Run to the Roar

Keeping Faith

By Zaheena Rasheed ’12


In February 2012, three days after I graduated from Middlebury, the first democratically elected government in my home country, the Maldives, was overthrown in a coup d’état. After spending a year on a Watson Fellowship, I returned home and took a job as a journalist. I came back to a country where family members and friends were routinely tear-gassed and beaten on the streets of the capital, Malé. I returned to a country where hundreds have been jailed and prosecuted for peaceful political activity. I returned home to a country where, in 2013, the nation’s previous dictatorship rigged elections to return to power.

Then, last August, my friend and fellow reporter Ahmed Rilwan disappeared. Rilwan, who goes by @moyameehaa or “mad man,” on Twitter, has not been seen or heard from since.

The odds appear insurmountable that we’ll ever find Rilwan, yet our five-month effort to do so has taught me that we have no choice but to speak our minds, to continue to have faith in humanity. What choice do we have?  We must bring sanity to an insane world.

Rilwan, though mild mannered in life, was loud on social media, mocking the Islamists and ridiculing the government for its hypocrisy and brutality. He made us laugh and, in doing so, he dissipated our fears.

Rilwan was last seen in the early hours of August 8, on the ferry between Malé and its suburb island Hulhumalé. In the days following, my colleagues and I organized a search party. One morning, in the midday heat, I walked through a construction zone, sifting through debris, calling out Rilwan’s name, looking for signs of the black clothing, rubber shoes, and black bag he was wearing the night he disappeared. Climbing over piles of discarded cement bags and peering under rusty tin roofing, I realized the ease with which a human body can be hidden. For the first time in my life, I felt small. The search party yielded no results.

The next day, eyewitnesses came forward to say they’d seen a man being forced at knifepoint into a car in front of Rilwan’s apartment building on the day he disappeared. The abductors had dropped a knife on the scene. When the incident was reported to the police, a forensics team confiscated the knife, but apparently failed to locate the car.

Five months have passed, and police officials have refused to give us any answers or updates about the investigation. Sources within the force have said that detectives consulted a clairvoyant on Rilwan’s whereabouts.

We’ve chased a hundred leads, obtained and analyzed Rilwan’s phone records, and hacked into his social media accounts for clues. We’ve kept watch at potential sites he may be held, organized petitions, lobbied politicians, held marches, read Rilwan’s poetry on the streets. We’ve papered the city with missing-person posters. When the posters faded in the sun and rain, we put up new ones.

Through it all, I’ve cycled between hope and despair, often many times during the same day. Three months in, one of Rilwan’s brothers sat me down in front of his mother and asked me if I thought Rilwan were still alive. I avoided the question, suddenly aware of the life in my body, the air passing through my lungs, and the blood coursing through my veins. But he looked into my eyes and said, “Tell me, in your honest opinion, is he alive or dead?”  I said that until we find a body, we have to go on every day as if Rilwan were alive.

That day I realized why funeral rites are elevated in all of the world’s cultures. We’ll never be able to mourn Rilwan properly until we find out what happened to him, until we see his remains. The uncertainty will always keep pain alive.

In September, a local human-rights advocacy group published an investigative report implicating Islamist groups in Rilwan’s disappearance. A few days later, one of the suspects named in the report vandalized the security cameras at the office of the news organization where I work. Two other men left a machete on our front door. That evening, I received a text message: “You will be disappeared or killed next.”

That night, we had to evacuate our building after an arson threat. Shortly after that, the offices of the opposition political party were firebombed. Meanwhile, the text-messaged death threats have not stopped.

So, what now?

We continue to speak our minds, write poetry, sing songs, draw, and—above all—laugh.

I think we win only when we persevere, and we persevere because we love.

Zaheena Rasheed is a journalist with Minivan News in the Maldives. Internationally regarded as the country’s most reliable news source, the English-language site can be found at “Minivan” means “independent” in Dhivehi.

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