The long wait in pain

The long wait in pain

MASERU

IT all started towards the end of June last year when the two boys woke up to find their father gone. Their mother was weeping in her bedroom.

She told them the army had arrested their father.

“They were shocked,” she says.

Their father, a middle ranking officer, had been arrested on charges of plotting a mutiny against army commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli.

Ten months on their father is still in detention. Through media reports, they have heard their father was tortured and kept under solitary confinement for months. The youngest boy remains traumatised and shaken.

The mother says on several occasions she has walked into the house to find the boy in tears. A few months after the arrest she came home to find her boy crying while clutching his father’s military cap.

They had stumbled onto the cap while looking for some documents.

“He said the cap reminded him of his father and he missed him,” recalls the mother who says she is trying to be strong for her children.

To protect the children from the trauma the mother had hidden their father’s military uniform. But that doesn’t seem to have helped. The home itself is a constant remainder of their father.

There is a lot in the house to remind the boys that their father is alive but cannot be with them because the army continues to detain him.

The mother has since realised the limitations of trying to shield her children from the sad and painful reality that their father is away. For instance, the youngest was reminded of his father’s arrest by a bully at school.

The mother says the bully walked up to him and said “your father was caught. He has been caught”. The boy would later tell his mother the bully was laughing when he said those words.

“Mum what time are you coming home? There is something I really need to tell you,” the boy said on the frantic call to his mother.

“I rushed home to find him crying. My heart sank when he told me what had happened.”

“It’s unbearable”.

The mother had hoped the nightmare would end last Friday when the Court of Appeal was going to rule on the release of her husband and 15 other soldiers.

The mother had kept news of the impending ruling secret.

“I didn’t want to raise their hopes because if we lost they would be devastated,” she says.

And her intuition was right because their case was dismissed.

Their husbands’ misery at the hands of colleagues at the Maseru maximum security prison continues. The battle that had started with applications for orders to the army to bring their husbands to court dead or alive has ended in defeat.

Their Court Martial will resume next Monday and it might be months before it ends. In the meantime their husbands will be in detention. They will continue to see their husbands at the army’s pleasure.

 

Palpable fear

 

They now fear for the worst.  Getting the women to talk about their husbands is not easy. They share a common fear that if they talk to the media their husbands will be victimised.

On Wednesday last week they met at the Transformation Resource Centre, an ecumenical lobby group helping them with counselling and legal costs.

The Court of Appeal judgement they thought would order the army to release their husbands was only a day away. They were confident their husbands would be back home by Friday afternoon.

So they insisted on being interviewed after the judgement.

“We are afraid if we talk now something might happen to our husbands,” said one.

“If we talk now that man (Lieutenant General Kamoli) might keep our husbands in prison,” said another.

“Those people (army) are vindictive. They might punish our husbands if we talk to the press,” said another.

By Friday noon the dreams of seeing their husbands come back home had been dashed. That makes them even more apprehensive about giving interviews.

“What use will it be for me to say my feelings and the army tortures my husband in retaliation?” asked one who refused to be interviewed.

“There will be a time to talk. For now I keep my silence for the sake of my husband. Remember the army is now treating us like enemies.”

 

Dying inside

 

Mamello (not her real name) whose husband was arrested in July last year says she was hurt and confused by the judgement.

“I thought since the other seven had been released the court would say our husbands too should be put on open house arrest,” she says.

“For a moment my vocabulary deserted me. I did not know the meaning of the word ‘dismissed’, I wanted to cry but I held the tears back.”

She let the tears flow when she got to her car which was parked at the Palace of Justice.

“l was dying inside but did not want my enemies to see me crying. Once in the car I relieved myself. I just cried.” Mamello says her three children have suffered psychologically. Sometimes, she says, they just don’t want to talk to anyone.

Their aunty who relies on Mamello’s husband for food and shelter has stopped going to the prison because she cannot bear the sight of her brother’s son suffering, Mamello says.

“He is our only hope.”

In the past 10 months Mamello has watched her husband, who is already on medication, wasting away. She is allowed to see him on from Monday to Friday, except on holidays.

The week after the crushing judgement and before the court martial resumes is particularly short. Monday was a holiday and so is today.

“What kills me is that we cannot talk in private when I visit him. The soldiers are there listening to us talk.”

A few days after the judgement Mamello had to see a doctor.

“My neck is so stiff. I am in pain and I am stressed,” she says.

 

Hope has left

 

There are those who are not looking beyond the court martial. To Maphoka (not her real name) the detention of her husband is an injustice that should stop.

