Banished to Paradise
The woman sitting in front of me on the ferry opened her bag, took out a large knife, and started whittling away at an areca nut, which she then chewed with betel leaves, tobacco, and lime paste. She smiled shyly at me; her gums were stained reddish brown by betel chewing. Her name was Ameema, and she was 40 years old, though she looked much older. Her face was dark brown and wrinkled from the sun, and she wore a dark veil with a long, loose, blue dress. She was returning to Goidhoo after a trip to see the doctor in Malé.
I asked her how Goidhoo islanders treated exiles. I meant people like Aiman and was surprised when she started telling me of a time in the 1960s when more than 500 islanders from Thinadhoo, the capital of southern Huvadhoo atoll, were banished to Goidhoo for trying to secede from the Maldivian state. At the time, the population of Goidhoo was less than 200.
“I cannot remember too much. These are stories from the elders,” Ameema said, tucking in wisps of silvery hair that escaped from beneath her veil. “Our parents told us of how these people would eat the fleshy tops of the coconut palms using razors. All the coconut palms were destroyed. They would eat breadfruits that fell unripe off of the trees and tasteless coconut scraps that had already been milked. You couldn’t leave your kitchen, for they stole your rice pot even before it cooked.
“What else could they do?” she said. “Imagine how hungry they must have been. They are human too. They must eat too. Those were such lean times.”
I was from an island called Rathafandhoo in Huvadhoo atoll. I knew of the Southern Rebellion through my parents’ stories. The three southern atolls, Huvadhoo, Fuvahmulah, and Addu had established a separate state called the United Suvadive Republic in 1959, but they capitulated to the central government in 1963. I had heard that hundreds of Thinadhoo islanders were taken to Malé and tortured, some of them had escaped to Rathafandhoo, but I knew nothing about their incarceration on Goidhoo.
After my family moved to Malé, I attended public school until the 10th grade. No school taught Maldivian history. I knew snippets; that Islam had replaced Buddhism and Hinduism in the 12th century, that the Maldives gained independence from the British in 1965, and that the monarchy was abolished in 1968. Government censorship and low levels of education throughout the country’s history had stifled the record and discussion of historical events. Nobody said much about the Southern Rebellion, except that the British had possibly engineered it.
When the southerners were first banished to Goidhoo, Ameema had not been born. But as a child, she had grown up in a community where more than half the population were exiles. After the Southern Rebellion and the incarceration of political dissidents on Goidhoo, Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir ordered that all criminals—thieves, murderers, sex offenders—be banished to Goidhoo and its neighboring islands, Fulhadhoo and Fehendhoo. The southerners were pardoned in the late ’60s and allowed to return home, but the practice of confining all other criminals on the three islands continued into the early ’90s.
“You know, people say Goidhoo islanders are heartless, that we are cruel to outsiders,” she said. “But what could we do? Yes, they starved, but times were tough. No one had enough to eat. Really, we are actually very kind to people.”
“Where did they live? Who kept watch over them?” I asked, fascinated.
“They lived in stick houses in the woods. A man was sent from Malé to watch over them. His name was Thuthi Dhon Maniku. He was cruel,” Ameema said. “My mother told me that during Ramadan when everyone was fasting, in the scorching heat of the midday sun, he would make them [the prisoners] carry limestone from one side of the island to the other. And our island is very big compared to most islands. Dhon Maniku is also said to have built a jail. He was a cruel, cruel man.
“There are people, older people, who can tell you about this. I really don’t know too much,” she said. “Goidhoo people still say their banishment didn’t just punish them, it punished us too.”
We soon spied Goidhoo, the palm trees and tall cell-phone antennas rising abruptly out of the horizon. Goidhoo atoll consists of three islands: Fulhadhoo was on the west, Fehendhoo in the middle, and Goidhoo was on the east. As we pulled into the harbor, I saw yellow flags hanging on sticks in the lagoon. It was the color of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the ruling party that had ousted a 30-year-old dictatorship in 2008. The MDP had a strong following on the island. Banyan trees with aerial roots hanging off their branches lined the harbor front. A small hut, also painted yellow, stood in the center.
A petite woman wearing a scarf and a long gown, fitted at the waist, stood in the shadow of the hut. It was Maimoona, the woman Aiman called his second mother. As soon as she saw me, she asked if I were his wife, and when Aiman said no, she stalked off in a huff, leaving us to follow in her wake.
“Go back to Malé! I don’t want you here. This Aiman is always tricking me, telling me he will bring his wife and daughter. Here, I was so excited to lay my eyes on them for the first time. What a wicked boy! Go back to Malé,” I heard her scold, as Aiman followed her, offering various excuses.
Maimoona’s house overlooked the harbor and had no outer walls. A breadfruit tree marked the entrance. We walked into an enormous front yard, populated by young mango, guava, stone apple, drumstick, custard apple trees and a thick passion-fruit creeper. The house was L-shaped, the main house a square block of four rooms, with the kitchen and dining room branching off of its side. Maimoona sat down on a concrete bench in the front yard, took out her mobile phone, and started calling her children one by one to complain about Aiman’s rudeness.
After Aiman was finally able to mollify Maimoona, he borrowed a scooter to give me a tour of the island. We raced down Goidhoo’s wide dirt roads. The island is shaped like a shoe. With an area of three square kilometers, it is one of Maldives’s largest islands. Eighty percent of the island is covered with thick woods. The population, only 500 people, lives together in a small cluster in the northeast corner, which makes up the heel of the shoe. As we rode, I noticed that all the houses were arranged in neat rows over three streets and all had home gardens. A variety of newly planted trees spilled shade onto the street. Many of the older trees in the gardens had died in the Asian tsunami of 2004.