Slave Punishment For A Sri Lankan Maid
By Ranee Mohamed in Kamburupitiya – Photos by Asoka Fernando
Forty Nine year-old Lahanda Purage Ariyawathie hails from a sleepy village called Batuwita in Kamburupitiya; a place where there is an unbelievable number of push cycles and winding roads on which cars seldom pass by. Here in Kamburupitiya, worn out women with worry lining their faces wander around with empty bags.
The only scope for them remained in the far off horizon that sunk at the end of the unending paddy fields and greenery.
And it is here that Lahanda Purage Ariyawathie brought up a son and two daughters. As she toiled in the paddy fields, it was not the scorching sun or the shortages at home that was cause for heartburn. It was the strange affliction that had struck her youngest daughter.
“I was told that a germ had entered her leg and that was the cause for the abnormal swelling. There was nothing I wanted more in life than to cure my daughter. Each time I saw her shuffling by, it broke my heart. My husband is a mechanic and I was a labourer harvesting paddy only during the season. My son was doing menial labour too and there was no hope for us,” said Ariyawathie, tears flooding her eyes.
“I was determined to go overseas and earn the money to cure my daughter and build a house in place of our mud hut. So I approached an employment agency called Lek Raj,” said Ariyawathie.
Investigations revealed however that there is no mention of Lek Raj anywhere in the documentation that initiated her travel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
It is instead under the name of Ismail Abdullah Ibrahim Bin Bayal that M/S Diamond Star Recruitment is registered. The address is stated as P.O. Box 56068, Al Sawaidi, Riyadh. The local office address is No. 8, Maligakanda Road, Colombo 10.
As March approached, Ariyawathie had been excited about her new job and the money she was going to earn. She had spent the nights dreaming of her daughter walking around in a beautiful little house.
And it was these dreams that she took to Riyadh on March 25 this year. “I was amazed at the difference. I had never seen such lights, such buildings. But my heart was at home, among the greenery, in my mud hut, with my children,” said Ariyawathie in tears.
She hoped to work hard and win the hearts of her employers. “I am used to working hard. I had worked in paddy fields and lifted the bundles of paddy. So I know what hard work is,” said Ariyawathie who was known in the village to be a live wire.
The first day with her new employers in Riyadh had been good. “They gave me food to eat and I did not feel threatened,” recalled Ariyawathie.
But as the days flew by Ariyawathie found that the demands on her were tremendous. She had to polish the three storeyed house, wash the three toilets everyday in addition to washing and cleaning other areas of the house. It wasn’t the lifting and washing of carpets that were about 50 kilos in weight that was getting her down but the constant calling out from the three daughters and four sons and the Madam and the Master of the house asking her to fetch this and that.
“They spoke in Arabic and gave me instructions in Arabic. The training that I received here was not recognised by them. Each time I brought a wrong item to them, the children would hit me with whatever that is nearby. Most often it was a shoe or some hard object. They would hit my face and my head,” said Ariyawathie, closing her face with her hands at the memory of the beatings.
She hoped that things would improve for her. She hoped that someone in the house would show her some kindness. “But compassion was the last thing in their hearts. The Master was about 65 years old, he was tall and big made, with a beard. The Madam was about 55 years old. I have never met two people as fearful as them,” said Ariyawathie trembling at the very thought of their stares and glares.
“If I brought a different item than what the Master asked me; or if I did a different chore, the Madam would storm towards me and drag me along to a room. The Master would then come along with iron nails and as the lady of the house held my mouth, he would drive the nails to different parts of my body,” said Ariyawathie showing her hands and toes, all studded with black heads of nails which have now been covered with blackened flesh.
“It was the most traumatic experience, the most excruciating pain. But I could not scream for the children too would stand by me with knives and make signs that they would slit my throat if I shouted. The Madam was strong and held me down each time the Master drove the nails in,” cried Ariyawathie.
Ariyawathie had endured the pain as she felt the blunt nails rip into her muscles. At most times the Master had pushed old nails into her flesh as she bled from the painful punctures. “But I endured it because I was frightened that they would slit my throat. I have seen how they used to kill animals in the backyard before meals – the goats and the lambs – and I thought that they would slit my throat that way too,” said Ariyawathie.
