Published: December 27th 2011December 27th 2011
Well, 2011 hasn’t been my best year.
In January, G and I left our idyllic life in Cyprus to do something more useful in Africa. We had secured work as volunteers for an American non government organization in Uganda. The work was interesting and rewarding in terms of the results and the differences that we could see in the community. This meant helping individuals build their own businesses from scratch and training them in finance, negotiation and business skills. However, unexpectedly, G died suddenly and I was on my own. I decided to return to Uganda after the funeral and carry on the work we had started together and to ensure the locals achieved their dreams . The north of Uganda is not the most comfortable of places to work, but the people are lovely, hospitable and make it all worthwhile. I was invited to Dubai for Christmas by my sister and her husband and decided this would make a welcome relaxing break for me so, as you can imagine., I was thoroughly looking forward to a couple of weeks of luxury.
I boarded the Qatar Airways flight in Uganda and settled in to watch a good film. The staff were welcoming and reflective of the five star service that the airline frequently advertises. “Would you like a drink madam?” Well after nearly a year of only warm beer, I was appreciative of a nice glass of red wine. A little further through “Good Will Hunting”, I was asked if I would like another drink. Oh dear, no red wine left. However, the steward kindly suggested white wine instead. The next time he asked me, there was no white wine, so he suggested maybe vodka or in. Well, what a treat. Gin and tonic with ice, another luxury I had been without. We had a pleasant discussion about the pink, blue and green coloured glasses and he brought me my fourth and final drink, another G & T. After travelling for two days from my hut in the back of beyond, to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, I was shattered and I then had forty weeks and awoke when the plane landed. Seated in the window seat, and knowing my bag was further down the plane, I waited patiently for people to leave the plane so I could collect my bag and go to the transfer lounge
At this stage, a lady came to escort me. Goodness, wasn’t this a good service, someone to help me with the transfer. Oh no! I was quickly and quietly taken through the back of the airport. My bag was taken from me and with no explanation, I was taken to the Central Prison. This seemed a good time to ask for a phone call and assistance from the British Embassy, no chance! There was no justification, no discussion and from the “reception”, I was carried through the barred doors and into the cells. These consisted of 5 rooms with a number of bunk beds ranging from twelve to twenty. By this stage I was surrounded by mainly young Phillipino women. They were extremely friendly and at pains to make sure I was OK. We exchanged names, and then discussed my “problem”. I had no idea why I was there, but when they asked me if had been drinking, I realized that maybe by indulging myself with 2 wines and 2 gin and tonics, I was in bother. We all accepted that this was the case and they kindly told me that everyone with my “problem” gets out the next day. Mmmm. Well,R kindly offered me her bunk and blanket and she and another girl slept on a mattress on the floor. Lights out at midnight.
Lights came on in the windowless room at 6am the next day and someone went round with a mop and brush cleaning the floor. The “room” held 24 people and 3 babies as I counted up the next morning, some obviously sharing bunks. The girls took me along for breakfast – coffee, chapattis, boiled eggs and orange juice. Despite being at my thinnest ever from 12 months living on bean and rice, unsurprisingly I had no appetite and was expecting a guard to come and get me and apologise for locking up a British Citizen against her will and without the luxury of a phone call or discussion with the British Embassy. No, that didn’t happen. No officials or guards came to see me. So where was my bag with passport, money and valuables?
R gave me a new bar of soap, a treasured possession and we all used the (one) sink and the toilet. I then got the opportunity to talk to some of these lovely ladies in detail. They were all housemaids. They worked in Qatar for a variety of sponsors, who were British, American, Qatari and other Arab families. In Qatar, it is forbidden to have a boyfriend, you have to be married to your partner. If it is determined that you have a boyfriend, you are locked up for one year, then sent to deportation from where you are sent home which can take around three months.
Here are just a few of their stories. One housemaid, J had told her boyfriend F, that she had made macaroni for her madam, i.e. sponsor. This was a favourite meal for all three of them. The boyfriend came to the house after he had finished work to collect some macaroni. Whilst he was there a car drew up unexpectedly and F went into the house. He was going to leave by the back door. However, the partner of the sponsor came round the back and caught the boyfriend. The partner then called the police and J and F were taken away and both thrown in prison. J tells me that she never considered reporting her sponsor to the police for also having a partner.