“I don’t even want to hear about the court martial. I just want my husband back home,” Maphoka says.

“I can see that the court martial will not be fair.”

News of her husband’s arrest came in mid-May last year through a call from the army. The caller said her husband would not be coming home for a few days because he had been arrested.

Maphoka would pick the details of her arrest from other people. Since then she only sees husband under supervision from soldiers she says “want to listen to everything we discuss”.

Sometimes the soldiers take notes as we speak, she says. Maphoka says she is not sure if her husband is being honest when he says he is fine.

“I see it in his face that he is dying inside. He cannot say he is in a bad shape but I can see he is suffering”.

These days Maphoka starts her visits to her husband with a brief prayer.

“I try to encourage him with the Word of God.”

Their teenage child is struggling to come to terms with his father’s absence.

“Time and again he asks when his father will come back home. I don’t have answers to that because I am powerless to change anything.”

“I just keep praying that God will help us get through this trouble”.

 

Tough questions for mum

 

Makhotso (not her real name) says she could not believe it when the case was dismissed. She had come to the court in high spirits. There was no way the highest court in the land would allow a man to be detained for more than ten months without trial, she thought.

That seven others had been released gave her hope.

“I thought there was ample precedence,” she says.

She was wrong.

“I was more than shocked. The judge only took three minutes to dismiss the case. I was hurt.”

Makhotso says he husband, arrested last June, is deteriorating.

“He is not doing well at all. But being a man he cannot tell me. ”

Her worry is that she is fast running out of answers to her two children who keep asking when their father will come back home.

In the beginning she would tell them he will be home soon. When that did not happen she told them to keep strong because everything will be well.

Recently the two boys asked again.

“I told them he will come back home one day. It might not be soon but he will come back home”.

“We have to keep the faith.”

 

Maybe time has answers

 

A violent knock startled Mathabo in May last year. At the door was an armed soldier in civilian clothes. He asked Mathabo where her husband was.

Mathabo said he was not home. The soldier said he knew her husband was in the house and he would beat him when he finds him. When Mathabo went back inside to call her husband the soldier followed her.

In the bedroom the soldier ordered her husband to put on a uniform because they wanted to ask him some questions.

That was his last day of freedom. Hours later he would call to say he had been arrested and they should bring his towel, lotion, toothpaste and tooth brush. He was on his way to the Maseru Maximum Security Prison.

“It was a brief conversation but I could hear he was troubled”.

Days later Mathabo managed to put together M8000 to hire a lawyer to fight for her husband’s release. And for some time it looked like momentum was on her side. The army was ordered to bring her husband to court and it did. Getting the army to release him on open arrest, a form of military bail, proved harder.

As weeks turned into months and court cases came thick and fast Mathabo realised the army had no interest in releasing her husband. Their two kids began to ask for their father. The oldest told her she doesn’t want to visit her father in prison.

“All she wanted was to see her father free,” Mathabo says.

Her husband had been in detention for almost a year, 52 days of which were spent in solitary confinement.  The youngest child is always crying for his father, Mathabo says. It is hard for Mathabo to explain what her husband is going through because he never talks about it.

“He cannot say much because there are always soldiers around. Sometimes we talk in signs but you don’t get much across that way.”

When her children ask when their father will come back home Mathabo says “he will come when the time is right.” When that time will come, she cannot tell.

Yesterday the 16 wives were scheduled to meet their lawyers for a briefing on what the judgement means. But for some of them that will not change much.

“You know it’s very hard for me to talk about this. Please allow me not to speak about this issue,” said one of the wives who refused to be interviewed.

 

The world watches

 

The international reaction to the Court of Appeal judgement has been limited.

Last week Amnesty International, a lobby group, said the judgement “to allow ongoing detention of soldiers raises further questions about fair trial”.

“Today’s decision by the Lesotho Court of Appeal to deny bail to 16 soldiers who have been held in maximum security since June last year raises serious questions about the Lesotho’s justice system,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Southern Africa.

“Release on bail would help ensure the soldiers can have adequate medical care, as necessary, and prompt and effective access to their legal advisers, something that has not been possible while in detention.”

“Under international standards people charged with criminal offences should not, as a general rule, be held in custody pending trial, unless the state shows that it is necessary and proportionate to deprive them of their liberty. Today, the Court of Appeal dismissed the soldiers’ appeal against their detention without giving a reason,” Amnesty International said.

“Amnesty International has previously expressed serious concern about the treatment of the soldiers and their rights to a fair trial and not to be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.”

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