They stripped me of everything, starting with my own clothing, and my rights as a human being, recalls Lim Chin Chin of her ISA detention during Operation Lalang.
I tossed and turned upon the wooden board, unable to close an eyelid. I became aware that torture in prison is not inflicted by means of the bars, or the walls, or the stinging insects, or hunger or thirst or insults or beating. Prison is doubt. And doubt is the most certain of tortures.
– Nawal el Saádawi
Memoirs from the Women’s Prison
The above quote by Nawal el Saádawi has captured very succinctly the power and terror of the Internal Security Act (ISA). My own experience testifies to the truth of it.
I had just been brought back to my cell after a gruelling interrogation session where I was shouted and screamed at, verball abused, and threatened with two weeks total solitary confinement in a completely dark cell, among other things. It was the first two weeks after my arrests — one of the darkest and most terrifying days of my life, and before I was allowed to meet with my family, or allowed my Bible or any other reading materials. In fact, to claim that I had any possessions or rights then would have been absurd.
They stripped me of everything, starting with my own clothing, and my rights as a human being; they even stripped me of my dignity and self respect. I was humiliated as I have never been before. I had to ask for everything I needed, which they doled out as privileges according to their whims and fancies. In addition, I was kept totally in the dark about everything — my family, my friends, the going-ons outside, even the reason for my arrest and detention and what was to happen to me.
Keeping us uninformed and ignorant was a deliberate strategy on their part to control us and to break our spirits. Again Nawal el Sa’adawi very aptly when she wrote, “Knowledge, no matter what it reveals, is less painful than ignorance … Ignorance is like death, or rather it really is death … Ignorance is fear. Nothing terrifies a person except ignorance.
Like Nawal, I experienced the strangest ignorance in my life during detention. Not only was I kept in the dark, but I was also physically blindfolded everywhere I went. It was like being blind, as if they had thrown a thick black blanket over my life shutting out the light and path so that I would not know where I was going, or what would happen to me. It was most frightening. I was not able to analyse it so clearly then, but I felt the fear and terror no less.
I remember having to exert pressure on my eyelids to keep them open not so much out of exhaustion, but to assure myself that I was not having a nightmare. But I only had to look at my blue prison uniform and the bareness of my windowless cell to convince myself that it was actually happening. In the midst of all this I was brought before an officer who smiled at me for the first time, and did not threaten or shout at me. He even told me that we were going to be good friends.
Could it have been a genuine smile? Or was I sketching the smile onto his face? Or do police officers have this ability to smile as they lead one to the noose? This is the effect of their well known strategy of alternating hard approaches with soft talk to confuse and win us over. However, I kept my sanity by talking to God, by praying the familiar prayers of the rosary more than a dozen times a day. I argued and cajoled with God and even tried to strike a bargain with Her. I tried to mouth Jesus’s prayer in the “Garden of Gethsemany” but all the time willing God to release me.
I thought lovingly of my family and what hell they would be going through. I thought of my married life, started some three months prior to my arrest, but now shattered by this forced and cruel separation. I drew strength from the knowledge that my friends would not abandon me. I was not disappointed. Messages after messages arrived bringing fuel for the flickering hope burning within me. I felt able to persevere because others were able to overcome the climate of fear. With God’s help and with support from family and friends, I resolved to live up to the struggle of the people outside. The passion of Jesus Christ never felt more real.
I remember the first few cards I received. They were the first few written words I was allowed tfor more than a month. I treasured them. I read the cards at all times of the day and night. I read them until I could recite them backwards. Still, I read them. They carried words of solace, consolation and strength. They were my link with sanity and the outside world. They held my world in there together.
At a time like this, it is crucial also to have inner resources to turn to. I recall an inspirational card sent by a friend: “When there is no way out, let God in.” Something so obvious, yet not so easily done even in detention.
I still find it difficult to write about my detention experience as a whole. Narrating the details of what happened is less painful, but to be able to put the experiences in perspective and draw insights require internalisation which I have not been able to do just yet. I hope that you will be able to read what I have shared above with this understanding.
Lim Chin Chin was arrested under the ISA on the night of 27 October 1987 and released 7 months later on 3 June 1988. At the time of her arrest she was involved in the Women’s Development Collective (WDC) and All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). This sharing about her 60 days in solitary confinement was written shortly after her release.
This article was written soon after Lim Chin Chin’s release.
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