Another housemaid, P became pregnant. She was so terrified of being found out that she purposefully ate very little in order for the pregnancy to remain a secret. Her sponsor was unaware until one day she came into a room where P was and found the new born baby premature and underweight. Mother and baby went to hospital and although the sponsor refused to press charges, it is automatic in a hospital for the mother and baby to be reported and yes, you’ve got in, be sent to prison. This particular sponsor has been very supportive and visits P and baby K in prison regularly bringing cute clothes and nappies.
C was sent to prison after her sponsor looked through her mobile phone and found a picture of C with her boyfriend.
There are many, many such examples, one last case is A, who has an impressive work history including working 8 years for the Kuwaiti royal family. Her story is that her sponsor decided to stop paying her (the equivalent of £120 per month). When A ran away, the sponsor told police she had stolen money so A is also now in prison for a year.
These girls are put in prison and then after 5 – 7 months they see a judge who tells them they will be there for one year. They have absolutely no rights. The food is so bad, they have to buy their own. There is no exercise, no education regime and occasionally fights. The guards spend their time eating and watching TV in reception. R speaks Arabic and cleans up for them, so in return she gets to bring the guards leftovers into the cells for the other women to eat.
Back to my situation. I had the foresight to book my sojourn on the eve of Qatar’s National day. So, the following day to my seizure, the normal plan according to my new best friends was that the police would take me to court, fine me and allow me to pay bail then leave in time to get the scheduled evening flight. First we went to the hospital for my drug test. Then my police chauffeur took me and a scary looking veiled guard and started to drive to the Public Prosecutions Office. The 4 x 4 was quite a good car for this type of journey. The roads were packed and there is a startling local habit whereby the drivers rev their engines loudly and the exhausts emit the loudest noises, reminiscent of drag racers. This goes on all around you. After a while, I became quite oblivious to it. This was a fortunate as we were in the car for hours watching the fantastic firework displays and it meant I could also see people climbing on cars and spraying foam and silly string at each other. Shame I couldn’t join in with them, but the car door was locked! After a few hours of this and my chauffeur getting a little harassed we then left the roads and bumped over pavements and parks to get to the PP office which surprisingly at 11.30pm was closed. So, we went back to the digs and I spent another night with my new companions.
I realized that my poor sister, C and her husband, F who were waiting for me to arrive in Dubai, the previous night would be getting a little worried. So I again requested to make a phone call, which was of course refused. There was me thinking I had a right to do this. Little did I know C had arrived in Qatar that morning and had been waiting in the police station next door, not being able to confirm where I was. The last time we had seen each other was at G’s funeral and despite regular communication from Uganda, upon hearing differing stories about reasons for my incarceration, such as fighting with the police and driving drunk round Dubai (yes, even though I hadn’t made it out of Qatar airport), C was a just a little concerned at this stage. It wasn’t improved any further when told The British Embassy are “not interested” in these type of situations so wouldn’t be helping.
The next day, started the same as the previous one. I had been a little shy about showering as I didn’t have a towel, but with no sign of release or escape and the smell from my feet getting stronger, I managed a wash in the sink.
I swapped a few more tales with my pals. I wasn’t the only foreigner to have paid them a visit this year. There were 2 young Danish girls who had smoked in the wrong place at the airport; a French girl who had drank on the plane and an older lady, three days into her honeymoon who in transit had been scooped away from her new husband for smoking in the wrong place. She was heartbroken apparently. Unplanned stopovers in Qatar!
That is virtually the end of my tale. After signing some document in Arabic, I was fined the equivalent of £100, given no receipt and banned from Qatar airlines for 6 months. I met A on my police ride to the airport. He had been chatting to a local at the airport during his transfer and discussed local politics and his disagreements with them. He was then nabbed and slung in prison, but the guards took his underwear, so my ordeal was fairly paltry in comparison.
Two points here for me, when someone offers you another drink, what’s in it for them? Maybe a nice big fat reward, so be careful, be very careful, especially if you fancy coming to watch the World Cup Football in 2022.
Secondly, how can any of us help the housemaids (and their partners) in prison?
So, looking around very carefully, I would like to raise my glass and toast to a better 2012 for me and for those lovely girls I met who made my stay so much better that it could have been.