail, they are not issued with the daily necessities, those must come from friends and family on the outside. So every week brother Guillaume goes and makes a list of what the men need, and the next week they have their requests, unless of course their requests are deemed excessive in which case, they are out of luck.

Following the listing of purchases, was a moment I will not likely forget for a very long time. There, with a caucophony of sounds running around the simple concrete room, 12 men on one side of the bars, 3 on the other, we sang. We sang a Mandi song of praise. And as our voices joined together, erasing the barriers physical and cultural, our voices raised to heaven, there was peace. Men, imprisoned for years, and us, free to walk the streets, yet at that moment, we were one in faith, love and humanity. As the last echo of the last note rang off the concrete wall, and a serenity had filled the room, Asheesh read a passage from Hebrews and we prayed. In Bangla and Mandi, we prayed for peace, for justice and for hope. There, in that place of sadness and incarceration, was hope, happiness and thanksgiving. The feelings raging inside me were overcome with a sense of tranquility, and of knowledge that there is a force more powerful than all of us, and that is where we can find rest and peace.

Jishuna Rasong.


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