There seemed to be long nail like objects sticking out from every part of her body, markedly in her feet and hands.
“I wanted to get out of that house, but there was no way. They kept telling me that they were not letting me go. Each day they were driving more and more nails into my body,” said Ariyawathie.
So Ariyawathie devised a plan. She let the blood flow and rubbed it all over her body. She scratched her head, bit her nails and did things that caused much revulsion especially among the daughters of the household. “One day the 11 year old daughter saw me with blood all over my body and face and she felt nauseous. I hoped I was achieving my end, I hoped that I was getting closer home.
“Then one day in August, the Madam threw a black abaya at me. She told me in sign language to wear it. I thought they were taking me to the doctor as they had pierced nails right through both my knees the previous day and I could not get down the staircase. I was moaning in pain with every movement,” said Ariyawathie
She had been overjoyed when she was taken to the employment agency instead of to the hospital. “There was a gentleman there who spoke Sinhalese. He told me that these people don’t want me anymore and want to send me back to Sri Lanka,” she said.
It was when she landed at the Bandaranaike International Airport that happiness entered her heart. She had no anxieties for she was ignorant about the metal detectors at the airport. And it had been her good fortune that neither the Saudi airport authorities nor the Sri Lankan airport authorities were able to take note of the metal in her body.
And it had been the last nail on her coffin when she came home without a penny and found that their mud hut had collapsed due to the rain. Plus Ariyawathie had 23 nails within her to worry about. She found that every muscle in her body was aching, every bone, every movement was causing a searing pain.
“She did not tell any of us of the ordeal she had endured. She told us that the ‘thorns’ from the date palms had caused the injuries to her body,” said her son Chamin Priyadarshana. Priyadarshana, a mechanic, had stopped talking to his mother because she was determined to go to Saudi Arabia. “I just did not want her to go and we had a heated argument over her intended job and I stopped talking to her after that,” Chamin told The Sunday Leader.
Gunapala, who is married to the eldest daughter of Ariyawathie, speaking to The Sunday Leader said, “We opposed her plan, but she was determined to go. There was nothing we could do,” he said. “I am a labourer and I am not financially affluent to help Ariyawathie to build her house or cure her daughter, so I had to remain silent,” he said.
“We are in tears today because of her pain. We want justice for our poor mother. We want her cared for and compensated for all the anguish she has endured,” they said.
As Ariyawathie prepares to have the iron nails embedded within her removed, the psychological trauma remains untreated and ignored. As she battles the pain and shudders and trembles in her sleep, she is not alone in her struggle for justice. People all over the world seem to share her pain and tremble at the torture she has endured.
It was to Dr. Nimal Jayasinghe that Ariyawathie had first revealed her innermost pain. Having administered an anti tetanus vaccine, Dr. Jayasinghe had advised Ariyawathie to get herself admitted to hospital.
“Some of these nails are over three and a half months old. When these nails are taken out I hope to start life again, but here in Sri Lanka. I will not go abroad again, I will not think of it either. I will also stop every single woman I know from going overseas, especially to Saudi,” said a bruised Ariyawathie.
It is very unlikely that Ariyawathie will be able to work in the paddy fields again. And with the news of her emaciated body being subject to a double torture within five months – of having nails driven into her body and then having those areas cut open and the nails pried out and away from the growing flesh, people the world over, have expressed shock, sympathizing with this poor housemaid who had to undergo a primitive agony in an oil rich, glittering, developed land.
First Time In The History Of The Hospital
Dr. Kamal Weeratunge, Chief Surgeon of the Kamburupitiya Hospital speaking to The Sunday Leader said that he and his team had been preparing for the surgery to remove the nails within the body of Ariyawathie for the past four days. “We made the preoperative investigations. Today, two anaesthetics and two surgeons are ready and the theatre staff too are prepared to conduct the surgery. We hope to take the nails out within the coming hours,” said Dr. Weeratunge. It is for the first time in the history of the Kamburupitiya Base Hospital that such a surgery is being performed.