Desai siblings pick up the pieces after Saudi jail

2016-11-02 06:01

A FEW weeks have passed since they returned home and were reunited with their family in Malabar after being detained in Saudi Arabia for “security reasons”.

Shah Waliyullah Desai (28) and his sister Huda Mohammad (34) are adjusting to a normal routine after spending almost a year in prison.

While Waliyullah and Huda are home, their sister Yumna Desai (27) and brother Shah Waseeullah Desai (24) are still waiting to be released from their cell in Jeddah.

It was their love for the country that led to Huda and her younger sister’s decision to teach English in Saudi Arabia.

Huda’s daughter, Ruqayyah Al-Rashidi Mohammad, who was eight years old at the time, had to remain in South Africa due to paperwork delays.

“My daughter is Saudi. She had two countries and she wanted to be equal, there and here at the same time.

“On November 21, 2015, my daughter called and said the paperwork was taking a bit of time. She was crying”.

Deeply saddened by the phone call, Huda planned on asking for unpaid leave and visiting her daughter.

“And can you believe it, the next morning as I was going to work, I was arrested!”

“I was crying and worrying about my daughter. As I walked out of my flat, a guy with two women walked up to me. I knew something was wrong because they had these big AK-47 weapons with them.”

Huda was taken in for questioning. “I was feeding them with information because I didn’t think the problem was with me,” she said.

After three hours of waiting at the prison, a female guard approached her with handcuffs and that was when reality set in.

“I told the guard I’m not being stubborn, I’m going to speak, I’m going to co-operate but there is no way I’m wearing handcuffs. I’m not a criminal.”

The guards allowed her to travel without handcuffs but told her they were going to search her flat.

“When we arrived at my home, there were two streets completely filled with hundreds and hundreds of military officials with uniforms, big weapons in their hands and their faces covered.

“The moment I got out of the car there were soldiers behind me, on the sides of me and in front of me and they were videoing this.”

The military officials searched her flat for bombs and weapons. “They must have felt quite embarrassed because they searched for basically an hour and found absolutely nothing,” she said.

Huda was taken to prison for further questioning. “They put me in a vehicle that looks exactly like an ambulance from the outside. On it is written ‘ambulance’ in both Arabic and in English, and it’s used to transport prisoners so they can deceive people.

“It’s basically a mobile cell. It’s the most horrible feeling inside there. It’s completely black, no oxygen, nobody can hear you even if you’re screaming at the top of your voice,” she said.

Huda travelled in that condition for more than two hours. “There wasn’t anything to hold onto. So you’re sitting there and you’re being thrown from side to side with handcuffs on and blindfolds.”

Once she was out of the vehicle, she entered a prison and was taken for another search.

“They put you on a machine and they basically check your whole body, it shows your insides as well, like an X-ray. They took me into the cell and that’s when I realised I was now being arrested.”

She described the cell as a tiny room with a mat on the floor, a mattress, a pillow and an open bathroom and toilet. There were huge floodlights in her cell which shone on her throughout the day and night.

“Even if you showered the camera could see you. They made everything open, a bathroom and toilet and 24/7 a camera on you and speakers in the room as well.”

The prison authorities asked her questions regarding terrorism.

“They asked if I kill people. I think they should have been more professional with the questions. They also asked if I had any affiliation with Al-Qaeda and Daesh, and if I forced my daughter to join.”

“I’ve never done anything in my entire life against South African law or Saudi law and when it comes to terrorism, I’m the type of person who knows absolutely nothing.”

Huda refused to eat, sleep or drink anything during her first three days in prison. She refused to co-operate with prison authorities until she was allowed to phone her daughter. Reluctantly, she was granted permission.

While speaking to her daughter over the phone, Huda tried to remain calm and asked her daughter to pray for her.

“We spoke for like three minutes, but all she said was, “hmm-ah-hmm mamma...” For the entire year that voice haunted me like a ghost. I would just sit and cry.”

That was her last phone call with her daughter for almost a year.

After two months had passed, the interrogation drew to an end. Huda was transferred from her prison cell in Abha, to Dhabaan Military Prison in Jeddah.

She mentioned that she was alone and isolated for two months but received great comfort from prayer.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life because when I put my head down in sujood and I cried unto Allah, I felt something that I’ve never experienced in my entire life.”

Huda will never forget the day she saw her sister, Yumna, after two months of separation.

“We could go into the history book. We spoke for three days and nights without sleeping.”

“We were so afraid that we were going to be separated again. We said whatever we needed to say and gave advice to each other.”

Huda shared a cell with her sister until the day of her release. She added that it was heartbreaking to leave her sister and watch the prison door being closed.

Her brother, Waliyullah, was also released that day. He was told by the prison authorities to sign a document stating that he would not speak of his experience.

“They came to me with the same documents and I refused,” Huda said.

“I’m completely innocent, illegally arrested and sent home without explaining. They just said to me there’s nothing, we apologise and you have been wrongfully arrested because someone has written a report regarding the four of us.”

“We were the only four South Africans in the history of Saudi Arabia to be arrested as political prisoners,” Huda added.

After almost a year without freedom she described her first few days at home as overwhelming.

She was able to walk outside and see the stars after almost a year of darkness. She is thankful for her blessings and to be a mother again.

“While we are enjoying these blessings we are thinking of our sister and brother,” she said.

As Huda and her brother entered the Port Elizabeth Airport earlier this month, they received a warm welcome from family, friends, community members and those who had been following their story.

Huda said it was heartbreaking when her daughter refused to hug or speak to her at the airport. “I think she was overwhelmed but now she is mummy’s baby again.”

During recent phone calls, Yumna, told her family that her treatment in prison had improved.

“She received new clothing and the guards ask if she needs anything. We were there for a year and nothing changed, and now they realise that this is definitely a mistake,” Huda said.

As soon as the necessary paperwork has been completed, the other two siblings should be released from prison but an exact date cannot be given.

While Waliyullah is thankful to be home, his heart is with his sister and brother in Saudi.

“I’m half here and half there. It’s mixed feelings, my heart is still with them,” he said.

He recently attended his first jummah after 11 months. He also recently gave his first khutbah for the year.

Waliyullah, who was studying towards a Bachelor of Arts in Shariah at the Madinah Islamic University, was arrested during the examination period.

“I missed all my exams. I only had two more years of studying left,” he said.

He still plans on going back to Saudi Arabia to complete the rest of his studies.

“I arrived on a Monday, and the Tuesday I wanted to book my tickets and visa. My mother told me no, they might re-arrest you.

“If you’ve done something wrong then you will stay away,” he said. “In BA two years is a long way so I want to complete it.”

Younger sister, Hafiyyah Desai (20) said it is amazing to have her brother and sister back.

“I felt very sorry for them because you could see the hardship on their faces,” she said.

Although adjusting to a normal routine and sleeping pattern is challenging, Huda and Waliyullah are slowly settling in.

“I still can’t believe we’re out of there,” Huda said.

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